We've collected the information from a great video on the history of playing cards – but if you would rather learn the history of poker, we've got that too.
Did you know that with a classic, standard three-by-three-by-three Rubik's cube, the total number of possibilities—the number of different combinations available—is approximately 43 quintillion? That's 43 with 18 zeros, 43 billion billion possibilities. So, if, for example, at the very moment of the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, you had started to create a unique arrangement of the cube every single second and you continue to do so ever since, right now, today, in this moment, you would be approximately 1% through all the possible combinations of just a standard cube.
So, that's the Rubik's Cube. Then you move towards playing cards, the world of playing cards. W with a classic, standard deck of just 52 cards, the total number of possibilities—the number of shuffled combinations of the cards available—is not 43 quintillion; it's not 43 with 18 zeros. The total number is approximately 8 followed by 67 zeroes.
So clearly, playing cards have been a fairly dominant part of my life, and this is a video that I wanted to make for a good while. It is not an extensive telling of the complete story of playing cards; as a story, it goes back more than a thousand years, way back in time through all different pockets of the world and chapters of human history.
So first, we need to go right back in time, 2000 years to ancient China. Not to the beginnings of playing cards, but to the beginnings of paper. So paper in its modern form was first invented around 2,000 years ago, and from that moment, it was kept very closely guarded by the Chinese, almost like a state secret. It was like this secret technology. In 751 AD, at the Battle of Talas, Islamic Ottoman forces captured two Chinese paper makers.
They had the secret forced out of them, and then from there, the secret of how to make paper spread through the Islamic world. So, by 793 AD, there was paper-making in Baghdad. But even then, it still took hundreds of years to reach Europe. There were no paper-making mills in England until 1494, almost 1500 years after it was first invented in ancient China. So, we think of it today as this very universal, readily available commodity, but actually, paper was this incredibly advanced technology that took almost a millennium and a half to spread from its genesis, right around the world. As it did so, it then brought all kinds of new technologies, such as newspapers, paper currency, and, of course, playing cards. (Online poker sites came much later).
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Now, most scholars, and most playing card historians generally agree that playing cards could be traced right back to 9th century China when we see written references to a game called "the game of leaves." It's not known for sure, and of course, playing cards themselves, being made of paper, don't last. We have no clan cards from this time, but it's generally thought, or the consensus is, that this was the birth of what we consider to be playing cards today. And then, of course, like many things, they spread along the trading routes down the Silk Road through Asia, through the Middle East, and then, of course, eventually to Europe. But it was only in 1371, hundreds of years later, when we see the first written reference to playing cards in Europe, of all places, in a Catalan rhyming dictionary.
What's interesting, is that almost as soon as they appear in the written record, we very quickly see evidence of pushback and resistance from the authorities trying to clamp down and stamp out this incredibly popular new arrival. So we see this in France, resistance in Spain, and Italy, and Switzerland, right across the board—countries trying to get rid of this new import that was clearly taking over all levels of society. And this went on for decades. So even as late as 1461, almost a hundred years later after they arrived, the fight was still going on.
The English Parliament in 1461 passed a law that said, to sit down and to gamble, to play with playing cards, was strictly illegal on all days of the year except the 12 days of Christmas. In addition to this, around the same sort of time, 1400s or so, there were also what were called the "bonfire of the vanities." Now, these were basically led by authorities in the church. They would gather people together; they would tell them to go home and to collect their sinful objects, what were called "occasions of sin." So, these would be backgammon sets, they would be books, poetry, makeup, dice, and of course, playing cards. They bring them back, and then together, they would throw these objects into open bonfires in the streets. In doing so, they cleanse themselves, purge themselves from these very sinful objects.
The church even referred to playing cards specifically as "the devil's picture book." So, there was clearly this very deep-set paranoia around this time that provoked this incredibly aggressive reaction from so many different directions in a way that's very difficult to imagine today. You would see a deck of cards now as such a harmless and innocuous object, but at the time, it really wasn't seen like that. It was this tantalizing and alluring and exotic new object, but in the eyes of so many, it was a dark and damaging and destructive threat to society that was spreading through all corners of the world.
These curiously hand-painted pieces of paper—the humble and lowly deck of playing cards. But of course, in spite of this, playing cards continued their steady march and right the way through the 1400s, they continued to explode.
With that came an increase in production with the printing press. So Johannes Gutenberg's press and others that then meant the playing cards no longer had to be so meticulously hand-painted and so expensive, but they could be very quickly and cheaply mass-produced. Of course, with that came a whole new wave, a new explosion of popularity. And so, of course, as they continued to grow in terms of popularity, they also continued to grow in terms of variation, in terms of design variations.
So in Germany, they developed the four suits: the hearts, the acorns, the bells, and the leaves—a system that is still in use in German playing cards today. In Spain, they developed other four suits: coins, cups, swords, and clubs. Again, if you go to Spain today, very often you'll see still today these Spanish decks that use these four suits.
But in fact, the four suits that we use in most contemporary decks right around the world today—that we all know and love—the diamonds, the clubs, the hearts, and the spades, this is, in fact, a French system. So, it was the curl, pique, carreau, and trèfle—the four suits that were thought to have become very popular for two very simple reasons. One, the shapes of the suits were very simple; they had no innate detailing. And the second was it was just two colors; you had black and red.
Of course, mass-made and then mass-sold. So many different variations.
One particularly heartbreaking use of playing cards around this time actually took place in orphanages right across Europe. And this was something that I saw a few years ago in a museum in Florence in Italy. It used to be an orphanage. What used to happen was that when a young parent would bring their baby to leave at the orphanage, at the door or the window of the orphanage, sometimes they would bring a single playing card with them. They would tear it in half. They would keep half of themselves and they would leave the other half with the baby. That way, years later, if their life changed and they ever had the means of being able to look after the child, to take the child back, they could bring their half. The orphanage would have kept their half on record. They could match the two up, and they could know for certain that it was indeed the right child. So just like I said, a very powerful little-known use of a single playing card all those hundreds of years ago.
Now, what seems to have happened through the ages is that rather like marijuana in the US, the authorities and the government gave up trying to fight against playing cards and instead got behind them and decided to use them as a source of extra taxation and revenue. So in England, initially, this came in the form of a stamp on the face card—the ace of spades, the front card on a new deck of cards. There would be a stamp on the card which would show that duty had been paid on that specific deck of cards.
In 1765, it became even more sophisticated. The stamp office in London would separately manufacture the ace of spades. So if you were to buy a deck that hadn't had that ace of spades, you wouldn't be playing with a full deck. Because you had to then buy, and pay for the extra ace of spades from the stamp office. And in fact, it was such a serious offense to forge aces of spades. There was the famous story in 1805 of Richard Harding, a London man who was accused of forging and then distributing fake aces of spades—of course, then doing the stamp office out of their extra revenue. He was tried at the Old Bailey in London, he was found guilty in September of 1805, and in fact, he was then hanged for his crimes.
Around this time, there's also the very famous story you may well have heard of John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich. Now, John Montagu was a fanatical, he was an obsessive card player. He would very often play his club in London, his gentlemen's club. And it is said that in 1762, he was once sat there, and he was so engrossed in the game of cards that he refused to leave to go and have lunch. And he requested that the staff bring him his lunch—his lunch meat between two pieces of bread. That way, he could eat it without getting his fingers dirty and he could carry on playing the game. Of course, over time, his fellow card players began to request for the same. They would say, 'I'll have the same as Sandwich.' And then eventually, people simply said, 'I'll have a sandwich.' So it is thought that what we know today as the beloved sandwich itself, the word, the term, the concept grows from this one particular game of playing cards, like I say, in 1762 at this gentlemen's club in London with John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich.
And also from around this time, the late 1700s, the 1790s – around the time of the French Revolution – certain playing card games began to be created that used the aces as the most powerful card in the game. Now, they had existed before, but it's thought there was a surge in popularity of these games where the aces would rise up and be more powerful even than the royal cards, the court cards in the deck. To symbolize the lowest ranks of society rising up and being more powerful than anybody. So like I say, it is hotly debated.
It is not known for sure, but it's certainly a beautiful concept for a powerful concept that born from the French Revolution, that all the ideology that was around at that time. This is the moment at which, in many, many games, the Aces grow up to become the most powerful cards in the deck. Also around this period, 17-1800s, major physical changes were brought into the standard deck of cards.
One of them was the court card suddenly became reversible. So, until that moment, court cards would only have one hair. Today they would be held one way up, and if you were holding it the wrong way round, you would have to rotate it to see which card you were holding. And in doing so, you would tip off to your opponents that you were holding valuable high cards. So, they were then made reversible with a head at the top and the bottom.
In addition, in the mid-1800s, indices were introduced. They're, the symbols, the values in the corners of the card. In that way, you could spread in a fan of cards; you could spread just a small part of the corner and know what it was without having to see the whole face of the card. And with that came a major change, which was the Jack—the Jack of the deck, which until that moment had largely been known as the knave. But of course, the K of the knave would be confused with the K of the king. So with that, they changed it to Jack, JQK—Jack, Queen, King.
And then two more physical changes: the backs of the cards that until then had been largely wiped; they would simply be left white, blank backs. Card manufacturers started introducing more ornate, beautiful designs. They also would round the corners. So until then, playing cards, but largely with right angles, sharp right-angle corners. And both of those things—blank backs and sharp corners—would allow people to mark them in various ways. You could leave a smudge or a scratch or a bend on one of the corners, and then you would know which card was which in the corners. And introducing back designs made those things certainly more difficult, if not impossible, certainly more difficult.
So, some changes for convenience, some changes to hopefully discourage people from cheating. But very, very important changes to the standard deck of cards during this time. Now, fast-forward to the 1930s, the Fifth Suit, and there's a particularly interesting little-known story that involves some of the world's leading playing card manufacturers, including the US PCC, the United States Playing Card Company, one of the biggest in the world. They came together and they attempted to introduce a fifth suit. So in America, this was a green suit called the Eagles; in the UK, this was a blue suit called the Crowns.
And then, of course, through the 20th century, playing cards have continued to evolve and transform in all kinds of different directions. You've had collectible trading cards, baseball cards, cigarette cards, and Pokemon playing cards. I didn't know this, as of 2019, Pokemon has sold twenty-eight billion Pokemon cards—twenty-eight billion cards. So if you were to take those and stick them end to end, they would go from the earth to the moon and back three times. But Yu-Gi-Oh!, which is another one, I believe a Japanese very similar collectible card game, they've sold 25 billion cards in their 20-year history. So these incredible offshoots that all grow from the main trunk of what we know to be the traditional deck of playing cards.
And there is one final story that I want to share with you today, and that is the story of Nintendo. Now, of course, Nintendo today, the global video game entity that gave us the Gameboy and of course, Mario, actually started out as a company, as a plain card manufacturer that supplied playing cards to the Japanese Yakuza mafia. So this goes back 130 years to 1889, to a little workshop in Kyoto in Japan where a local craftsman called Fusa Jiro Yamauchi would create these beautiful what are called Hana Fuda playing cards. They're very specific to Japan; they're still available, smaller than traditional playing cards. They used to be made from the bark of a mulberry tree, and on them, instead of numbers and values, they feature these very ornate illustrations. And in making them like this, they would exploit a legal loophole in Japan that had banned almost all playing cards since the year 1633.
Of course, since then, Nintendo has gone on to dominate all manner of toy and video game industries. But it's just a little-known secret that its roots can be traced right back to this little workshop that would supply these playing cards to the underground gambling dens of the Japanese Yakuza mafia. Now zooming into the future for a moment, it seems to be the case today that playing cards are perhaps not quite as popular in parts of the world as they used to be.
In 1981, it was Warrington's, the British playing card manufacturer who led a survey that found, at the time—this was 40 years ago—that half the British population, the adult British population, would play cards regularly. And by that, they meant at least once every two weeks, so once a fortnight or more. Half the adult population of the UK would sit down at a table to play cards.
Now, it's almost certainly not that number today with all the new forms of entertainment. But, of course, in many parts of the world, playing cards will continue to flourish and to rampage. I went a few years ago through the Cartamundi head offices in Mumbai, in India. I met the man in charge, and he told me that in India today alone, they buy 1 million decks of cards every single day. So, it's, as I say, it's been a story of more than a thousand years. There is no question that playing cards aren't going anywhere fast. It only continued to diversify, to change in their direction and their dimensions.
They will, of course, be more and more digitalized online. But I am certain the future of playing cards is a very beautiful one. So there you go, just a little stroll through the many centuries of playing cards' history and mystery. I hope that some of this is of interest to even a handful of you. I hope that you are well, and I will see you very soon.