The Evolution of Playing Cards

min read
BetMGM Mar 19, 2021, 10:59 AM
Playing cards and dice on a green felt table.

Playing cards are a global phenomenon: they can be used for many games – both multi-player and solitary – and are a great way to boost creativity. The standard 52-card deck most of us are familiar with has taken pride of place in many family households: it’s guaranteed to provide thrilling gameplay, with much joy and laughter to be shared. 

But have you ever wondered about the origins of the modern-day cards we all know and love? Let’s take a look at the history of playing cards, their geographical origins and influences, and their popularity at online casinos.

Early playing cards and their uses

The exact origin of playing cards is still up for debate among historians. At this point, many still rely on speculation rather than hard evidence. Many historians agree that playing cards have their roots somewhere in the East. Some speculate that the Chinese game called yezi (game of leaves) – which dates back to 800AD – could have been played with an early type of playing card. One thing that’s for sure: playing cards began to emerge in Europe during the late 1300s and early 1400s. Gypsies, crusaders, or traders may have been responsible for importing playing cards to Europe. Symbols were used to characterize Chinese cards and, as they made their way to Europe, they transformed into suits, which represented social class in France, Spain, and Italy. 

France was the first European country to lay claim to modern-day playing cards. It's worth noting that Venice is an important trading center connecting with the East, so it’s possible that cards originated there and made their way through the rest of the continent. 

The Cloisters Deck is the first known deck that resembles the playing cards that we use today. An example of it is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Cloisters Deck dates all the way back to the late 1400s and is believed to have originated somewhere in the Netherlands. The evolution of the design of playing cards is worth mentioning. As they made their way around the world, there wasn’t a fast and efficient way to produce cards – usually made from stiff paper – in bulk. Of course, the upper classes in various societies would receive much nicer cards. That all changed with the printing press’s introduction, which meant that more people would have access to decent playing cards. And the rest is history.

Who would have thought that in today’s era of internet connectivity and mass-media fragmentation, the humble pack of cards would have survived centuries to still be considered a mainstay of entertainment for all ages the world over?

Different suits around the world

Group of friends playing cards at a table.

The French deck of playing cards is famously used for playing poker, bridge, and blackjack. Around the world, online casinos and land-based casinos use this deck. Unless you’ve been living on a different planet, you will be familiar with this design, which is 52 cards divided into four suits, with three “face” cards – King, Queen, and Jack, or Knave – and 10 “pip” cards, including the Ace. The French deck contains the heart, diamond, spade, and club suits, which are now internationally recognized. Each suit, therefore, contains 13 cards, which add up to 52 cards (of course, when you buy a pack of cards, you’ll get two Jokers thrown in).

In Spain and Italy, the locals play a card game with cups, coins, clubs, and swords on the cards. German locals use playing cards with hearts, bells, acorns, and leaves, while in Switzerland, the cards have roses, bells, acorns, and shields. (Each to their own!) 

The French cards are definitely the most popular today and are what you can expect to see when playing poker online. The popular casino game is believed to have been developed in the 19th century in the United States, but many believe that the poker we know and love today was most likely derived from a French game known as poque

Today’s most popular designs of playing cards

Many card lovers will be familiar with the Bicycle-designed playing cards. It’s thought to be the most iconic brand of card decks and is a US brand. These cards were used to help American prisoners escape during the Second World War. Did you know that the US Government made special secret decks for American prisoners of war? The POWs were able to peel the cards apart to reveal pieces of maps to help them escape. Today, the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) – which produces the many types of Bicycle playing cards now on the market (you can even design your own deck!) – dominates the playing cards industry. Indeed, many casinos use playing cards that are made by USPCC. 

Cards used at casinos

Playing cards laid out as a poker hand on a wooden grey table.

The history of gambling can be traced back to 600BCE, and the first legal casinos were seen in the early 1930s. When gambling was able to take place beyond saloons, it certainly catapulted its popularity globally. Today, we have so much variety, including the chance to play online casino games. Whether you love playing poker online or blackjack, playing cards will be there, front and center of the action, because – quite simply – they’re where it’s at. 

Casino-branded playing cards feel slightly different because, rather than made of specially prepared, heavy paper stock with a glossy finish, they’re made from 100% plastic. By using plastic cards, the dealer for casino games such as poker can handle the cards much better; this material also helps to prolong the packs’ lives, protecting them from getting dirty and dog-eared. In terms of security, plastic cards also make it challenging for players to cheat and mark cards. 

While the feeling of shuffling and dealing a pack of cards is something one would never want to forget, thankfully, the imagery and rituals of the original pastime are kept alive in the online world of card gaming (just play a live poker game, and you’ll see how far it’s come).

Play the best online casino games at BetMGM

Now you know the backstory of playing cards, register at BetMGM to play the best online casino games – including online poker. We have a wide range of slots, classic table games, and live casino games for you to try out. Get ready for endless entertainment!

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.