Unchanged for years, the iconography of modern playing cards make them one of gamingâ€™s most familiar sights. But how much do you really know about the history of the modern 52 (or 54) card deck?
1. We think of playing cards as being as ancient as chess or draughts, but while the general idea of playing cards is indeed as old as time, most of the features we associate with modern decks are comparative newcomers, dating from 14th-century Europe. But the Joker is all-American: it was invented to play Euchre, which originated shortly after the Revolutionary War.
2.The most expensive pack of playing cards in the world is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It dates from the late 14th century, and is thought to be the oldest known complete deck in existence. The museum paid over $140,000 for the cards in a 1983 auction.
3. Card game Solitaire — a popular diversion for bored office workers for decades — is thought to be the most-played computer game in the world. A 1994 Washington Post article details Solitaire’s development motivation: apparently, when designing Windows 3.0, Microsoft execs wanted to include a simple game that would relax computing newcomers. And what’s more familiar than a pack of cards? The game also provided a surreptitious way to train users in the click-and-drag concepts fundamental to the new age of graphical user interfaces without them feeling patronized or getting bored.
4. A total of 32,000 different deals were included in the original Windows game, and all except one have been solved.
5. The Jack, Queen, King, and Ace designs used on modern cards date back to 16th century France, and have changed little over the years. For a time, the four kings were nicknamed after popular (or notorious) real-world rulers: Alexander the Great for Clubs, Caesar for Diamonds, Charlemagne for Hearts, and Biblical ruler King David for Spades. The practice died out in the French Revolution, along with some real-life kings and queens.
6.The record for the largest free-standing house of playing cards is held by American Bryan Berg, for his 35-foot-long replica of the Venetian Macau hotel and casino. It took 44 days to complete, used 218,792 playing cards, and weighed 600 pounds.
7. Blackjack is said to be the oldest known card game, and a precursor to it is mentioned in a Cervantes short story written at the dawn of the 16th century. But poker, its frequent companion in casinos, is much newer. Although various competing theories exist as to its origin, its first undisputed appearance is in an 1834 writing by famed gambler Jonathan H. Green, as a 20-card riverboat game.
8. The phrase â€œin spades,â€ used to refer to an abundance of something, is thought to be owed to playing cards. In Bridge, the suits are ranked alphabetically, and Spades (being the last) outranks all the others.
9. Over the years, the Ace of Spades has been associated with both good and bad luck. Robert Louis Stevenson employed it as a death-card used by a secret society in an 1878 short story. The 506th Infantry Regiment (as depicted in HBO smash Band of Brothers) painted it on their helmets for good luck during World War II. And during the Vietnam War, American GIs — believing that the spade signified death to the Vietnamese — left the card on the bodies of dead combatants. More recently, in the US-developed set of playing cards that depicted most-wanted Iraqi government officials during the 2003 invasion, the Ace of Spades bore Saddam Husseinâ€™s mustachioed mug.
10. In modern decks, the Ace of Spades usually carries information about the company that printed the deck. This is an old tradition: from the 15th century right up until the 60s, cards printed in Britain were liable for a special tax, and the Ace of Spades carried a stamp that proved the tax had been paid.