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The standard deck (or pack) of playing cards comprises fifty-two rectangular pieces of laminated heavy paper or plastic with identical backs and individual faces. These are arranged in four suits, each containing thirteen cards, which are randomized by shuffling. Although usually used for games, including card games with wagering, playing cards are also used for divination (so called cartomancy), illusions and tricks, and even for building unsteady houses of cards. They are even thrown at targets and in bicycles to cause a motor sound to arise from the spokes of the wheels. Today, virtual cards made up only of pixels of light are used commonly in video poker and blackjack slot machines, and on the Internet. ORIGINS Playing cards are believed to have been invented by the Chinese, the inventors of paper, and then made their way into Europe by way of the Mamluks of Egypt in the late 1300's. Spain was probably the first European country to receive the playing cards from the Muslims. From there, they quickly spread to other European countries. By 1377 they could be found in Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and most importantly, Paris, where they would be transformed into something close to the modern pack with its European royalty and four modern suits pictured. Originally hand drawn and painted in China, by the fourteen hundreds, cards were printed from woodcarvings. Later, stenciling was added. This early European deck that first found its way to Spain already had the four suits. These were identified by batons, cups, coins and swords. Like the modern deck, each suit contained 13 cards consisting of ten "spot cards" and three "court cards", for a total deck of 52 cards. Spot cards numbered one through ten and contained that many pips (marks) on their faces as well as a suit marking in their center. Court cards, precursors to face cards, represented royalty and nobility. The Europeans modified the court cards to their own medieval aristocracy, replacing the Egyptian's Viceroy with the chevalier in France and the Spanish caballero and so on. THE SUITS It has been suggested that the suits represented the four classes of society in medieval Europe: the aristocracy, the clergy, the merchants and the peasantry. The German bells (specifically, hawk bells) represent the nobility who were avid falconers. Hearts stood for the Church, leaves were the middle class, and acorns represented the peasantry. The original decks that the Spaniards received from the Muslims, had chalices for the clergy, swords for the military, coins for the merchants, and batons (or clubs) for the commoners The four suits in wide usage throughout most of the world, spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs, are a creation of the French. These were in use by approximately 1480 and ultimately replaced the hearts, bells, leaves and acorns of the Germans as well as the cups, swords, coins and clubs that the Muslims brought to Spain and which proceeded to Italy. The Italian deck, forerunner to the Tarot deck, was originally used for a card game, but rapidly became used only in fortune telling. It still uses the cups, swords, coins and clubs. Ultimately, the French design prevailed over virtually all of Europe, although in Germany, four colored decks containing the hearts, bells, leaves and acorns can still be found. On French cards, the spades may have stood for spearheads of the aristocracy, hearts for the Church, diamonds for the wealthy merchant class and clover which was used to feed swine denoted the peasantry. This is still the relative rank of these four suits in games that rank the suits such as bridge. The spade, or pique as it was known in France where it originated, probably evolved from the German leaf, although the word pique means sword. Thus, the spade may be an amalgam of the sword and leaf. The club, or trefoil, also first seen in France, was derived from the German acorn and represented clover, but seems to have gotten its name from the Italian deck that used batons (clubs) for the lowest class. It is unknown how the German bell became the diamond in France. But it is clear why the French design eventually won out. As solid figures rather than line drawings, they could be stenciled onto the woodcut prints. This kept their price more affordable which in turn facilitated their appearance among all of the classes THE FACE CARDS The Spanish inherited the Muslim nobility on the court cards, a king, a viceroy, and an under-deputy, but quickly adapted them to local tradition. The Europeans converted these to the king, the horseman or knight, and his servant, the knave or squire. But the French, principally in Paris and Rouen, introduced and added the queens to the three men which briefly created a 56 cards deck with four face cards - a king, a queen, a knight and a squire - in each suit. The Italians adopted this 56-card deck and retained it even after the French reduced it back to a 52-card deck by combining the two lowest ranks into a single figure that merged the concepts of knight and knave, later called a jack. It was also the French who began associating the court cards with great historical figures in the mid fifteenth century, especially in Paris and Rouen. Each of the twelve royal cards represented a different historical or legendary character whose name was printed on the playing card. For example, the king of spades was David, the second king of the Jews. The king of diamonds was Julius Caesar. In Paris the king of hearts was Charlemagne and the king of clubs was Alexander the Great. In Rouen, these two were reversed. In both Paris and Rouen, the queen of spades represented the Greek goddess Pallas Athena. In Rouen, the queens of hearts, diamonds and clubs were Rachel, mother of Joseph; Argine, an anagram of regina, the Latin word for queen; and Judith, of the Old Testament. In Paris, the order of these three was scrambled to make Judith the heart queen, Rachel the queen of diamonds, and Argine the club queen. The jacks were likewise assigned to famous figures of the time. La Hire, a knight under the dauphin Charles VII and assistant to Jean D'Arc, was the jack of hearts in both Paris and Rouen. The jack of clubs was Judas Maccabeus of the Old Testament in both cities, but on some decks was Sir Lancelot. Ogier, the Danish knight (or paladin) who served under Charlemagne, was the jack of spades in Paris and the jack of diamonds in Rouen. Hector, prince of Troy in the Greek Iliad, was the jack of diamonds in Paris and the Jack of spades in Rouen. ROUEN COURT / PARISIAN COURT / OTHERS King of Spades: DAVID DAVID King of Hearts: ALEXANDER CHARLEMAGNE King of Diamonds: CAESAR CAESAR King of Clubs: CHARLEMAGNE ALEXANDER Queen of Spades: ATHENA ATHENA Queen of Hearts: RACHEL JUDITH RAGNEL Queen of Diamonds: ARGINE RACHEL Queen of Clubs: JUDITH ARGINE Jack of Spades: HECTOR OGIER Jack of Hearts: LA HIRE LA HIRE HIRTIUS Jack of Diamonds: OGIER HECTOR Jack of Clubs: MACCABEUS MACCABEUS LANCELOT A few variations on these schemes were sometimes seen. For example, the jack of clubs, originally identified with Maccabeus, often became Sir Lancelot instead. The queen of hearts was Ragnel, the Celtic princess and bride of Sir Gawain in some decks. In a later deck, the jack of hearts was Hirtius, comrade-in-arms of Caesar, instead of La Hire. But all of these systems of royal names would be lost with the heads of the French monarchy. MODERN FACE CARD REFINEMENTS The present day depiction of the face cards is a minor English adaptation that has now become standardized on most decks. The left-right facial orientation of some of the royals was changed, and their clothing and other possessions were modified from the original French deck from which they were derived. In the English version, the king of diamonds brandishes an axe whereas all the other kings carry swords. He is also the only one-eyed king and he is the only king without hands. All three kings other than the king of hearts have a moustache. Only the king of spades faces right. And only the queen of spades among all of the queens faces rightward. All four carry flowers, but only the queen of spades has a scepter. As with the kings, only the diamond jack has no moustache. The heart and spade jacks are one eyed and face one another in profile, whereas the other two jacks are two-eyed and face each other in a ż view. The jack of hearts alone carries a leaf, and each jack holds a different object: a scepter, an axe, a sword or a spear. The lowest face card had been called a knave, but the 'Kn' in the index was too close to K, and became J for jack, a slang name for one of the knaves in the card game Skat. THE ROYALS FALL AND THE LOWLY ACE IS PROMOTED With the advent of the late eighteenth century French revolution, and the decapitation of the French monarchs Louis XVI and Marie, royalty was demoted in both the government and on the playing cards. The printed names were dropped from the cards and the associations with famous royal figures of the past were forgotten. It was also around this time that the lowest card, the one-spot - by now also called an ace and identified with the lowest level of society - was promoted to its place among the face cards, superior even to the king. This was done in defiance of the now despised royalty and nobility, and as a symbol of newfound social equality and empowerment of the recently liberated lower classes. The word ace, originally used in dicing to mean the one, is derived from the word for the lowest denomination of coin in use at the time, the 'as'. When the one-spot, also called the ace, became one of the face cards (the faceless one), it also traded its numeral for the letter A. The ace of spades became an ornately decorated card originally as a sign that a tax had been paid on that deck, but the tradition of making this one card ornate remains today. Around the mid-1800's, the small number (or J, Q, K or A) and suit indicator (i.e., heart or diamond), together called the index, to the upper left hand corner of the cards was added so that a hand of cards could be held one-handed in a compact fan rather than spread out in two hands as before. Soon after adding the indices, the face cards were made reversible so that they were never upside down and did not have to be turned over when arranging a hand, a telltale sign that ones opponent had few or many face cards. They were redrawn with heads on each end of the card, and indices were placed in both the upper left *and* lower right hand corners. SPECIAL DECKS Besides the tarot deck, there are a few other special decks. Although seldom used in poker or any other game anymore, the joker is an American innovation originally used in Euchre that was quickly adapted to poker. With two jokers added, a 54-card "poker deck" is obtained. The pinochle deck is a 48 card double deck that has all of the twos through the eights removed. Some card games such as Uno and Rook have their own dedicated decks There are specially sized bridge decks with narrower cards and smaller indices to accommodate the thirteen card hands. Poker hands never exceed five cards, so the cards in the poker deck can be even bigger than standard. Plus, they frequently have the indices printed much larger than in bridge decks to be easily seen from across the table in stud poker games.
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The author is a fifty-something year old physician soon to be expatriated.
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