Card games have been a part of common lifestyles for so long people may be surprised to learn that only 700 years ago almost no one in the west played them. Although printers have mass produced playing cards for centuries, the most sought-after cards in early Europe were hand-painted.
What may be most interesting about card gaming is that the basic concepts of suits and trick-taking were well-established by the time Europeans began playing cards in the 14th century. People today still play by some of the same rules that were used in the earliest card games.
The longevity of rules and design standards may explain why it’s so hard to trace the history of card games to their precise origins.
1 – No One Really Knows When Playing Cards Were Invented
You may have read before that the earliest known use of playing cards was in China during the 9th century. Chinese historians refer to a “game of leaves” that was played during the early Tang Dynasty. For years scholars have believed this was an early form of playing cards.
Now the experts are not so sure. Recent scholarly discussions of the game argue that it was probably something else.
If the traditional interpretation of this barely known game is wrong then the earliest reference to playing cards is found in the 1200s.
Some historians believe the earliest documented use of paper for a game is a form of dominoes, in which all the possible combinations of a pair of 6-sided dice are depicted on paper.
According to Playing Card Divination for Beginners: Fortune Telling with Ordinary Cards by Richard Webster, two 19th century scholars and travelers (Sir William Wilkinson and Dr. Stewart Cullin) proposed that playing cards originated in Korea from a form of divination.
Webster cites A History of Playing Cards by Roger Tillley as a source. Tilley argues that there is insufficient evidence to show that Europeans really learned about playing cards from the orient.
In 1816 Samuel Weller Singer published Researches into the history of playing cards, a collection of papers published by distinguished gentlemen. The introductory chapter claims that German towns first mentioned card games in their ordinances around the year 1300 and the earliest French reference to card games dates to a 1341 manuscript titled “Renard le Contrefait.”
Some scholars speculate that playing cards passed through India and Persia before reaching Europe. Tilley argues that Europeans may have invented playing cards on their own.
History is filled with precedents of things invented around the world independently, so Tilley’s theory is possible.
2 – The Egyptian Mamluks Probably Invented Modern 4-Suit Decks
The Mamluks were non-Muslim slaves used as soldiers by Muslim rulers. The earliest Mamluks were the Ghaznavids of Greater Khorasan. Khorasan was a kingdom in central Asia in the 10th century.
Mamluks are most well-known to westerners as slave-soldiers used in medieval Egypt, where they eventually established their own Sultanate in the 1250s.
The Mamluk cards were called Mulûk Wa-Nawwâb. They were probably used to play a game called nayb.
Charles VI of France (ruled from 1380 to 1422) acquired 3 decks of hand-painted cards believed to be Mamluk cards in 1392. Charles Poupart, the Royal Treasurer, recorded in that year that 56 sols Parisis were paid to Jacquemin Grigonneur for the 3 decks.
Such hand-painted decks of cards were still rare at the time, and The Chronicles of Viterbo claims the game of nayb was introduced to Italy “by a Saracen” in 1379. However, ordinances regulating or forbidding the use of playing cards were passed in cities in France, Italy, and Switzerland in 1377.
3 – Playing Cards and Tarot Cards May Have Had a Common Origin
Tarot cards are used for divination and they are attested in Europe at about the same time as the Mamluk playing cards. Card game and tarot historians seem to agree that divination cards were adopted by Europeans after the Crusades.
There are references in Islamic literature to cards being used for divination.
Martiano da Tortona wrote about the use of tarot cards in games sometime before 1425. The games were known as “tarot”, “tarock”, “tarocco”, and other spellings for many years.
The earliest tarot card games may have introduced the idea of trumping to modern playing card games. The earliest known references to trump cards are found in texts describing tarot games.
4 – Edmund Hoyle Wrote the First Treatise on Card Game Probabilities
Edmund Hoyle was born in 1672 and died in 1769. His earliest publication was titled A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist. Hoyle devoted much of his life to documenting the rules of games.
Among the other games Hoyle wrote about was brag, a derivative of primero and one of the forerunners of poker.
Hoyle’s original whist pamphlet included a section on the probabilities associated with the various hands and winning the game. He also shared strategies for new whist players.
In 1754 Hoyle published “An essay towards making the doctrine of chances easy to those who understand vulgar arithmetick only; to which is added, some useful tables on annuities for lives.”
Hoyle’s work in documenting games — especially card games — and probabilities was so profound that people often referred to his books as the authorities on how to play games. Of course the Hoyle name is still in use today by The United States Card Playing Company.
Edmund Hoyle did not fully retain control of his own intellectual properties. He sold the copyright to his original pamphlet. This was common practice in the 1700s even though intellectual property rights were already protected under English law.
5 – Poker May Be Older Than Most People Believe
Wikipedia’s History of Poker article says the game was developed in the 19th century in the United States, while Pai Gow Poker (based on the traditional Chinese Pai Gow game) goes back over a thousand years. Various other sources on the history of poker say that it was probably derived from a French game called poque that was brought to America at the beginning of the 1800s.
And poque itself is thought to have derived from a “Spanish” game called primero. As mentioned above, poker is also believed to have developed from brag, which was also known as bluff.
Samuel Weller Singer’s Researches book describes the game of primero but does not mention poque. Primero was played in England since the time of Queen Mary and is thought to have been introduced from the Spanish court.
Singer’s book says that no one knew exactly where primero originated, but card game historians of his day thought it was either Spain or Italy. The game gave rise to many variations but the basic rules that were shared with poker were well established before the English began colonizing North America.
One of the earliest descriptions of poker by that name is in an 1843 book titled An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling by J.H. Green. Green describes how the game was played on riverboats by gangs of card-players who swindled wealthy businessmen with rigged card games. The poker Green describes was played with 20 cards.
Green laments the fact that no edition of Hoyle’s Games to 1843 yet mentioned poker. The game was added to the 1845 edition. The 1845 Hoyle description of poker is much more like the modern 5-card game than the game Green described.
6 – Blackjack Was Known in America Before Poker
Assuming that the game called poker evolved from a previously known game like primero, it must have been distinguished by significant differences in rules from its predecessor. Like primero before it, poker gave rise to many variations throughout the 1800s.
Interestingly, the author of the classic novel Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes first described the game of blackjack in his lesser known novel Rinconete y Cortadillo written in 1613. Blackjack historians are confident the old French game of Vingt-un is the source for the game played today. Samuel Weller Singer’s Researches devotes an entire section to Vingt-un.
The 1807 edition of Hoyle also describes rules for Twenty-One or Vingt-un.
7 – The United States Playing Card Company Is One of the Oldest Gaming Companies in Business Today
Newell Brands, Inc. owns the trademarks of the United States Playing Card Company. US Playing Cards traced its history back to the 1867 printing company Russell Morgan & Co. The company began printing playing cards soon after.
The company was acquired by Diamond International in 1969, followed by several others. Returning to self-ownership in 1994, the company was finally bought by Jarden which was then acquired by Newell Brands.
The company purchased Hoyle Products in 2001.
The history of card gaming is a fascinating topic. It has influenced everything from kings to fiction, from politics to religion. There is almost no area of western life that hasn’t been influenced by or exerted influence upon card gaming.
Some of the most famous crimes in modern history were associated with card games. By the same token, card gaming colonized the New World along with gunpowder and industrialization.
It’s hard to imagine a world without card games. People have used them to occupy their time on long journeys and cold winter nights ever since they were carried across Asia to Europe.