Playing-card Basics

Last modified : 01 Nov 2006
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What is a "playing-card"? was not written to answer this particular question but does provide much relevant information.

How do I shuffle a pack of playing-cards?

See eHow to Shuffle Cards.

Internet resources

For the games played with cards there is a Usenet news group: and there is the Card Games WWW site, which contentrates on rules of games.

Bridge players who wish to discuss strategy have their own newsgroup:

Those interested in the gambling aspect of card playing should turn to: rec.gambling

Please note that the following newsgroups are for those interested in trading-cards and not playing-cards:

For people interested in collecting playing-cards or researching into their history, their origins, their spread around the world, use and manufacture there is as yet no news group. However a discussion forum is managed via Ecartis at To join, simply send a mail message to with a blank subject line and the body of the message saying

    subscribe playing-cards

Types of playing-cards

Cards could be categorised:

Books favoured by collectors have tended to describe cards by country of manufacture, regardless of where they were intended for play. Within each country `standard cards' are described first, followed by `non-standard' ones.

To understand these classifications, it is important to understand what collectors/researchers understand by the terms:


This refers to cards of a certain standard design acceptable to the normal run of card-players. It can be associated with a geographical location (either through custom or the law), a maker's design with many editions or copies by other makers, or even one used for a local game. These regular designs or regional patterns originated recognisably in the 17th, 18th or, most often, in the 19th century.

With regard to French-suited cards in particular, French regional patterns, primarily originating in Paris, Lyons or Rouen, spread across Europe in all directions and many of their descendents survive.

Makers' house patterns were more a 19th century phenomenon, mainly emanating from Germany, some from Austria-Hungary.

In general, children's games such as Old Maid are excluded from being considered in this category.


Standard cards are used for card games. Non-standard cards are seldom put to such use, so why were they made and why do people buy them? The reasons are many and varied. Early German engravers saw them as an opportunity to market a set of 52 exquisite miniatures. Cardinal Mazarin commissioned 4 sets of educational cards to catch the attention of the young Louis XIV. They gave the anti-Roman Catholic pamphleteers of 17th century England another medium for disseminating their message; later they had an education purpose for Geography, Heraldry and Astronomy. Transformation cards made their first appearance soon after 1800 and have been sporadically popular ever since; their aim is to `transform' and ordinary pip card into a picture by means of incorporating the pips in their standard positions in a larger overall design. The designs are often extremely witty. The court cards are obvious vehicles for caricatures of an affectionate, or downright vicious, nature. These are just a few examples from the vast range.


The different suit systems are well illustrated on John McLeod's Card Games site.

French-suited cards

French suit signs

English spades clubs hearts diamonds
French pique (=pike) trèfle (=clover) coeur (=heart) carreau (=tile)
German Pik (=pike) Kreuz (=cross) Herz (=heart) Karo (=tile)
English (52) A K Q J 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2
French* (52,32) R D V 1 10 9 8 7 (6 5 4 3 2)
German (32) A K D B X (numeral 10 added when indices added) 9 8 7

* Modern French packs retain the archaic feature of court cards bearing individual names, typically:

spades David, Pallas, Hogier
clubs Alexandre, Argine, Lancelot
hearts Charles, Judith, La Hire
diamonds Cesar, Rachel, Hector

Although the French named-card tradition goes back to the 15th century the actual names used have varied and the most constant of them have not been applied consistently to the same cards. David, Judith, and possibly Rachel appear to be biblical; Alexander, Caesar, Hector, and Pallas are classical, as also is Argine (anagram of regina or corruption of Argea); Lancelot must be drawn from the Matter of Britain. Charles may be Charlemagne, and Hogier his distinguished cousin. They are now believed to be members of the "Nine Worthies", a popular literary theme in the Middle Ages. See further details.

English Ace King Queen Jack (Knave)
French As Roi Dame Valet
German As König Dame Bube

Swiss and German-suited cards

Swiss suit signs

Swiss Schilten (=shield) Eichel (=acorn) Rosen (=rose) Schellen (=hawkbell)
Swiss (36) D(A) K O U B 9 8 7 6
Swiss Daus (As, Sau) König Ober Under

German suit signs

German Grün (=green) Eichel (=acorn) Rot (=red) Schellen (=hawkbell)
German (36, 32) D(A) K O U 10 9 8 7 (6)
German Daus (As) König Ober Unter

Latin-suited cards

Italian suit signs

Italian bastoni (=batons) spade (=swords) coppe (=cups) denari (=coins)
Italian (40) R C F 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Italian Re (=King) Cavallo (=Cavalier) Fante (=Footsoldier)

Spanish suit signs

Spanish bastos (=clubs) espadas (=swords) copas (=cups) oros (=coins)
Spanish (48, 40) R C S (9 8) 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Spanish Rey (=King) Caballo (=Cavalier) Sota (=Servant)

Other indexes

Denmark K D B A or K D Kn Es
Denmark }
Norway } K D Kn 1 or Es or E
Sweden }
Finland K D Kn 1 or K R S 1
Greece B K theta A
Holland H V B 1 or A
Iceland K D G As
Lithuania K M B T
Poland K D W A
Russia K Cyrillic capital D (which looks like an A) B T


A short illustrated account of the history of cards is to be found in our History section. Further details follow below.

Playing-cards are believed to have arrived in Europe from the East, specifically as developments of the cards used by the Mamelukes of Egypt. An almost complete pack of Mameluke playing-cards was discovered in the Topkapi Sarayi Museum in Instanbul by L.A. Mayer in 1939. His discovery remained little known until his original paper was posthumously published in book form in 1971. By this time it was possible to include details on the fragment of a similar card subsequently identified in a private collection. This pack itself does not predate 1400, but the `private' fragment is tentatively dated to the 12th or 13th centuries. The reconstructed pack consists of 52 cards, with suits of swords, polo-sticks, cups, and coins, numerals from one to ten, and courts labelled `malik' (King), `naib malik' (Deputy King), and `thani naib' (Second Deputy). This is virtually identical with the Italian variety of Latin-suited pack, and the date of the other fragment clinches the argument that the Mameluke pack came first. Furthermore, the Arabic word naib, `deputy', suggests the origin of Italian naibbe and Spanish naipes for the name of the game—'the Game of Deputies'.

Evidence is inconclusive as to whether cards arrived in Italy first (it had the major trade routes) or Spain but the Italian design is closest to the Mameluke design and the Spanish design suggests a later simplification of the Italian design. Since polo was unknown in Europe at this time, the Italians straightened the polo-sticks into ceremonial batons, but retained the other suits. The Spanish design uses knobbly cudgels in their place.

Playing-cards are known in Persia and India at this time. Professor Michael Dummett postulates that there may have existed in Persia or central Asia a prototype 48-card game involving four suits with 10 numerals and two courts in each. Known as `Ganjifeh' to the Persians, it was transmitted by them to both eastern and western neighbouring cultures. In India the name was taken over as `Ganjifa' and the number of suits doubled (8 x 12 = 96). In Arabia it became `Kanjifah'—a word appearing in an inscription on one of the Mameluke cards—and was expanded by the addition of a third court card (4 x 13 = 52).

Once the craze had hit Europe, it spread rapidly. Cards are first mentioned in Spain in 1371, described in detail in Switzerland in 1377, and by 1380 reliably reported from places as far apart as Florence, Basle, Regensburg, Brabant, Paris, and Barcelona. It is hard to push their existence in Europe back any further; they are notably absent from appropriate passages in Petrach (1304-74), Boccaccio (1313-75), and Chaucer (1343-1400), despite the authors' evident interest in games.

Early cards were individually hand-made and painted, which made them expensive to produce and may at first have restricted the market to the well-to-do. Cheaper products for everyday use are well attested, but they must have disintergrated rapidly and been thrown away in thousands daily, just as they are today. The records make it clear that cards were popular at all levels of at least urban society throughout the 15th century.

Some old theories, now discredited

Tarot cards

Tarot cards were invented in Renaissance Italy in the early 15th century (probably some time between 1410 and 1430). The idea was to extend the already existing four-suited deck by adding special cards which could beat any card of the four ordinary suits. These extra cards and the game played with the extended pack were called "trionfi" (triumphs), from which our word trumps is derived. From the 16th century onwards the game and cards came to be known by the alternative name tarocco (of unknown etymology). When the game spread to France, Switzerland and Germany, the word Tarocco became Tarot in French and Tarok in German (various alternative spellings are found).

After some initial experiments with number of trumps and number of cards per suit, by the end of the 15th century the 78 card pack with 21 trumps, 14 cards per suit and a fool had become fairly standard, though with some variations in the ordering of the trumps. 62 card packs (10 cards per suit) and 97 card packs (40 trumps) also existed and survived to the 20th century. Until the 18th century (i.e. for the first 350 years of the existence of Tarot cards) the suits used were always the standard Latin (Italian) suits, the same as in the original four-suited pack. These suits were and are: "spade" (swords), "bastoni" (batons), "coppe" (cups), "denari" (coins). The only variations I know of are that the coins suit was and is sometimes called "ori" (gold) and that "bastoni" is often translated as clubs rather than batons—in some designs of cards the suit-marks look more like ceremonial batons; in others they are rough wooden clubs.

In the 18th century the Germans took the practical step of replacing the Italian suits by the French suits of spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds, and placing more prominent numerals (Arabic or Roman) on the trumps for easy identification. The Austrians and French later did likewise, but in Italy and parts of Switzerland Italian suited Tarot cards are still used.

From the late 18th century, occultists became interested in Tarot cards and began to revise the designs and terminology to suit their purposes and theories. Some of them introduced the term "major arcana" for the trumps, some transformed the coins and batons into pentacles and wands, and some adjusted the names and in some cases the sequence of the trumps.

Reference for the early history of Tarot cards:

Dummett, Michael
Il Mondo e l'angelo. I Tarocchi e la loro Storia
Bibliopolis, Naples, 1993
ISBN 88 7088 272 1

or if you do not like reading Italian there is a book in English:

Dummett, Michael and McLeod, John
A History of Games Played with the Tarot Pack
The Game of Triumphs, Volume One
The Edwin Mellen Press, 2004
ISBN 0-7734-6447-6

When card players see writing about Tarot using the terms "major arcana" and "pentacles" in place of trumps and coins they tend to assume that the writer comes from the occult tradition, and is probably more interested in divination than in playing card games.

Here in Britain you can get French Tarot packs for about 4 UK pounds (around $7) each. They are slightly cheaper if you buy them in France. Looking at Roddy Somerville's mail order catalogue at we see two makes of 78 card pack available for £4:

11064 Jeu de Tarot - French pattern (FC-403782) £4 France France Cartes
12005 Tarot de Voyage - French pattern £4 France France Cartes