Unsolved Problems in Playing-Card Research
In the January/February 1999 issue of The Playing-Card (Vol XXVII No 4), IPCS president Robert Kissel invited members to contribute to a list of unsolved problems in playing-card research. This would be the playing-card equivalent of the famous list of unsolved mathematical problems published by David Hilbert 100 years ago.
Unsolved Problems in Playing-Card Research
Submissions by Sir Michael Dummett, February 10th, 1999
Unsolved Problems concerning Tarot and Italian Cards
- Can the type of cards, both regular and Tarots (not standardised
nearly enough to form a standard pattern), called by Sylvia Mann
‘archaic’ be definitely assigned to Ferrara, as conjectured by
Dummett, to Venice, as supposed by almost everyone else, or to
any other city?
- Can definite evidence be found to assign the standard pattern
exemplified by early Trappola cards from north of the
Alps to Venice, or perhaps to Trent or some other city?
- Two questions relate to Piedmont. The first is this: Various
features of Tarot games played in Piedmont indicate a connection
Can any early connection be found
between Bologna and Piedmont, or Tarot players in both places,
be discovered to account for this?
- the treatment of the four ‘Papi’—Empress,
Popess, Emperor and Pope—as of equal rank, any one of them
played later to a trick beating one played earlier;
- the superiority
of the Angel to the World.
- Can any pre-XVIIIth-century tarocchi made in
Piedmont be discovered? If so, do they seem to be ancestral to
the pattern exemplified in the packs made by Viéville and
de Hautot, and later in (what is now) Belgium? If not, can the
ancestry of that pattern be discovered?
- What were the origins of the pattern (for regular cards) we know
as Venetian, and when did it originate?
- Can a complete set of trumps from the Roman pattern of the Tarot
pack be discovered, or at least trumps 2–5, to see what
was used in this pattern in place of the ‘Papi’?
- Is it possible to discover any Sicilian Minchiate cards
(known there as Gallerini), which would have been manufactured
up to about 1770? The game differed from Florentine Minchiate,
and strong hints about the rules can be discovered from Villabianca's opuscolo on games: is it possible to find a more explicit
account of the rules?
- We know from Villabianca why the Ship was substituted for the Devil
in the Sicilian Tarot pack, and probably why the Tower lost its
lightning. Can it be discovered when and why the unnumbered Povertà or Miseria was added as the lowest
trump, below the trump numbered 1 (the Bagotti or Bagatto)?
Also, when the Pope and Popess were suppressed?
- The version of Minchiate played in Genoa presumably
continued to be played there until the very early 1930s, when the
last packs were manufactured by Solesio. It was probably imported
there from Sicily; if so, it was probably known as ‘Gallerini’.
Is it possible to find out the rules under which it was played?
Can the function of the additional unnumbered trump to be found
in some Genoese packs be determined?
[February 2012: Thierry Depaulis comments that Ganellini was played in Genoa as early as 1600 before the game became known in Sicily. Also, tarot cards were made in Palermo as early as 1630, much earlier than Villabianca assumed.]
- An extraordinary type of Tarot pack, using Minchiate designs
for many but not all of the cards, with 56 suit cards, the Matto and only twelve trumps (missing all those below the IX,
including of course the Bagatto) appears to have been
peculiar to Lucca. For what game was this used?
An incomplete Orfeo pack in Mr. Stuart Kaplan's collection, that was offered at auction in 2006 (auction catalogue, no. 128), yielded some of the missing trumps, namely: IIII-VI, VIII, XIII, XV, XXII, XXIIII-XXVIII, XXX, XXXIIII. Therefore, it is possible that all Orfeo packs were in fact regular Minchiate packs.]
- For what French-speaking region, and for what game, was the
(French-suited) pack with wrapper saying ‘Tarot à 73
cartes’, consisting of the usual 32 Austrian suit cards, the Sküs and 40 numbered trumps, manufactured by Piatnik
- What type of Tarot game is or was played in
- Sardinia and
[The question about Rumania is answered by John McLeod in The Playing-Card Vol 30, No 4 (Jan-Feb 2002) pp180-185]
Problems about Playing-Cards Outside Europe
- Can any more Islamic playing cards be discovered, particularly
court cards (presumably with figures), and preferably something
approaching a complete pack?
- The Mamlūk cards had three court cards per suit, of which
the lowest in unimaginatively named ‘Second Viceroy’ (not a rank
known in real life). This third court card therefore looks like
an addition to an earlier 48-card pack, although clearly well
established when Islamic cards first became known in Europe.
The game of Ganjifa was played in Persia with a 96-card
pack of 8 suits with 10 numeral cards and two court cards in
each suit (like the Indian ‘Mogul Ganjifa’). It thus
looks as though the Persians doubled an earlier 48-card pack.
Can any positive evidence of this ancestral 48-card pack be
- Can any reasonable explanation be found for the naming of
the Cups suit in the pack in the Topkapi in Istanbul ţūmān?
[This question is addressed in Diane O'Donovan's article in The Playing-Card Vol 29, No 4 (Jan-Feb 2001) pp158-162 and in in Andrea Pollett's article, "Tûmân, or the 10,000 Cups of the Mamlûk Cards", in The Playing-Card, Vol. 31, No 1 (July-Aug 2002) pp. 34-41]
- Can the origins of the Chinese 4-suited money pack be dated
more precisely? Can it be ascertained whether or not the
cards of the upper two suits showed images of the characters
from the Water Margin from the beginning?
Unsolved Problems about Early European Cards
- Is it possible to find XIVth-century European
cards showing court figures? Or cards of that date made in Germany
or Switzerland with ‘Latin’ suit-signs, to confirm the hypothesis
that those suit-signs were originally used all over Europe?
- Can playing cards from pre-1470 France be found to establish
for certain what type of pack was used in France before the
French suit-system was invented? Can the date of that invention
be established with greater precision? Can the respective roles
of French and Spanish card-makers in the evolution of the
national Spanish suit-system be clarified?
- Can it be discovered what kind of cards were used or made in
the Low Countries before the adoption of the French suit-system?
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Last updated 9th March 2012