The International Playing-Card Society

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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Two questions relate to Piedmont. The first is this: Various features of Tarot games played in Piedmont indicate a connection with Bologna: Can any early connection be found between Bologna and Piedmont, or Tarot players in both places, be discovered to account for this?
  4. 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?
  5. What were the origins of the pattern (for regular cards) we know as Venetian, and when did it originate?
  6. 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’?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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.]
  10. 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?
    [March 2012: 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.]
  11. 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 around 1930?
  12. What type of Tarot game is or was played in
    1. Sardinia and
    2. Rumania?
      [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

  1. Can any more Islamic playing cards be discovered, particularly court cards (presumably with figures), and preferably something approaching a complete pack?
  2. 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 discovered?
  3. 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]
  4. 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

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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