The Secret’s in the Cards : Unknown Playing Card Facts

Secrets of Cards

Playing cards are everywhere. They are one of the most universal game tools around. They are used for everything from your grandma’s cribbage party to dorm room drinking games. Then, of course, there is their strong gambling presence.

There’s no doubt about their prevalence in today’s society, but few know their history. I have played poker with cards for many, many years. I never once thought about how cards came to be what they are. I never noticed the differences in illustrations on the face cards. I never contemplated if the cards had any historical significance.

It turns out that a simple deck of cards has a rich history. There are meanings behind just about every aspect of them. Some of these are more of a historical fact, while others are speculation.

One thing that is certain is that playing cards are still incredibly popular today. The U.S. Playing Card Company remains the biggest manufacturer of playing cards in the entire world and sells more than 100 million decks of cards every year.

History of Playing Cards

Most experts agree that the origin of playing cards dates back over 1000 years to 9th century China. Those cards offer little resemblance to the cards we know today. Playing cards officially reached Europe in the late 14th century. This is the beginning of their evolution into the playing cards we are familiar with today. These original European playing cards were comprised of four suits; Swords, Staves, Cups, and Coins.

The original playing cards were hand-painted and very expensive. During the 15th century, printed, woodcut decks began circulating. From here, methods of efficient production made playing cards a much more widespread item.

The cards we use today are heavily based on the French adaptation of playing cards. Though there are alterations to the original French deck, current playing card decks are structured in the same way. Things like suit symbols and illustrations have changed. Pip count, card values, and the structure of the deck have all remained the same.

You might notice that the ace of spades is structured differently than the rest of the deck. After the success of playing cards, the English Government decided to place a tax on one playing card; the ace of spades. It was a normal card depicting a plain pip until 1765 when it was printed by the tax office with a design showing that tax had been paid.

This official design is the most popular of the decorative designs used by individual makers after 1862. The card maker was not allowed to make their own ace of spades. Forging an ace was a capital offense. Forged aces are found in private collections and in museums. They are a highly-sought collector’s item.

Cards and the Calendar

Comparisons between playing cards and the calendar seem to be most prevalent. There are several representations of the seasons, and of measurements in time. Here are the most common ones:

  • The four suits consist of 13 cards each. They represent the four quarters of the year, which have 13 weeks each.
  • 13 cards per suit to represent lunar months in a year.
  • 365 pips in the deck (if you don’t count both jokers, since they are the same card). This is the same number of days in the year. Many say the second joker represents the leap year of 366 days.
  • 52 cards in a deck is meant to represent the 52 weeks in a year.
  • There are 12 court “face” cards, and also 12 months in a year.

Many people debate the representation of the days of the year and the corresponding 365 pips. Jokers were added to the playing card deck much later. Their argument is this:

Each suit consists of 13 cards and is said to represent the 13 months of the lunar year. A lunar month contains 28 days. According to the positivist calendar, the year is comprised of 13 months of 28 days (13×28=364).

Along the same lines, people argue that the total value of 364 for all cards in the deck is due to the weeks comparison. The whole deck of 52 cards is said to represent the 52 weeks of the year. Because of this, the whole deck is also equal to 364 days of the year (52 x 7 = 364). This theory helps to explain the reasoning behind the value of 364 in a deck of cards before the introduction of the jokers.

The Suits

Another highly-debated aspect of playing card interpretation is the meaning of the suits in the deck. There are many varying interpretations of what the four suits represent.

The original suits were coins, said to signify wealth, cups, which signified love, and swords and sticks. Though the suits have changed, the representations remain the same. Wealth has changed to diamonds, cups to hearts, swords to spades, and sticks to clubs.

Some of the common beliefs regarding the representation of suits in the deck are:

  • The four suits represent the four phases of the moon, which are new, first quarter, full, and waning or last quarter.
  • The four suits represent four seasons.
  • The four suits represent the social structure of society
    • Hearts=The church
    • Diamonds=The sword
    • Clubs=Husbandry
    • Spades=Knights
  • The four suits represent the four natural elements. This is also a reference to tarot cards, which have similar divisions.
    • Hearts=Water
    • Clubs=Fire
    • Diamonds=Earth
    • Spades=Air
  • Along the same lines as the social structure theory, is the representation of the four feudal classes. The four classes are believed to be represented by the suits of the deck. These classes are the military (aristocracy), the merchants (trade), the clergy, and the peasants (agriculture).


Cards have long been utilized by military forces. Where weight and size are important factors, playing cards make for an easily packed form of entertainment. Due to this factor, playing cards have been utilized in war efforts several times throughout history.

  • Playing cards were used during the Vietnam war in 1966. The Viet Cong were known to be superstitious. At the time, the ace of spades was a symbol of death in fortune telling. Because of this, U.S. troops used the card as a form of psychological warfare against the Viet Cong. Decks of cards consisting of only the ace of spades were sent to the troops overseas. They scattered thousands of these cards throughout the jungles in an attempt to instill fear in the Viet Cong.
  • During World War II, maps were hidden within the decks of playing cards sent to prisoners of war. When these cards got wet, the top layer was peeled off to reveal a map. This map would lead them to safety.
  • In 2003, the U.S. Playing Card Company produced the cards featuring Iraq’s 52 Most Wanted. The playing cards were a gallery of the Iraqi leadership, ranging from Saddam Hussein (ace of spades) to scientist Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash (five of hearts). The cards were shipped to American soldiers to help them in their hunt for Iraqi leadership.

Historical Figures

There is a total of 12 court cards in a deck. They are more commonly referred to as face cards. These face cards represent actual people from history. They are:


  • King of Hearts – King Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor
  • King of Clubs – Alexander the Great
  • King of Diamonds – Julius Caesar
  • King of Spades – King David of Israel


  • Queen of Spades – Athena, the Greek goddess of war
  • Queen of Hearts – Judith (biblical figure), Latin for queen


  • Jack of Clubs – Sir Lancelot
  • Jack of Spades – Ogier the Dane (legendary hero of the chansons de geste)

What we know as a jack now was originally called a knave. This was changed in 1864 due to the probability for confusion in the card abbreviations. The abbreviation for knave was Kn. This was too similar to the K used for the king.


  • One of the strong areas of symbolism within playing cards is in the two colors of the suits. The clubs and spades suits are black, while the diamonds and hearts suits are red. Many believe this is to represent opposing forces such as day and night, good and bad, right and wrong, etc. This is said to symbolize opposing forces existing harmoniously.
  • The king of hearts is known as a suicide king. This is because it appears that he’s sticking his sword into his ear. The sword is actually supposed to be raised as if the king is charging into battle. With graphics and printing being what they were at the time, the actual appearance of the card turned out much differently. The sword was also originally a battle ax. Changing this altered the appearance of the card too.
  • There are many examples of playing cards representing societal classes. Many believe this is shown through the structure of the deck. Only the royalty, or court cards, are illustrated. The rest of the cards are only represented by their numerical value. Except for the court, the population of a kingdom was not that important in any other way than its quantity.
  • Another example of the societal symbolism in a deck of playing cards is in the value of an ace. The ace was originally the low card until the French Revolution. Then, after this time, it was high as a tribute to the peasantry overthrowing the aristocracy.


I bet you didn’t realize there was so much speculation surrounding a simple deck of cards. The next time you play a card game, you will probably look at playing cards differently. At the very least, you now have some good tidbits of information to use at the card tables.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.