Playing cards are cardboard or plastic cards, usually organized in a group called a deck [notes 1], that are used in games requiring significant amounts of randomly-assigned markers. They originated in China, probably sometime during the first millennium CE, and spread westward through India, Persia, the Islamic world, and Europe by the 1300s. Various different types of playing cards are used for an astonishing array of games of skill and chance around the world, ranging from the highly skilled (bridge, tarot, poker, Magic: the Gathering) to the brain-deadeningly simple (baccarat, war, 52-pickup). They are also Satanic.
Okay, they aren't really. But playing cards do loom large in the annals of fraud and woo -- hundreds of billions of dollars (or the equivalent) are won and lost in card games every year, playing cards are a staple in magic of both the legitimate and fraudulent kind, and many poor, innocent playing cards are forced every year into being props for some psychic's stage act (a pursuit known as cartomancy) under the impression that they're bringing out hidden truths of the spirit world and the future for gullible people with more money than sense.
How you play the game
There are thousands of card games around the world, each with their own variants and house rules, and therefore there's a lot to say about them, a large part of which is out of the scope of RationalWiki. It's possible, however, to make a few generalizations that are worth noting.
- The first is that most, if not all, card games are based on an element of randomness; most of the best-known card games are or are thought of as gambling games. Strategy therefore involves making the best of what's dealt.
- The majority of card games involve some degree of math, anything from simple increments in solitaire games up to complex statistical analysis in poker and blackjack, as well as significant amounts of pattern-matching.
- Tarot decks, used as they are as stage props for psychics, have legends surrounding them -- that you should never buy your own deck (something that even cartomancers tend to find laughable), that they should be kept in a silk bag, that they should only be ever touched by the owner, or that a cartomancy deck should never be used for games. [notes 2]
- A popular myth among Christian fundamentalists is that playing cards were created as an amusement for a particularly insane king of France, and that the face cards are all meant to represent various anti-Christian symbols.[notes 3] The joker is said to be a mockery of Jesus himself. [notes 4] In fact, Hasbro's subsidiary Parker Brothers has marketed a game called Rook since 1906 which replaces the face cards with numbers (1-14) and the suit markers with colors; the general belief is that it was created precisely for this reason.[notes 5]
- Similarly, and probably due to a strict interpretation of the Ten Commandments' ban on graven images, eastern European Orthodox Jews have long played gambling games (particularly on Chanukah) with numbered cards, known in Yiddish as kvitlech. Legend has it the original deck was numbered 1-31 and represented parts of the story of the Maccabees; the modern kvitlech deck, however, has only 24 cards, plain and undecorated, numbered 1-12, with the 2 and 11 cards specially marked with a border; the game usually played is a relative of blackjack.
- The most famous scam using playing cards is a variant of the shell game called Three-Card Monte or Find the Lady, a type of sleight-of-hand trick presented as a street gambling game in many cities around the world. The point is to pick out one specific card from the three, usually a queen from between two aces or a red card from between two black cards. Even if you know the trick, you will never win; the dealer and his shills will make sure of it.
- Various forms of trick shuffling and bottom dealing are known, and readily available to anyone who wishes to learn them. When magicians do it, it's pretty cool as long as no one detects it. When gamblers do it, fights start.
- Marked cards, same as above. Usually the card markings are fairly simple -- a bent or nicked corner or the like, for gaining an edge in a single game. But fairly elaborate forms of card marking -- essentially low-tech steganography -- are known as well, and can sometimes be obtained through magic suppliers pre-marked.
- Tarot seances. Your typical Tarot reader goes through a big song and dance about what the individual cards mean, while weaving it all around some simple, basic cold reading. Very much less than meets the eye. (Although there's nothing wrong with meditating on them in an Oblique Strategies sort of way, that's not the same as a classical Tarot reading.)
- the International Playing Card Society
- Pagat.com, a huge database of card game rules and history maintained by an IPCS member
- See the Wikipedia article on Cartomancy.
- Though many Commonwealth English speakers persist in using the less-specific term "pack".
- If you want to irk an overly spacey or immature neopagan, jokes about playing poker with tarot decks are very effective.
- A pretty thorough example of such whackitudinosity can be found here.
- Which is a neat trick, considering the joker didn't enter the standard deck till the 19th century.
- As lame as it sounds, Rook is actually a fairly intricate game, similar to bridge with some interesting mechanics that can turn a game on its ear in a big hurry. If you're offended by the idea of supporting a product created to capitalize on religious fanaticism, it can be played with a regular deck with one joker, or a tarot deck with all the major arcana save the Fool stripped.