The primary deck of fifty-two playing cards in use today, called Anglo-American playing cards, includes thirteen ranks of each of the four French suits, spades (♠), hearts (♥), diamonds (♦) and clubs (♣), with reversible Rouennais court cards. Each suit includes an ace, depicting a single symbol of its suit; a king, queen, and jack, each depicted with a symbol of its suit; and ranks two through ten, with each card depicting that many symbols (pips) of its suit. Two (sometimes one or four) Jokers, often distinguishable with one being more colorful than the other, are included in commercial decks but many games require one or both to be removed before play. Modern playing cards carry index labels on opposite corners (rarely, all four corners) to facilitate identifying the cards when they overlap.
The fanciful design and manufacturer’s logo commonly displayed on the Ace of Spades began under the reign of James I of England, who passed a law requiring an insignia on that card as proof of payment of a tax on local manufacture of cards. Until August 4, 1960, decks of playing cards printed and sold in the United Kingdom were liable for taxable duty and the Ace of Spades carried an indication of the name of the printer and the fact that taxation had been paid on the cards. The packs were also sealed with a government duty wrapper.
Though specific design elements of the court cards are rarely used in game play, a few are notable. The Jack of Spades and Jack of Hearts are drawn in profile, while the rest of the courts are shown in full face (the exception being the King of Diamonds), leading to the former being called the “one-eyed” jacks. When deciding which cards are to be made wild in some games, the phrase, “acey, deucey, one-eyed jack,” is sometimes used, which means that aces, twos, and the one-eyed jacks are all wild. Another such variation, “deuces, aces, one-eyed faces,” is used to indicate aces, twos, the Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades, and the King of Diamonds are wild. The King of Hearts is shown with a sword behind his head, leading to the nickname “suicide king”. The King of Diamonds is armed with an ax while the other three kings are armed with swords. The King of Diamonds is sometimes referred to as “the man with the ax” because of this. The Ace of Spades, unique in its large, ornate spade, is sometimes said to be the death card, and in some games is used as a trump card. The Queen of Spades appears to hold a scepter and is sometimes known as “the bedpost queen.”
There are theories about who the court cards represent. For example, the Queen of Hearts is believed by some to be a representation of Elizabeth of York – the Queen consort of King Henry VII of England. The United States Playing Card Company suggests that in the past, the King of Hearts was Charlemagne, the King of Diamonds was Julius Caesar, the King of Clubs was Alexander the Great, and the King of Spades was the Biblical King David. However the Kings, Queens and Jacks of standard Anglo/American cards today do not represent anyone. They stem from designs produced in Rouen before 1516 and by 1540-67 these Rouen designs show well-executed pictures in the court cards with the typical court costumes of the time. In these early cards the Jack of Spades, Jack of Hearts and the King of Diamonds are shown from the rear, with their heads turned back over the shoulder so that they are seen in profile. However the Rouen cards were so badly copied in England that the current designs are gross distortions of the originals.
Other oddities such as the lack of a moustache on the King of Hearts also have little significance. The King of Hearts did originally have a moustache but it was lost by poor copying of the original design. Similarly the objects carried by the court cards have no significance. They merely differentiate one court card from another and have also become distorted over time.
The most common sizes for playing cards are poker size (2½in × 3½in; 62 mm × 88 mm, or B8 size according to ISO 216) and bridge size (2¼in × 3½in, approx. 56 mm × 88 mm), the latter being more suitable for games such as bridge in which a large number of cards must be held concealed in a player’s hand. Interestingly, in most casino poker games, the bridge sized card is used. Other sizes are also available, such as a smaller size (usually 1¾in × 2⅝in, approx. 44 mm × 66 mm) for solitaire and larger ones for card tricks.
Some decks include additional design elements. Casino blackjack decks may include markings intended for a machine to check the ranks of cards, or shifts in rank location to allow a manual check via inlaid mirror. Many casino decks and solitaire decks have four indices instead of the usual two. Many decks have large indices, largely for use in stud poker games, where being able to read cards from a distance is a benefit and hand sizes are small. Some decks use four colors for the suits in order to make it easier to tell them apart: the most common set of colors is black (spades ♠), red (hearts ♥), blue (diamonds ♦) and green (clubs ♣).
When giving the full written name of a specific card, the rank is given first followed by the suit, e.g., “Ace of Spades”. Shorthand notation may list the rank first “A♠” (as is typical when discussing poker) or list the suit first (as is typical in listing several cards in bridge) “♠AKQ”. Tens may be either abbreviated to T or written as 10.
Set of 78 Tarot Nouveau playing cards with twenty one atouts and a Fool, typically used to play French Tarot
German suits may have different appearances. Many southern Germans prefer decks with hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns (for hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs), as mentioned above. In the game Skat, Eastern Germany players used the German deck, while players in western Germany mainly used the French deck. After the reunification a compromise deck was created, with French symbols, but German colors. Therefore, many “French” decks in Germany now have yellow or orange diamonds and green spades.
Set of 32 playing cards in German suits for Skat; a related 36-card deck would also include the VI.
The cards of Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovakia, and southern Tyrol use the same colors (hearts, bells, leaves and acorns) as the cards of Southern Germany. They usually have a deck of 32 or 36 cards. The numbering includes VII, VIII, IX, X, Under, Over, King and Ace. Some varations with 36 cards have also the number VI. The VI in bells is having also the function like a joker in some games and it’s named Welli.
These cards are illustrated with a special picture series that was born in the times before the 1848-49 Hungarian Freedom Fights, when revolutionary movements were awakening all over in Europe. The Aces show the four seasons: the ace of hearts is spring, the ace of bells is summer, the ace of leaves is autumn and the ace of acorns is winter. The characters of the Under and Over cards were taken from the drama, William Tell, written by Schiller in 1804, that was shown at Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca) in 1827. It was long believed that the card was invented in Vienna at the Card Painting Workshop of Ferdinand Piatnik, however in 1974 the very first deck was found in an English Private Collection, and it has shown the name of the inventor and creator of deck as Schneider József, a Master Card Painter at Pest, and the date of its creation as 1837. He has chosen the characters of a Swiss drama as his characters for his over and under cards, however if he would have chosen Hungarian heroes or freedom fighters, his deck of cards would have never made it into distribution, due to the heavy censorship of the government at the time. Interestingly, although the characters on the cards are Swiss, these cards are unknown in Switzerland.
Games that are played with this deck in Hungary include Ulti, Snapszer (or 66), Zsírozás, Preferansz and Lórum. Explanations of these games can be found at The Card Games Website.
In the German speaking part of Switzerland, the prevalent deck consists of 36 playing cards with the following suits: roses, bells, acorns and shields. The ranks of the alternate deck, from low to high, are: 6, 7, 8, 9, banner (10), “under”, “over”, king and ace.
Example of a knight of money, cavallo di denari (horse of coins). From the Carte Piacentine.
A set of Carte Bergamasche
Italian playing cards most commonly consist of a deck of 40 cards, and are used for playing Italian regional games such as Scopa or Briscola. Since these cards first appeared in the late 14th century A.D. when each region in Italy was a separately ruled province, there is no official Italian pattern. There are 16 official regional patterns in use in different parts of the country (about one per province). These sixteen patterns are split amongst 4 regions:
- Northern Italian Suits – Triestine, Trevigiane, Trentine, Bolognese, Bergamasche
- Spanish-like Suits – Napoletane, Sarde, Romagnole, Sicilian, Piacentine.
- French Suits – Giovanese, Lombarde, Toscane, Piemontesi.
- German Suits – Salisburghesi, South Tyrol, Tirolian(once Austria).
The suits are coins (sometimes suns or sunbursts), swords, cups and clubs (sometimes batons), and each suit contains an ace (or one), numbers two through seven, and three face cards. The face cards are:
- King (Re) – a man standing, wearing a crown
- Knight (Caval or Cavallo) – a man sitting on a horse (can be referred to as a donna)
- Jack (Fante) – a younger man standing, without a crown
- In the modern Modiano Trieste version of the deck, the Jack (Fante) is sometimes mistakenly referred to as a ‘donna’ in southern regions, and stands on the ground without a crown, and is counted lower than the Knight. In actual fact, the complementary game rule cards for Briscola and Scopa from Modiano actually refer to the Knight as either the Cavallo or Donna, probably staying inline with the French version of the Dame/Regina or as more commonly known the ‘Queen’.
Unlike Anglo-American cards, some Italian cards do not have any numbers (or letters) identifying their value. The cards’ value is determined by identifying the face card or counting the number of suit characters.
The four aces present in the baraja, from the deck made by Heraclio Fournier. Left to right, top to bottom: oros, copas, espadas, and bastos.. Notice the pattern of interruptions (la pinta) that identifies each suit in the horizontal line section of the card frames.
The traditional Spanish deck (referred to as baraja española in Spanish) is a direct descendant of the Tarot deck. However, like most other decks derived from it, the Spanish deck kept only the minor arcana (with the exception of the 10s and the queen of each suit, which were dropped), while all of the major arcana from the Tarot deck were discarded. Being a Latin-suited deck (like the Italian deck), it is organized into four palos (suits) that closely match those of the Tarot deck: oros (“golds” or coins, cf. the Tarot suit of pentacles), copas (beakers), espadas (swords) and bastos (batons or clubs, cf. the Tarot suit of wands). Apart from its characteristic icon, each suit can also be identified by a pattern of interruptions in the horizontal sections of the quadrangular line that frames each card (this pattern is known as la pinta): none for oros, one for copas, two for espadas and three for bastos.
The cards (naipes or cartas in Spanish) are all numbered, but unlike in the standard Anglo-French deck, the card numbered 10 is the first of the court cards (instead of a card depicting ten coins/cups/swords/batons); so each suit has only twelve cards. The three court or face cards in each suit are as follows: la sota (“the knave”, jack or page, numbered 10 and equivalent to the Anglo-French card J), el caballo (“the horse”, horseman, knight or cavalier, numbered 11 and used instead of the Anglo-French card Q; note the original Tarot deck has both a cavalier and a queen of each suit, while the Anglo-French deck dropped the former, and the Spanish deck dropped the latter), and finally el rey (“the king”, numbered 12 and equivalent to the Anglo-French card K). Many Spanish games involve forty-card decks, with the 8s and 9s removed, similar to the standard Italian deck.
The Spanish deck is used not only in Spain, but also in other countries where Spain maintained an influence (e.g., the Philippines and Puerto Rico) 1. Among the games played with this deck are: el mus (a very popular and highly regarded vying game of Basque origin), la brisca, el tute (with many variations), el guiñote, la escoba (a trick-taking game), el julepe, el cinquillo, las siete y media, la mona, el truc (or truco), and el cuajo (a matching game from the Philippines).
The standard 54-card deck is also commonly known as a poker deck or—in Japan—a Trump deck, to differentiate it from “dedicated” card games such as UNO, or other dynamic card decks like Hanafuda and Kabufuda.