A long drawn perspective into the game of playing cards

history of card games

A most indulged Diwali ‘tradition’ here in India, card playing has always been a favorite pastime for an entire country that which has always cherished the idea of togetherness. And playing cards is a perfect shot at fostering that spirit of close knit families and friends, especially during those times of the grand festivals when every attempt at strengthening bonds through the most fun of shared activities makes for a great deal. Despite being frowned upon in its illicitly eliciting mechanism that which has rendered it a negative connotation associated with gambling, card playing still is as much the repertoire of this whole nation of people even when the origins of this ‘sinful’ game of fortune is not really rooted in our identity.

Tracing back its roots to as far as the 9th century in history, playing cards are believed to have made their first appearance in China during the time of the Tang dynasty, emerging probably as a result of the usage of woodblock printing technology. Nevertheless, there still exist speculations as to the possible origins of these cards elsewhere in Asia, particularly in Persia and even India, as believed by some historians. The Chinese link however presents itself as stronger an assertion in this context, primarily because there exist written records of a certain ‘game of leaves’, or yezi ge in the local language, being played as early as the 800s, in 868 to be precise. While there exists no certainty over whether the allusion therein is indeed to a card game somehow related to what we play today, one thing is certain- playing cards did indeed originate alongside or even from other prevalent tile games like dominoes and mahjong. In fact in China, there seems to be no clear-cut divide between cards and dominoes, the latter being made of lacquered paper. The Chinese documentation however, that which finds mention in the 9th-century text known as the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Tang dynasty writer Su E and that which and that which describes Princess Tongchang playing the game with members of the Wei clan, the family of the princess’s husband, is widely considered by experts to be the first written documentation of card playing even when there exist claims that the “leaves” were pages of a book used in a board game played with dice, and that the rules of the game were lost by 1067.

Even in subsequent reiterations of playing cards having persisted as a game often involving around alcoholic drinking since at least the mid- Tang dynasty, cards with suits or numbers much like what we play with in the present times were yet to dawn upon the world. That reference occurs more than some couple centuries later, in 1294 at the Shandong region of China when  “Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards [zhi pai] and that wood blocks for printing them had been impounded, together with nine of the actual cards.” Since then, recurring instances of card playing has been encountered in Chinese history with such games as madiao dating to the era of the Ming dynasty between 1368 and 1644.

Despite such extensive ‘legacy’ of information that almost establishes the land of China to be the place of nativity of the deck of playing cards, it is quite surprising that the spread of the pack to the Western world is traced rather to a stemming from Arabia, that which is recorded in European history as something called the Saracen’s game. While that is a reference dating to the late 14th century, it was relatively as early as the 11th century that playing cards spread also to Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving cards in the world happen to be treasures of the 12th and the 13th centuries even when there exist ambiguity as to whether these were actual playing cards or simply scraps of parchment that sort of look like playing cards. And while these collections are but fragments, the oldest and near complete deck of playing cards known to the world dates to only the 15th century and happens to be a pack of Mamluk playing cards. Another complete pack called the Cloisters Deck, dating also to the 15th century in its later period, happens to be also significant in that it is the only complete set of ordinary playing cards from that particular period of time in history. Both these inventories tend to be 52 pack cards even when card numbers in packs have varied throughout history, across the different regions of the world.

However despite being so popular in the western world, including Europe, the history of playing cards in the continent is not one that would lead us to believe that the pack was always coveted in that part of the world. With a 1367 ban on card games in the Swiss city of Berne the earliest known reference to card playing there, as well as a 1377 Florentine ban followed by numerous similar outlawing of card games, Europe perhaps can be considered part the reason why card playing tends to be pursued something as negatively as catering to the ambits of gambling. That is something quite interesting since it again is the European nation of France that has to its credit the most popular playing card deck in the world. With today’s 52-card deck preserving the four original French suits of centuries ago, comprising of clubs, diamonds, hearts and spades, these suits marked by pips might have evolved past their original symbols but are believed by some historians to have represented the four classes of Medieval society back then.

Beyond this internationally played ‘pattern’ of cards, there exist numerous other varieties of playing cards, some of which find their origin as card games not deriving but related to the modern day iteration of the same. Apart from the many different variations played with across Europe and America, there exist other more ‘traditional’ versions like the Jewish kvitlach (or kvitlech) cards, Scandinavian gnav (or gnau) cards, American rook cards, Chinese money- and domino-cards, and Japanese hanafuda or flower cards. India too have had its own older style of playing cards, that which are believed to be a borrowing from Persia and that which exists still today though it is much less standardized than other decks. Quite interestingly, in what is a revert to the most prominent notion of playing cards being of Chinese origins, ‘Ganjifa’ could probably mean ‘han-chi-pai’, or Chinese playing cards. Even then, ganjafeh was quite prevalent a game in the Iran and Arab world. In fact, the Mamluk deck of cards has the word ‘kanjifah’ written on the top right corner of the king of swords. The modern times however has seen pack of ganjifa cards falling out of favor owing to competition from western styled cards, even though they continue to be made and played exclusively in the state of Odisha in India and where it is known as Ganjapa.

medieval playing cards
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Of course, today the Asian countries aren’t the only ones to have their own traditional forms of card games. All across the globe, entire nations indulge in interesting play with cards, with variations and tweaks here and there, making for an activity of togetherness, if not anything else. Be it the Mexican Loteria or the Turkish Pisti, the Italian Briscola or the again Italian Scopa, or even the game of Ceki finding dual interpretations in China as well as Malaysia, the play with chance at drawing your cards is an addiction universal!