Playing cards are known and used the world over—and almost every corner of the globe has laid claim to their invention. The Chinese assert the longest pedigree for card playing (the “game of leaves” was played as early as the 9th century). The French avow their standardization of the carte à jouer and its ancestor, the tarot. And the British allege the earliest mention of a card game in any authenticated register.
Today, the public might know how to play blackjack or bridge, but few stop to consider that a deck of cards is a marvel of engineering, design, and history. Cards have served as amusing pastimes, high-stakes gambles, tools of occult practice, magic tricks, and mathematical probability models—even, at times, as currency and as a medium for secret messages.
In the process, decks of cards reveal peculiarities of their origins. Card names, colors, emblems, and designs change according to their provenance and the whims of card players themselves. These graphic tablets aren’t just toys, or tools. They are cultural imprints that reveal popular custom.
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The birthplace of ordinary playing cards is shrouded in obscurity and conjecture, but—like gunpowder or tea or porcelain—they almost certainly have Eastern origins. “Scholars and historians are divided on the exact origins of playing cards,” explains Gejus Van Diggele, the chairman of the International Playing-Card Society, or IPCS, in London. “But they generally agree that cards spread from East to West.”