Chinese printed playing card c. 1400 AD found near Turpan
A playing card is a piece of specially prepared card stock, heavy paper, thin cardboard, plastic-coated paper, cotton-paper blend, or thin plastic that is marked with distinguishing motifs. Often the front (face) and back of each card has a finish to make handling easier. They are most commonly used for playing card games, and are also used in magic tricks, cardistry, card throwing, and card houses; cards may also be collected. Playing cards are typically palm-sized for convenient handling, and usually are sold together in a set as a deck of cards or pack of cards.
The most common type of playing card in the West is the French-suited, standard 52-card pack, of which the most widespread design is the English pattern,[a] followed by the Belgian-Genoese pattern. However, many countries use other, traditional types of playing card, including those that are German, Italian, Spanish and Swiss-suited. Tarot cards (also known locally as Tarocks or tarocchi) are an old genre of playing card that is still very popular in France, central and Eastern Europe and Italy. Customised Tarot card decks are also used for divination; including tarot card reading and cartomancy. Asia, too, has regional cards such as the Japanese hanafuda. The reverse side of the card is often covered with a pattern that will make it difficult for players to look through the translucent material to read other people’s cards or to identify cards by minor scratches or marks on their backs.
Playing cards are available in a wide variety of styles, as decks may be custom-produced for competitions, casinos and magicians (sometimes in the form of trick decks), made as promotional items, or intended as souvenirs, artistic works, educational tools, or branded accessories. Decks of cards or even single cards are also collected as a hobby or for monetary value. Cards may also be produced for trading card sets or collectible card games, or as supplements for board games, however these are not generally regarded as playing cards.
Playing cards were likely invented during the Tang dynasty around the 9th century AD as a result of the usage of woodblock printing technology. The reference to a leaf game in a 9th-0p0l century text known as the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang [Duyang zabian 杜阳杂编], written by Tang dynasty writer Su E, is often cited in connection to the existence of playing cards. However the connection between playing cards and the leaf game is disputed. The reference describes Princess Tongchang, daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang, playing the “leaf game” in 868 with members of the Wei clan, the family of the princess’s husband. The first known book on the “leaf” game was called the Yezi Gexi and allegedly written by a Tang woman. It received commentary by writers of subsequent dynasties. The Song dynasty (960–1279) scholar Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) asserts that the “leaf” game existed at least since the mid-Tang dynasty and associated its invention with the development of printed sheets as a writing medium. However, Ouyang also 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.
Other games revolving around alcoholic drinking involved using playing cards of a sort from the Tang dynasty onward. However, these cards did not contain suits or numbers. Instead, they were printed with instructions or forfeits for whoever drew them.
The earliest dated instance of a game involving cards occurred on 17 July 1294 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.”
William Henry Wilkinson suggests that the first cards may have been actual paper currency which doubled as both the tools of gaming and the stakes being played for, similar to trading card games. Using paper money was inconvenient and risky so they were substituted by play money known as “money cards”. One of the earliest games in which we know the rules is madiao, a trick-taking game, which dates to the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). 15th-century scholar Lu Rong described it is as being played with 38 “money cards” divided into four suits: 9 in coins, 9 in strings of coins (which may have been misinterpreted as sticks from crude drawings), 9 in myriads (of coins or of strings), and 11 in tens of myriads (a myriad is 10,000). The two latter suits had Water Margin characters instead of pips on them with Chinese to mark their rank and suit. The suit of coins is in reverse order with 9 of coins being the lowest going up to 1 of coins as the high card.
Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library holds the Albert Field Collection of Playing Cards, an archive of over 6,000 individual decks from over 50 countries and dating back to the 1550s. In 2018 the university digitized over 100 of its decks.
Since 2017, Vanderbilt University has been home to the 1,000-volume George Clulow and United States Playing Card Co. Gaming Collection, which has been called one of the “most complete and scholarly collections [of books on cards and gaming] that has ever been gathered together”.
The Unicode standard for character encoding defines 8 characters (symbols) for card suits in the Miscellaneous Symbols block, at U+2660–2667. The Unicode names for each group of four glyphs are ‘black’ and ‘white’ but might have been more accurately described as ‘solid’ and ‘outline’ since the colour actually used at display or printing time is an application choice.
Later, Unicode 7.0 added the 52 cards of the modern French pack, plus 4 knights, and a character for “Playing Card Back” and black, red and white jokers, in the Playing Cards block (U+1F0A0–1F0FF).