Why Are There 52 Cards In A Deck, With 4 Suits Of 13 Cards Each?

52 cards deck basically consist of 4 suits: hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. Each suit further contains 13 cards: 10 ace cards (A to 10) and 3 picture cards: Jack, Queen, and King. Two suits (hearts and diamonds) in red color and another two (spades and clubs) in black.

As you stroll up to the poker table at a fancy Las Vegas casino, your mind is probably on a hundred different things – the flashing lights, the slot machines, the beautiful people in the crowd, potential celebrities all around. However, when the croupier deals you in and you check out your cards, a strange thought occurs… why clubs and spades? Why hearts and diamonds? Why two colors? Four suits? 52 cards?

By the time your brain wraps its head around all the questions you find on those five playing cards in your hand, the whole table is waiting for you to bet or call. It might have been bad timing, but those are some good questions, but to answer them, we need to step back a bit in time.

A Brief History of Playing Cards

More than 600 years ago, playing cards were first introduced to the fringes of European society, most likely from the Middle East, as it was once known as the “Moorish game”. However, there is an earlier recorded history of playing cards that dates back nearly two centuries further – to China and the Far East, but most suspect it to be an Arab-based game. Arabic countries were the capitals of knowledge and human advancement for centuries, and many things that we take for granted originated in the area now known as the Middle East and North Africa.

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Trade with Europe was picking up steam in the 14th century, and as Egyptian merchants entered Southern Europe, they had a new game to share – and sell. While playing cards back then were made by hand, making them quite expensive and “elitist” in some circles, they were still extremely popular.

The concept of an easy, portable and endlessly amusing game caught on in Europe, and with the advent of the Gutenberg printing press (1440), large-scale production of playing cards made them even more accessible to the common people. Essentially, playing cards were one of the first true “trends” of popular culture as we know it today.

While there is no definitive record of which “card games” were played back then, most scholars assume that the games had somewhat similar rules or guidelines to our games today, as even 600 years ago, those decks of playing cards might seem very familiar to us in the 21st century!

The Imagery of Playing Cards

One of the coolest things about playing cards is their incredible diversity. Over the centuries, there have been tens of thousands of different designs and variations in terms of colors, suits, figure placements, characters, scenes, and even social intent. Playing cards were bawdy, socially critical, informative, and even considered “fine art” at different points in their history. In a sense, playing cards have always reflected the cultures they came from, which also explains the origin of the suits, as well as the face cards!

How Suits Came to Be

As mentioned, playing cards were an opportunity to reflect a bit of your culture, and possibly spread that information or art to other parts of the world. For example, playing cards were very popular for soldiers, as they were easy to carry and enabled universal rules for gambling. When those first Europeans came in contact with playing cards, they also had 4 suits – Chalice, Sword, Money and Baton. However, this didn’t translate particularly well in Italy, Spain, Germany, England and France (some of the earliest countries to adopt playing cards).

The original suits (Photo Credit: ethnology.wordpress.com)

The original suits (Photo Credit: ethnology.wordpress.com)

Germanic countries switched the suits to Hearts, Acorns, Bells and Leaves, while France and England went with Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs – in other words, the suits that most of us are familiar with. These came to be known as “French playing cards”, and also include the three face cards (jack/knave, queen/lady, and king).

While these basic elements are typically the same in modern playing cards, there are thousands of exceptions. Swiss, Italian, German and Spanish decks come in various sizes to enable different types of games, and over the centuries, hundreds of different suits, face card variations (gender issues meant no queens in the past) and sizes have been made. That’s all well and good that there are different deck sizes, but what’s the explanation for the standard 52-card deck?

The 52-card spread (Photo Credit: Mannaggia / Fotolia)

The 52-card spread (Photo Credit: Mannaggia / Fotolia)

Why Are There 52 Cards?

There are numerous theories behind this, none of which have (or can be) properly proven, but they are interesting nonetheless. The four suits represent the four seasons, while the 52 cards represent the 52 weeks in a year. The thirteen cards per suit represent the thirteen lunar cycles. This belief might not be far off, as the Arabic world was very proficient in astronomy, and may have set a universal standard for an increasingly popular and globe-traveling world, based on something that everyone could understand.

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That being said, with the broad range of suits, deck sizes, face cards and games all over the world, playing cards will probably continue to evolve and grow. While they are no longer the art form, code-bearing propaganda of the Freemasons, or social commentary on the ruling classes that they used to be, playing cards are still a lot of fun, especially when you know a bit more about their history!

References:

  1. Standard 52 Card Deck
  2. Playing Card – Wikipedia
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About the Author:

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor and publisher who earned his English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign, Urbana. He is the co-founder of a literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and calls the most beautiful places in the world his office. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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