VanHaren: What’s so fascinating about cards?

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Roger VanHaren

I have five different solitaire games on my phone, and I play each of them at least once every day. My favorite game is one called “Spider,” but I also play “Crown,” “Tri-peak,” “Pyramid” and “Classic Solitaire.” The hardest to win is Classic; the others are all about equally hard.

The only other card games I play are cribbage, bridge and “Hand, Foot and Toe,” which I’m told is sort of like Canasta. It’s interesting to me that in some games, like bridge, the suits are important, but that’s not true in some other games.

So I got to thinking about the suits; why are there four suits? And why are they called spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs? The next logical step: Do some research. “OK, Google, why are there four suits and how did they originate?” (You talk to your smart phone, too, don’t you?)

There’s a lot of stuff on the internet about this subject. The standard deck used today is called the French deck – with the four suits mentioned above. But there’s a long history of playing cards, going back as early as the ninth century in China during the Tang Dynasty. Those ancient cards had four suits also, but they were based on denominations of Chinese currency.

The Chinese system was succeeded by suits of Middle Eastern dynasties in the 1370s, which consisted of coins, sticks, cups and swords as suits. This middle eastern system of suits was later adopted by Latin countries. These suits evolved into various styles in various countries, most popular of which is the French suit that we use these days. In the French decks, coins turned into diamonds, the cups (which stood for “love”) turned into hearts, swords turned into spades and sticks turned into clubs.

These suits were also imagined to have symbolic connections with elements like fire, air, water and earth. Sticks (now clubs) were associated with fire, creativity, work, projects, sexuality, networking and social milieus. Cups (now hearts) can be associated with water, emotions, family, relationships, ceremony and spirituality. Coins (now diamonds) could be associated with earth, materialism, money, property, practicality, business, body/aesthetics, health and time. Swords (now spades) can be associated with air, intellectual, psychology, problem-solving, politics, legal, government, paperwork and studies.

Suits have also been thought to represent social classes: The church or clergy is represented by a chalice (hearts); the nobility is represented by the sword (spades); the merchant class is represented by coins or money (diamonds); and the peasant class is represented by sticks (clubs). Perhaps that’s why in bridge (and maybe other games, too?), the suits are ranked by power: spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs.

I also wondered why there are two black suits and two red suits in a deck. Strangely enough, or maybe not so strangely, black and red are the two cheapest inks! Why are jokers included in the deck? I don’t play or understand euchre, but I found out that in euchre, an extra card (a trump card) was needed. So in the 1860s, card manufacturers started including the joker. It was originally called the “best bower,” but it usually depicted a clown (joker). Some sources say that “joker” is just a mispronunciation of “euchre.”

One more fact that I found interesting and then I’ll quit. Probably more stuff than you care to know, anyway. In the standard French deck, the one we use, the face cards originally were named after, and looked like, actual historical figures. For instance, 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 King David from the Holy Bible.

Inquiring minds want to know, you know!

Contact Roger VanHaren at