Douglas Crockford




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Playing Cards

Playing cards are the most versatile game equipment ever invented. Most game sets can only be used to play a single game or a small set of variations. Playing cards are much more flexible. The number of games that can be played with playing cards is vast, including families of games like Baccarat, Bridge, Casino, Cheat, Cribbage, Euchre, Pinochle, Poker, Rummy, Solitaire, Veintiuna, War, Whist, and Fifty-two Pickup. Cards can be used with accessories like score pads, peg boards, and chips, or they can be used by themselves. Cards have been banned many times in many places because they are so much fun. The Bible says nothing about playing cards because they were invented long after the Bible was written.

Cards effectively keep game state, distinguishing public state, private state, and secrets. They can be ordered, or they can be shuffled, adding a source of randomness. When their faces are turned up, they are a display system. They are individually moveable, allowing for state to be exchanged or transferred in various ways. They are pleasing to hold and manipulate. Decorative cards can be works of art. Closeup magic is performance art that usually incorporates cards. Decks of cards are usually included in survival equipment. Cards are used by fortune tellers to entertain and deceive. Cards influence speech: house of cards, close to the vest, lay your cards on the table, follow suit, penny ante, know when to run, ace in the hole.

Playing cards have thirteen ranks and four suits. The suits seem random. If you look closely at the suits, they make little sense. How did this peculiar set of four symbols become the suits of humanity's most popular gaming system? This is the tale.

Playing cards were invented one thousand years ago in China, based on the Song development of paper money, which was itself based on the earlier developments of block printing and coinage. Coins were made with holes in the center. A string could be passed through the hole to neatly tie coins together.0

One hundred coins can be strung together to make a stick. One hundred sticks make a myriad. Ten myriads was a lot of money. These were the four denominations: coin, stick, myriad, ten myriad. There were 9 cards (1 thru 9) in each denomination. So a deck of 36 cards contained:

$1, $2, $3, $4, $5, $6, $7, $8, $9,
$100, $200, $300, $400, $500, $600, $700, $800, $900,
$10_000, $20_000, $30_000, $40_000, $50_000, $60_000, $70_000, $80_000, $90_000,
$100_000, $200_000, $300_000, $400_000, $500_000, $600_000, $700_000, $800_000, $900_000.1

The cards travelled down the silk road to Persia. It is likely that the Chinese characters on the cards were meaningless to most Persians. They understood the coins, and read the sticks of coins as wooden sticks or wands. The Chinese character for myriad, 万, when viewed upside down, resembles a goblet, so it was understood as a cup. The 十 that represented ten myriads was read as a knife or sword.

The denominations turned into suits. Being now more abstract, more game design opportunities presented. The ranks added a 10 card, and then face cards, representing a heirarchy of 3 powerful men.

By the time the deck travelled from Egypt to Europe around 1370, the deck had grown to a set of 52 coins, cups, wands, and swords. In Italy, the deck was expanded for Tarot games with the addition of 22 trump cards, one of which survives as the Joker. As the cards moved across Europe, countries would make local variations. Eventually, most of us settled on the French playing cards. The coin became a bell, then a tile, which we call a diamond. The wand became an acorn, then a clover, which we call a club, using a name for a previous symbol. The cup became a rose, and then a heart (but not a natural heart). The sword became a shield, a leaf, then a pike, but we call it a spade referring to the Roman spatha.

The face cards were rethemed for the European style of monarchy. The second guy was replaced with a queen, which also happened to Chess. But unlike Chess, the king is still more powerful. (#notmyqueen)

Finally, the one cards were replaced with aces, the name coming from a small Roman coin. So a second monetary system had an influence. There are some who teach that the design of the cards has a mystic origin, that they are a carefully designed oracle balancing earth, air, fire, and water. That teaching is nonsense.

0 My favorite logo belongs to the Bank of China. It combines a coin with 中 representing the middle kingdom. It is simple, clean, visually appealing, instantly recognizable, and it means exactly what it says. It is both abstract and literal. This is the best that a logo can be.

1 Traces of this can still be seen in Mahjong. The tens of myriads disappeared, making room for winds, flowers, and dragons, but the coins and myriads (cracks) are still there. The sticks of coins have been replaced with sticks of bamboo.