No poker game would be complete without playing cards, of course. They’re the poker player’s armor, sword, and shield all rolled into one.

Most players probably take these tools of the trade for granted. However, the history of playing cards offers plenty of culture, changes, and even some politics mixed in. There are some real meanings behind those original Kings, Queens, and Jacks.

Here’s a look at some unique facts and history related to poker and playing cards.

1 – Origins

While most players never even consider the origin of the cards they hold, there are some interesting notes about the beginnings of playing cards. Here’s a look at some of that history.


First Cards

Card games date their origins back centuries to East Asia in various forms. But the first cards similar to what poker players know today began spreading in Europe in the 14th Century.

Suits transitioned with various objects in use over the years depending on region or manufacturer. Social standings and class systems at the time were reflected in playing cards. This also applied to military and royalty ranks. Different regions featured not only different characters and suits but also different numbers of cards.

For example, popular Persian decks featured these suits: coins, cups, scimitars, and polo sticks. A 1377 Swiss deck had these rankings: the Sun followed by King, Queen , Knight, Lady, Valet, and Maid.

Gambling grew even more popular in France and England in the 1500s and 1600s. French decks became a favorite across much of the continent at this time. Card decks took on the familiar looks we see today and the suits actually stood for important aspects of most Europeans lives at the time:

  • Hearts – the church
  • Diamond – the merchant class
  • Clubs – agriculture (representing the clovers farmers used to feed livestock)
  • Spades (viewed at the time as pikes or the end of a spear) – the state/military

Amazingly, this system of a certain number of suits per deck remains largely intact more than five centuries later. The French not only played a major role in the development of modern cards, but also the game of poker itself.

As author David Schwartz notes in Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling: “The French played a number of card games during the Renaissance, some of which strongly influenced games still played today.”


During these early years of playing cards, designers in various countries made use of cards themselves as a canvas for free expression. As face cards became a regular part of the deck, these Kings, Queens, and Jacks often represented leaders, royalty, and aristocracy at various times.

How the royalty court was depicted depended on the imaginations of the artists who worked on what, in essence, were small paintings. Many of these face cards could be deeply ornate and vintage playing cards have become collectors’ items.

As an example, in early French decks the King of hearts represents Charlemagne or Charles. The Old Testament’s Judith is believed to be the depiction in the Queen of Hearts.

The Jack (or knave at the time) of hearts represented the famous French knight Le Hire, an early card designer himself and comrade to Joan of Arc. Here’s a look at all the cards and their depictions as designed by the 16th Century:

  • King (spades) – King David
  • King (clubs) – Alexander the Great
  • King (diamonds) – Julius Caesar
  • King (hearts) – Charlemagne (first Holy Roman Emperor) or Charles
  • Queen (spades) – Pallas, Greek goddess of wisdom
  • Queen (clubs) – Argine, believed to be an anagram for the Latin word for queen regina. Could also imply Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.
  • Queen (diamonds) – Rachel of the Old Testament
  • Queen (hearts) – Judith of the Old Testament
  • Jack (spades) – Hogier, cousin of Charlemagne and a legendary knight
  • Jack (clubs) – Lancelot, the popular knight of the round table
  • Jack (diamonds) – Hector de Maris, a knight of the round table
  • Jack (hearts) – Le Hire, the famous French knight

Some of these card meanings varied by region and artistic depictions changed through the years. But this is the standard deck used at the time and the basis of the modern playing card deck.

High-end playing cards not only make for a nice game of poker, but the royal court can also appear as real works of art. Dealing these cards offers a link to some interesting centuries-old history.

Hidden Meanings?

There have been several theories about some face cards within a deck of layering cards. The King of Hearts is the only King without a mustache. The King also appears to be stabbing himself in the head with a dagger.

poker cards

Many have surmised that was a criticism of the reigns of Charlemagne or Charles the Great. However, most historians believe the “suicide” feature is a result of the manufacturing process in ancient times.

Printers used wooden blocks to make copies of these cards. They also made copies of the blocks and the King of Hearts’ mustache and ax wore away through the years. The alterations now make for an interesting footnote.

Two other cards have also derived interesting names through the years. The Jacks of Spades and Hearts both are facing to the side, making for only one visible eye and fittingly known as “One-Eyed Jacks.” Some players use these as a wild card in various poker games. They appear to have no special meaning.

However, the number of cards in a deck appear to correspond with the natural world.

Here are some examples:

  • 52 cards – 52 weeks in a year
  • 4 suits – 4 seasons
  • 13 cards per suit – 13 weeks per season
  • 12 royals – 12 months of the year
  • 2 red and 2 black suits – 4 solstices

2 – 19th Century and the Old West

Westward expansion in the United States and growing games along the Mississippi played a major part of poker’s expansion and growth. From its early American origins in New Orleans, the game spread throughout the country. Here’s a look at some of the history of playing cards during this time.

New Orleans to the Mississippi

Poker as most players know was born out of the French colony of New Orleans in the New World in the early 19th Century. The game was originally played with a 20-card deck with only the Tens, Jacks, Queens, Kings, and Aces in play. New Orleans was a major port with sailors and travelers from around the world.

The game began migrating to other parts of the country via the Mississippi River. Even famed author Mark Twain played the game regularly as he worked as a steamboat captain along the river from 1857-61.

By the mid-1950s, the deck had expanded to 52 cards, which greatly opened up the game. More players could now get in the action, but cardsharps were also a regular problem on the Mississippi steamboats.

Cheaters were common and took advantage of newbies. A game aboard a riverboat often meant anything but a fair contest.

Big Additions

Up until 1864, playing poker meant actually counting the number of symbols on a card to determine the number. For example, a 10 of spades would actually have 10 spades on the card – no numbers.

Then Cyrus W. Saladee had the bright idea to print numbers, suit symbols, letters, and miniature playing cards in the corner of a playing card. It became much easier for players to identify their cards.

The patent was purchased by Samuel Hart, a Philadelphia playing cards manufacturer. Hart paid homage to the inventor by naming the deck Saladee's Patent Deck and including his name on the Ace of Spades.

The deck allowed players to simply identify their hands by simply fanning out their cards. This was a massive change for the game of poker and players can now even buy recreations of this famous deck.

Another popular deck is the No. 18 Triplicate Playing Cards from 1876. These took a different approach to making card values more easily recognizable.

Each card included reproduction of the entire card in the top left and bottom right corners. However, they didn’t include numbers. A player could more easily determine his hand by looking at the corners of a card but still had to count the suit symbols.

Reproductions of these cards can also be purchased by collectors as well.

The Old West

As the game moved to the frontier of the United States, poker was regularly played in saloons, mining camps, gambling houses, and even Civil War encampments. Being dealt in was a bit different than in playing in today’s modern casinos.

Finding some playing cards for game night with friends or a fresh deck at a casino is simple in today’s world. Any major retail store or online outlet makes it easy to find cards of any quality.

But in the Old West, cards weren’t easy to come by. They stayed in play for a long time. They could be beaten up and bent, meaning opponents could easily determine the markings on certain cards.

That could make for some interesting dynamics and a gun at the table was a regular part of doing business. This was the scenario faced by well-known Old West gamblers like Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holliday, Pat Garrett, and others.


3 – Las Vegas and Online Poker

The rise of Las Vegas and modern casinos also meant the mass production of cards. Casinos could more easily and frequently change out work out decks. That helped curb cheating and marking cards.

World War II and Growth of the Game

Poker saw a major popularity increase in the 1950s. During World War II, the U.S. Playing Card Company partnered with the federal government to offer easily accessible playing cards for soldiers. Some special cards were even manufactured for prisoners of war during the war.

“It was the company’s signature brand, Bicycle, that did the most for troops in the field,” Business Insider notes. “During World War II, Bicycle (a USPC brand teamed up with British and American intelligence agencies to create a deck of cards that peeled apart when wet. The cards then revealed secret escape maps so downed pilots and captured soldiers could navigate their way back to Allied lines.”

Bicycle now even offers a reproduction of those decks known as the Escape Map Deck.

Many of those troops no doubt used those cards to play some poker in their barracks, in the field, and aboard ships. Servicemen returning after the war retained that love of poker and the game boomed in the 1950s. These men then passed the game on to their children.

Plastic Cards, Four Colors, and Playing Online

In the latter part of the 20th Century, poker cards received some dramatic quality upgrades. Manufacturers added card coatings and high-quality plastics.

Plastic cards meant cards could be used over and over again without needing a new deck. The plastic meant the cards were virtually unbendable and unmarkable. These cards have become a regular part of the game.

Some manufacturers even defied tradition and introduced two other colors to make determining flushes even easier. For example, the Copag four-color set has substituted green for all clubs and blue for all diamonds.

Four-color decks have received mixed reactions among players, but the World Poker Tour now makes use of a four-color deck as part of its graphics. This may help viewers at home follow the action even easier.

A four-color deck is also an option at some online poker sites including 888poker. Online poker has greatly expanded the poker opportunities available to players. That’s also led to some changes in playing card aesthetics as well.

Online, many sites have simplified the design of playing cards to make them easy to read quickly. Those ornate designs may be muted in favor of quickly recognizable numbers, suits, and face cards.


Players are dealt two cards for a hand of Texas Hold’em. But simply shuffling and dealing those cards adds to a deep poker history. That has included seeing poker cards go through numerous changes to get to the high-quality cards most players know today.

Sean Chaffin is a poker writer who appears in numerous websites and publications. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast