Playing cards are the tools of trade for poker players. Simply put, there would be no games if these small, rectangular paper and plastic-coated objects were never invented.

A deck of cards means a game of poker is always possible and is “suited” perfectly for squaring off against other rounders. The smooth texture, perfect size, sounds when shuffling, and fresh factory scent make playing cards a nice treat for the senses as well.

Dating back to 1,000 A.D., the Chinese are believed to be the first to create cards that could be used to play various games. Card decks later moved on to Europe in the 1300s before spreading across the continent. Those early decks featured numerous versions with suits not only including some of what we see today, but also other icons like goblets, gold coins, swords, polo sticks, and more.

The traditional deck of cards has been standardized now and various companies have produced playing cards of all types. Here’s a look at some of the leading poker card manufacturers.

U.S Playing Card Company

This is a major playing card brand that actually now manufactures several of the more popular playing card brands available to players around the world. The company was founded in 1867 as Russell, Morgan & Co. in Cincinnati, Ohio, printmakers A.O. Russell and Robert J. Morgan. USPC is now headquartered in Erlanger, Kentucky, and became a subsidiary of Belgian card manufacturer Cartamundi in 2019 (more on that company below).

The company originally specialized in printing posters for traveling circuses, but branched out into playing cards in 1881. That first year saw four decks produced: Tigers; Sportsman’s; Army and Navy; and Congress. The company may have seen the opportunity for a larger business with playing cards.

At that time, a quality deck of playing cards wasn’t always available and many saloon games featured ragged, bent cards. They were often kept in play because acquiring another deck wasn’t always easy. That often made cheating an easier proposition.

The company’s ability to mass produce cards soon gave it a leg up on rivals and USPC began acquiring rivals throughout the 20th Century, including Aristocrat, Aviator, Bee, Hoyle, KEM, and others.

The company often still kept those decks as separate brands and continues printing many of them. USPC now also has a production facility in Vitoria, Spain, and remains a giant in the industry. Chances are that most players have been dealt some cards from USPC at one time or another.

Bicycle Cards

This is one of the most recognized playing card brands in the world and is manufactured by USPC. These decks can be found at numerous retailers and online outlets. Bicycle offers numerous lines including cards for everyday use as well as what might be considered collectibles and featuring unique artistry and design, such as Disney decksPoker Cats and Poker Dogs, and even a collaboration with magician and illusionist David Blaine.

The company was founded in 1885 before being acquired by USPC. Bicycle has quite a history and the company’s decks have been donated to troops during several wars, including during both world wars and Vietnam. During World War I, the company produced the popular “War Series” decks in 1917, dedicated to each of the branches of the U.S. armed services. These included:

  • Flying Ace for the aviation section of the signal corps
  • Dreadnaught for the navy
  • Invincible (also known as Conqueror) for the marines
  • Big Gun for the army

 


 

Bicycle cards remain popular with players of all types of card games and can regularly be found in home poker games and clubs around the world.

KEM Cards

This is another popular poker playing card brand that saw growth during the surge in poker’s popularity in the 2000s. These cards are made from 100% cellulose acetate, not plastic-coated paper, allowing for longer play without damaging or bending the cards. This also makes them water-proof as well and they have been embraced by many players.

KEM makes use of ornate card backs, often utilizing non-traditional colors beyond simply the traditional red and blue. The company was founded in 1935 and also offers bridge-size cards as well as decks especially for poker.

The company began in New York City before purchasing a manufacturing facility in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1946. The cards stood out among a wide variety of playing card competitors.

“KEM Cards developed a unique manufacturing process that differed from other playing cards made in the industry,” the Poughkeepsie Journal notes. “By mass-producing decks of playing cards that consisted of cellulose acetate, its cards were bendable, washable and retained their original shape long after standard paper-based cards needed to be replaced.

“They became a favorite of American troops during World War ll due to their durability and ability to withstand oppressive heat. Magicians also prefer using KEM cards in their act because of their increased flexibility.”

Like many playing card brands, KEM was acquired by USPC in 2004. This brand has also served at times as the official poker card of the World Series of Poker.

Tally-Ho

Like Bicycle, this brand first launched in 1885 and its importance to the world of playing cards derives from their forward-thinking manufacturer. Printer and designer Andrew Dougherty first unveiled this line, although he’d been producing decks under other names for almost two decades. Considered an innovator in the industry, Dougherty brought several changes to 19th Century playing cards that are still seen today.

Some of those included double-ended court cards (to more easily recognize kings, queens, and jacks from either end of the card), rounded corners, more intricate card-back designs, and placing indices on the corners of the cards.

This last addition made playing poker much easier, as players could peel up the cards and more easily recognize what cards they were actually holding. Prior to this a player holding a 9♠ would have to count all the spades on the card to know the number. The cornered index made for much quicker card recognition.

“He was a key player in the development of the American playing card industry in its early stages, and contributed several important innovations in playing cards, which are part of his ongoing legacy in the playing cards we use and enjoy today,” PlayingCardsDecks.com notes.

The company was purchased by USPC in 1907 and Tally-Hos are still manufactured as a higher-quality brand today. The cards still feature intricate designs and artwork.

Cartamundi Group

This Belgian group not only specializes in playing cards, but other card games in general, board games, and collectibles. If the game involves some type of cards, such as Magic: The Gathering, it’s a good bet Cartamundi is involved somehow.

“At Cartamundi, we live by a golden rule: keep playing. You’ll stay young at heart and connect with others,” the company’s international marketing director Marco van Haaften notes on the company’s website.

With acquisitions of USPC, Copag, and others, Cartamundi has become the leader in the industry. The printing firms of Biermans, Brepols, and Van Genechten united to found the company in 1970. But those printers’ experience dates all the way back to 1765. The company now has facilities all over the world. With its numerous playing card divisions, Cartamundi is a giant in the industry.

Copag

Founded in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1908, Copag gained major traction during the poker boom and became a preferred card for many poker rooms. Players and card room managers liked the plastic playing cards with a PVC finish, which became one of the company’s best-selling products. Copag has also served as the official playing cards of the World Series of Poker.

Copag has actually been producing cards for poker and bridge since 1918, but the company’s plastic cards really resonated with players. They deter players from bending cards and can be used over and over again, unlike many paper decks.

Like USPC, the company was purchased by the Cartamundi Group in 2005. Copag remains huge in the poker card sector of the playing card world.

Faded Spade

This is a newer, independent entry in the industry but the brand has quickly gained some popularity by partnering with poker rooms and tournament series across the U.S., including the World Poker Tour. Tom Wheaton worked in corporate sales and marketing and played poker recreationally before envisioning cards designed just for poker.

Wheaton launched Faded Spade in 2017 and focused on new image renderings with fresh and modern face card designs. The cards also featured 100% casino-quality plastic for durability and longevity – perfect for long hours and plenty of use at poker tables. Faded Spade also utilized enlarged indices to make reading a card quickly and easier when peeling a hand up from the poker felt.

“I felt like there was a gap in the industry where there wasn't a true poker playing card, and I felt like the cards had stayed the same for years,” Wheaton told WPT.com. “There was an opportunity to modernize playing cards for today's poker.”

The company continues gaining traction in the industry and Faded Spade decks are now featured at numerous cash games and tournaments. There are also bridge sets available now for those who enjoy playing that game as well.

As someone who loves poker, Wheaton helps promote the brand by jumping in major tournaments throughout the year, patched up with his own company. His instincts have paid off and that next pair of Aces you get dealt at the neighborhood game might just be Faded.

Hoyle

This brand dates back to 1927 and is named for England’s Edmond Hoyle, the author who was one of the first to ever document the rules of some of the world’s most popular card games in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Hoyle was originally manufactured by the Brown & Bigelow Company, which is still in existence and originally published calendars and artwork, and was also the company behind the original Dogs Playing Poker artwork that was used in advertising for a cigar company.

As the main competitor to Bicycle for 70 years, Brown & Bigelow's card division was renamed Hoyle Products in 1975 after a successful run with the brand for almost 50 years. Hoyle was known for the cards’ “shell-back” design as well as an optical illusion-styled joker. USPC purchased the brand in 2001 and still manufactures Hoyle decks today.

Other Brands

There are several other popular brands that have made it to poker tables over the last couple decades. Here’s a look at some of those.

  • Aristocrat – This brand was founded in 1915 by New York’s Russell Playing Card Company, but was purchased by USPC in 1929. The company was known for higher-quality cards and ornate designs. Aristocrat produced cards for everyday use but also the “Club Special” line for casinos. The brand went out of production in the mid-1980s, but was revived by USPC in 2017.
  • Aviator – This brand has a unique inspiration. Fitting for the name, the cards commemorate the 1927 trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in his Spirit of St. Louis customer-built, single engine monoplane. The cards were introduced the same year and featured fairly plain, monochrome designs. They were considered of generally lower quality than many competitors at the time with a thinner card stock compared to Aristocrats and others. Aviators were often used as promotional and advertising decks as well as for shipping for use by members of the military. USPC still manufactures Aviators and they can be had for just a couple bucks a deck.
  • Bee – This is another historic brand dating back to 1892 and first produced by the New York Consolidated Card Company. In recognition of that history, the number 92 still stands out on the Ace of spades. Bee was acquired by USPC in 1894 but continued to operate separately for many years. These decks were considered of higher quality than Aviators and often used by casinos. The cards featured diamond-designed backs without borders. Because of this, “card mechanics” such as dealing from the bottom of the deck was seen as easier with a deck of Bees.
  • Maverick – This was another budget brand offered by Hoyle and now owned by USPS as well. This brand is also still in production and is also available fairly inexpensively. Unveiled in 1959, this line of cards was named after the Maverick television show from the 1950s and ‘60s. The western followed the exploits and adventures of poker player Bret Maverick.
  • Arrco and Streamline – Streamline was another budget deck that was first produced by Arrco Playing Card Company, which produced a large number of low-cost playing card brands. The Arrco brand was also popular, especially with magicians and was acquired by USPC in 1987.

There is no shortage of other playing cards manufactured over the last-century plus, and these are just a few of the more recognizable brands that are a part of poker history. These companies offer a look at what card players have used throughout poker’s history. Perhaps you may now be thinking a bit more about those cards the next time you’re dealt Ace-King at that poker night with friends.

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