A deck of playing cards may look simple, but hidden among the pips, suits, numbers and portraits are surprising secrets, some of which are hundreds of years old. That box of pasteboards in bold, primary colors is one of the most recognizable things in the world, but the more we look, the more it seems like those cards are filled with mystery. Cards are special things. Each deck is a marvel of engineering, design and history, loaded with secrets that have been whispered and distorted with each retelling. Here are 6 secrets about a standard deck of playing cards that have been hiding in plain sight all this time.
10 SnapFact: It is glue, not plastic, that makes playing cards “snap”.Contrary to popular belief, it is glue that makes playing cards snap, not plastic. Quality playing cards are known for their feel, spring and snap. The tension and elasticity is important for the durability and feel of each card. But while cards feature a plastic coating (usually dimpled, to give a little bit of a slide), it’s layers of glue that give each card its backbone. Each card is like an Oreo, where laminated sheets of cardboard are the cookies and glue is the cream filling. The combination provides a curiously strong, thin and pliant piece of paper perfect for a shuffle or a trick. Bonus detail: The plastic surface on the paper does not completely enclose each card. The sheets of cardboard are laminated before the gluing process. You can spill a drop of water directly on the center for a few seconds without ruining the card, but if the water gets to the edge? Ruined. The water seeps into the card’s paper like a sponge.
9 Back DesignFact: There are two major kinds of backs, and that’s a big deal to card workers, magicians and casinosMost decks of cards feature a wide variety of back designs. But the nicer, more durable decks are a bit more simple. Usually toned with only one or two colors, they feature symmetrical designs. There’s a key feature that magicians look for: Borders. Does a card’s back design go all the way to the edge of a card? Or is there a border? Without giving away too many tricks of the trade, both of those design options hide different things. Those different kinds of backs also are a big deal for casino operators, who go through tremendous expense to fight against cheats and scams. The U.S. Playing Card Co. doesn’t really discuss backs much with normal customers, but if a customer has a casino, the company has plenty to advertise about what kinds of backs are better for different games.
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8 Beveled EdgeFacts: Also a big deal for workers: Cards have beveled, knife-shaped edgesStacks of cards are cut by very powerful cutting machines with impressively strong blades. The machine makes the same up-and-down cutting motion. That blade movement creates a beveled edge, where either the back or face is slightly larger. The direction of that bevel depends entirely on which direction the cards are facing when they are cut. That’s a big deal for people who shuffle cards for a living—namely, magicians and sleight-of-hand artists. The knife edge helps cards weave together more easily. Decks of cards made especially for magicians will often use a traditional cut as a selling point. For instance: Magician Richard Turner, who is featured in the documentary “Dealt,” places a high value on this quality—he has a signature line of cards that feature a specific cut.
7 Kentucky OriginsFact: Most card brands are printed by the same Kentucky facility A few decades ago, cards were like cars: shoppers had several “makes and models” to choose from. Brands such as Hoyle and Arco gave the U.S. Playing Card Company’s Bicycle brand a run for its money. “The Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards,” by Tom and Judy Dawson, is filled with a card collector’s dream of printers across the U.S., including the New York Consolidated Card Company, Dougherty, Russell & Morgan and more. Over the last century, and especially over the last 20 years, the USPCC has acquired many of those card publishers. In the last decade the company, currently owned by Jarden Corporation, owns the brands of Bee, Hoyle, Maverick, Fournier, Aviator, Kem and others. The company also prints custom decks for casinos and other clients around the world.
6 French SuitsFact: The suits and face cards are French in originThe origin of playing cards is up for debate. It’s thought that they originated in China as early as the ninth century. By the 14th century, cards had spread across Europe, roughly modeled after Italian tarocchi decks (still in use as tarot cards for fortune telling). Several European countries had their own suits: Germany used hearts, leaves, bells and acorns, and Spain used coins, cups, swords and cudgels.The French suits of spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds, however, stuck because of their geometric simplicity, solid color and ease of printing. The French are also the ones who reduced the court cards from four per suit to three.