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The Evolution of Poker Playing Cards

Poker is one of the most popular games that use playing cards. Tracing the history of poker, therefore, inevitably means tracing the evolution of playing cards, as well.

Playing cards are said to have originated in China in 750-900 A.D. The first playing cards used were actually paper versions of dominoes.Eventually, paper money was also used as playing cards. Eventually, separate playing cards were made that still bore symbols similar to money.

From China, playing cards seem to have spread to India and Persia, now called Iran, and then to the Islamic Mameluke Empire in Egypt.

The Mameluke Empire already developed a deck of 52 cards with four suits. Their suits, however, differed from modern day suits. They had polo sticks, coins, goblets and swords, each of which had 13 ranks of one to ten plus a Junior Viceroy, a Senior Viceroy and a King. The Muslims forbade the drawing of human figures, though, so the court cards were marked by intricate designs instead.

Around 1360, playing cards were brought by traders to Europe, passing through the port of Venice. All playing cards were still being handpainted at that time, making them very costly. Only the rich nobles were able to afford them.

Playing cards became available to the masses with the invention of woodblock printing. Gambling with playing cards then became a popular pastime, too, not only among royalty but also with the rest of the population.

In Italy and Spain, playing cards acquired human figures, both astride horses and on foot. The playing cards still contained only male figures, though. This characteristic remains even in present day playing cards in Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland.

The Germans had a playing cards game called Karnoffel which used a trump card. This led the Italians around 1420 to create playing cards called triumphi, later to be called tarot.

Other gambling games using playing cards were developed at around that time. Most of them involved betting on certain card combinations including the flush, the sequence, four of a kind, three of a kind, two of a kind, or certain totalled values such as thirty-one, which would later become twenty-one. There are theories saying that these games evolved from earlier dice games.

By the 1500s, in France, today's commonly recognized suits of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs were developed, along with their corresponding shapes and colors. The Queen was also included. In the 1600s, this deck came to be known as the French Pack. The same deck was what was eventually widely accepted in England and the United States, and what came to be used in the game called poker.

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