Countless people love spending time with a globally recognised deck of 52 cards. Sorted into spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts, cards have their own ‘royal family’ and are equally at home for family fun, gambling or magic tricks!
Such is the influence of decks of cards, their images and language are present throughout popular culture. Do you have a ‘poker face’ or are you ‘not playing with a full deck’? Why not ‘call a spade and spade’ and admit that you’ve been ‘dealt a bad hand’. We could go on like this for a long time, as card game idioms are part of our daily lives.
How did card games get so popular?
One of the reasons cards have become universal is that they’re compact, easy to carry around and games can be set up in limited spaces – making them ideal for the armed forces and travellers for example. They have been transformed into strong imagery online too.
This is a leisure pursuit with a fascinating history. Some historians believe the first games with ‘paper tiles’ were played in 9th Century China, while others point to ancient Egypt, India or Persia. The principle of playing cards then travelled East to West, with many of today’s card games springing up around Europe in the 1300s and 1400s.
This was a long drawn out evolution to produce the deck of cards that’s instantly recognised today. It didn’t always look the same or contain 52 cards (plus two jokers). It’s believed that the universal imagery now used is seated in medieval folklore and that France is responsible for standardising decks.
Famous card players
The most popular games and best-known card players are often associated with the ‘wild west’ of America, saloons and floating casinos on the mighty Mississippi and in New Orleans. This includes legendary gamblers Wild Bill Hickok and John ‘Doc’ Holliday.
However, there have been many outstanding card players whose notoriety comes from exception skill, luck or card game ‘manipulation’ (cheating). These have inspired many books and movies.
Did you know that John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, is believed to have invented a certain massively popular snack to eat while he played card games with buddies? In modern times, many consider Greek-America Archie Karas, ‘the greatest gambler of all time’ as he won and lost many millions of pounds at card tables in the 1990s.
Not surprisingly, the most popular card games are the ones that combine skill with a degree of ‘chance’. Betting on the outcome is inextricably interwoven with the long history of this pastime.
Most people have heard of poker, even if they don’t fully understand its rules. It’s one of the card games that involves holding on to your ‘hand’ (the cards you’re dealt) and building a better chance of winning by adding more.
One of the reasons it’s so popular is that poker involves progressively higher stakes (the money gambled) and growing excitement as players take ‘calculated risks’.
Interestingly, the earliest versions of this game were called ‘Bluff’! It’s believed to have French-USA origins and has become especially popular in America where there’s a popular version called Texas Hold ‘Em.
There are many other games that involve building a hand and vying to win, including the popular British card game ‘Brag’.
This card game has earned a place in many casinos around the world, no doubt as it’s quick to play and relatively simple to understand. It involves being dealt two cards, then building your hand if necessary, to get as close as possible to a value of 21. You’re playing against the dealer, who has the advantage if a player matches their total.
It was first called ‘21’ (no surprise there) and has been around for centuries. One of its biggest attractions has always been trying to calculate odds with clever mathematical ‘systems’.
A simple game that is popular around the world, you’ll find blackjack available at the planet’s top casinos and can even play live blackjack online thanks to the latest streaming technology.
This card game is particularly popular in Britain, where it was a much-loved pursuit for 17th-century nobility. It’s a relatively complex but intriguing game played by four players, in two partnerships.
There’s a simpler variation of the rules known as Whist, and a range of options for how Bridge can be played, including tournaments for multiple partnerships. There are World Championships for Bridge, as there are with other popular card games. Though it’s popular with all ages, Bridge is still often associated with senior players and ‘polite society’.
This commonly played card game originates from Medieval Italy, and it too was considered a pastime for the aristocracy. Its name derives from the Italian for zero, as it hinges on a final score value, in which some cards are worth nothing.
Like Blackjack, it’s a comparing game, which measures the player’s hand with the one held by the dealer. As with other popular card games, the rules and techniques used can vary from country to country.
As well as trying your hand in a physical casino, you can also play Baccarat online to experience the thrill and skill of this classic game from the comfort of your own home.
Rummy also has different playing rules in various cultures; one variation is known as Gin Rummy. Its massive popularity is possibly due to the fact that it can be played with only 2 players, as well as in a group.
Rummy is one of the contests that involves creating “sets” of cards (also known as melds) by building your hand, like poker. It’s also a game where you draw and discard extra cards, with a limit set on the timescale.
Some believe rummy is an evolution from the ancient Chinese game mah-jong, which uses tiles. Though Whist teacher Elwood Baker and his son Charles may have invented it in 1909.
Simple games of luck
Skill-based games are largely to be found in casinos and among friends who like to wager on results. Some of the most popular card games are about pure luck and are considered the best options for family games nights. This includes “Go Fish’ or ‘Chase the Queen’, the number accumulated game known as ‘War’ and of course the ever-popular ‘Snap’!
If you’re alone, you could also try your hand at another hugely popular card game – Solitaire!