Playing cards

Playing cards are small pieces of paper or plastic used to play games. Most playing cards are divided into suits (represented by symbols or objects) and have a numerical value assigned to each card.


Playing cards originated in China by the late 1200s, where they were much narrower than the most common playing cards today. They featured three or four money-themed suits: Coins, Strings of Coins, Myriads, and sometimes Tens of Myriads.

Chinese money cards are also an ancestor to mahjong. The Circle suit comes from Coins, and the Bamboo suit comes from Strings of Coins.

Playing cards spread to Persia and Arabia, then to Egypt, where new suits were established: Swords, Coins, Polo-Sticks, and Cups. These decks also seem to be the earliest ancestor of the modern deck structure: ten pip cards + three court cards.

From Egypt, playing cards traveled into Europe, where they continued to deviate in their design and total amount of cards. Most regional designs appear to evolve from one to the next.

During the 1500s, Portuguese traders brought playing cards to Japan, leading to the creation of karuta and hanafuda.


















Spade / Pike

Diamond / Tile

Club / Clover



Modern European decks have three kinds of cards: pip cards, court cards, and Jokers.

Pip Cards

Since the beginning of playing cards, the value of a card has been represented with an amount of pips equal to its value.

Court Cards

Portraits were used on cards as early as Chinese money cards, though using portraits as an indicator of a high-value card may have originated in Persia or Arabia. Since then, court cards differ regionally, both in content and style.

  • Italian: Fante ▶ Knave, Cavallo ▶ Knight, Re ▶ King
  • German: Unter ▶ low-rank, Ober ▶ high-rank, König ▶ King
  • French: Valet ▶ Knave, Dame ▶ Lady, Roi ▶ King
  • English: Jack, Queen, King


In the late 1860s, decks of playing cards started to include a Joker card, intended to be the highest trump card in the game Euchre. Seventy years later, a second Joker card was added. Some decks contain up to six Jokers. A common character on Joker cards is a clown or court jester, though the content varies wildly amongst decks of playing cards.

See Also

References & Further Reading