Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Humble Playing Card

A playing card is a piece of specially prepared heavy paper, thin cardboard, plastic-coated paper, cotton-paper blend, or thin plastic, marked with distinguishing motifs and used as one of a set for playing card games. Playing cards are typically palm-sized for convenient handling, and were first invented in China during the Tang dynasty.

                                     Modern playing cards with French markings

A complete set of cards is called a pack (British English), deck (American English) or set (universal), and the subset of cards held at one time by a player during a game is commonly called a hand. A pack of cards may be used for playing a variety of card games, with varying elements of skill and chance, some of which are played for money (e.g., poker and blackjack games at a casino). Playing cards are also used for illusions, cardistry, building card structures, cartomancy [fortune telling] and memory sport.

The front (or "face") of each card carries markings that distinguish it from the other cards in the pack and determine its use under the rules of the game being played. The back of each card is identical for all cards in any particular pack to create an imperfect information scenario (that is to say, the individual values of the cards are not known to all players at all times [as distinguished from a game of perfect information like chess]). Usually every card will be smooth; however, some packs have braille to allow blind people to read the card number and suit.

Dedicated deck card games have sets that are used only for a specific game. The cards described in this article are used for many games and share a common origin stemming from the standards set in Mamluk Egypt. These sets divide their cards into four suits each consisting of three face cards and numbered or "pip" cards.

Early History

The scholarly consensus is that playing cards were invented in Imperial China. They first appeared as early as 9th century Tang China (618–907). The first reference to card games also dates from the 9th century, when the Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, written by Tang dynasty writer Su E, described Princess Tongchang, daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang, playing the "leaf game" in 868 with members of the Wei clan, the family of the princess's husband.  The first known book on the "leaf" game was called the Yezi Gexi and was allegedly written by a Tang woman, and was commented on by Chinese writers of subsequent dynasties. The Song dynasty (960–1279) scholar Ouyang Xiu (1007–1072) asserted that the "leaf" game existed at least since the mid-Tang dynasty and associated their invention with the simultaneous development of using sheets or pages instead of paper rolls as a writing medium. However, Ouyang claimed the "leaves" were pages of a book for a board game played with dice. In any case, Ouyang asserted that the rules for the game were lost by 1067.

It may be that the first deck of cards ever printed was a 32-card Chinese domino pack, in whose cards all 21 combinations of a pair of dice are depicted. According to the Gui Tian Lu (歸田錄), an 11th-century Chinese text redacted, domino cards were printed during the Tang dynasty, contemporary to the first printed books.

Modern Manufacturing

Most playing cards sold today are either made of card stock or plastic. Commercial grade polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was not available until the late 1920s and the first all PVC cards appeared in 1935. Contemporary plastic cards are increasingly made of polyvinyl chloride acetate (PVCA) or cellulose acetate. Plastic cards last longer and are more durable than paper cards but are more expensive. After World War II, paper cards were given a plastic coating to extend their lifetime.

Cards are printed on unique sheets that undergo a varnishing procedure in order to enhance the brightness and glow of the colours printed on the cards, as well as to increase their durability. Most printing today is done by offset printing or digital printing.

In today’s market, some high-quality products are available. There are some specific treatments on card surfaces, such as calendar and linen finishing, that improve shuffling for either professional or domestic use.

Some cards are printed on sheets, which are cut and arranged in bands (vertical stripes) before undergoing a cutting operation that cuts out the individual cards. After assembling the new decks, they pass through the corner-rounding process that will confer the final outline: the typical rectangular playing-card shape. Other cards are punched from sheets directly into their final shape.

For most decks, the cards are assembled mechanically in an unvarying sequence, so their order must be randomized when play begins. Exceptions are decks destined for casinos which use pre-shuffled cards. Finally, each pack is wrapped in cellophane and inserted in its case, which may also be wrapped and sealed.

Footnote by the Blog Author

Cards must have been critical to the development of modern game theory in the twentieth century.  Famous strategists from Machiavelli to Dwight Eisenhower were known to be devoted card players.  There are books that emphasize that poker players do not think about decisions the same way that non-poker playing people do.  Thus cards must have a place in the development of modern life as well as modern warfare.

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