POKER

Poker History: The Face Cards & Where They Came From

By Julia Krotova
July 19, 2023

The face cards are iconic symbols of card games, gambling, and casino culture at large. It’s easy to see why – they’re the most decorated cards. They’re also the most valuable cards in a standard deck, so you want to have them in your hand when the chips are down. Naturally, they can be used to make some of poker’s best hands like the royal flush.

cards and chips

Poker Face Cards Today

Today, the face cards are the king, queen, and jack. They are sometimes called picture or court cards but no matter what you call them, one thing is for certain – they’re the most ornate cards in your deck. The current face cards come from 15th-century France, as part of the French suit system that gave us hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades. To say they have become iconic is an understatement. Like the suit symbols and the ace, the king and queen cards are used to portray gambling.

Modern card games still use these instantly recognisable face cards. Even in online casinos, where they don’t always use real cards but digital ones, you’ll find the familiar face cards on the screen. The online casino industry is known for its variety of entertainment, where games can have different themes or offer changing promotions like those found at https://casino.betfair.com/promotions. As casino sites have become more prominent in recent years, they’ve stuck with the classic face cards and other popular imagery associated with gambling.

The Origin of Face Cards

Playing cards are thought to have come from China in the 1100s, reaching Europe in the 1300s through Egyptian Mamluk trade routes. They were hand-painted back then and ironically didn’t have faces, according to a partial set of Mamluk cards that depict a king, a deputy king, and an under-deputy set of cards. It’s unknown if they were for playing or decoration. As you may expect, the history of face cards intertwines with the history of tarot cards due to their decorative nature, explained more at https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions.

poker cards artistic

The so-called ‘kings and deputies’ cards were a far cry from the modern faces we have today. That comes from commoners’ cards which we know were used for playing in places that would become Germany and Switzerland. The deputies were replaced by marshals, the ‘ober’ marshal and ‘unter’ marshal in place of queen and jack. You can still find these today as part of German-suited playing cards, where the suits are hearts, acorns, leaves, and bells.

The Italians and Spanish changed the ‘ober’ and ‘unter’ marshals to a knight and a knave, which was a male servant in a royal court. If that sounds like a jack to you, that’s because it is now that the word knave has fallen out of common parlance. It was the French who replaced the knight with the queen, creating the combination we know today. French-suited cards became the world’s most popular card format, though you can still find German and Spanish decks in parts of Europe.

How Face Cards Became Double-Headed

One of the most distinct features of face cards is their double heads. While a standard playing card is reversible, the original artwork on face cards was not. When an ornate king was slammed down, some had to turn it around to see what they were looking at. Even worse, players could sometimes tell when a face card was in play. This was the case for a very long time – in fact, double-headed cards were one of the latest playing card innovations, not going mainstream until the 1850s.

One of the earliest examples comes from mathematician Girolamo Cardano, an avid gambler who used his math skills to introduce probability theory, detailed here at https://www.encyclopedia.com/science. He was among the first to recognise that face cards can and should be reversible too, so your opponents can see you win more clearly. The idea took off, not to mention it made face cards easier to make, though proved controversial. It was resisted in England for years and even today, some cards have a full-body portrait of its face cards instead of the mirror image we’ve come to expect.

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Julia Krotova poker author
Written By.

Julia Krotova

Julia is a freelance writer with an affinity for poker. She plays in the occasional home game in the UK with her gal pals for low stakes and is an avid fan of free-to-play online poker games.

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