Blackjack History: Where the Face Cards in Modern Blackjack Come From

King of Clubs and King of SpadesBy Jennifer Holmes.

Since blackjack is played with a modern, French-suited deck, it uses the same cards as other iconic card games like poker. While the suits don’t matter so much, the face cards are some of the highest-value cards that can land in front of you. The King, Queen, and Jack have changed a lot over the years, with a long history dating back to ancient Persia. Here’s a quick history guide.

Blackjack Over Time

Much like the cards themselves, the game of blackjack has changed over time. At our site, we have traced blackjack’s history from 1440 to 2020. It started as a Spanish game – trente-un – but later became vingt-et-un, or twenty-one. The rules and playstyles have changed over time, until the internet was invented and allowed us to catalog each of them.

As a result, it’s possible to play blackjack and its many variants online today. iGaming sites exist to host and facilitate these games, including more niche ones like twenty-one or pontoon. Special software is used to simulate the games, best seen with Betfair premium blackjack which digitally recreates the dealer’s table. Through the internet, surviving card games have been preserved online while new ways of playing card games will also be documented and made available to players.

Besides some rare exceptions, pretty much every one of those games will use the French-suited playing cards that you’re already familiar with. Despite Spanish, Italian, German, and Swiss variants of playing cards that can still be found in the real world, it’s the French cards that have dominated most gambling media. From their use in online games to their use in media, they have become a symbol of not just gambling, but lofty themes like royalty and fate.

The First Face Cards

Avid card sharks may already know that the first playing cards can be traced back to China in the 1100s. Before that, the existence of “leaf games” may indicate leaves were decorated and used similarly. These cards didn’t get their face until they’d traveled west, to the Persians. That’s where you find the first, best-preserved deck of cards that feature court positions – the Mamluk deck. This deck has special cards that depict a malik, nā’ib malik, and thānī nā’ib, or in English, king, deputy king, and second deputy.

This is where the idea of court cards started, though they weren’t quite face cards yet. For that, the cards had to travel even further west to the mountains of Europe. There, in Germany and Switzerland, the roles were changed to fit the local culture and they started to get faces. The king stayed the same, though the two lesser court cards changed to ‘ober’ and ‘unter’ marshals, meaning over-marshal and under-marshal. The cards weren’t standardized (nothing was back in the 1300s) and so other decks featured multiple kings, only queens, and other permutations. The cards were also used for a lot more than just playing games, they documented medieval life and even helped form modern tarot. To learn more, The Met Museum’s online exhibition covers this topic in more detail, and it’s totally free.

Assorted Tarot Cards

The French-Suited Playing Cards

Once they became popular in central Europe, the cards were filtered throughout neighboring countries. Each nation settled on slightly different suit interpretations. For example, the Germans started with acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells while the Italians preferred swords, cups, coins, and clubs. On contact with Italy and Spain, we see the Jack appear on playing cards, though they were more commonly called the Knave back then.

A Knight appeared alongside the Knave, but this changed in the 1400s when both French and Italian makers switched to the queen. The queen became a seminal figure of tarot, so a lot of non-French playing cards stopped using them to differentiate themselves. The French kept their queen cards and refined the ornate face card art that has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years.

As for how these French cards took over the world – France had a closer relationship with England than the rest of Europe. British cards weren’t changed much at all, and then spread to the Americas during the colonial period. When Britain and America became some of the strongest nations in the world, they brought French playing cards with them wherever they traveled. This page from the University of Waterloo describes how these cards were used during the British Empire.

IMAGE CREDIT: Unsplash
IMAGE CREDIT: Unsplash

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