History of Cards and Gambling

Many inventions came from the Orient, such as the compass, gun powder, paper and the first cards. Paper money was used as the currency the Celestial Empire, bartered not only for transactions but for payment in gambling games. Portraits of emperors, their queens, and special governors were shown on this or that banknote. Some theorize that the colorful Chinese tiles in the Boston Museum collection were the first prototypes of cards.

According to historians, cards became popular in Europe thanks to the Arabs, who used cards in fortunetelling. Later, when the Saracens invaded Italy, the Italians borrowed cards and used them for gambling. Cards were first talked about in Europe in 1369 in the manuscript written by two monks, who were struck to see to regular people playing cards at the wall of Sent-Souver Abbey.

The first European packs of cards were called "Tarot Decks". They were made in the fourteenth century in Lombardy. It had four suits: cups, swords, money and cudgels. There are ten cards with figures and four picture cards: king, queen, knight and page. Apart from these 56 cards, there were 22 trump cards with figures from 0 to 21, and they were called jester, conjurer, nun, empress, emperor, monk, lover, chariot, justice, hermit, fate (or wheel), force, hangman, death (in fact this card had no name because of the fear it caused, but the skeleton pictured on it suggests itself), moderation, demon, hotel (or hospital), star, moon, sun, court, world.

Later the twelve Zodiac signs were added as trumps, as were the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) and four virtues (mercy, hope, faith and prudence) in Florence, bringing to the total of new trumps added up to 20. As card games grew in popularity all trump cards and four of the knights were taken away from the pack. The fool remained, and today we call it the Joker. Tarot cards were used in Europe to foretell the future. Today you can still see Tarot Cards being used in carnivals and other events to read the future, and they can be purchased in magic shops.


There are various reasons the decks that were used in Europe shrank. One was that a deck with the full set of trumps had up to 92 cards in it, which many found difficult to remember. Another cause is a purely technological one. Originally, before the invention of the printing press and other means that would make production easier, cards were colored by hand. Special stencils were used, but medieval cards decorated by a skilled artist produced miniatures and pictures that looked like little masterpieces. he main problem was that these were extremely expensive. Not every one could afford to buy them and in order to keep up with the demand cause by their immense popularity, the card decks became smaller and contained less trumps.

The names of the suits and the pictures on the cards sometimes changed due to nationality or due to different traditions. For example, France in the fourteenth century had a pack decorated by stylized suits: hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs. Eventually, these symbols became the standard for many European countries, although sometimes they were called by different names.

Although every now and then someone has added new symbols, such as animals, flowers, birds, fish, home utensils, etc, they have never been a permanent addition and in fact, no artist has tried to make new symbols of suits for the last 500 years.

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