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Posted | Last Updated January 06, 2014 at 12:53pm | Share this page on Facebook

The Origins of Playing Cards

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The gambler in the gaming house or tavern... unrestrained in his ardour for the game. If he wins, he continues playing; if he loses he plays again

The gambler in the gaming house or tavern... unrestrained in his ardour for the game. If he wins, he continues playing; if he loses he plays again.   See ‘Playing Cards and Gaming’ →

laying cards have always served two distinct purposes: gambling, and the playing of games of skill. Their introduction provided a new alternative to chess and draughts, dice and knuckle bones. They also provided a new way of telling fortunes or performing sleight of hand.

In gambling games such as Baccarat, cards are used as a randomising device, like dice or a roulette wheel. The rules usually remain relatively simple: there may or may not be a banker. In games of skill the chance element is reduced. By means of devices such as bidding, capturing, collecting and melding, and more sophisticated rules, skill becomes more decisive.

Evidently both kinds of game existed in Europe since the first introduction of playing cards. Prohibitions of card playing and denunciations by preachers demonstrate their widespread use for gambling. It was a pastime that attracted card sharps, gamblers, cheats, swashbucklers and rogues... living by their wits. The emotional outbursts and bad behaviour upon losing were seen as immoral.

However, instances of playing cards being used for games of skill are also recorded, as well as instances of moralising, allegory and representations of the social hierarchy…
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