Playing cards for the holidays


The fact that the first ever mention of playing cards in the entirety of human history is the prohibition of playing them should have been a sign ...

IT’S that time of year again, the Holiday Season, and I am puzzled by one simple query: why am I playing cards? Again?

This year, I find myself in Thailand for the holidays, the holidays I’ve looked forward to all year long, in a place with gorgeous beaches, world-class rock climbing, pristine scuba diving, and yet I find myself playing cards.

Spades, diamonds, clubs, hearts, all very comfortably shelved in the metaphorical backyard shed of my mind for the entirety of the year are dusted off and used ... well ... in spades when the holidays come around.

It’s not so much that I don’t enjoy cards ... it’s just that as we are on the brink of 2014, aren’t we supposed to be playing nano-bot tag with androids on a space colony while an omnipresent computer servant named Dave prepares nano-bot ice teas for us?

Or something like that.

I mean playing cards has been around since the 9th century Tang Dynasty in China, where instead of playing spades or hearts, we would be laying down suits of Coins, Strings of Coins, Myriads of Coins, and Tens of Myriads of Coins.

Some historians think these earliest playing cards might have actually been used as money. You think?

The Chinese definitely weren’t naming their cards after coins because it rolled off the tongue like the works of Hemingway. Triumphantly calling out you win because you have the Ace of the Tens of Myriads of Coins is a little clunky.

Mercifully, playing cards didn’t make it into Europe until a few centuries later. The earliest documentation of them was in 1334, in a document found in what is now Spain, declaring that the Knights of the Band are prohibited from playing cards.

The fact that the first ever mention of playing cards in the entirety of human history is the prohibition of playing them should have been a sign.

Maybe they knew in the 1300s what I know now ... playing cards isn’t fun.

But that didn’t stop playing cards from carving their way further into history. They developed to reflect changing paradigms. The earliest 52 European card deck had a King, a Deputy King, and an Under Deputy King, which led to how many early disappointments as people declared, “I would’ve beaten your Deputy King, if only I had a King instead of my Under Deputy King.”

For reasons other than wordiness, these changed to Kings, Knights, and Knaves, the latter coming from the German word for “male child”, which could mean the card represented a Prince, but I prefer to think it represents Man Child because how awesome would it be to win a round of poker with a pair of Man Children?

But alas, after the Knight became a Queen, perhaps trying to break up the sausage party that was 14th century playing cards, the man child knaves became Jacks, after the popularity of a game called All Fours, where the knave of trumps was called a Jack.

Since All Fours was considered a game for the “lower class”, Jack was originally considered a vulgar term, but became mainstream because having the abbreviation of K for King and Kn for Knave was causing anarchy at the casino or the Knightsbridge Sheep Shearing Guild Market or wherever it would cause chaos 600 years ago.

The history of playing cards isn’t all about catering to the trivial whims of the masses. It’s also all about creating very literal symbols to inspire people.

For instance, originally, Kings were the high card, but Aces were played as the high card during the French Revolution to symbolise the lower classes rising to greater ranks than royalty. Take that, King.

From the significant to the completely inconsequential, the King of Hearts has no moustache for no mysterious reason other than it was deleted in poor copying.

And we thought he was the one guy who stood against Movember ... now we know he’s the one guy desperately wishing he could participate in Movember.

Playing cards also has a rich history in taxation, which is the reason for the more elaborate design seen on the current Ace of Spades.

During the Stamp Act of 1765, this card had a marking to indicate that the proper duty had been paid on the deck of cards, essentially making it a receipt to use in your tax filings, which would really mess up the odds when playing poker.

It is these tidbits of knowledge about playing cards I cling to as I pick up yet another hand of cards during this holiday/card playing season. ’Cause let’s face it, if taxing playing cards couldn’t kill them, they’re not going anywhere, and if I can take any modicum of joy from card playing, it’s the ability to slam down my hand and exclaim, “I’ve got Man Child High!”

Wishing everyone a very happy and playing-cardless holiday.

Jason Godfrey can be seen hosting The LINK on Life Inspired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).

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