The Deck
by Kevin Gallagher

Did you ever wonder why a pack of cards contains the cards that it does?! We are more used than most to packs of playing cards and take pretty much for granted the actual set of cards that comprise a deck whose denominations and suits are recognised the world over, but it may be of some interest to learn of the general origin.

The pack is essentially based on the calendar with a card for each week in thirteen sets of four cards to represent the thirteen lunar months of a year. Taking the Jack as eleven, Queen as twelve and King as thirteen, there are three hundred and sixty four pips; the Joker was added to represent the 'missing pip' to make up the number of days in a year. For a time, decks had only one Joker and some producers included a second Joker to signify a leap year. Half of the cards are black to signify that half of the earth is in darkness representing the first element of time.

The court cards came a little later as did the present day suits. The four suits are supposed to represent the four great things in life: Love (hearts), Wealth (diamonds), Knowledge (cloverleaf, which was thought to be the first plant in the year to bloom and the last to die) and Death (spade). 

The court cards themselves are meant reflect human nature with the younger Jacks, unlike the Kings, being more interested in Love than Wealth and power. If you compare the Kings and Jacks, the King of Diamonds is looking directly at the Diamond and therefore, he is seen in profile with only one eye showing while the Jack, still interested in Wealth but to a lesser degree, is looking towards the Diamond but not directly at it. In the case of Hearts, this is reversed with the Jack looking directly at the Heart while the King looks towards it but with less interest. The King of Clubs naturally seeks knowledge and is looking generally towards the club whilst the romantic Jack has other things on his mind and looks away. In the case of Death, both obviously look away, the older King to a lesser extent than the Jack who looks strongly away and so is again seen in profile. The Queens do not have intent feelings about anything (remember this is well before the suffragettes) but look towards Love, Wealth and Knowledge but away from Death.

Not only is this of extraordinarily gripping interest but it is also of some use... Imagine that you are sitting enjoying a relaxing pint after a hard day or long table hopping session, when along come your fan club who thrust a pack of cards into your hand with requests for instant entertainment. No longer do you have to delve into the back of your mind for fifteen minutes worth of impressive though undemanding card tricks; take a long refreshing gulp, park your glass down at your side and, as you slide the cards out of their case, pose the question "Did you ever wonder why a pack of cards contains the cards that it does?!"


Kevin Gallagher August 2000