Cards Back in the Day


As good a place as any to start this analysis is with a very familiar but somewhat complex game tool – the pack of cards.

Looked at as a symbolic system, the card pack is compact and ingenious, with a maximum number of variables handled in a neat and economical way.

It lends itself extremely well to expressing a wide variety of human conflicts and problems, and to all sorts of interactions between the variables that can symbolize many different styles of human interaction.

This is, of course, why it has retained its popularity so long. You are not confined to one sort of game or one style of play, but can vary both to suit your individual needs.

The most prominent divisions in the card pack are the four suits, the two colors, and the face-card, numbered-card divisions.

Two other features are the movable ace (which can be either top or bottom and can be used to make the suits circular at will), plus the highly variable joker.

Several packs can be used in any individual game, or part of the pack can be dropped out for particular purposes.

All of these various divisions are interrelated in a way that is both complex and flexible, but which is clear, unambiguous, and easily learned – all highly desirable characteristics in a symbolic system.

Historically, the English pack, which is one with which we are most familiar, arose out of an earlier French pack. Modern French packs use different figures for the court cards, but otherwise the two packs are interchangeable.

The Spanish pack and some local German and Italian packs differ in the suit symbols, don’t have distinctive suit colors, and don’t employ a queen, but are otherwise similarly organized.

Linguistic clues point to a probable Persian source for our European pack (as in the case of chess), but forerunners can be traced back to China, where many similar devices are used.

The most familiar Chinese example to the Western world is probably mahjong. The mahjong tiles are organized in a very similar way to the card pack, although they differ widely in detail.

Among the ancestors of the card pack is the sun-game series. The clockwise, circular direction of play is retained, and a number of calendrical features – the four-part division into suits, and the fifty-two card series (with a sort of fractional extra card in the form of the joker), which can stand for the weeks in a year.

But these very slight traces, while they may help to form a framework for the world of the card pack, have been subordinated to other features.

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