A playing card is typically a hand-sized rectangular piece of heavy paper or thin plastic used for playing card games. One side of the card (the "front" or "face") carries markings that distinguish it from the others and determine its use under the rules of the particular game being played, while the other side (the "back") is identical for all cards, usually a plain color or abstract design. In most games, the cards are assembled into a "deck" (or "pack"), and their order is randomized by a procedure called "shuffling" to provide an element of chance in the game. For this reason, many card games involve gambling.
The origin of playing cards is obscure, but it is likely that they began in China after the invention of paper, with designs similar to those on modern Mah Jong tiles (paper cards came before tiles in China). It is known that they arrived in Europe from the Mamelukes of Egypt in the late 1300s, by which time they had already assumed a form very close to modern cards. In particular, the Mameluke deck contained 52 cards comprising four "suits": polo sticks and coins (probably descended from the bamboo sticks and circles of their Chinese ancestors), plus swords and cups. Each suit contained ten "spot" cards (cards identified by the number of suit symbols or "pips" they show) and three "court" cards. The Mameluke court cards showed abstract designs not depicting persons (at least not in any surviving specimens) though they did bear the names of miltary officers. Europeans changed the court cards to represent European royalty and attendants, and created many other variations such as different suit systems and added or omitted cards. Some of these variations are still present today in decks used to play regionally popular games (such as the German Skat). Notable among these variations is the deck for the game of Tarocchi, which is now far more often used in Tarot mysticism than as a card game.
The primary form of playing cards in use today, called the /Anglo-American design, is actually of eclectic origin. The familiar suits of spades, hearts, diamonds, and clubs originated in France. The currently popular design of court cards originated in Rouen in the early 1500s, was exported to Great Britain, and then was overtaken in Rouen by what is now the French national design. The Joker was an American innovation of the late 1800s created for the Alsatian game of Euchre. It then spread to Europe from America along with the spread of Poker. Although the Joker card often bears the image of a fool, which is one of the images of the Tarot deck, it is not believed that there is any relation.
In addition to being used for hundreds of games, playing cards are also a popular collectible (as distinct from the cards made specifically for trading card games). Specialty and novelty decks are commonly produced for collectors. They are also popular as props for conjuring tricks.
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