Most poker players know the so-called “court cards” have some connection to actual court figures. Both kings and queens are easy enough to connect to actual monarchs, although those pesky jacks might not be so self-explanatory.
Playing cards predate poker by many centuries. In fact, while poker really doesn’t arrive until the early 19th century, playing cards can be found as far back as a whole millennium earlier. In Poker & Pop Culture, I refer to other historians pointing back as far as the ninth-century China for the earliest card games.
For the first few centuries, playing cards were adorned with an incredible variety of objects and figures.
The list of different items that have been used to designate suits is endless. Depending on when or where you look, you might find acorns, arrows, axes, batons, bells, birds, chalices, coins, crowns, cups, feathers, flowers, goblets, harps, leaves, monkeys, pikes, pipes, pots, scepters, scimitars, shields, stars, sticks, or swords.
And that’s just the start of it.
And yes, clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades eventually emerge, too, in Europe around seven or eight hundred years ago. France often gets the nod for formally introducing trèfles, carreaux, cœurs, and piques, although you can find close variants popping up in several places.
That’s not even getting into images of people on playing cards, which often also exploited certain symbolism connected with various groups and social classes.
Images of different types of rulers were often quite common, with European decks almost always featuring kings and queens, or something close. Some decks carried the hierarchy on down the line, starting with kings and queens and then moving down to knights, valets, maids and the like.
As we edge closer to modern decks, we start to see the direct influence of European face cards. Among the kings, the most influential portraits came from Paris and highlighted four figures in particular.
There was the Goliath-killing David, the Hebrew king, often depicted as the K♠. Charlemagne (a.k.a. Charles the Great), king of the Franks, was the K♥. Meanwhile from the ancient world came the Roman Julius Caesar as the K♦ and the Greek Alexander the Great as the K♣.
Some of the queens were also drawn — figuratively and literally — from Western civilization’s most meaningful influencers.
There was the Greek goddess, Pallas (Q♠). There were a couple of important Old Testament women, too, Judith (Q♥) and Rachel (Q♦). Meanwhile the Q♣ is often associated referred to as Argine, which is an anagram of “regina,” the Latin word for queen.
In earlier versions of decks from both Spain and Germany, queens were omitted altogether. In both cases, queens were replaced by male figures instead.
In Spain, the queen was jettisoned in favor of the caballero, that is, a knight or horseman. Meanwhile in Germany decks started out with four court cards — king, queen, over knave (“ober”), and under knave (“unter”). But they got rid of queens around the 1500s, and kept the other three — könig, obermann, and untermann — until eventually bringing back the queen.
On the flip side, during the 19th century there were some card games (not poker) in which something called the “British Rule” or “Commonwealth Rule” was used. According to the rule, if the current monarch were female, queens ranked above kings.
That meant 63 years of queens outranking kings while Queen Victoria reigned. Queen Elizabeth II has been on the throne even longer — in early February, she’ll be marking 69 years on the throne. That would make “British Rule” seem almost permanent.
Okay, so what about the jacks? What exactly is a “jack”?
Well, despite appearances, a jack is not a prince. That’s what many assume, especially when we call jacks “court cards.” But that’s not really the case.
The jacks were originally called knaves, with a knave essentially referring to a male servant. You’ll sometimes see references to knaves symbolizing legendary “supporting characters” like Hector (of Troy) and Lancelot (of King Arthur’s court), although these aren’t as consistent as you’ll find with kings or queens.
Knaves were of a lower status than kings or queens, so it made sense for their ranking to be lower. They weren’t necessarily part of the court at all, really, although in some cases they were associated with court figures, fulfilling roles that accrued them a certain status.
References to “knaves” in card decks last well into the late 19th century — that is, after poker was invented.
There was an older card game called All Fours in which the players could win points with the knaves, and those points were called jacks. Eventually the card itself started to be called a jack, although it took a while for that change to happen.
There was another reason why this change was convenient, at least in the English-speaking world. You could put a “K” on the king and a “Q” on the queen easily enough. But you didn’t want another “K” for knave, and so “J” for jack worked a lot better. (Apparently there were a few decks that printed “Kn” in the corner to designate the knaves.)
A reference in the 1861 novel Great Expectations by Charles Dickens helps show that “jack” didn’t really replace “knave” until relatively late.
Early on the unsophisticated orphan Pip plays cards with the cultured Estella, the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham. When Pip refers to the jacks as jacks, Estella can’t help but point out how doing so marks him as uncouth. Pip narrates the incident as follows:
“He calls knaves Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has! And what thick boots!”
In any case, this prejudice eventually went away and knaves became jacks, once and for all.
Here’s hoping you’ve found something useful in this discussion of court cards, perhaps an item that will win you a prop bet one day. And while we might still not know how to play jacks, now we can at least explain where they came from.