Opinions vary regarding just when and where playing cards were first introduced. Some historians have pointed back to ancient cultures in an effort to pinpoint possible origins.
Some of these historians talk about a practice called “belomancy” or a kind of fortune-telling involving shooting arrows into the air and then interpreting the significance of where they landed. It is possible playing cards eventually descended from these arrows.
Among these investigations of the past, some have chronicled how arrows in sixth-century Korea later evolved into htou-tjyen or “fighting tablets.” These tablets were essentially strips of paper with uniform designs on one side and numbers and suits on the other.
Others have described these early “cards” and some of the games played with them. Many focus on ninth-century China as a starting point for playing cards (as we know them, anyway).
Back then the games played with these cards overlapped a bit with other games played with tiles, such as dominoes and mahjong. They came in a variety of shapes, too, but nonetheless do represent a kind of early version of playing cards.
Eventually playing cards made their way across Asia to Europe, popping up in India, Persia (Iran), Egypt, and in other places along the way. Of particular interest is the way the design of these cards tended to include symbols denoting values or other important aspects of the cultures in which they appeared.
For example, some early Chinese cards include characters from folk tales. Others from India depict different incarnations of Vishnu, one of the Hindu deities.
Meanwhile European cards often included kings and other noble figures, with these eventually evolving into the “court cards” we recognize today.
Over in Germany, for instance, decks actually featured four court cards (not three). There were kings and queens, then “over knaves” (“ober”) and “under knaves” (“unter”) — kind of like two varieties of jacks. Other European decks have different examples of face cards as well, often depicting particular rulers, past and present.
But what about playing card suit symbols? What is the history of playing card suits?
Early decks featured all sorts of different symbols essentially occupying the place and/or significance of modern day suits. Instead of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spaces, you’d find suits represented by flowers, pipes, shields, arrows, harps, crowns, scepters, stars, feathers, sticks… even monkeys! And that’s just scratching the surface of the different symbols that appeared on cards.
Eventually the modern four suits began to emerge, though.
Some early examples of German playing card suits featured acorns, bells, and leaves, but also hearts. Italian playing card suits included chalices, coins, and swords, but also clubs.
France usually gets credit for finally creating decks that featured trèfles (clubs), carreaux (diamonds), coeurs (hearts), and piques (spades). These began appearing around 1500 or just before, and soon influenced deck designs in other European countries as well.
Later American decks typically used the four modern suits as well. They were certainly firmly in place by the time poker was introduced in the US in the early 19th century.
There have even been some experiments over the years by card manufacturers creating decks of extra suit playing cards. During the 1930s, for example, the United States Playing Card Company created a 65-card deck that added a fifth suit — eagles, printed in green. There was a similar deck in England produced around the same time with a fifth suit in blue — crowns.
That didn’t catch on, of course, and card games like poker continued to evolve using just the four standard suits.
Of course when it comes to Texas hold’em, the four suits are functionally of equal value. For example, the best Texas hold’em hands are royal flushes, but a royal flush in spades is worth the same as a royal flush in hearts (or any other suit).
While suits are essentially interchangeable when it comes to Texas hold’em hand ranking, there are card games where the playing card suit order is significant. When this is the case, usually spades are ranked highest, followed by hearts, then diamonds, then clubs lowest.
In fact, suit rankings do come up in poker sometimes. For instance, in razz the player with the highest door card has to pay the bring-in. If two players are tied for having highest door card, suits are then used to determine who pays the bring-in according to that spades-hearts-diamonds-clubs ranking.
In any case, over the years suits and symbols have certainly added an important aesthetic element to playing card designs, in addition to their significance in game play.