2 playing cards, one with a king and the other with a queen

Did you ever wonder why the suits of Blackjack, the classic card game features figures from a royal court? Why not flowers? More numbers? Colors? Or other types of people? Historians aren’t certain why a deck of playing cards includes Kings, Queens, Jacks and Jokers but they speculate that much of the reason has to do with the fact that the royal figures of almost every nation have participated in gambling entertainment in their countries.

Historians in countries like China, India and Persia claim to have invented playing cards – no one knows exactly from which region the playing cards emerged but its noted that all of these countries had members of the royal family involved in gambling activities which lends credence to the idea that, regardless of playing cards’ exact origin, local royalty was involved.

Today, not only are the playing cards similar to those of ancient times but so is the passion for gambling among royal families.  In fact, gambling has been the favored type of entertainment for many kings and queens throughout the centuries, in all parts of the world.

Playing Cards

China, India and Persia have all claimed parentage of the playing cards that are used for baccarat, blackjack, poker and other modern card games.

The design and composition of decks of playing cards has varied over time and locale but from the Middle Ages onward, decks with cards that feature numbers and pictures have been standard features. The number of cards in decks has varied – some decks had more than the currently-accepted 52 cards such as those used in Italy of the 1500s where there were 56 cards per deck with suits of cups, knaves, coins, batons and swords.

The cards used in early casinos were hand-painted and expensive but over time, the ability to mass-produce the cards, plus the dropping of the knaves suit (resulting in decks of 52 cards) meant that anyone could easily purchase a deck.

Cards at Italy’s first casinos includes kings who were identified as Augustus, Clovis, Constantine and Solomon but those identities were soon changed to represent David (spades), Caesar (diamonds), Charlemagne (hearts) and Alexander (clubs).

Queen cards have been tentatively identified as  Judith/ Judic (hearts), , Rachel (diamonds), Pallas (spades) and Argine (clubs) but those identities are less certain. Some people say that the card represented Joan of Arc, Athena Greek goddess of War, Mary of Arganon, Juno, Argine and Isobel of Bavaria.

Identities of the knaves seem to have been Knight La Hire (hearts), Knight Ogier (spades), Hector of Troy (diamonds) and Sir Lancelot (clubs).

Royal Gamers

The exact identities of the figures represented on playing cards may not be certain but it is a fact that royalty have always shown a passion for gambling. The game of Liubo was played in Chinese courts for thousands of years  while the Pharoahs played Senet in ancient Egypt.

The Greeks even had a goddess of luck and chance named Tyche and Roman Emporers played a popular board game known as Tabula which is similar to modern-day backgammon.

In the European royal courts, the practice of playing games became something of an obsession among royalty and their courts. Some of the most noteworthy gaming took place in England where kings and queens could easily lose thousands of pounds in a single night.

Who were England’s most famous gambling monarchs?

King Henry VIII

It’s little surprise to anyone that Henry VIII’s name pops up as one of England’s most prolific gamblers. Henry VIII was known for divorcing and beheading the wives that didn’t meet his standards and for going head-to-head with the Catholic Church when the pope refused to give him permission to divorce – de-Catholicizing England in the process. Henry VIII was a man who did whatever he wanted and what he wanted was to spend lavishly at the gaming tables, especially playing a game called “brag” (and early form of poker) and Tabula.

Henry was an unlucky player, losing over £3,250 over the course of two years which equals £1.58 million in today’s money. He played with members of his court, with visiting monarchs and anyone else who would agree to compete against him – not easy to find, especially after he hanged an opponent who won him.

King George IV

Over the next 200 years, there were some big gamers on the English throne but King George IV was the next royal player to push the envelope on the gaming floor.

He had no interest in ruling and accepted the crown after his father’s death but his main pursuit involved enjoying life. That meant running up debts from gambling which he was able to pay off only because he agreed to marry Caroline of Brunswick in 1795, which earned him a payout.

Parliament must have really wanted him to marry because they paid off his debts of £161,000 which he incurred by the age of 21— the equivalent of £21million ($27.2 million) in today’s money. To no one’s great surprise, George IV continued to incur debts after his marriage-- £650,000, which is £77.5 million in today’s currency. Those debts have never been repaid.

Queen Mary I (1516-1558)

Mary I, first Queen Regnant of England, is best known for her bloody efforts at trying to reinstate Roman Catholicism in England but she wasn’t dedicated to denying herself the pleasures of her station.

She enjoyed gambling and wagering, especially the game of Brag which is a precursor of poker. It’s said that she spent up to one-third of her monthly income on her gambling activities and even that wasn’t enough – rumor is that she asked her servants for money.

Edward VII

Edward, son of Queen Victoria, was a passionate player of baccarat. In fact, he wouldn’t leave the palace without his set of leather counters.

In 1890 Edward became embroiled in a national gambling affair known as Royal Baccarat Scandal in which Sir William Gordon-Cumming, a lieutenant colonel in the Scots Guards, was accused of cheating, During a public hearing, Edward was called as a witness, the first time the heir to the throne had been compelled to appear in court since 1411.

Queen Anne

Queen Anne ruled England, Scotland and Ireland from 1665 to 1714. She established the Ascot Racecourse in Berkshire, England. The Ascot is one of the oldest horse race tracks in the world and is where members of the royal family can still be seen every season.

Queen Anne may not have exerted herself gambling at the gaming tables but, by establishing the Ascot Race where sports betting is a serious pastime, she earned a name for herself as one of England’s most prominent supporters of horse racing and sports betting.

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