What’s the deal with the Joker? A History of Playing Cards

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When you get a new pack of playing cards, it is always annoying when you lose a couple of the cards, all of them except perhaps the two jokers. There are very few games that actually use them, with Euchre, War, Rummy and Go Fish the more well-known games.

When you play casino games online such as poker and blackjack, the jokers are unnecessary and so will not be used. Despite there being few games that use the jokers, it was from one of them that the card was invented. We have taken a look at the history of playing cards, in particular the jokers and how they came to be a part of the standard 52 playing card deck.

Playing cards originated in 10th century China, although they were very different to the modern pack of 52 cards than we have today. It would be four centuries later that playing cards would arrive in Europe as merchants from Italy and Spain imported them from Egypt. In the 15th century the more familiar suits began to feature on the cards while later that century the cards were introduced to Great Britain, while France began to produce decks of cards with the suits that we know today.

For 900 years the standard deck of playing cards contained just the 52 cards, but this was to change in the 19th century. It was back in 1863 that the joker made its first appearance in playing cards when American Euchre players were modifying the rules of the game and they decided that an extra trump card was needed. It was from this rule change that the “Best Bower” card was created and Samuel Hart is generally credited as having printed the first illustrated “Best Bower” card in 1863.

It was at the end of the 1860s that the American packs began to see the word “Joker” used instead of “Best Bower”. Although the cards were introduced to American card decks in 1863, it took over a decade for them to reach European card decks, with the British considered to be the first European nation to see the jokers in card decks in around 1880.

Their original name, the “Best Bower” has its origins in Germany as it comes from the German word “Bauer”, which has two meanings; “farmer” and jack”. Taking the latter meaning makes the joker the best jack.

The jokers often depict traditional court jesters and are usually given a unique design that contains a company’s brand imagery. Another reason for the variations on the look of a joker is suspected to be because they are used for very few games, meaning companies can be a bit more creative with the card.

Playing cards have a rich history, travelling from the eastern world to the west over the course of four centuries, while the joker originated from the western world and spread east in under fifty years. Playing cards have gone from being used in casual games to being used to decide thousands of pounds in casino poker tournaments.