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MIKE KEELER: The Summer Shuffle of Kings, Queens and Jacks Who Were Knaves

OK, summer is underway. You’ve probably got your vacation dates set in the calendar, the flights are booked, the house rental is all paid for. Now you just need to get some mindless entertainment like a paperback thriller, a jigsaw puzzle, some crossword puzzle books, or a deck of cards…

Which, of course, leads to the age-old question: why did Charlemagne stab himself in the head?

The issue can be seen in every brand of every deck of cards you can buy. And the story behind that starts way back in the 1300’s, when the Italians starting importing playing cards from the Orient into Europe. In 1565, the Frogs created the first standardized modern set of cards in Rouen. Then came the great ‘double-standard’ of 1611, when King James of England created the modern bible that bears his name, and at the very same time created a new standard of cards (thereby forever linking salvation and sin in the modern world.)

We can’t know for certain, but it’s likely that the deck was supposed to represent the 52 weeks of the year, broken into four seasons (suits), ruled over by various Jewish, Greek, Roman and Medieval nobles, who may also represent the 12 signs of the Zodiac. The Kings are largely believed to be David (Spades), Charlemagne (Hearts), Caesar (Diamonds) and Alexander (Clubs). The Queens are the Greek Minerva, Judith of France, and Rachel. The fourth is Argine, an anagram of “Regina” meaning “Queen.” The Jacks are Ogier, who was a knight of Charlemagne, La Hire, who was a buddy of Jean D’Arc, Hector of Troy and Judas Maccabee.

But from there, the deck is a result of happenstance and error:

  • Jacks were originally called Knaves, but it was confusing to have both “K”s and “Kn”s in the corners, so a term was stolen from the game All Fours, where the Knave of the trump suit is called the Jack.
  • Originally a “one,” the term “Ace” comes from the smallest Roman coin, the “as.” Aces became more powerful than Face Cards after the French Revolution, to symbolize the power of the common man over the King.
  • The Ace of Spades is the only card that’s certain, since it represents Death and Taxes. It was the card historically stamped by the crown to verify a tax had been paid, so all makers today use that card for their copyright. It has also come to mean death in many societies. For example, during the Vietnam War, the American military scattered them throughout the jungle in an attempt to scare the VC.
  • The Joker was brought in as the highest card in Euchre, also pronounced “Juker,” and evolved from there.
  • The “orb” held by the King of Clubs originally represented Caesar’s control of the earth; Caesar and Alexander later flipped suits.
  • The nine of diamonds is “The Curse of Scotland” but nobody can really remember why.
  • The four of clubs is “The Devil’s Bedpost”; it does look like a four-poster but the sinister origins are unknown.

Then there’s Charlemagne, the King of Hearts. whom poker players call the “Suicide King” because he appears to run his sword through his own head. But that was a mistake. He originally wielded an axe like the King of Diamonds, but somewhere along the way, a bad print job resulted in a blade through the noggin. And somehow it became the standard; he’s been suicidal ever since.

Phew! There you go, one less nagging question to worry about. Now you can relax, and enjoy that vacation.

Mike Keeler

– Mike Keeler

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