Myths & Stories About Cards
By Alex J. Coyne © 2016 Great Bridge Links
So, what’s the weirdest belief, myth or superstition about cards you’ve ever heard? We went digging for tall tales and superstitions about cards.
1. That guy who died…
I heard about this one years ago and had to check it out again. Supposedly, a prisoner got out of his execution by suicide using nothing but a deck of playing cards. Turns out, according to Snopes, this prisoner was William Kogut (San Quentin):
On 20 October 1930, William Kogut, an inmate on San Quentin’s death row, fashioned ordinary decks of pasteboards into a pipe bomb, which he used to take his own life. Kogut was awaiting execution for the throat-slash murder of Mayme Guthrie, who ran a rooming house (which may have doubled as a gaming house and brothel) in Oroville, California.
Kogut removed a hollow steel leg from his cot, tore several packs of playing cards into tiny pieces, and stuffed these bits into the pipe. (At the time, red playing cards were reportedly made using a rather volatile ink.) He plugged one end tightly with a broom handle, and poured water into the other end to soak the torn cards. He then placed this device on top of the kerosene heater next to his bed, laid down, and put his head up against the open end of the pipe. The heater turned the water into steam, and when the pressure built up to a high enough level, the resulting explosion shot the bits of playing cards out of the pipe with enough force to penetrate Kogut’s skull. Snopes 2008
2. The Kings
Some people believe that the four Kings of a playing card deck represent four real-life kings through history: Charlemagne, David, Caesar and Alexander. There was a time in the history of cards when French card designs were the most commonly used throughout Europe and French card designers liked to assign identities to the royals pictured on their cards. Snopes tells us:
The assignation of identities to the kings (as well as the queens and knaves) was a temporary practice unique to French card masters that began around the mid-15th century, was not standardized for some time, and was discontinued at the end of the 18th century. Early choices for the identities of the kings included Solomon, Augustus, Clovis, and Constantine, but during the latter part of the reign of Henry IV (1553-1610) they were more or less standardized as representing Charlemagne (hearts), David (spades), Caesar (diamonds), and Alexander (clubs).
But this was a brief phenomenon in the long history of playing cards. For the most part the royal illustrations on the decks of modern playing cards do not represent specific persons.
3. Timings and, er, Leggings
It’s supposedly bad luck to play cards on a Friday before 6:00 pm. Another habit which might apparently cause your game to go South is playing cards while sitting cross-legged. But, seriously?
4. Pin the Luck on the … Player?
A pin stuck into someone’s shirt, coat or hat will bring them good luck during the deal.
5. Dropping Cards, Whistling and Singing
Dropping your cards, whistling or singing while you’re playing cards are all seen as bad luck: One reason is that it shows you’re not really paying a lot of attention to the game; while singing loudly during a game might just be seen as downright damned distracting.
6. Cross-Eyed Mary
Playing with, or against, a cross-eyed player is said to be bad luck. Some sources say this is due to an old belief that a cross-eyed player can ‘see’ the cards of someone close to them.
7. Esoteric Suits
For esoteric use, the four playing card suits are used to represent the four elements: Spades are fire, Hearts are water, Clubs are air and Diamonds are earth. You can read more about using playing cards as a fortune-telling tool in our article here.
It’s bad luck to hold or pick up the cards with your left hand.
9. Buying a Deck
Among tarot readers, it’s often repeated that it’s bad luck to buy a deck for yourself. A huge bulk of tarot readers nowadays, though, do. Similarly, it’s supposedly really bad luck to use the same deck for divination that you use for card playing.
10. A Dark Hand
A hand consisting of all-black suits was believed to mean that someone will die.
11. New Decks
Kentucky Superstitions is a fantastic archive of supersitions collected by Daniel Lindsey Thomas, Ph.D. and Lucy Blayney thomas, M.A. and printed by Oxford University Press in 1920. According to this collection you should never perform divination with a brand-new deck.
12. Fortune Telling
From Kentucky Superstition, you can ascertain a child’s future by putting them on the floor in front of a Bible, a card deck and a dollar. Their choice indicates their future: A preacher man, a gambling man or a money-making man.
13. Bringing Luck
From Kentucky Superstitions, you can bring luck by reversing the direction of the deal, sitting on a handkerchief, or – ew! – spitting into the bottom of your upside-down chair. You could also walk around the table three times, take off some jewelery, carry a chicken’s wish-bone – or, and definitely not, carry a deceased person’s bone in your pocket. Hem up your trousers or change decks and, interestingly, according to Kentucky Superstitions, it’s good luck to hold cards with the left hand. Hell, which is it?!
14. Cards during war
It is said that during WWII, The United States Playing Card Company produced special decks to be given to American POWs. These decks, when soaked in water, could be peeled apart to reveal hidden maps that allowed escaping prisoners to find their way to safety. This is a true story, and you can read more here.
There is an interesting rumour that during the Vietnam War, entire crates of Ace of Spades cards were shipped by the company to U.S. soldiers, as it was believed at the time (later proven to be a myth) that the Viet Cong considered this the ‘Death Card’ and would flee battle at the sight of seeing it resting upon the body of one of their dead. In truth, when interviewed, the majority of American troops never saw one used in-country.
15. And in case you didn’t know –
Just like there are 52 cards in a standard deck, there are also 52 weeks in a year, and if you add up all the symbols in a deck of cards, it equals the same amount of days in a year = 365.