Symbols and Messages of Playing Cards – Secrets In Playing Cards

Some of the world’s most closely guarded secrets live in poker rooms.  From maps to revealing identities, surreptitious invitations to secret societies, there’s more to the cards in your hand than just a pair of aces. 

Card players are notorious for their efforts to hide things from fellow players. The Cambridge Dictionary says that the phrase “hold your cards close to your chest” means you’re trying to conceal a secret.  This expression came about before modern card design allowed players to leave their cards on the table, lifting only the corner to see what’s in their hand.  Previously, players had to raise their cards off the table to see them.  Protecting their hand from an opponents’ view meant that players held their cards as close to their body as possible. The very act of looking at one’s cards is a secretive event.

Playing cards have a history of concealing secrets outside the poker room as well.  During WWII, the Allied Forces commissioned decks of cards that would hide escape maps for imprisoned soldiers.  In 2003, the United States military developed and distributed a deck of cards called “personality identification playing cards” to help troops identify the most-wanted members of the Iraqi government.

In the 18th century, the backs of playing cards were blank – the ideal place to conceal secret messages.  Lovers would write to one another on decks of playing cards. Clandestine invitations were written on cards as well.  Playing cards have even been used to conceal and reveal identity.  In the Netherlands a mother would identify her child using the blank side of a playing card before she would abandon the child to the care of others.  If she tore the card in half, it signaled her intention to someday return with her half and be reunited with her child.  If the card was left whole, it meant the child was completely abandoned and the mother would not return.

It has also been suggested that the Freemasons concealed messages in decks of cards.  Playing cards came to Europe through Egypt and it is hypothesized that Egypt is a large source of Masonic knowledge.  Theorists also suggest that the Queen holding a rose and the Jack of Hearts, holding a sprig of Acacia, are nods to Masonic rituals and emblems. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support this theory – shrouding even the hypothesis in mystery and secrets.

Whatever their past, the secrets of the cards used in today’s games revolve around whether you’re holding the winning hand or not.

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