A COMPLEX, DECEPTIVE GAME (April 25/97)

“Playing five card draw,” I said to a friend who is an avid poker player, “how many possible four-of-a-kind hands are there? I’ll bet you a coffee you can’t give me the answer in 30 seconds.”

“How about five seconds? There are 13,” came the reply. “Four Aces, four Kings, four Queens and so on.”

Try this quiz on any poker-playing friend and you’ll usually get the same wrong answer. The key words are five card draw. With any four of a kind the fifth card can change 48 times, which means there are 48 possible four Ace bands. Multiply this by 12 and you’ll see that my friend’s answer of 13 was wrong by well over 500.

As well as proving that people often don’t pay attention when you ask them something, this exercise illustrates that card playing is a complex, deceptive game.

Two of the most popular card games, poker and bridge, have so many variables that someone could play them for a lifetime (a long lifetime) and not see all the possibilities.

Card playing in all its forms has countless adherents. Starting with the kids’ games of Go Fish and Crazy Eights to the finesse games of bridge and rummy, there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of variations. In the 1993 edition of “The Games Treasury“, the editors estimated that over three million people in North America played serious bridge and possibly three or four times that number played poker.

One of the oddest things about cards is that while there are millions of adherents and myriad variations, the basic deck has remained unchanged for centuries. Kings, Queens and Jacks have been on playing cards at least since the 14th century. The four suites have been standard on British and North American cards since the middle of the 16th century.

In fact, the cards we use in Canada today are based on a series produced in England by a manufacturer named Bamford in 1750. Bamford copied his design from a French deck that was made in 1567.

When Bamford set out to duplicate the old French deck of playing cards, he reproduced exactly the royal family found on the face cards. This deck has come down to us almost unchanged. The next time you pick up a deck of cards look at the pattern in the robe of the Queen of Clubs and the Jack of Hearts’ moustache and curly hair. These features and other designs on the face cards are identical to Bamford’s deck.

These ties with antiquity might explain some of the fascination for card playing – if it wasn’t for the fact that most people are unaware of the age of the designs or what they stand for. No, the truth is that card playing is popular because of its endless variations and complexity. Whatever your tastes, your temperament or your style, there’s a card game for you.

It may be a reflection of changing society that nowadays just as many women as men play cards. Canasta, bridge, gin rummy, poker… you name the game and you’ll find female players in many cases outnumbering males.

The biggest change may be in poker. The ladies are taking over this once male-dominated game in North America. The latest estimate claims female poker players now outnumber males five to four.

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