INSIDE THE CARDS: Joker the newest, wildest card in modern deck

April 14th, 2014 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under General, Products

One of the more enigmatic cards in the deck is the joker. Its designs far exceed the Aces of Spades that usually command a deck’s attention. Jokers can be sublte or strange, restrained or resplendent, workman or wonderful. Though we’ve long been known for our killer designs for Aces, we have always been partial to the joker card, because of how we contributed to the card’s evolution in the deck.

A little history first: The common suits in a deck of playing cards are French in origin — spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds are variations of the tarot deck’s batons (wands), cups, swords and coins (pentacles). The French streamlined the tarot’s four court cards per suit to three — the jack, queen and king.

But the joker isn’t from the tarot.

More specifically, it is not a translation of the tarot’s Fool card, the way the Knight of Cups became the Jack of Hearts. According to the U.S. Playing Card Company, the joker as we know it today is the crazy descendant of the bower card, the top trump in a trick-taking game called euchre. Because it was the highest-valued card, it didn’t have a suit. Decks were printed with bowers until about around the 1880s, when in a twist on the German “juker” card led designers to dress up the bower with bells and tassels and call him a joker. That also makes the joker the only card in the modern deck created in the U.S.

At the same time as euchre was popular, so was poker, spreading up and down the Mississippi and westward across the country. The jokers quickly found their way into poker as wild cards. But many different games evolved around the standard 52-card deck, so the jokers became wild cards of a different nature, with different values depending on the game:

  • ~ Canasta: It’s a wild deuce that rakes in more points.
  • ~ Spades: It helps balance the deck to even hands when three or six play. They have either no value or take over as top trumps (in that variation, the two jokers become Big and Little jokers, where the Big trumps the Little.)
  • ~ Gin or rummy: Wild cards that complete melds.
  • ~ Crazy Eights: Much like Uno, the jokers can be used as skip or reverse cards, depending on the number of players.

Ellusionist innovation

About 10 years ago, decks with two duplicate jokers were rare finds. Bicycle’s Rider back decks printed a quality guarantee on one joker, shrinking the design to make room for the guarantee. Hoyle shell backs came with a similar design, until it replaced its big joker with a Hoyle logo. Tally-Ho decks had one joker and a card that said “extra joker.” That meant magicians who wanted to use two jokers often cracked open a second deck just to swap out for matching jokers.

When Ellusionist developed the Black Tiger deck, one of its most undersold yet appreciated features was the inclusion of duplicate jokers. While the eye-catching designs and superior finish earned rave reviews, the duplicate jokers gave magicians a handy tool in each and every deck — no need to open a second deck just to get a duplicate. Each deck was truly loaded with qualities appreciated by card handlers of all kinds.

Though magicians can get a lot of use out of duplicate jokers, Ellusionist rolled out another upgrade with the creation of the Ghost deck: the joker reveal. Based on a principle that appeared in Ellusionist’s gaff decks, the jokers in the Ghost deck appeared to be a duplicate, but one had a small addition: An Ace of Clubs was placed subtly under the Joker’s foot. This hidden-in-plain sight concept opened up new heights of functionality for magicians, and added even more design expression, from the devilish revealing Arcane jokeress to the ingeniously hidden reveal in the Madison Dealers.

Either duplicate jokers or joker reveals are now included in most of the decks Ellusionist produces. The concept added value to each deck, making our decks the signature choice for many magicians. We’ve even seen the concepts duplicated by many other deck designers in this new wave of custom playing cards that we started.

The jokers are wild, indeed.

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