26 March 2013

In The Cards

How many poker players are cyclists? 

For that matter, how many magicians ride bikes?

Those questions crossed my mind today when I was in a store, shopping for something entirely unrelated, and I came across decks of Bicycle playing cards.

I've seen them before, even though I can't remember the last time I played a card game and don't know the first thing about poker.  

Turns out, Bicycle cards are some of the best-known. They have been in continuous production since 1885.  Although I have found no information to confirm it, I suspect that the name has to do with the start date:  That is around the time bicycling was becoming fashionable.  A high-wheeler from that time cost, in today's dollars, more than even the most expensive custom machines made for record attempts and the riders on the wealthy nations' national teams.

In other words, bicycles had the same connotations as a private jet might have today.  People rode them to the opera and to art openings.  As arduous as they were to ride, nobody would mount a "penny farthing" unless he or she were wearing "proper" attire.  And I ain't talkin' about "billboard" jerseys and shorts in lycra!

Apparently, BIcycle cards are available in a variety of configurations, including versions for various card games and large-print cards for people with low vision.  However, nearly all Bicycle decks have an "air cushion" finish, which is said to improve their handling and is one of the reasons why they are so favored by magicians and performers who incorporate card tricks into their routines.

The first card in a typical deck is Bicycle's uniquely-styled Ace of Spades.  That card played a role its designers probably didn't envision.  During the Vietnam War, two American lieutenants wrote to the United States Playing Card Company (the manufacturer of Bicycle cards) and requested decks containing nothing but Aces of Spades.  Those officers, and their underlings, scattered those cards around the countryside.  Some Vietcong fled at the mere sight of them:  They conflated the Ace of Spades with a similar-looking French fortune-telling card that foretold death and suffering.  (Vietnam, a.k.a. Indochina, had been a French colony for nearly a century.)   Some of the Vietcong also regarded Lady LIberty, which was inscribed on some decks of cards, as a goddess of death.

I'm sure some of them fled on bicycles.


  1. Interesting. I occasionally play poker and framed an old Bicycle brand playing cards ad to hang on the wall in our poker room so I'd have some bicycle related decor in it http://vanscyoc.net/blog/plugin/tag/bikes+in+our+house

  2. Steve and Randy--Thanks! And, Randy, you know you're a real cyclist when you simply must have bicycle-related decor in your poker room!