By Abby Gemechu

I played my first game of cards when I was seven. Though they belonged to my cousin, and as a result, displayed immense signs of age, clearly well-loved, I immediately was drawn to the vibrancy of their faded cherry-red patterned backs, which shone softly under warm lamp light. The first time I watched him shuffle, intricately folding the cards into bridge form with a flourish, the frayed ends turned to sleek paper before my eyes, maintaining a fierce glow only a child’s imagination could garner. 

Long before I sat in my cousin’s basement in awe of their magic, however, playing cards were born nearly halfway around the world, in either China or Persia, though much uncertainty shrouds their origins. The historical period during which they were first created is also disputed, but most experts agree it falls between the 9th and 11th centuries, or possibly earlier, as the first documentation places them in 13th century Europe, with little to no explanation as to how they got there. While this conclusion varies slightly among different sources, the common thread between them seems to be the mystery surrounding playing cards’ genesis. It is also notable that they are generally made of paper, which is easily decomposed and not durable enough to last the trials of past time, only emphasizing the temporary quality of these objects. I don’t know that their fleeting lifespan makes them more meaningful, but it is interesting to think a hundred years into the future, and envision nothing more than a pile of dust in such an invaluable treasure’s place.

Though the standard modern deck of 52 cards is the one my childhood is most familiar with, seemingly infinite versions have been used since its invention, each with their own sets of games and rules. Despite its many variations, however, there is something undoubtedly unique about the universality of playing cards – the sleek squares of slim paper speak volumes, and it is a language most people understand. This is why, when in doubt, I have turned to the familiarity of my fraying cardboard box, relying on the ace of spades. Not too long ago, it sat snugly in my backpack, shifting from pocket to pocket depending on my frequent use of the cards, a reserve of comfort to stand on when I’d lost my footing.

Now, however, my deck is kept in an enigmatic maze of other boxes, first stuffed into a blue and white striped container, and then hidden away from the light of day in yet another slightly larger art box. Both these cartons are filled to the brim with paper clips, clasps, beads, and other trinkets that have lost their meaning overtime. The main box, however, sits smack-dab in the middle of this chaotic jumble of knicknacks. Though it doesn’t really belong here, strewn in the midst of forgotten things, on the top of the heap it resides, comfortable in the rectangular impression it has pressed into the pile.

While I have not underestimated the value of the levity that card games provide by any means, especially compared to the gravity of actual life, as I have grown, I have come to realize the real significance of these games is the map of my own history they’ve drawn out, sandwiched between cobalt-blue backs. Not only does the dancing flourish of the bridge shuffle instantly recall a slew of memories from grade school, but it almost transports me through time, plopping me back to seven years old, racing through half-organized games of spoons and speed, with my sister’s and my jubilant laughter providing a soundtrack to the activity.

Suddenly, they are more than the strategy and speed of war, the frenzied chaos of slapjack, or the satisfying flutter of a bridge shuffle, but rather, what seems like nearly a million stories (or perhaps more accurately, 52), to tell, to be told, to predict – each one a possibility in its own right. 

Works Cited

Roya, Will. “The History of Playing Cards: The Evolution of the Modern Deck.” Playing Card Decks, 16

Oct. 2018,