10 Top Decks Produced by PlayingCardDecks
I'm writing a number of Top 10 lists to help celebrate the 5th anniversary of PlayingCardDecks. So of course I also had to do a list about the custom decks that Will Roya has produced under his own label. PlayingCardDecks (PCD) has only been around for 5 years, but already within his first year of starting his business, Will was working on projects to produce his own custom decks. In the context of where PCD was at, this was quite an undertaking. It already requires a huge amount of effort to start up an online business and sales platform, without introducing the extra complication of trying to produce your own decks of cards at the same time.
Many designers and creators have tried their hand at crowdfunding projects for playing cards and discovered how difficult this can be. It's not as simple as setting up a page with nice pictures of your imagined deck, and then waiting for the dollars to roll in. It requires a significant amount of hard work. Not only do you need a good design, but you also need to be good at marketing and communication, and you need to have the right network in place to ensure fulfilment of a quality product in a timely manner. Often creators are happy just to break even at the end of all this - if their project even gets funded in the first place.
But if there's one thing I've learned about Will Roya, it is that he is a man with enormous ambitions, energy, and passion, and he has the smarts to pull this off. Somehow, over the last five years he's managed quite the achievement: running a growing online business, and simultaneously producing multiple playing card projects that have put delightful and high quality custom playing cards into the hands of collectors.
Any "Top 10" is going to be subjective, and it's not my intention to suggest that my choices are necessarily the best of the many decks that have come out under the PCD label. But they are among my personal favourites, and the selections I've made here are somewhat representative of the many different types of custom playing cards that Will has produced since 2018. I've listed them more or less in the order in which they appeared on the market.
1. Chicken Playing Cards (2017)
The first deck that Will Roya was involved in creating was Runic Royalty Playing Cards, which was a collaboration with designer Keith Glover. The PCD logo is on the box, but Will's assistance was mostly with promotion, printing, and distribution. But the very first project that he ran entirely on his own was the charming Chicken Playing Cards. What came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case apparently it was the chicken. Will started from scratch, hiring the artist, and doing all the legwork himself. It was his first Kickstarter project, and almost 30 have followed since.
The design work for the Chicken deck is by Susan Krupp, and it captures a fun chicken theme, where a brightly coloured tuck box immediately sets the tone for the playfulness within. The card backs have a whimsical design, with what appears to be three mischievous roosters playing a game of poker. The delightful court cards are the real highlight of this deck, because they feature our fowled friends in all manner of exalted poses. The number cards also receive loving attention, with detailed artwork forming a background panel to the pips, which are heavily customized with brightly coloured feather-inspired artwork.
The indices are given their own white oval-shaped backgrounds - unquestionably egg shaped - which helps set them apart from the rest of the artwork, and ensures that they are still functional. The Aces are among my favourite cards, with oversized pips, and colourful feather-inspired interior decorating. The humorous Jokers picture matching foxes with a cage, one empty and the other with a young chick inside, giving magicians potential for some fun with a colour change. As the first fully PCD produced deck, this will always be a nostalgic favourite.
2. Alice in Wonderland Playing Cards (2018)
The Alice in Wonderland Playing Cards is a fresh, creative, and intriguing take on the surreal story of Alice in Wonderland, which captured the imagination of Israeli graphic designer and illustrator Sasha Dounaevski from childhood. Of course playing cards feature strongly in Lewis Carroll's book, so it's a natural fit for a custom deck.
Artwork on the interior of the tuck box cleverly pictures Alice falling into the rabbit hole. Sasha's linear style is a deliberately minimalist choice to reflect the absurdity and logic of the story, and the minimalist use of colours ensures a focus on the surreal artwork, with a simple blue and white colour scheme being a recurring feature of the deck. The court cards are a highlight, depicting characters like the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hare, Hatter, White Rabbit, Queen of Hearts and others, while the Aces recall some of Alice's adventures, such as the famous tea-party. Alice is featured on multiple cards in the deck, since she is the recurring and central figure in this tale.
The number cards are customized with uniquely shaped pips in a non-standard arrangement, plus a unique symbol (derived from the story) for each suit, such as the pocket watch and the pepper pot. The Jokers feature special eats and drinks from the story: the "Drink Me" mixture and "Eat Me" cake, which made Alice small and big respectively. And the symmetrical pattern of the card backs represents the garden that she wants to get into. The Alice in Wonderland theme returns through all the aspects of these playing cards, making it a charming deck for the child in all of us.
3. Strigiformes Owls Playing Cards (2018)
You'd think that a deck of playing cards with the word Strigiformes on the front might be a tough sell. Not so with the Strigiformes Owl Playing Cards. The title is taken from the scientific name of the order of birds we commonly call owls. The owl has a legacy as a wise old bird, and this deck also shows that it can be beautiful, courtesy of a gorgeous design by Renee LeCompte.
The artwork has just the right colour combinations to give an appropriately nocturnal feel, with dark colours. That's immediately evident with the tuck box, which confronts us with a gorgeous owl with outstretched wings. The card backs have a starry and dark night-sky background filled with a carefully designed symmetrical pattern constructed from detailed owl related images like eyes and feathers.
The artwork is especially incredible on the court cards, each of which has different owls, and cleverly incorporates imagery from the tarot, such as swords, pentacles, staves, and chalices. The Aces are also unique, featuring a full one-way image of an owl, asymmetrically counter-balanced by an intricate and exquisite design that features the suit of the card in a frosted white. But the number cards are great too, with highly customized pips and intricate detail, and ornate versions of the suits on both left and right borders. This is a magnificent deck that looks even better in real life than it does in pictures.
4. Ancient Warriors Playing Cards (2018)
I first saw pictures of the Ancient Warriors Playing Cards online and liked what I saw, but the real thing blew me away even more. This comes as a matching and limited edition two-deck set, one in a red/gold colour scheme, and another in a black/silver scheme. Designed by Marcelo Simonetti from Uruguay, these decks explore ancient warriors from ancient civilizations around the globe.
Each suit depicts a different culture on the court cards: Crusaders (Spades), Japanese (Clubs), Zulus (Diamonds), and Aztecs (Hearts). Unique aspects of each civilization are also reflected on the Aces, the pips, and the detailed patterns that make up the borders of the cards. There's customization everywhere, and it's amplified by the use of metallic gold and metallic silver ink. The indices are very clear and functional, and yet these decks are highly customized, interesting, and very attractive.
While the face cards in each deck are basically the same, the two decks do have different card backs. This back design includes four repeated icons in the center, which are representative of the four cultures featured in the decks. Diptych jokers and bonus cards unique to each deck complete a wonderful package.
5. Circus Nostalgic Playing Cards (2019)
The Circus Nostalgic Playing Cards was designed by artist Joe Ruiz, and aims to rekindle some of the childlike enthusiasm and excitement surrounding the circus. While the original unbranded version of this deck quickly sold out, the good news is that a Bicycle branded version was produced earlier this year, and is readily available: Bicycle Circus Nostalgic Playing Cards. The graphic design of the tuck box does a good job of capturing the feel appropriate for a nostalgic tribute to the world of circus entertainment from yesteryear. It has retro style fonts, and small touches like a custom seal that says "Admit One".
Joe researched vintage circuses when creating the deck, and the court cards especially do a good job of conveying "the exuberant energy of these old circus performers," by featuring classic figures like the strong man, escape artist, trapeze artist, juggler, and ringmaster. The Ace of Spades welcomes back the lion performer from the tuck box, and all the Aces have an oversized lavish design that matches this style.
The card backs have a "big top" circus tent pattern that is instantly recognizable and memorable, with a borderless design that has red and white stripes branching to the very edges of the cards, for an eye-catching look. I love how this design returns in a more subtle way on the front of the cards, which are further embellished with appropriately vintage borders. Due to the engaging graphic style, even the number cards look colourful and vibrant, with a customized design that includes indices so that the deck is still functional. This is a lively and whimsical deck that I love looking through, and has amused and pleased everyone I've shown it to.
6. Ladybug Playing Cards (2019)
Playing card designer Artur Rajch hails from Poland, and while you might not recognize his name, you might recognize some of his work. The Ladybug Playing Cards was a two deck set that started a wonderful series of insect and critter themed decks. All Bicycle branded, these also include Beekeeper, Dragonfly, Ant, Caterpillar, Butterfly, Grasshopper, Scorpion, Snail, with more "tiny critter" decks in the same style potentially forthcoming. Each represents a two deck set with similar decks that have a slightly different colour scheme or alternate artwork on the card backs.
All the decks in the series are attractive novelty playing cards that will appeal to collectors, and this first one will especially be enjoyed by anyone who loves ladybugs. The card back artwork is a mirrored two-way design that revolves around two lady bugs. I especially love the small touches, such as the miniature ladybugs on each corner of the design, which appear on several places on the tuck box as well. Apparently Will Roya's own passion for ladybugs inspired the deck, and he himself has a ladybug tattoo, and when his daughter arrived he gave her a ladybug-themed nursery. So he knows a thing or two about having them crawling all over the place, not just on his body and in his house, but also on our playing cards.
Artist Artur Rajch has made full use of the card canvas, and this is especially evident on the lovely court cards. Although they build on traditional features expected in court cards, like the King of Hearts suicide king, the artwork is otherwise far from traditional, and has a very lavish and stylish feel about it, a style that returns in all the decks of the series. All the Aces have oversized pips decorated with a black and red spotted design, and are touched with a leafy floral pattern. The number cards also get the benefit of thorough customization. The spotted design is applied to all the pips throughout the deck, including the indices. The indices use a somewhat unusual font, and are further decorated by a miniature ladybug for added fun. The charming critters from this delightful series are well worth keeping an eye out for.
7. Vanity Fair Playing Cards (2019)
Vanity Fair Playing Cards are representative of one of my favourite types of playing cards, namely transformation playing cards. With a transformation deck the pips are incorporated into a larger artistic image. They exhibit a level of creativity and ingenuity like few other decks, because the artists creating them must work within the limitations produced by the need to incorporate the pips into their design, and work with this in a creative, imaginative, and original manner. This genre of playing cards especially enjoyed popularity in the 19th century, and some incredibly creative decks emerged from this time period, this being one of the best.
The original version of this deck appeared in 1895, and this 2019 version is is one of several "reproduction decks" that Will Roya has produced with the help of artist Azured Ox, who painstakingly recreates the original artwork from yesteryear, and helps turn classic decks into fine editions for modern collectors. Two matching versions were produced, one with green backs having a Clown back pattern, and the other with ornately decorated red backs having a Hobgoblin pattern. Unlike most decks, where the court cards are the main feature, the real appeal of transformation playing cards lies in the number cards, with their colourful and creative transformation art.
But the rest of the deck wasn't left out, with the two-way court cards being turned into comic figures (e.g. the King of Spades is smoking a pipe, the Queen of Spades holds a spoon, the Queen of Clubs holds a pickled cucumber with a fork), so each and every card is a unique and attractive work of art. The Aces also received special attention, especially the signature Ace of Spades. The end result effectively represents a miniature art gallery with 52 exhibits. This particular deck remains one of the finest examples of what the genre of transformation cards could produce in the late nineteenth century, and modern collectors are indebted to Will Roya for bringing it back to life for them to enjoy in a fine new edition.
8. Hustling Joe Playing Cards (2019)
The Hustling Joe Playing Cards is another wonderful deck from the late 19th century that has received the benefit of a fine reproduction version courtesy of Will Roya's efforts under the PCD label. Like several other reproduction decks he has produced, two separate versions were produced with different card backs. A blue Gnome back design takes over the black and white artwork of the original deck from 1885, and pictured gnomes ice skating by moonlight; while a green Frog back design provides an alternative back design based on a vignette featuring frogs.
The name and artwork of this deck was inspired by the notion of a classic "hustler". It represents a trickster who would lure someone to gamble on an apparently certain bet, only to find out they were scammed. Each suit represents its own domain and focus (e.g. the Clubs show a law enforcement officer), while Hustling Joe himself appears on the Ace of Spades.
I particularly like the coloured backgrounds which have been added to each card. These suit the comical and light-hearted nature of the deck by adding aspects of vibrancy and playfulness. The result is an amusing novelty deck with both visual appeal and charm.
9. 5th Kingdom Playing Cards (2020)
I've already acknowledged my fondness for transformational cards, and one of my favourite modern decks that showcase this feature is the 5th Kingdom Playing Cards which features a creative design by Russian artist Maria Fedoseeva. This deck is technically considered a semi-transformation deck, because the pips are cleverly integrated into the artwork on the cards, but the usual requirement of maintaining the traditional location of the pips is abandoned.
A black "Artist" edition and a blue "Players" edition were produced, and both feature tuck boxes that offer a classy and sophisticated look, with elegant lettering touched with gold foil. The deck is inspired by world cultures and creatures, which is why the card backs integrate the shapes of several different animals, along with some ornate touches around the borders for extra style, and touches of yellow gold for extra luxury. Each suit represents a different kingdom: primeval Africa (Spades), spicy India (Hearts), medieval Europe (Clubs), and mythical Japan (Diamonds).
The court cards pick up aspects of each suit's different theme, and the same is true of the Aces, which make full use of the card canvas. But as with most transformation playing cards, it's the number cards that are especially creative. These showcase the artist's skill and imagination, by cleverly incorporating the pips in the artwork in all sorts of interesting ways, in order to bring to life each suit's unique culture.
10. Cotta's Almanac Playing Cards (2020)
Over the course of two years, Will Roya has been partnering with graphic designer Azured Ox to produce a set of fine reproductions of the most historical transformation decks of them all, the famous Cotta's Almanac Playing Cards. There was a boom of transformation decks in the late 1800s, but the very first published and complete deck of transformation cards was produced by Johann Freidrich Cotta of Tübingen, Germany. He went on to produce a series of six playing card almanacs in successive years from 1805-1811, with a new deck appearing in all but one of those years.
The series is now famously called: the Cotta's Almanac. At the time it was popular to produce an "almanac", which was easily adapted for playing cards by having each of the 52 cards in the deck represent a week of the calendar year. The number cards featured pictures that were largely independent drawings without a common topic, and were intended as conversation pieces that accompanied the companion almanac, a small booklet that referred to the illustrations.
Each of the court cards from these decks had its own theme or area of focus, with the first set being based on a Schiller play about the famous historical figure Joan of Arc. Following the success of the Jeanne d'Arc deck (1805), further almanac decks followed in successive years: Classical Antiquity (1806), Wallenstein (1807), Arabs (1809), The Pantheon (1810), and Knightly Orders (1811). The Cotta transformation decks are extremely significant, given the many transformation playing cards they subsequently inspired, and the unique place they occupy in playing card history. It is fantastic that high quality reproductions of these keystone decks are now available for modern collectors to enjoy.
Restricting myself to featuring just 10 decks from the PCD catalogue was a real challenge. So I have to leave you with a few "honorable mentions" in order to add some other personal favourites, all of which came out in the last year or so, and which are delightful novelty decks well worth taking a look at:
● Parrot Playing Cards (2021) - This colourful deck features over 200 unique parrot species from around the world, each number card having parrots corresponding to its value.
● Ninja Playing Cards (2021) - A ninja themed deck might not be everyone's cup of tea, but this is a semi-transformation deck, and the artwork on the number cards is especially creative and fun.
● Jolly Roger Cards (2021) - Who doesn't like something with a good pirate theme? The fully custom artwork on all the cards is especially well done, right down to the wooden planks that make up the background.
● Balloon Jungle Playing Cards (2022) - Imagine a vibrant landscape of colourful balloon animals to get some idea of the playfulness of this fun novelty deck.
There's no doubt that PlayingCardDecks has made a significant and welcome contribution to the playing card industry over the last few years. I'm personally very appreciative of the wide variety and creativity of the designs that have been produced so far. I have a special fondness for novelty decks, and plenty of the PCD decks fit that category very well. These are decks that are fully customized, and will especially be enjoyed by collectors who appreciate looking at all the artwork and detail.
The other area that PCD has made an important contribution is in the area of reproduction decks. They've put out some lovely historic decks in fine new editions, thus preserving significant aspects of playing card history, and putting these beautiful relics from the past into the hands of modern collectors.
For the most part, the playing cards produced by PCD are printed by industry leader United States Playing Card Company, maker of the famous Bicycle playing cards, with their standard "air cushion" finish. So they are a quality product that will stand up to use, and handle smoothly and well. USPCC produced cards have a well-deserved reputation, and rightly receive respect for their consistently good card-stock, clear printing, good handling, and a durability which ensures they last longer than a regular deck of cheap playing cards. In many cases luxury gilded versions of all these decks are also available.
Will Roya has always had a passion and a pursuit of excellence, but now he has added another important arrow to his quiver: experience. Today has even more connections in the playing card industry than when he started out, and he has an established base of supporters, and a proven track record of success. With nearly 30 successful Kickstarter projects under his belt, supporters know that they can count on him to come through in a timely manner, and that they'll get exactly the quality product that they've been promised. I'm already excited about what the next five years will bring under the PCD label!
Where to get them? Some of the earlier PCD-produced decks are now sold out, but you can see the full range of PCD-produced decks (including their newest releases) here.
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
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10 Top Information Videos About Playing Cards
So you like playing cards. So do I. But how much do you actually know about them? When I first started getting interested in playing cards, and started learning more about them, I was amazed by how much I didn't know. Fortunately, with the help of some good books, reliable articles, and helpful videos, I found myself learning more. I'm naturally curious, and that holds me in good stead when doing research, because I want to get to the bottom of things, and I want to learn all that there is to know about something. And I want to share something of what I've learned with others. This time I'd like to share some top videos which give useful information about playing cards.
I personally find that the more I learn about playing cards, the more I appreciate and enjoy them. Whether it's learning about their history, their production, or exploring their many uses, it all results in an enhanced appreciation and helps keep my passion alive. These are some of the top informational videos about playing cards that I'm aware of. If you're aware of others that are at least as good or better than these, by all means share them by posting a comment on this article. I'm always keen to learn more!
1. The Secret History of Playing Cards (Magician DMC)
This video has been put together by magician Drummond Money-Coutts, the English magician and card handler familiar from several TV specials including the Netflix series "Death by Magic", and more commonly known as DMC. It's been put together brilliantly, with fine visuals and editing. And the content is excellent, as DMC covers the complete history of playing cards, starting with their apparent birth in the far East.
Even though it runs for nearly 20 minutes, it is not only factual but very engaging and entertaining, and DMC will keep you enthralled as you learn about how playing cards developed into the form that we know them today, and also uncovers some of the lesser known stories about their history. How did Aces become the most powerful card in the deck? Why does the Ace of Spades have extravagant decoration, and was a man hanged in 1805 for forging fake Aces of Spades? Even if you've heard those stories before his fascinating anecdote about the Earl of Sandwich is one you're almost certain not to have heard before.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: The history of playing cards.
2. Secrets of the Playing Card (History Channel)
This documentary was produced in 2006 by the History Channel as part of their "Decoding the Past" series, and does a very good job of bringing a very fair and objective account about the origin of playing cards, particularly in relation to the question of whether they have demonic origins in the occult, and it's a very fine production that runs for 45 minutes. The video is well researched, and numerous historians and experts on the subject are consulted along the way.
The first part of the video documents the origin of playing cards, acknowledging that their apparent origins in China are in fact debatable, and that a case can be made for other sources as well. The evidence becomes clearer once playing cards spread through Europe, and this video does a good job of hitting all the main points of the development of playing cards in the 15th and 16th centuries, including cultural and geographic variations, and the origin of the four different suits. Coverage is also given to historical points of interest, such as taxation in England which led to stamping duty paid on the Ace of Spades.
The final part of the video is a lengthy excursus about the origin of the Tarot deck. A compelling case, carefully documented from history, is made that tarot cards first existed as trump cards for a regular deck of playing cards used for gaming purposes. Occult meanings and the use of these cards for fortune telling were all later developments, quite distinct from their original usage for card games. Video footage includes lots of wonderful images of antique playing cards to complement the well-informed and educational audio narrative.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: Debunking the myth that playing cards developed from tarot cards.
3. Things You Don't Know About Playing Cards (Be Amazed)
This is a superbly produced video, and there's good reason it has chalked up over 3.5 million views. The presentation and edition is really well done, and the content is pretty solid too. At times it tends to be somewhat speculative rather than factual, and presents theories as actual facts. But overall it's informative, interesting, and very well put together.
Over the course of ten minutes, we get to run through a list of 10 facts about playing cards that aren't commonly known. These include these topics like the many sayings inspired by playing cards, the origin of the four suits, the origin of the Joker, why the King of Hearts has no moustache, the origin of the suicide king, the significance of 52 cards and other number patterns in a deck, some historical personalities that have been featured on court cards, why the Ace of Spades is unique, the amount of shuffles needed for randomizing a deck, and some Bicycle brand design secrets.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: Interesting facts about playing cards.
4. How Playing Cards Are Made (Official Bicycle)
You use them all the time, but have you ever wondered how exactly playing cards are made? The makers of the Bicycle brand, the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) protects their secrets very carefully, and it's rare to be allowed inside their factory. But in this video we actually get a quick tour of the entire production process from start to finish. More technology goes into printing playing cards than you might think, and to produce a quality deck of printed playing cards involves numerous important steps.
A deck begins its creation with massive rolls of paper. Next these are run through the printing press as continuous uncut sheets. Next these are cut into individual cards, before being boxed and shipped. This particular video is short and sweet (little more than two minutes long), so if you enjoyed it and want to see more like it, I have a few more treats for you to check out: How It's Made by Cartamundi Playing Cards (quite a bit older and not the best resolution) and How It's Made by Theory11 Playing Cards, both of which offer further glimpses into the process of manufacturing playing cards.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: How playing cards are made.
5. A Tour of the United States Playing Card Company (Travel Channel)
This video features John Ratzenberger, and was produced as part of his "Made in America" show featured on the Travel Channel. The video pre-dates the USPCC's move across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio to Erlanger, Kentucky. So the facility you see here is no longer used for manufacturing playing cards, and has largely been demolished, with the site being converted to a mixed-use development. But the processes involved in manufacturing playing cards hasn't changed significantly, and USPCC still uses most of the same equipment. As a result, this video offers another rare look inside the walls of USPCC production, and we get to see how things actually work from start to finish, in a fast paced video that runs for just under 8 minutes.
We get to visit the inside boardrooms and meet the company's CEO of the time, and learn something about the history of playing cards and of the company. Some famous decks we get to see include the Airline Spotter deck and the Iraq's Most Wanted Deck. We also get to watch part of the process, including two sheets of paper glued together and laminated, then set to a predetermined thickness with the crusher. The paper is run through a printing press, and then cut into strips, and into cards. One stunning stat mentioned is that at that time the factory was putting out 20 million cards (400,000 decks) a day! Samples decks are tested before packaging happens. The segment ends with a fun game of poker with some of the company head honchos.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: The Bicycle brand.
6. How Many People Does it Take to Make a Deck of Cards? (History Channel)
This video features film-maker Dave Holmes and was produced by the History Channel, and gives a much more detailed look of the process of making playing cards from start to finish. Like the previous video, this shows us the "old" plant in Cincinnati, Ohio. The video quality isn't ideal (a handheld camera was used to film the original TV program), and the sound is occasionally out of sync, but this is still a splendid video with a great insider perspective. In the course of just over 12 minutes, we also get to hear a few fascinating snippets of playing card history.
At the outset we quickly learn how secure the United States Playing Card Company is, because even the crew filming the documentary have to go through a series of security checks before they're allowed inside. In turn we get to meet some of the individuals involved with different parts of the manufacturing process, each of whom gives us a brief rundown of what they do: senior desktop operator, plate-making operator, paper input operator, laminator operator, paper operator, printing assistant, second pressman, first pressman, defect manager, stripper, corner puncher, deck inspector, packaging manager, floor-person, distribution specialist, and lead shipper.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: How playing cards are made.
7. How to Release Your Own Custom Deck of Playing Cards (Ekaterina)
Ekaterina is a well known and respected youtuber, whose main area of expertise is in the area of card magic and cardistry. She's put out over two hundred solid videos with magic reviews, and tutorials for both card magic and card flourishing. Unlike some well-intended people on youtube, she knows what she's talking about, and has good techniques.
But of special interest to us is that Ekat has also created her own custom deck of playing cards, called Fox Playing Cards. In this detailed half hour video she walks through the entire process of creating your own deck, with four main areas of focus: Design, Production, Marketing, and Fulfilment. She shares her own experiences, and explains many of the things that she learned along the way. There's also a couple of segments in the video where she interviews a couple of other creators, to see what we can learn from their experience. If you decide to print with MakePlayingCards, you may also find helpful the step-by-step video guides for using printing with MPC which have been produced by CardMechanic and by Rise Magic.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: How to create your own deck of custom playing cards.
8. Collecting Playing Cards (Tom & Judy Dawson)
This video is an absolute treasure, because it is a 40 minute interview with playing card collectors Tom and Judy Dawson. They authored a revision of the authoritative Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards, and have both been heavily involved with the 52 Plus Joker collectors club, with Tom even serving as president for many years. Tom passed away in 2016, but Judy is still active in the world of playing card collecting. They are both considered legends among playing card collectors, and experts and authorities on antique playing cards.
This particular video dates back to 2013, prior to Tom's death, and features an interview conducted with Tom and Judy by Ben Train. It's a goldmine of information, as Tom and Judy speak candidly on all sorts of playing card related subjects, including the history of playing cards, various uses for playing cards, and advice for getting into collecting. Their passion and expertise really shines through, and in the process of learning from them you'll also get the chance to see some rare decks from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: An interview with veteran collectors Tom and Judy Dawson.
9. Why These Cards Are Worth $500 (Chris Ramsay)
If you spend any time with playing card collectors, you will quickly come across the name "Jerry's Nugget Playing Cards". This is an iconic deck prized by collectors, and a sealed deck typically fetches around $500 on the secondary market. Seriously? Yep. This 10 minute video takes the time to tell us the story about these decks, why they are worth so much, and also shares something about a modern reprint. The video is made by Chris Ramsay, who is a magician who has achieved success as a youtuber, and runs a very popular channel.
Chris gives an overview of the Jerry's Nugget decks, which were first produced for the Jerry's Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. They were printed in the early 1970s, and were originally sold in the casino's gift shop for around a dollar or so. Demand for them increased after they were popularized by cardists in the 1990s, and when French magician Dominique Duvivier purchased the remaining supply from the casino (the video is wrong about the figure: it was 14,000 not 40,000 decks). And because they were printed with methods no longer possible for environmental reasons, they couldn't be replicated, and prices started skyrocketing. The video also covers a recent reprinting of the iconic Jerry's Nugget decks with a modern stock and a modern finish.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my articles: The legendary Jerry's Nugget playing cards and The case of the missing 40,000 Jerry's Nugget decks.
10. A History of Marked Cards (Kevin Reylek)
This lecture was first presented at the 52 Plus Joker convention in 2020, and was prepared and delivered by Kevin Reylek. Kevin is the production manager for playing cards over at Penguin Magic, and an expert on the subject of marked cards. His presentation runs for just under half an hour, and begins by examining the history of marked decks, with factory produced marked cards only appearing for the first time in the 19th century. He also covers some key terminology, notably the difference between coded systems and readers systems.
Next comes an overview of big and influential names in the world of marked decks, notably Theodore DeLand (1873-1931), whose influence is still evident in several factory-printed marked decks produced today. Other important figures from the past include Al Baker, T. Page Wright, and more recently Ted Lesley, whose work helped pioneer the current generation of modern decks with openly readable marking systems, like the GT Speedreaders and Penguin's Marked Cards. The final part of the lecture points to some interesting marked decks from the present, and some good resources for further study. Kevin is very well-informed and well-studied, and you're guaranteed to learn a lot from this. Once you've viewed the presentation and want to learn more, you can also watch the separate Q&A session that followed.
Want to learn more on this topic? See my article: Why do magicians use marked cards?
As mentioned at the outset, this isn't an exhaustive list, although it is not easy finding genuinely interesting and informed content about topics like these. There's plenty of videos about card magic, cardistry, and reviews about specific decks of playing cards, but it's much harder to find reliable videos about topics like the history of playing cards, production of playing cards, and similar topics.
So I'll leave you with a few other videos that didn't quite make this list, but are still worth watching:
● Unusual types of playing cards (Grand Illusions)
Tim has been collecting toys and cards for over 30 years, and shows some fascinating types of playing cards in his collection.
● Antique playing cards (Jason McKinstry)
A playing card historian and expert shares stories about some of the biggest names in playing card manufacturing.
● The United States Playing Card Company (Michael Slaughter)
USPCC's president at the time, Mike talks about plans for the site of USPCC's old facility, and his vision for USPCC's future.
● Exploring the abandoned historic Bicycle playing card factory (RnK All Day)
Robb specializes in exploring abandoned buildings, and visits USPCC's old factory in Norwood.
● How to make someone pay $400 for a deck of cards (Huron Low)
A TEDx Talk with one of The Virts, who explains the thinking and marketing that made the Virtuoso decks so successful.
● So I designed a deck and made $1.5 million on Kickstarter (Ten Hundred)
Artist Ten Hundred documents the complete process of designing his custom deck, the first ever to hit $1 million on Kickstarter.
● How to break in a deck of cards (December Boys)
An experienced cardists runs through what to do first every time you open a brand new deck, and how to break it in.
● How to keep your playing cards fresh (Rise Magic)
Some tips for playing card enthusiasts about how to look after and extend the life of your playing cards.
● Card counting and casino scams (Sal Piacente)
A consultant in casino game protection and expert in casino cheating offers fascinating insights as he covers movies on the subject.
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
- [+] Dice rolls
25 Jul 2022
25 Things to Love About PlayingCardDecks.com: A Fifth Anniversary Appreciation Post
So PlayingCardDecks.com is celebrating its fifth anniversary. The official date is 20 April 2022, which marks the exact day five years ago when the very first sale was completed back in 2017. The site is run by Will Roya, who left a career as a professional magician in order to dedicate himself to going into business as an online playing card retailer. This article is intended as a celebration of sorts, about why PlayingCardDecks (or PCD for short) continues to be one of my favourite playing card retailers, and about the many things it has brought to us over the last five years.
A Personal Story
Let me get one thing straight: I am not Will Roya. I'm just some guy out there on the internet that loves playing cards, and loves writing about them. That's stating the obvious, perhaps, but there are some people who think that I'm him. But I'm not him, and can't take any credit for what he has achieved. When people see Will posting blog articles on his site, they sometimes incorrectly assume that he is the EndersGame who writes the articles. But "EndersGame" is just the online handle I've used ever since I started writing game reviews over a decade ago. And Will has more than enough to keep himself busy running a business without complicating things by writing articles too. So if there's any content that upsets you, I'll take the blame for that, not Will.
I first got in contact with Will in late 2017, when we started corresponding about some of the first Kickstarter projects that he was working on at the time. I was already writing about playing cards - purely as a hobby and as a labour of love, and because I like helping out creators and sharing helpful information with other collectors and enthusiasts. I did a couple of write-ups to help spread the word about his early Kickstarter projects. One thing led to another, and he offered to post some of my articles over on his blog. I was happy to agree, and I've been doing that for the last four years, writing about playing cards, card magic, card games, and other playing card related subjects, whenever time permits me to do so.
Now I am not officially part of PlayingCardDecks, and I also publish what I write on other playing card platforms. Occasionally I even purchase playing cards elsewhere. In the end, I'm just a passionate playing card enthusiast like so many of my readers. But I do feel a strong sense of loyalty and appreciation to Will Roya, and I am a satisfied repeat customer. I personally placed my very first order with PCD around April 2018, which coincided with their first anniversary event, which ran for almost a week. They say that first impressions are everything, and I was quickly hooked, and would return often. Since then I've placed more than 30 orders with PCD, some of significant size; something that many other playing card enthusiasts will be able to identify with. Just last week I placed an order and spent over $100 of my own money to pick up several collectors decks which I simply couldn't get from other retailers.
I'll describe this as an appreciation post, because the fifth anniversary of PCD is a good time to reflect back on what Will Roya and PCD have accomplished. It's also an opportunity to share some of the things I particularly appreciate about them, and why they remain my #1 choice as online playing card retailer. As mentioned already, I will occasionally buy playing cards elsewhere too. Any playing card enthusiast knows the importance of shopping around, and there will be times where hard-to-find decks can only be sourced elsewhere, or where there are special offers that are impossible to resist. But on the whole, PCD is the retailer I keep coming back to, and in this article I'll share with you some of the things about them that keep me coming back. Obviously this is biased and from my own perspective, but that's kind of the point!
A Short History
But first, how did Will Roya get to where he is today? Will's personal background includes an established magic career. He had been performing magic professionally at restaurants, resorts, and private parties since the age of 16. After an education in theater and business, he eventually moved to Las Vegas, where he continued to perform magic regularly, as well as working as a magician on cruise ships.
Over time Will began developing an increasing interest in selling magic products, and eventually gave up performing to focus on sales full time. He also started getting involved in the creation of a number of different magic products. Will soon discovered that his real passion was for playing cards. He started thinking about ways that he could sell them, and how he could contribute to the industry by creating them. He began to get further involved in the playing card industry, and gained valuable experience by helping other creators get their projects crowdfunded, through services he offered in consulting and fulfilment. He also started selling a range of magic products and playing cards via Amazon and eBay.
But eventually it was time to bite the bullet. By now he had an office and warehouse, and he made the decision to focus exclusively on playing cards. He'd already built up an online business over several years by means of his Amazon and eBay sales, so he was well placed to take the next step. In April 2017 he launched PlayingCardDecks.com as a retail website, from the outset offering a selection of more than 1000 different decks of playing cards and related items. The addition of a small band of dedicated staff members has helped him continue to grow.
By the time the first anniversary rolled around a year later, things were moving in a positive direction. Will celebrated the milestone with a bang by offering huge discounts site wide, as he continued to grow the site. At that time his range of different decks was well over 1500, and the total amount of stock numbered in the 10,000s. To mark the occasion, he released a special mystery anniversary deck, and shortly afterwards he launched his Pip Box Club subscription service, a popular program which continues to run successfully even now.
Over time Will has continued to develop his business in various ways, and the creation of custom decks of playing cards under the PCD brand is a notable and important contribution he makes to the playing card industry on a regular basis. From the many times I've corresponded with him, I know that he's always looking for new ideas and willing to try new things, in an effort to improve his business, serve his customers better, and provide more for the playing card enthusiast.
And that brings us to today, five years later. Since its launch, Will has focused on making a diverse selection of playing cards available at reasonable prices, and combining this with good customer service, with speedy processing and shipping. At any given moment you can expect to find literally tens of thousands of decks in stock at PCD, including all the latest and greatest releases. Each month thousands of orders are processed and shipped throughout the United States and around the world. Happy fifth birthday PlayingCardDecks.com!
25 Things To Love
So now it's time to share some of the good things that PlayingCardDecks brings to the playing card industry, and what I appreciate about Will and his team.
1. Wide range
Of course the main reason to go to PCD is to buy playing cards. But to keep consumers like us happy, they need to have what we're looking for - in other words, a wide range of products to suit a wide range of customers with a wide range of intereWith literally tens of thousands of decks in stock, and more than 1,500 different decks, this is one of the widest ranges of quality playing cards you'll find anywhere. Whenever there is a new release, which mostly is channelled via Murphy's Magic (the world's biggest distributor of magic and playing cards), you'll usually see it quickly added to the PCD inventory in their new playing cards section, which is constantly being updated.
2. Quality decks
You know those cheap playing cards you can get at places like the dollar store? Well you won't find them at PCD. A significant amount of playing cards available here are printed by the United States Playing Card Company, maker of the famous Bicycle brand, in a high quality air cushion style finish. Others are sourced from industry leading printers and reliable playing card manufacturers like Cartamundi, Expert Playing Cards, and Legends Playing Cards. One thing you won't typically find at PCD are cheaply made cards that are garbage quality.
3. Specialized decks
Every collector tends to have a type of deck that has their special interest, or that they focus on collecting. For me personally, I have a soft spot for cardistry and novelty decks. I really enjoy fiddling with a deck, and experimenting with different card flourishing moves, and practicing sleight of hand. It's a great way to get extra mileage out of a good deck of cards, and to enjoy the visual artwork. I'm happy to report that there's a particularly good range of colourful and creative cardistry decks, which you'll quickly find by entering the word "cardistry" in the search bar. Fun novelty decks are of course found all over the site. Other categories I especially enjoy are transformation decks, vintage decks, and marked decks, and PCD has a large range in each of these categories. And if those don't float your boat, plenty of other categories are listed in the sidebar, including decks arranged by brand (Bicycle, Cartamundi, Ellusionist, etc), or topic (Animals, Fictional, Military, etc).
4. PCD branded decks
From the outset, Will hasn't just been selling playing cards, but has also been heavily involved in producing them. Over the course of the last few years, he's produced a number of excellent PlayingCardDecks branded decks. He first gained experience with several collaborations, and his Chicken Playing Cards was the first deck he produced under his own PCD label. Many custom decks subsequently followed, and he has established a network of reliable connections with artists and producers in the playing card industry. Quite a number of his decks are produced with the help of crowdfunding, and Will has already chalked up almost 30 successful playing card projects on Kickstarter. I especially love the novelty decks that he's produced, and the reproductions of historic and vintage decks.
5. Under $5 decks
I've introduced a lot of teenagers to card magic and cardistry via the communities I'm involved with, including at a school. You'd be amazed at how enthusiastic kids can be about card magic, and especially about cardistry. All you need to do is point them in the right direction by giving them some links to reliable video tutorials on youtube, and they'll be away and running. I like to encourage kids in this by giving them a custom deck. For this, I've found the under $5 range on PCD to be a lifesaver. All of these decks cost around five bucks or less, and yet for the most part they are still quality playing cards. Most kids have never before handled a USPCC produced deck of cards with an embossed air cushion finish, and are blown away by the quality. They also just love decks which are totally customized. There's plenty of decks in the under $5 range that make great gifts, and I've picked out and given away dozens and dozens.
When you love playing cards like I do, then you'll also find yourself becoming interested in playing card accessories. Over the years I've found myself ordering things like deck cases and brick boxes for storing my decks, deck stands for displaying them, and deck sleeves for protecting them. Then there are helpful products like fanning powder, card clips, card wallets, and dealer coins. Yes, I've bought all those too. In one instance there was a delightful Piatnik playing card puzzle on sale, and that proved to be a great treat for the family. A wonderful book about transformation playing cards continues to be one of my personal favourites. I always keep an eye out for the newest products added to PCD's catalogue, because I never know what kind of interesting accessories I'll find.
7. PCD accessories
Besides his PCD branded custom playing cards, Will has produced a number of PCD branded products. These include these clear PCD plastic boxes which are great for protecting decks in transit. Other swag he's put out include a PCD face mask and a PCD can holder. But my favourite item is the Franken Deck. This is a delightful Frankenstein-inspired deck that made up of 54 cards, each taken from a different deck. In other words, you still have a complete deck with cards from all four suits, each running from Ace through King, plus two Jokers. But every card has a very different look, making it a wonderful collector's item that showcases the beauty of over fifty different custom decks. It's only available at limited times, but is a great novelty piece that is well worth keeping an eye out for.
8. Magic products
Not everyone is into magic, but for me it's one of my pet loves and goes back to my teenage years. PCD isn't a magic site in the first place, and quite honestly when it's magic products I'm after, Penguin Magic is usually my first port of call. But from time to time Will gets magic products that are being liquidated or which he gets good deals on. So when looking back over the orders I've placed over the past four years, I noticed that I'd picked up quite a few magic tricks, ranging from gaff decks, to special coins or invisible thread, and even some individual marketed effects that I've had a lot of fun with. Usually these are also posted in the accessories section of the site.
9. Competitive prices
Since PCD arrived on the scene five years ago, the playing card industry has grown significantly. It's also become more competitive, and the range of online retailers that sell playing cards today is bigger than ever before. In the early days of PCD, pre-COVID, it was even possible for them to offer free shipping around the globe with a certain minimum order size. Significant postage increases have brought an end to that. But even so, generally speaking I find that the prices at PCD are quite competitive, especially for loyal customers who take full advantage of discount coupons, clearance sales, and the loyalty rewards program. Once you factor all these things in, more often than not you'll be saving money by shopping at PCD rather than heading elsewhere, especially for customers in the US.
10. Safe shipping
I live overseas, so shipping is always going to be a consideration for me. But for US customers, any order above $100 is automatically free. Aside from some delays that were inevitable during the height of COVID, I've always found that my orders were shipped in a timely manner, and arrived safely as a result of excellent packaging. My decks have always been well-packed, and typically arrived in a cardboard box with padded envelopes and styrofoam offering extra protection on the inside.
11. Customer service
Having a good product and a good website alone won't make a business successful. These need to be backed by good customer service. My experience with PCD's customer service has been very good. It's been extremely rare that something was wrong with an order, and I've never had anything arrive damaged due to poor packing. Whenever I had questions prior to making a final decision, or needed to correspond about anything, responses were always prompt and pleasant.
12. Professional website
When you're involved in e-commerce, you need to have a functional website, because that's the territory where your customers are seeing and purchasing your products. Anything that makes that experience unpleasant or awkward is likely to chase them away. My experience with PCD's website has been consistently positive. I appreciate that you can easily browse decks in different categories, and navigate to the cards you're especially interested in. The search function works well, and you can even narrow down a search in many ways.
13. Product photos
One of the best things about PCD's website is the photo galleries that accompany each product listing. This lets me zoom in to see exactly what the tuck box and cards look like, so I know exactly what I'm getting before I click "Add to Cart". There's few things more frustrating than visiting a retailer's website and not knowing exactly what you're getting, or being uncertain about what the product looks like.
14. Product reviews
The longer the site is around, the more useful the "product reviews" of the site becomes. Customers can leave reviews on specific decks, and because this in turn earns you loyalty points, there is a good incentive to do this. When I'm shopping around for new playing cards, I always find it incredibly helpful to know what other people think. Did a deck turn out to look somewhat different than how the marketing photos made it seem? What was the handling like? I'm one of those people that always reads reviews before I make a purchase. There aren't quite as many reviews on PCD as I'd like to see, especially with newer decks, so I always consult other sources too. But this is a valuable part of the site that can really help customers to make informed buying decisions.
15. Game rules
The section on card game rules is one of the lesser known parts of the site, but it's a real gold mine if you like card games. I'm a huge fan of playing card games with a traditional deck, and it is one of my favourite ways to enjoy a custom deck of cards. I've also written a couple of articles that cover the best card games to check out, and the best two player games. I've not been involved at all with the section about rules for card games, but I've used it many times as a resource, and found it very helpful. I especially like the video tutorials that accompany most of the written rule descriptions. The videos created by Triple S Games for PCD are particularly well done. If you prefer the printed page, then Will Roya's book Card Night is also a great resource for card game rules.
16. Blog articles
Typically each week sees a new article appearing on the site's All-In Playing Card Blog. Often this features one of my articles, which cover a wide range of subjects including basics about the creation, care, and quality of playing cards; essentials about collecting and playing card history; interesting stories about creators or projects; playing card trivia and novelties; as well as articles about card games, card flourishing, and card magic. Occasionally I get the opportunity to interview leading figures in the industry, and the blog has featured interviews with top playing card designers and famous magicians. You can see a complete list of articles arranged by topic.
Arguably the most useful article on the site, and worthy of getting separate mention here, is the FAQ: I'm New To Collecting Playing Cards, So Where Should I Start? This is a synopsis of some of the other content on the site, and is intended as a quick reference guide for newbies looking to learn the basics about playing cards and collecting. If you're new, this is the place to start, and you'll find all the key information that you need in one place.
On a regular basis Will puts out an email newsletter, which is a free service for anyone who wishes to subscribe to it. This announces the latest news about new decks that have been added to his inventory, decks that have come back in stock, upcoming releases, special sales and events, information about his Kickstarter projects, and the articles appearing on the blog. It's a terrific way to stay informed about the latest and greatest playing cards, and to make sure that you don't miss out on any sweet coupons or special deals.
19. Social media
PCD also has an active presence on social media, and that is another way to help stay in touch with their latest news. You can follow them on Facebook and on Instagram. Their YouTube channel hasn't had much activity in recent times, but there is still a wealth of great playing card reviews and other information you'll find there.
20. Pip Box Club
The Pip Box Club is a monthly subscription service that started in May 2018. For a monthly fee, subscribers get a box of decks and other extras, which are shipped by the 10th of each month. Two different sizes of Pip Box are on offer, and typically these include at least one brand new release, and the chance to get decks before they are otherwise available. The value of what subscribers receive is more than what they pay for joining the club, so it's good value. Sometimes extra exclusives and bonus items are included. I'm not personally a subscriber of this club, because I prefer to order exactly what I want, but I have seen many positive reports online from other collectors about it, who speak very highly of it.
21. Loyalty program
Already early on in running PCD, Will introduced a rewards system for repeat customers. The idea is quite straightforward: you earn points for each dollar you spend in the online store, as well as for a number of other things like following PCD on social media, referring new customers, or adding product reviews. You can then cash in these rewards in return for a range of free decks on a future order. The more points you earn, the better the deck you can get. I've picked up some great decks for free this way, and it's also a great way to pick up extra decks to give away as gifts. At the higher reward levels you can earn things like uncut sheets, $50 off coupons, and even a complete series of decks.
22. Discount coupons
One of the items available through the loyalty program are discount coupons. But you'll often be greeting with an offer for a 10% off coupon just by visiting the site, especially if you are a first-time visitor. The weekly newsletter tends to announce special sales and offer, and discount coupons are certainly not uncommon. Some of the people who partner with the site sometimes also offer special discount coupons.
23. Sale events
At special times of the year Will Roya hosts site-wide sale events, where the discounts can be as much as 20% off. I confess that I have sometimes waited with placing an order until one of these events has rolled around, in order to maximize my savings. Typically there is a sale like this around the time of the site's annual anniversary, as well as around Black Friday, and the Christmas/New Year holiday season. They are well worth keeping an eye on, because you can save a bundle. In fact, to help celebrate PCD's fifth anniversary, from July 25 through July 30 there is a site-wide 25% off sale, using this code: PCD25.
24. Clearance section
At any given time there is a range of cards on the site's clearance section. I always check this out whenever I'm placing an order, because I never know what treasures I might find at heavily reduced prices. It's happened numerous times that I found some great deals here which I added to my order. Again, this has been a great way to pick up extra decks to give away as gifts to family and friends, or to give away to teens who are excited about cardistry or card magic.
25. Surprise freebies
From time to time, Will includes extra bonuses for his regular customers along with their order. It might be a free deck, or some stickers. Often it is a collection of sample cards from other decks. This shows that he's not just in the business to make money, but wants to keep his customers happy, and so he goes the extra mile to give them some unexpected extras.
Bonus item: A great owner
Let's add one bonus item to the above list: PCD has a great owner. I've corresponded with Will Roya numerous times in the past few years, and it's obvious that he's a great all-round guy. He works hard, is passionate and dedicated, and cares about his products and his customers. He's courteous and prompt, and really is an asset to the playing card industry. Clearly, PlayingCardDecks wouldn't be what it is without the man himself.
Am I sick of playing cards yet? Not at all. Even though my personal collection seems to keep growing, I still enjoy the playing cards I already own and actively use them for playing card games, card magic, and cardistry. I love collecting decks with a high novelty or a high luxury factor. And I love giving them away as gifts. A quality deck of custom playing cards nearly always makes a great gift for the person that you're struggling to find a gift for.
PlayingCardDecks has been a wonderful asset to the playing card industry over the last five years, in helping playing card enthusiasts get connected with the decks that they love. With his solid selection of carefully curated products, Will Roya has done a splendid job in helping collectors get their hands on a wonderful range of beautiful and quality decks of playing cards. Playing cards can be used for many different purposes, and whether you're looking for something suitable for card games, card magic, card flourishing, or even just to collect or to give away as a gift, you're certain to find something that you like.
Will Roya and PlayingCardDecks have made positive contributions to the playing card industry in multiple ways. Of course I'm biased, but in my experience most playing card collectors only have good things to say about him and his business. Will is a talented and dynamic individual who has the extensive experience and personal skills needed to succeed, and I'm very pleased to see what he's achieved so far. Many PCD produced playing cards occupy a pride of place in my personal collection, and I look forward to what decks he has in store for us in the remainder of this year. On behalf of others in the playing card industry, thank you Will, and keep up the great work with PlayingCardDecks!
Anniversary sale: From July 25 through July 30, to help celebrate PCD's fifth anniversary, there will be a site-wide 25% off sale, using this code: PCD25.
Want to learn more about playing cards and PlayingCardDecks.com?
● Official: Web Store, Facebook, Instagram
● Related links: Kickstarter Projects, Loyalty Rewards Program, Pip Box Club, Gift Cards
● Further reading: Articles, Blog, FAQ for New Playing Card Collectors
Video tours of the PlayingCardDecks.com showroom and warehouse:
● PCD tour by The Cardists (13 December 2018)
● PCD tour by Inside the Casino (16 June 2018)
● PCD tour by 52 Plus Joker (25 December 2020)
● PCD tour by Bryan Eckstrom (15 March 2021)
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks here.
- [+] Dice rolls
The Best Decks of 2021: A Gallery of Award Winners
Almost every industry has some kind of awards. Fortunately for us, the same applies to the world of custom playing cards. Like all awards, there's always going to be a certain amount of subjectivity involved. Who picked the nominees? What were the criteria? What kind of voting system was involved? And the announcements of winners may even spark debate. Were other candidates better? What potential candidates were overlooked completely?
But regardless of how you feel about awards, I'm convinced they're good to have. They are one way of recognizing some of the best in the industry. And they create discussion, and candidates other than the eventual winners will always be part of that discussion. And it will give some indication of the top performers.
When it comes to playing cards, there are several different communities that issue awards. In this article, I'd like to take a look at the award winners from 2021. But rather than fill your screen with words about the playing cards, I'd like to focus on the beauty of the decks themselves. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and let's face it, when it comes to playing cards, what matters is what we see. That's exactly what we appreciate about a good custom deck: how it looks. So let's get started, and enjoy this showcase of some of the best decks from 2021!
52 Plus Joker's 2021 Deck of the Year winner (Diamond Award)
52 Plus Joker is the largest club of playing card collectors in the world, and ever since 2017 they have been running their Diamond Awards, which recognizes the best deck of the year, as voted by their large membership. Anyone can join the club by paying the membership fee, but there's no doubt that this club represents a large community of experienced and discerning playing card collectors. So to win their award, a deck has to be good.
The eligibility period for their annual awards runs from July to June each year, so the 2021 Deck of the Year Award represents a release from July 2020 through to June 2021. Typically the winner is announced at their annual convention in October, so from July through September there's a period of nomination and voting. The planned convention for October 2021 had to be cancelled due to COVID, so instead the winners were announced at a special Virtual Weekend event in April 2022.
Winner: Circus by Marianne Larsen & Martin Helgren
Offered in two editions - the Deluxa Edition shown here, and a companion Black Mosquito Edition - this deck has an exquisite tuck box, and features a vintage circus theme. It's the first time design from Marianne Larsen in collaboration with Martin Helgren, and was printed by NPCC.
Nominee: Bird Deck by Hilary Pfeifer
This unique deck was created by an artist who first created the artwork for each card as an intricate collage, which was then reproduced onto playing cards. A huge project, and strikingly different.
Nominee: Charmers by Lotrek & Kellar O’Neil
Magician Kellar O'Neil engaged rock-star playing card designer Lotrek for this project, to create an artistic and elegant deck described as evoking the art, luxury, and taste of the Victorian era. It's intended as a practical deck, so although it has a vintage feel it still has a standard look about it.
Nominee: Holographic Legal Tender V2 by Kings Wild Project (Jackson Robinson)
Jackson Robinson is a familiar name, and the Legal Tender is a familiar deck. But with this holographic V2 edition, he has built on his legendary design to create something truly special, combining his banknote-inspired artwork with holographic luxury.
Nominee: Onda by Jocu (Alessandra Gagliano & Anthony Holt)
The Jocu design team produced Onda on the heels of their successful Green Man decks and Hops & Barley decks, but the Onda deck is a real standout, as a vibrant exploration of a mythical ocean. The highlights are the 12 court card characters that inhabit the azure depths of this fantastical marine mythology.
Nominee: Umbra by Jody Eklund
Umbra continues Jody Eklund's Luminosity saga, and was inspired by Norse mythology. It captures something of the allegory written by Ricky Cassford, and tells something of the characters from the world of Luminosity, illustrating a journey from shadow into light.
Portfolio52 is a massive online playing card database that is free for any collector to use, as a way of keeping track of their collection, and was started by rock-star playing card designer Alex Chin. Their awards were previously known as the United Cardists Deck of the Year Awards (DOTY), and were connected with the United Cardists forum. They have been an annual feature there since 2013. But in September 2021 an announcement was made that Portfolio52 had acquired United Cardists and all its assets. As a result, the 2021 DOTY Awards came under the Portfolio52 umbrella for the first time. In actual fact the 2020 DOTY Awards had already been a collaboration between United Cardists and Portfolio52, so the way for this had already been paved the previous year.
What makes the Portfolio DOTY Awards unique is that they acknowledge winners in a much wider range of categories, besides a single and overall DOTY winner, which is their blue ribbon event and crowning award. This includes an award for Best Graphic Deck, Best Magic Deck, Best Cardistry Deck, and Best Rookie Deck. There are also separate categories for things like: Best Tuck Case, Best Joker, Best Back Design, Best Aces, Best Court Cards, Best Color Use, and Best Print Use. With almost a dozen different awards issued, I won't show all the winners, but will focus on the winners in the main categories.
Winner: 52 Plus Joker 2021 by Stockholm17
Stockholm17 is a huge name in the custom playing card industry, and for 52 Plus Joker's 2021 club deck he really pulled out all the stops, with an extraordinary tuck case, and beautifully designed playing cards.
2nd place: Alice in Wonderland by Kings Wild Project (Jackson Robinson)
With this deck Jackson Robinson created a delightful tribute to Lewis Carroll's classic story about Alice in Wonderland. All the cards are fully customized with gorgeous and charming artwork.
3rd place (tie): Royales by Kings & Crooks (Lee McKenzie)
Lee McKenzie is the man behind the Kings & Crooks brand, and when he put his Royales series on Kickstarter, it was an immediate hit. These are playing cards that are oozing with elegance, with a classic look of sophistication and style.
3rd place (tie): Tale of the Tempest by The Gentleman Wake & Lotrek
Lotrek is one of the biggest names in playing cards today, and is highly respected for his luxurious looking decks. This collaboration with The Gentleman Wake didn't disappoint, with lots of love and creativity evident in both the beautiful tuck cases and the playing cards themselves.
Best Rookie Deck: Inception by RunIt Decks & Dhon Ragadio
The RunIt Decks team behind this deck hails from the Philippines, and their Inception deck aims to be a modern-day celebration of their origins and culture, with depictions of warriors, weapons, traditional clothing, and mythical creators, in a modern and colourful style. This deck also took out the awards for Best Use of Colour, Best Court Cards, and Best Back Design.
Best Cardistry Deck: Nebula by Emily Sleights 52
Cardistry decks require lots of colour, and the Nebula deck from Emily Sleights 52 deck has plenty of it. It was inspired by the rebirth of stars and galaxies, and also functions as a metaphor about how we are always progressing and growing into better versions of ourselves.
Best Magic Deck: Butterfly Border series by Ondrej Psenicka & Stefan Eriksson
The marked version of his original Butterfly Deck from Ondrej Psenicka became a real hit after he successfully used it to fool Penn and Teller, but since then it has spawned some wonderful unmarked versions that make use of its gorgeous back design, including the seasonal decks that are part of the Border Series.
Best Graphic Deck: Bold by Elettra Deganello
Italian designer Elettra Deganello is a relatively new face on the playing card scene, but her expertise and creativity as a graphic designer really shines in her Bold decks, which come in a Deluxe and a STD version. These decks reinterpret the traditional English courts using decorative elements that cleverly make use of typographic symbols.
Kardify's 2021 Deck of the Year winner
While the Deck of the Year award from 52 Plus Joker (above) and Portfolio52 (below) are both voted on by members of their respective community, Kardify's Deck of the Year award is simply chosen by the people who run the Kardify website. This is an independent portal that covers playing card news, analysis, interviews, reviews, and previews. It is run by playing card enthusiast Ivan Choe, who also showcases wonderful work by photographer Anthony Ingrassia.
Kardify has been running Top 12 lists each year for some time already, but their Deck of the Year award was only issued for the first time in 2020. That means that the 2021 Deck of the Year makes only the second time they have crowned an overall "best". The award is announced at the very end of the year, and represents their choice for the best deck that appeared on the market in that calendar year.
Their Top 12 list for 2021 consisted of a dozen wonderful decks, and they also named another 13 honorable mentions.
Winner: 52 Plus Joker 2021 by Stockholm17
The deck that took the top prize was the 52 Plus Joker 2021 Club Deck, which also won Portfolio52's "2021 Deck of the Year". You can read their article which covers their announcement of the winner.
Top 12: Alice in Wonderland by Kings Wild Project (Jackson Robinson)
In this whimsical deck we go down the rabbit hole with Jackson Robinson, who brings the memorable characters of the Alice in Wonderland story to life. It also took second place in Portfolio52's awards, so it was no surprise to see it in this Top 12 list.
Top 12: Atlantis by Riffle Shuffle
The mythical Atlantis is well-known from the tales of legend as a lost city below the ocean depths. This deck brings to life the mythical legend about this advanced civilization with two companion decks, one showing the city at its height before it disappeared, the other showing the city as it rests in the depths of the sea.
Top 12: Black Market by Thirdway Industries (Giovanni Meroni)
This limited edition could only be accessed for purchase with a special password, and this hidden gateway echoes what the deck is about: the Black Market Secret Society, which is a fictional company that specializes in selling special items to its members.
Top 12: Blue Jay by Meadowlark & Elettra Deganello
As sequel to the beautiful Meadowlark deck, the Blue Jay deck showcases the talents of Elettra Deganello, who took some core features of the original deck but added a dentistry sub-theme, and gorgeous design that made excellent use of Cartamundi's cold foil.
Top 12: Harry Potter by Theory11
Getting the licence for creating an official Harry Potter deck comes with a big responsibility, but Theory11 is the company able to live up to that. The gorgeous tuck boxes didn't disappoint, and the custom artwork on the cards does a superlative job of representing some of the key characters from the famous stories.
Top 12: Kingdom & Kinghood by Artisan Playing Cards
These stunning decks feature extraordinary tuck boxes, and a level of innovation not previously seen. The exquisite illustrations on the cards and the boxes echoes the theme and opulence of royalty from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and two very different decks were part of this project.
Top 12: Marvelous Hummingbird by Kellar O'Neil & Chris Tipton
Hummingbirds are associated with rapid movement and exquisite beauty, and the extraordinary tuck boxes and card backs of this deck do a terrific job of paying homage to the beauty of hummingbird feathers, including copious amounts of eye-catching iridescence that looks amazing when it catches the light.
Top 12: Pioneers by Ellusionist
This marked deck was created by Ellusionist with a deliberate vintage look, which is immediately evident from the tuck box, and the aged look of the playing cards themselves. Period style artwork has been used to capture something of the 1893 World's Fair, which commemorated the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
Top 12: Republic by Uusi
Creators Uusi are famous for bringing traditional art techniques to playing cards, and this lovely deck featured hand-inked artwork inspired by earth tones, with monochrome cards in either red or black, featuring a woodcut look. It's based on Finnish/Nordic folk art and design, and the name is taken from Uusi's home-town in Michigan, where there is a large Finnish community.
Top 12: Royales by Kings & Crooks (Lee McKenzie)
We've seen this deck previously already as part of the Portfolio52 routines, and its excellence makes it a worthy addition to this Top 12 list. This luxury deck is inspired by the gold and glamour of a fictional casino, in the style of Monte Carlo, and where we can expect to find the world's wealthy at play.
Top 12: Wayfarers by Joker and the Thief
This deck captures the spirit of travel and adventure, a spirit embodied in James, the man behind the Joker and the Thief brand. The playing cards represent those who wander far and wide, capturing themes such as personal freedom and the human desire to fly high, while also depicting the elements of nature.
These awards give us some idea of some of the top custom playing cards that are on the market today. Certainly there are others that could have made the grade as well, so this is by no means a list that is exhaustive. But does give some sense of the superlative playing cards that creative designers are producing.
We are fortunate to live in an era where playing card manufacturers are able to produce playing cards of the highest quality, and where designers have the time and ability to match this with wonderful designs like the ones recognized by the above industry awards. The future is bright, and I'm already looking forward to seeing what decks will win awards for 2022!
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks here.
- [+] Dice rolls
04 May 2022
Interview with Playing Card Historian and Antique Collector Jason McKinstry (author of Paper Empires)
Who is Jason McKinstry?
Any respectable field of interest doesn't just have aficionados and enthusiasts. It also has historians, who systematically and carefully study the past, and document their findings. In the world of playing cards, Jason McKinstry is one of those unique individuals. There is certainly no shortage of playing card enthusiasts - you only need to visit online playing card forums to see how many passionate collectors are out there, or check out the thriving membership list of the 52 Plus Joker playing card club. Plenty of people are interested in playing cards, and even in their history. But true playing card historians are a rare breed. And that puts Jason McKinstry into a special category, occupied by few others.
Jason's name may already be quite well known to some readers, because he has earned a significant amount of respect as a writer. He's an established author and writer, and his regular contributions of interesting and historically informed articles in Card Culture, the monthly magazine put out by the playing card club 52 Plus Joker, ensures that some reputation precedes him. But arguably his biggest contribution yet as a playing card historian is his landmark book Paper Empires. The importance of this volume can't be under-estimated, because in this ground-breaking work Jason documents the lives and stories of America's earliest playing card manufacturers, exploring playing card history in a manner that hasn't been done before. It's a work that is quickly becoming regarded as an essential reference point, much like Tom and Judy Dawson's Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards.
With such eminent qualifications and expertise, Jason is the ideal person to sit down with, in order to learn a thing or two or three about early American playing cards, about collecting, and much more. He was kind enough to agree to this interview, and let me tell you in advance: this is good stuff. Jason knows his material, is well-informed, and is an expert in this field. But he also has a way with words, and I'm sure you'll be just as enthralled as I was, learning from him on a wide range of playing card related subjects. So let's put on our listening hat, and give a big hand and warm welcome to our playing card historian and friend, Jason McKinstry!
For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself?
It's wonderful to speak to you today and everybody reading about the subject that changed my life. It might change yours too. Before all of the antique playing card collecting, research and writing, I was a contractor by trade. My wife and I specialized in century home restoration/renovation projects. Together we would take old run-down houses and transform them into places people would want to spend their lives in. Not your typical origin story for someone who researches and writes about playing card history.
How did you get involved in collecting playing cards?
Interestingly I received my first taste of antique playing cards when standing in one of my finished renovation houses. It was ten years ago, and one of the tenants had a deck of Bicycle Heritage (2012) sitting on a coffee table, and I ended up handling them for a few minutes. I remember thinking to myself that "I bet I can find a real one of these online." That was the start of something extraordinary, an all-consuming topic that's grown into what I believe is one of the greatest untold stories in American History.
How did your interests as a collector develop over time?
I've always been a collector. In my younger years, I would collect stamps, coins and paper money, but as I grew up, so did my tastes. We could say that I found that deck of playing cards at precisely the right time. That very night I had my introduction to the world of antique/vintage playing cards. At first, to satisfy my collector instincts, I wanted one deck that would do a good job representing the whole subject. A deck like that doesn't exist in reality, but that's what I thought on day one. I ended up purchasing a British Chas. Goodall deck from the 1880s. My decision to buy that one wasn't entirely unfounded. I knew Goodall had a connection to American playing cards, and I also knew that because the United States is a melting pot, many decks of all types would have been used there. After waiting two weeks, I received my package in the mail and had my first experience opening a 130-year-old pack of cards.
You aren't just a collector, because many consider you to be a playing card historian and researcher. What has led to this reputation?
Well, that started while I was waiting for that first deck of Goodall's to arrive. I love history, so I began researching early American playing cards right away. Thankfully I found The Hochman Encyclopedia by Tom & Judy Dawson. As it turned out, playing cards have been collected and studied for over one hundred years. There are a handful of big names in the community whose work is a basis for everything I started with. Initially, Catherine Hargrave and Gene Hochman provided many of the seminal facts I used to construct this new and incredible narrative. But the more independent research I did, the more I realized that we were only scratching the surface of a much larger story.
You are known for specializing in American playing card manufacturers. What got you interested in that area of focus?
My interest comes from the possibility to tell a story that not many have heard of. It's taken a century to gain an accounting of the thousands of decks that were produced in the old days and exactly who made them. My contribution to the subject is creating the historical biographies of the individuals and companies that made all the cards we know about. Once my curiosity piqued, I began to write a series of notes explaining key dates and a little bit about each maker. But like a real-life pandora's box, I quickly saw that the story I was discovering was absolutely incredible, and things very much snowballed from there. I found that playing cards and the people that made them were fully ingrained into the nation's fabric, and they both interacted with every aspect of life from colonial times forward.
You are the author of the book Paper Empires. What is your book about, and what topics does it cover?
I cover the section of time known as the "Golden Age" of playing cards. 1835-1935 was a century of rapid development, invention and tremendous competition. From the ether, seven manufacturers rose to the surface. I call them the Big Seven. My book Paper Empires Volume I, follows the lives of the first four makers, L.I. Cohen, Andrew Dougherty, John J. Levy and Samuel Hart. These men perfectly represent the early days of playing cards in the United States, and each was the height of the industry for a time. Paper Empires takes you on the same journey that they took as they brought to life America's favourite pastime.
How did this book come to be, and what was involved in writing it?
I suppose I'm one of the fortunate modern-day researchers who enjoy the benefits of the technological age. I hunt information and imagery by employing a variety of techniques. For me, this usually begins by sifting through all of the fragments of history on Ancestry. There I find out exactly who the individual truly is. Where were they born? Where did they grow up? How did they get into the playing card industry? Who did they marry, and who were their children? Did they travel? What did they enjoy? How did they live their final years? When did they die, and what legacy was left behind? Once I have a basic timeline established, I combine this life history with the known facts about the business. The advertising produced by card makers provides another vital puzzle piece.
Then I turn to the playing cards themselves. Because I've had the opportunity to collect so many of the cards manufactured by these great companies, most of my research can happen right within my cabinets. Through Paper Empires, I'm able to provide high-quality colour images of near every deck ever made by each of these fantastic playing card makers. I also document the changes and evolutions that playing cards went through over the years. I'll just say that it was an exciting time of innovation and invention. The history told through the playing cards is also a perfect reflection of the broader picture of American life throughout the golden years. These themes include everything you'd expect, such as expansion, the wild west, the civil war, the industrial revolution. What makes Paper Empires different is that you can view these subjects through the lens of what people were really doing back then... playing card games.
Your book is subtitled Vol. 1. Does that mean we expect further volumes, and what are your plans in that regard?
You bet! Volume II is nearing completion as we speak. It picks up right where the first one leaves off. I'm covering Lawrence & Cohen; they were the true successors to L.I. Cohen's playing card empire. Then we move on to The New York Consolidated Card Company. They were possibly the most successful playing card company in the early American scene. Although they, like many others, would be crushed by the weight of the final subject of Volume II, The United States Playing Card Company. Everybody's favourite playing card brand! The history of the USPCC is massive and extraordinary; I can't wait to share it with the world.
I plan on releasing future volumes as well. Volume III will be necessary to address the many peripheral makers that existed. Even though they were smaller, they also had rich and meaningful stories. Beyond that, I hope that people find my work (and others) and demand to know more. The history of early American playing cards is something everyone should be aware of. Considering how important I've found it to be, I'm surprised that historians haven't picked up on the subject before. Forget the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Henry Fords and Samuel Colts of the era for a minute. The history of a maker like Andrew Dougherty will blow your mind.
You also write actively on a monthly basis for the Card Culture magazine. What kinds of topics do you especially write about?
Paper Empires keeps me focused on the makers and topics needed; Card Culture gives me an excellent opportunity to write about everything else I find. Playing cards were pivotal in the everyday lives of people until only a few decades ago. Because of this unwavering connection, there's a lot of fantastic playing card news to speak about. It would be an understatement to say that the well of antique/vintage playing cards information is deep. In reality, I find out something unbelievably cool all the time. Every day, sometimes multiple times a day. When the time comes to write my Card Culture article each month, I can't wait to show my readers all of the great discoveries.
Where do you go for your source material for your research on playing cards?
My source material comes from everywhere, but it typically starts with my collection of playing cards and ephemera. I've had great success from searching online museums and newspaper archives. But of course, there's no comparison to the amount of work and research our club, 52 Plus Joker, has created over the years. The history of the best collectors/researchers that came before me live on today as part of the club, and all members have access to it. For anyone interested in playing card history, whether it be antique/vintage or current deck releases and events, 52 Plus Joker is by far the world's best playing card club.
What can we expect to find on your website (worldofpaperempires.com), and what should we know about it?
My website worldofpaperempires.com is where you can begin a more serious introduction to my research topics. You'll meet the playing card makers and learn some of the basics about each one. A lot of their outstanding work is on full display. Of course, you can purchase my book Paper Empires in various formats. I also have available Collector's Corner Annual, the 2019 collection of my Card Culture articles. To complement everything that I've done up until this point, I've been working on mini-documentary series. The first video is on the website now; it's called The Forgotten History of Andrew Dougherty & 80 Centre Street. Another feature you will encounter is my Image & Art Gallery; this is where I post digital art, animations, colourizations and more.
Do you have any plans to develop your website beyond what it presently has?
Absolutely. I want my site to be everyone's connection to my books and research, and I also want it to be the premier destination for all things antique/vintage playing cards-related. In time, I'd like to offer more of the history of each maker, more playing cards and more documentation. Another thing is like to offer is the antique playing cards themselves. Once enough people discover the World of Paper Empires, I would love to be supplying them with the same decks of cards that wound up my enthusiasm in the first place.
What can you tell us about your youtube channel, and the kind of content there?
YouTube has been the perfect outlet for me, and I suspect that most people purchasing my books in the future will have seen some of my video content. I'm very excited about the mini-documentary series. There's currently little to no content about antique/vintage playing cards on YouTube. At the same time, I know that everyone loves watching various history subjects through the service; I think it's just a matter of time before people find the card makers. My channel offers most of what I've done to date, Mini-Docs, convention videos, themed promos, animations and more.
In the past you've mentioned the idea of a series of unboxing videos that shows and discusses antique decks. Is there anything you can share about that?
I have big plans for Paper Empires, and given how much viewers enjoy regular unboxing videos, I figured why not make an unboxing event two hundred years in the making. I constructed a ceremonial "unboxing vessel" for the reveal, and the idea is that together we will unbox and discuss the historical deck inside. These decks are unlike anything seen by most typical playing card collectors, and I think they'll be impressed with the concept and the cards. These are the actual decks used by the real card players 1835-1935, and they're incredible. I hope within the coming months; we'll start seeing some of that content released.
Vintage & Antique Decks
Is there a difference between "vintage decks" and "antique decks"?
For me, there is a difference! I define anything one hundred years or older as antique. And similarly, anything under 100 years is vintage. I know there are a lot of opinions as to the answer to this question, and that's ok too.
Many readers are only familiar with collecting modern decks. In what ways is collecting vintage and antique decks different?
Collecting modern decks is awesome! In fact, we're more than likely heading into another golden age of playing cards, thanks to the current designers. Collecting modern cards is a lot like collecting antique/vintage. Once you familiarize yourself with what was available, you can start purchasing what you like. Most parts of American history were displayed through playing cards, so I always recommend that collectors think about the period they're interested in.
What are some key things we should know about vintage and antique decks, and about collecting them?
First of all, playing cards and history go back a long time together. It's good to understand that the only reason we can own these decks currently is because regular researchers and historians do not yet know the story of the American playing card industry. Once this undocumented industry is discovered, I have a strong feeling that much of what remains will end up in museums and high-end collections. Right now, maybe the last opportunity to own a piece of history like an antique deck of playing cards.
What are the qualities of antique decks that especially appeal to you?
One of the things I find the most astounding about antique playing cards is how beautiful the cards turned out even though old world makers were using more limited technology. At times, that technology was both proprietory and experimental. Yet, we were left with finely detailed designs that are miniature works of art. Nearly everything that makes up an antique deck of cards appeals to me. But if I were to narrow it down, I'd say that watching playing cards evolve from square corners, full courts, no indices to the modern snappy cards we all know and love was a remarkable thing. The position of the cards in history is also important (civil war, the new century, roaring twenties.)
What makes something a genuinely "rare" deck?
This is a surprisingly tricky question. Many factors are considered when determining the rarity of an antique/vintage deck. First, you can look at the maker. Did they manufacture for long? If so, is this one of their popular brands, or something made in smaller numbers? A good general rule about makers is that the earlier you go in their catalogue, the rarer the decks become. This is because fewer were made. If you're looking at something expensive, then it's best to rely on the expertise of a seasoned antique/vintage collector. As a community, we've had a hundred years of studying the playing card market and the different trends along the way. This is one of the main differences between modern and antique rarity; in the contemporary world, it's typically known how many decks were produced. We simply don't have that luxury in the antique/vintage world.
It's also important to remember that historically playing cards were not designed to be collectible. They were made to be used and disposed of. If you contrast that with today, you'll find most decks are intended to be collectible, and hundreds, if not thousands, stay in their wrappers waiting to appreciate. What will this factor do to the future market for modern cards? Only time will tell, but for now, we can say that the steady rise in population can potentially increase the later demand. This same premise is true for antique/vintage; the more people there are, fewer decks will be available to satisfy them.
Last but not least while determining rarity is the condition of the deck. The condition can make all the difference in the world when buying any deck of cards, both modern and antique. Collectors across all spectrums/topics care about condition, and they are usually willing to pay high prices for top quality.
What are the rarest decks you know about?
Wow, there's some scarce stuff out there. I would say that the rarest decks would be the ones we've only recently found. These playing cards are so rare that it's taken 200 years to discover them. But I think that for someone just starting, rare decks that fall into the middle of the timeline are what you're looking for. Maybe even something you're familiar with. Everybody knows Andrew Dougherty's Tally-Ho No. 9 playing cards. But did you know that Dougherty was a prolific manufacturer who had been in operation since 1848? Tally-Ho was released in 1885 and spent many years evolving. This created a variety of Ace of Spade designs and an entire line of back styles. This might make you wonder why you only know of a handful of Tally-Ho backs, usually Circle and Fan?
52 Plus Joker Club President Lee Asher and I have been collaborating for years on the Tally-Ho brand, trying to determine how many individual backs there were. I just released some of our findings in a Card Culture not too long ago. So far, we've identified 28 plus individual backs for the Tally-Ho Brand. That's a far cry from the two backs most people know and love. Examples of these non-typical backs are rare, but they do come up occasionally. Because even new collectors are familiar with Tally-Ho, these decks have inherent popularity. A great place to start looking for rare decks!
In the world of early American playing cards, any of the big seven manufacturers will be considered somewhat rare especially pre-1900, but the further you go back, the scarcer decks become. Makers to look for are L.I. Cohen, Samuel Hart, John J. Levy, Lawrence & Cohen, Andrew Dougherty, The New York Consolidated Card Company and The United States Playing Card Company. Other makers to look for: National, Russell, Standard, Perfection and Pyramid Playing Card Companies.
You may be thinking, wow, that's a lot of makers to look for, but this brings me to the most important point about rarity in general. Rarity doesn't always affect the value of a deck of cards. It will if enough people know about the importance of the deck or how rare it is, but most often, these things never meet, and rare decks sell all the time for either low or affordable prices.
If a deck is very old, does that automatically mean that it should be considered "rare"?
Not necessarily. Even in the 1800s, playing cards were manufactured in high numbers and eventually mass-produced. The best thing to do is a little research into the brand/manufacturer that you're considering. Tom and Judy Dawson (authors of The Hochman Encyclopedia) put together a price guide for all decks covered in their book. Although the prices may be a little out of date, that guide, if appropriately deciphered, can tell the tale of a decks rarity. It can also give you a good idea of value.
How do you go about dating an older deck of playing cards?
You can use a lot of different methods to determine the date of a deck. Although today a simple internet search should provide a good approximation for most decks you'd encounter. If we look to more traditional methods, here are a few tips. Square Corners, Full Courts, No Corner Indices, Thick Stock, are usually pre-1870s. Most decks with round edges, corner indices and double-heads are from after 1870. There's an overlap in the dates of the features; for example, rounded edges were available in the 1850s, and corner indices were invented in 1864. Thin and snappy cards are typically from 1880 forward.
Tax stamps on playing cards are also an excellent way to date a deck if you have the box. All decks of playing cards required a US Internal Revenue stamp before leaving the factory. The stamps were started in 1862 and rescinded in 1884. They came back in 1894 and lasted until 1965 when they ended for good. If you have the stamp, there is a cancellation date on it. The history between tax stamps and antique/vintage playing cards is fascinating, and some great stories revolve around those tiny little stamps.
Circa 1906, The US Playing Card Company began implementing a dating code system for their decks. Because the USPCC also owned many of the other manufacturers by then, the code was eventually used for them too. There's a great chart with the codes/dates on Lee Asher's website.
How does grading work? What kinds of things would you look at to determine an antique's deck's condition?
The first thing to look at is completeness; does the deck have everything that originally came with it? This includes the correct number of cards, 32 for Euchre and Piquet, 48 for a Pinochle, 52 for a Standard, 60 for a 500 deck, etcetera. Does it have the Joker and any extra cards that may have come together? Does it have the wrapper and seals? Does it have the box and appropriate tax stamps? All of these factors go into determining if your deck is complete. Now you can look at the condition of each of those pieces of the deck.
Condition for antique/vintage playing cards has long been established, and I'll directly quote the Hochman for its breakdown.
• As issued – a complete deck, in mint condition, with all cards, jokers and extra cards contained in the original packaging when first distributed for sale. It might be unopened or carefully opened for examination, but not played with. If applicable, the tax stamp, not necessarily unbroken, would be attached.
• Mint – a complete deck showing no signs of use. Normally all cards would be present as would the original box in mint or near mint condition. The inside wrapper would not need to be there.
• Excellent – a complete deck that has been occasionally used, but still in first class condition. Gold edges would still be intact and you would be proud to use this deck in your game.
• Good – A complete deck showing signs of repeated use, but still useable. There would be no serious creases or bent/broken corners. The deck would not be swollen or misshapen and would fit comfortably into the original box.
• Poor – A deck not good enough to fit into one of the above categories. It likely would have at least one of these serious faults such as bent or broken corners, bad creases, heavy soiling, etc.
• With Faults – A deck in one of the good or excellent categories, but with a serious fault like a missing or damaged card or a damaged, incomplete or missing box."
What kind of condition should we expect for a 100 year old antique deck, in terms of damage, wear, and signs of age?
It's a mixed bag, but surprisingly, you will find many Good to Excellent condition examples. I collect antique playing cards because of the history behind the cards. So having a deck of cards that shows the honest wear helps me get to the story. I own every condition you could have, from demolished relic decks to As Issued/Mint decks from the 1840s. The best strategy when looking at condition is to decide what kind of experience you want to have with antique/vintage playing cards.
What impact on collectibility and value do missing cards have?
Great question, and it gets asked a lot—missing cards matter. But like most things, it's on a sliding scale. It's always best to have a complete deck. But there are a few things to remember. The rarer a deck is, the more likely a collector will be to accept deficiencies such as missing cards. Also, in the early days (pre-1870s), many people would use a deck of playing cards as a quick source of writing paper. This produced many early decks with missing cards as a result. From my experience, complete decks matter the most from the 1870s forward, but there are still exceptions.
Do sealed antique decks exist, and is there anything you can share about this?
Sealed decks are rare, and you may wait a while, but they exist. Like everything we've discussed today so far, the further back in history you go, the harder they are to find. Pre 1900, you'll be more likely to find a perfect deck that's been opened for inspection. This can be for various reasons, but most often, in the collector community, sealed decks are opened to verify that the correct deck is inside. Sealed decks are not plentiful, but a little persistence can pay off.
In what circumstances would you personally open a sealed vintage or antique deck?
Most sealed decks I have date from the 1920s-1940s. So there's no desire there to open them. I know exactly what they are, and those decks are not particularly rare anyway. I may open a sealed deck if I don't have representation in my collection. Or if it's one of a handful of brands that could have a different deck inside. Lastly, I may open a deck if something looks off with it. This would be to verify the contents. It's a good thing sealed decks don't come around too often.
Why are some of these antique decks so hard to find, and how many copies of them typically exist?
It's impossible to give an accurate answer to this question that would cover over a century and a half of playing card making in America. What I can say is that for some early decks, there may only be one or two. These numbers generally go up as you move forward through time. By the 1880s and beyond, playing cards were being mass-produced on a much grander scale, and many copies have survived.
How do dedicated collectors go about sourcing these and other hard-to-find decks?
The hardest-to-find decks will usually circulate within our 52 Plus Joker community auctions. Access to the club auctions comes with membership, and we see a lot of great decks move there. With that said, 99% of my collection was sourced outside the club. I've owned nearly one of every Dougherty deck ever made by waiting for the right opportunity. I say owned because I don't necessarily keep everything anymore. I sell parts of my collection to help fund further research so that I can keep telling this incredible story. The reason I mention this is because it's people like me who bring these fantastic decks into the regular collectors market. Most of my cards came from eBay, to begin with, and that's also where I sell. I'm user suddsmcduff77 for anyone interested in having a look.
The generation before ours sourced their cards in flea markets and thrift shops all across the country. Today we have an assortment of online auctions sites available; even the big auction houses are online, streamlined and easy to use.
What kind of prices do antique decks go for?
This is a sliding scale answer for sure. Some early American decks can fetch thousands of dollars, but most rare decks typically encountered fall in the $200-300 range. From the 1890s forward, you can see anything from $60-200. It's safe to say that there's something for everyone collecting antique/vintage playing cards. I think most people would find them quite affordable given today's designer-fueled playing card world. Antique playing cards can also provide a much different experience than what people are used to currently. A tremendous personal connection can be made with a deck of cards that travelled through time for you.
Antique American Playing Cards
What would you consider to be some of the biggest developments in playing card history in the late 19th century?
This question is the heart of the story of antique playing cards. We take for granted today the way that playing cards work and the features that went into their development. Each manufacturer was responsible for at least some improvement, but if I were to single out the most important, then you'd arrive at this list.
• Double-Heads or Two-Way Courts. The seemingly simple transition from single-ended courts to double was a game-changer for card players because after, it didn't matter which way your cards were orientated. We see the beginning of the Double-Headed decks in the 1840s and early 1850s by manufacturers like L.I. Cohen, Samuel Hart and Andrew Dougherty.
• Round Corners. Believe it or not, rounding the corners of a deck of cards makes them much less susceptible to chipping and having the corners rounded through play. Before their implementation, Square corner decks were the standard, and they couldn't be shuffled in any reasonable way. Like double-headed courts, round corners arrived in the late 1840s early 1850s. Rounded corners, coupled with John J. Levy's patent for bevelled edges in 1868, created a perfect combination for easy shuffling.
• Corner Indices. Can you imagine fanning a poker hand and not being able to read the corner indices? Imagine instead that you have to separate each card to see what you have. The invention of corner indices in 1864 was one of the single most important developments the industry had ever seen. Cyrus Saladee patented the development, and Samuel Hart purchased the rights to exclusivity. Hart promoted the invention for over a decade while other manufacturers scrambled to catch up. It was at this point that the battle for playing card supremacy in America heated to a boiling point.
• Best Bowers & Jokers. During the 1860s, Euchre was becoming one of the most popular games in the country (and overseas.) Circa 1865, cardmaker Samuel Hart introduced many decks 32 card decks, especially for the game. He also began including an exclusive "High Trump Card" or "Best Bower." This extra card gained popularity and soon began to accompany many other decks. Hart's Best Bower was, of course, the precursor to what would become the Joker, and by the mid-1870s, almost every deck made came with one.
• Other Developments. After the era when the fundamental features were implemented, playing cards continued to evolve and refine, and so would the machinery that made them. It would take until the turn of the century before they would become an exact reflection of what we use today.
Is there anything that makes 19th century American playing cards distinctly different from European decks from the same time period?
Our American playing cards were initially based on British designs. This means the history of our playing cards and theirs follows a very similar path. It's important to point out that most European nations had their own types of cards and a lot still do. Germany, Hungary, Russia, for example, all had very different styles and were unique compared to British design. With that said, there are many similarities to each other too, like suit management, number of cards etc.
Is it true that some of the leading figures in the American playing card industry had connections with important politicians of their day?
With an enterprise as large as the early American playing card industry, it's only natural that they became a considerable interest to the government. Playing card sales would represent a distinguishable portion of the GDP of the United States throughout the 19th century. This would also equate to a lot of revenue gain from their taxes. If we narrow it down, we know of some interesting and powerful relationships between card makers and politicians. The best example is New York manufacturer Andrew Dougherty.
During the Civil War, Dougherty lobbied the government for higher taxes on playing cards to assist with the effort. President Abraham Lincoln embraced his plan, and he was invited to Washington for a meeting to explain the merits. An 1895 newspaper article for Dougherty's retirement paid tribute to the events of that day.
One can imagine the warmth of which the noble-hearted martyr to liberty shook hands with Andrew Dougherty when the feasibility of the scheme was made clear. It was the imposition of a tax of five cents per pack of playing cards. This tax was a heavy loss financially for Andrew, but he had the president's gratitude which were expressed in the words - "It is citizens like you, Mr. Dougherty, who make the liberty of the United States indestructible."
Of the big names like Lewis Cohen, John Lawrence, John Levy, Samuel Hart, Andrew Dougherty, Russell, and Morgan, who do you consider to be your "hero", and why?
I love all the playing card makers! They all have fascinating histories, and each was dovetailed to the industry in some way, shape or form. If I had to pull favourites, I would say that Andrew Dougherty was very different than his contemporaries, and he was undoubtedly the underdog of the tale. He created his empire from basically nothing. Most makers were able to rely on predecessors to teach them, or in many cases, they were banded together competing against Dougherty. All of this adversity would only move to strengthen Dougherty's resolve. And he pushed through and built something unique and very much of his design.
Andrew Dougherty was everything you ever hoped a character could be. He had a larger-than-life personality and was a bombastic promoter of his work. But he wasn't just a gregarious businessman; he was also a charitable man who used his financial means and respectable reputation to assist those less fortunate. With the help of deep political connections, Andrew championed fairness for immigrants and helped arrange funds for the civil war. He was also the Director of The Museum of Natural History and a member of The Historical Society and Art Association.
Dougherty was known affectionately as "The Cardman of New York." When he died in 1901, there was a massive outpouring of love and support for his life. One of the many articles punished at the time was by a reporter named Ricardo, who had been covering Andrew's career for thirty years. I think his final caption described Dougherty the best. "He leaves an enviable name for business integrity, moral probity and all the attributes which go to form a `manly man,' which will be more lasting than silver or gold or earthly possessions. Peace to his memory."
Have decks of playing cards always been mainly red-backed and blue-backed, and why?
Red and blue have always been around in a way, but not in the brilliant hues we're used to today. Early decks dating from 1810-1840 usually carried a basic snowflake back. These would come in various shades of red, blue or even black. As we moved into the 1850s-60s, Fancy Back playing cards were offered in a rainbow of colours and colour combinations. If we moved to when back design colours were more standardized (the 1880s-1910s), we'd find red, blue, brown, green, yellow.
By the 1920s and certainly during the great depression, the life and colour were gone from the industry. Everything that the card makers did between 1890-1930 was intended to save on costs. Less intricate designs meant less ink used, and the dies wouldn't wear down as fast. They switched from elegant printed paper wraps to simple wax paper. Everything was to cut costs! Then the great depression knocked out what was left quality-wise. After that, red and blue were left as the standard. It was cheaper and took less man power.
Your Own Collecting
What is it about collecting playing cards that you especially and personally enjoy?
For me, it's the history behind the cards. The lives of the makers, the people who bought them and the families that looked after them for all this time. But the playing cards also clearly represent the stepping stones of American history. This can be viewed in many different ways, but it's easiest to say that the cards can represent anything you want them to. Art and beauty, technology and advancement, eras and events can all be viewed through the window of playing cards.
What types of decks do you especially focus on collecting, and what are your favourite types of decks to collect?
I'm a full-spectrum golden age collector. That means I'm most interested in decks from 1835-1935, with some exceptions. There's so much goodness crammed into that one hundred years that it's kept me busy for almost a decade so far. If I had to zero in on two areas, I say Samuel Hart & Andrew Dougherty in the 1850s-1870s are my favourite decks to find. That was an extraordinary time in playing card history.
How many decks would you estimate that you currently have in your collection?
I have over 275 decks in my collection. I used to think I had a crazy amount of cards but seeing what some modern collectors have, I don't feel so bad anymore. My focus has narrowed substantially in the last few years. I try to stay focused on the big seven, and as I mentioned before, I don't keep everything anymore. Once I've had an opportunity to research them and take pictures etc. I can let them fly. Of course, I'll always keep my core collection of impossible-to-find top-shelf decks.
Which deck (or decks) in your collection is your favourite, and why?
Oh, man, that's like asking which is your favourite kid. It's such a tricky question. When I look into my cabinet, the first deck I always see is the George and Martha Washington Illuminated deck made by Samuel Hart in 1866. The Ace of Spades is heavily ornate and has two miniature portraits of the first couple in colour. The deck is illuminated, which means there is a decorative use of gold accents. It is incredible!
The second deck that I might choose is my Thomas Crehore deck from approximately 1825-1830. It's the oldest deck in my collection. For me, this deck represents everything that the playing card industry was before the golden age (which also so happens to be the industrial age of playing cards.) Drawn by stencil and coloured by hand, but with a level of intricacy and human precision, rarely seen again afterwards.
A third deck would be a perfect example of Andrew Dougherty's American Cards from 1870. This convex-corner deck featured Dougherty's second "Excelsior" Ace of Spades, and it was unreal-looking!
What is the most valuable deck in your collection? What accounts for its value, and what else can you tell us about it?
From what we've seen over the years, my Samuel Hart Transformation deck likely has the most value. Transformation decks feature various imagery filling the white space of the cards. The courts and pips were usually incorporated into the design in some comical fashion—a unique type of card and an exceptional deck. Most mid-century makers are known to produce at least one transformation deck. As for value, most that come to auction sell between $1500-$2000, with perfect examples realizing considerably more.
You also collect historical playing card related ephemera. What are some of your favourite items, and why?
You'll come for the decks, and you'll stay for the ephemera. In many ways, ephemera tells the other half of the story of playing cards. It's been my experience that some people aren't sure what ephemera is. But it's simple; ephemera is anything that falls within a subject that's not the actual item. Types of ephemera are paper/non-paper advertising, stamps and seals, store displays, subject-specific literature and more. In my collection, I have a bit of everything, but a few of my ephemeral favourites are.
Samuel Hart Travelling Bottles: Many people don't know that Sam Hart produced a lot more than just playing cards. He was also a major manufacturer of glass travelling bottles. I have two beautiful bottles in different sizes. Hart's Bottles were sealable and came with a cup or shot glass and a leather case. These bottles wouldn't usually be considered playing card ephemera, but because they were made by one of the biggest card makers in the country, I let them in.
John Omwake Business Card - If someone asked what item I treasure the most, I would say a business card belonging to John Omwake would be the one. John began employment at The Russell & Morgan Company in 1883 as a 27-year-old and became President of The United States Playing Card Company in 1902. The business card is from his time as Chairman of the Board, his final position before retiring in 1937. John Omwake was an incredible figure in playing card history. He was with the company from infancy all the way through its astonishing rise and eventual total domination of the market. He was even there throughout most of the great depression and saw the downsizing that happened at the time. His business card embodies an entire era of playing card history.
How do you organize or display your collection of playing cards?
I've been fortunate to display my collection in full-size glass cabinets. My decks are kept safe in plastic cases and arranged first by the manufacturer, then by age. I do my best to tell the story of early American playing cards through the cabinets, making it's easy for me to demonstrate anything I need to by simply pointing at the cab.
I also have binders where each deck has a page of representation. There I keep the Jokers, Extra Cards and Back Designs and Court samples. My binders make research a breeze because everything can be instantly compared in a like-wise fashion. To add to the collection of binders, I also keep a few stock books for deck wrappers, stamps & seals and paper ephemera.
How do you go about adding new decks to your collection?
I've gone through different phases of collecting, each with its own set of criteria and level of intensity. These days there's only a handful of exceptionally hard-to-come-by decks that I'm looking for, so I don't get to play as much. I miss the old days of discovery when every deck was something I hadn't touched before. They were exhilarating years. I still watch the various auction sites, and occasionally I'm approached by a club member looking to part with something special.
Are there any specific decks you are chasing for your collection, and why?
You know it's been interesting to observe playing card collectors and the white whales they chase. One of the decks I've been hunting for since I started collecting is Andrew Dougherty's 1865 Army & Navy. Sometimes referred to as the Monitor & Merrimac, this transformation deck is filled with incredible naval imagery. The Ace of Spade proudly stated the reason for the deck and read, "To commemorate the greatest event in naval history, the substitution of iron for wood." This was a reference to the 1862 "Battle of the Ironclads." The deck was one of the most beautiful ever made, and it's a tough find.
Do you prefer the Ace of Spades or the Joker, and why?
I enjoy both of them the same, but there's a caveat. When you drop below 1865, the Jokers disappear entirely. When you get into these earlier periods, look to the AOS and the many old-world features. Back designs, Courts, finishes and paper types are all intriguing things to check out.
What do your family and friends think of your interest in playing cards?
They've been entirely supportive of my new direction. Believe it or not, my wife likes most of my social posts! What's true for my family and friends is the same for everyone who hears the incredible story of the playing card makers; they feel it needs to be told. I'm sure that they wish it were someone else telling it occasionally.
Other Collectors & Advice
If you would start collecting all over again today, would you do anything different?
No, I couldn't change anything that's happened. Each deck was part of the journey that's still unfolding today. But I can offer advice to those just beginning to collect playing cards and hope they have the same great experience. The best piece of guidance I could give would be to pick the era of time that most interests you and find out what was available at the time. Then let your collector instincts be your guide. Also, don't be afraid to reach out and ask questions and get opinions. There are plenty of experts in our community (myself included) that are there to help.
What interest do you have in collecting modern decks? How does their appeal compare with vintage/antique decks?
I collect modern decks too. There's no doubt in my mind that one day, people will look back at the current 2022 playing card scene and see that it was history in the making. Beauty, originality and innovation were more or less absent in playing cards from the time of the great depression until after the new millennium. Those lost qualities are back now, and we have our modern-day designers to thank for it. With that said, my collection of modern decks is small compared to my antique ones, but it's very potent!
I recently had an opportunity to work with Kings Wild Project on their Vintage Reimagined Series, and I can tell you that there is about to be an exciting blending of the vintage/antique world and the modern. I foresee a time in the future when the history of playing cards, past and present, will be one and the same, with a united goal of looking to the future with a complete understanding and appreciation for the past.
What can you tell us about your involvement with the 52 Plus Joker club? Do you belong to any other playing card organizations or connect with other collectors, either online or in any other way?
52 Plus Joker is an American playing card collector organization founded in 1985. In a nutshell, we give collectors the tools they need to access antique/vintage playing cards in a safe and trustworthy environment. 52 Plus has an impressive roster of members across a broad spectrum of playing card-related interests. Vintage, antique and modern collectors, magicians, illusionists and sleight of hand artists, poker players, historians and enthusiasts, and card players from all around the world are part of our club.
My contributions to the club include writing monthly for our online magazine Card Culture. My Collector's Corner articles cover many fascinating discoveries and topics relating to playing cards history. They're a good reflection of everything I do and encounter outside of the realm of my primary research for Paper Empires. I also create presentations for our annual 52 Plus Joker Conventions and other videos and promos for the club.
Outside of 52 Plus Joker, I've also been able to connect with people and organizations all over the globe. This typically happens through my website or social media, and it's always amazing to see how much influence and intrigue playing cards have.
What role does social media play for playing card enthusiasts and collectors?
A significant role and getting more important all the time. I would imagine that in the future, most people's first experience with the history of playing cards, and the potential to collect them, will happen online. This is the reason I've been getting my playing card maker mini-documentaries ready to go. As we move into a new technological world, we need to provide innovative and interactive ways to learn.
What can we expect from you in the future, and do you have any special plans or projects in mind?
I do! Paper Empires Volume II is coming soon, and I also hope to have another edition of my Collector's Corner Annual available in the near future. Upcoming projects include the maker mini-docs and unboxing videos. There are also some great things under wraps waiting for the time to come.
Where can we follow you on social media or elsewhere online? (e.g. websites, blogs, etc.)
My website www.worldofpaperempires.com is your best place to start, and from there, you can access all of my social media channels. I post regularly on Instagram and Facebook/Meta and upload most of my video content to YouTube. You can also find me on eBay if you're looking for antique/vintage playing cards.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
You've done an excellent job selecting the right questions to ask, and I can tell you're now formally under the spell of Early American Playing Cards. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to an audience I may not have otherwise and hope that everyone reading this has the notion to find out a lot more about this extraordinary subject. When I first wrote Paper Empires, I came up with a tag-line that I believe is still as effective today as it was back then. Once you meet the makers, you'll never look at playing cards the same. Thanks for having me!
World of Paper Empires
Wasn't that fantastic? Jason is a real expert with a wealth of knowledge at his finger-tips, especially when it comes to the period that he describes as the golden age (1835-1935). But he is also a true gentleman, and just loves sharing with other collectors, and talking about playing cards. He's a treasure trove of information and expertise, and it was absolutely fascinating to read his answers.
But he's not just a man who knows a lot. His wide range of knowledge is matched by real passion. And that's what makes Jason so much fun to read or listen to - whether it's this interview, his Card Culture articles, his Paper Empires book, or the video presentations he's done for the 52 Plus Joker club. He's an experienced writer and interesting speaker, who is good at telling a story and engaging his audience. Whatever the format, Jason's enthusiasm immediately shines through. And it's infectious, and you can't help but get carried along with his eagerness, and his love for the history behind the playing cards that is our shared passion.
We're fortunate to have men like Jason McKinstry on our team, so to speak. As he himself explains, it was really just a chance meeting that led him to discover antique playing cards. And did the rabbit hole he dived into as a result ever prove to be a deep one! I'm grateful that Jason has been so generous with his time in carefully answering all the questions I put to him, and in sharing so much valuable content in response. After all his years of research, he's well-positioned to share with the rest of us.
I particularly appreciated his careful answer on how to determine the rarity of a deck, his tips on dating playing cards, and his overview of the key developments in how playing cards changed in the 19th century. But don't stop with this interview. Follow Jason on his social media, and check out some of the delightful images he shares of antique playing cards, and of the people, places, and stories behind them. Then go deeper by reading some of his articles in Card Culture, or pick up his book Paper Empires.
As collectors of playing cards, whether it is the antique or the modern that fires your passion, we need each other. And we need to stay connected and learn from one another. Modern collectors need to appreciate that the playing cards of today are standing on the shoulders of the giants of the past. And antique collectors need to appreciate how their beloved playing cards have given birth to a new generation that has inherited the genetic stamp of its ancestors, but also builds on it in new and interesting ways. And together, we can appreciate the important lessons that playing cards convey about our history and about ourselves.
Each deck of playing cards has a story behind it, as a result of there being a living and breathing creator that helped produce it. And the history of playing cards doesn't just tell the story about individual persons, but also of whole communities and cultures. I'm just glad that we have people like Jason McKinstry willing to find these stories, and tell them to us.
Want to connect with or follow Jason McKinstry?
● Website: World of Paper Empires
● Social media: Facebook, Instagram, Youtube
● Marketplace: Webshop, eBay
Want to watch some of Jason McKinstry's video presentations?
● Presentation: The Inspiration behind Paper Empires
● Lecture: Antique Playing Cards (52 Plus Joker's 2020 Convention)
● Q&A: Antique Playing Cards (52 Plus Joker's 2020 Convention)
● Presentation: Rare Playing Card Items (52 Plus Joker's 2021 Virtual Day)
● Mini-Documentary: The Forgotten History of Playing Card Maker Andrew Dougherty (1826-1901)
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks here.
- [+] Dice rolls
Playing Card Manufacturer: Shenzhen Wangjing Printing Company (WJPC)
In the world of sports there are big name teams and big name athletes. Practically everyone has heard of superstars like Roger Federer, LeBron James, and Tiger Woods, or championship winning teams which have created a lasting legacy like football's New England Patriots and baseball's New York Yankees. But there are often hard-working athletes achieving great success under the shadow of these giants.
Much the same is true in the world of playing cards. Most readers will be familiar with big name printers like the United States Playing Card Company, and their European counterpart and owner, Cartamundi. But there are many smaller and lesser known manufacturers who are achieving high levels of success in the shadow of these industry giants, and whose names any creator or collector should also know about.
Examples of such smaller but successful players in the industry include Experts Playing Cards, Legends Playing Cards, and other playing card manufacturers based in Taiwan and China. Especially for creators and designers looking to produce their own deck of playing cards, many printing card companies like these are alternative manufacturers you should be aware of, given that they also can produce high quality products.
In this article I'd like to take a look at another of these lesser known companies, Shenzhen Wangjing Printing Company (WJPC), which has been making an increasing contribution to the playing card industry in recent years.
Shenzhen Wangjing Printing Company (WJPC)
I personally first became aware of WJPC a few years ago when one of my favourite creators, Elephant Playing Cards, switched to using WJPC for the manufacture of some of their decks. When another respected creator, Guru Playing Cards, also used WJPC to print one of their projects, I was forced to sit up and take careful notice. Since then WJPC has produced numerous projects for other designers as well, and it was time to find out more about them.
WJPC is based in Shenzhen City, which is located in Guangdong Province, China. It has been around since 2006, which is when it was founded by entrepreneur Jack Yang. Jack's vision for producing quality playing cards began with a chance meeting with professional poker players, and he quickly began making this a reality after establishing the company. By 2009 the company had expanded beyond playing cards to tarot and oracle cards, flash cards, and game cards. Around this time they were also producing accessories like their own packaging and printing their own instructional booklets, and had begun doing business with overseas customers.
In order to meet the growing demand and to increase the quality of their output, they added a six-colour Heidelberg printer to their factory equipment in 2012. Expansion continued in 2019, with a new manufacturing plant established under the name Dongguan Wangjing Poker Company, which was fully equipped with a wide range of modern equipment. You'll also find some of their products under the name Acelion, which represents their own high-end brand.
WJPC's current facilities have around 18,000 square meters of floor space, and is staffed by a team of over 300 skilled workers. So we're not talking about a rinky-dinky backyard operation here, but a significantly sized manufacturing business. In terms of equipment, they now have two Heidelberg printers, as well as automatic varnishing, die-cut and packaging machines, and some of the latest state-of-the-art equipment.
They now consider themselves to be a professional manufacturer of numerous types of cards. So while custom poker-sized playing cards represent part of the product range that they cater to, they have expertise in a wider range of other printed products, including cards used for games, flash cards, advertising cards used for promotions, and more. Many creators of custom tarot decks have turned to WJPC for producing their products too, due to the specialized requirements of their projects for foils and other features that achieve a luxury look.
Aside from a solid customer base in China itself, WJPC now serves a global audience, with customers located around the world, including a significant number in North America. According to figures I found on their website, their annual sales top US$20 million, and 80% of their total revenue is generated by export products. See this promo video to get an idea of their factory and equipment.
I personally have several WJPC decks that I've used and play-tested, so I had some idea of what kind of quality to expect. But since the company offers free samples to creators planning to use their services, I got in touch with them, told them I was writing an article about them, and that I was interested to see some samples of the kind of work they can do, besides a vanilla deck of playing cards. So let's pull out a few decks from my own collection, and from the sample cards they sent me, and get some impressions of what they can do.
Bharata V2 Playing Cards (2018)
The Bharata V2 Playing Cards were produced by Guru Playing Cards in 2018, in a limited print run of around 500 decks. It was a successor to the first edition produced in 2017, which was a luxury gilded version geared more to collectors, whereas V2 was intended more for actual use in card games, while still remaining beautiful.
Bharata is the original name of India, and this deck was conceived as a tribute to the childhood stories of kings and queens that have become part of the art forms and history of Indian culture. The tuck case immediately introduces this cultural heritage with vibrant and colourful patterns set on a black background, with the border and lettering in silver foil, and embossed surfaces, while the inside has full interior printing with a silver foil pattern.
The faces are nicely customized throughout, but the court cards have a special charm, with a lush oval border, and enchanting characters depicted as part of the Indian royalty. The artwork here is by top Indian illustrator Ishan Trivedi, these illustrations are based on Indian folk art forms such as Kishangarh and miniature paintings. The Jokers continue this style, and feature two beautifully costumed characters with a full one-way design.
Plump pips on the number cards help make good use of the entire card space, and match the overall feel of the deck. The exquisite and colourful design of the card backs is particularly delightful, and includes patterned flowers and swan-like figures.
The cards have an embossed linen style "air cushion" finish. Out of the box they fanned and spread evenly and smoothly, and even after extensive usage in card games the cards still spread reasonably okay, without the severe clumping I've seen from lower quality playing cards. The super smooth edges give the impression of a laser cut, and while faros aren't impossible, they aren't easy and there doesn't seem to be a single direction that favours them. However I did learn from the creator that he didn't specify a traditional or modern cut when placing this order, so this is likely not WJPC's fault.
The cards are quite stiff and hold their shape well, and while the quality doesn't match that of industry leaders like USPCC, it is higher than a deck produced by companies like MPC or NPCC. Reviews from others who have the Bharata V2 deck were also positive, with many people pleasantly surprised at how well the deck handled, especially in comparison to low expectations from those who had been somewhat disappointed with some previous WJPC produced decks.
Zoo 52 Playing Cards (2019)
This pair of decks offer a homage to those with an affection for dogs and cats, and should delight anyone who enjoys an amusing and loving tribute, with extra charm provided by some novel tuck boxes.
The pair consists of 52 Zoo (Playful Paws) and 52 Zoo (Woof & Whiskers).
The immediate appeal of both decks lies in the cute tuck box for each. These have cardboard ears that fold up, to complete the look of the friendly cat and dog on the front of the box. It is also textured with a tactile feel that gives the impression of canvas, or the kind of card-stock on which an artist might do watercolour painting.
The card backs both have a one-way design with a clever mosaic-style collage created entirely of cats and dogs respectively. But it's the court cards that are the real center piece of both decks, with charming hand-painted images in water-colour, depicting scenes with our beloved furry friends. In contrast, the number cards are rather ordinary, and I'd have liked to have seen some more customization there. Even so it's still a charming deck that will especially appeal to cat lovers and dog lovers.
Like the Bharata V2 deck, the card-stock used for this is WJPC's 310gsm German black core paper, with an air cushion style embossing pattern (which they refer to as "linen air texture), and their "butter varnishing" finish. This seems to be their most commonly used and most durable stock, and the best option for creators.
WJPC already seemed to be upping their game at this point. Elephant Playing Cards had used WJPC for some previous projects too, including their Cyberpunk and their Elephant decks, and there were some quality issues in both cases. Those problems seemed to have been ironed out with the arrival of the Zoo52 project, and I have no complaints about the look and feel of the cards. While they seem to be more clumpy than the Bharata V2 deck after extensive usage, they do faro much better, and overall they hold up well, and seem to be of decent quality.
The Photography Deck (2020)
The Photography Deck: Camera Cheat Sheet Playing Cards was a hugely successful project that was crowdfunded with the help of Kickstarter. It generated more than $360,000 in funding, which at the time was the fifth top playing card Kickstarter project of all time. Even now it still ranks in the ten top projects of all-time (based on funds raised), but has the added distinction among the select few playing card projects with over 10,000 backers.
This deck was created by the brand Travel9to5, which specializes in travel, film, and photography, and the man behind it is creator and adventurer Eric Bohring. He had the clever idea of incorporating tips and tricks for photography on all the cards. This element gave this deck an appeal that went far beyond your average custom deck, since it had a strong crossover appeal with photography enthusiasts. It received a lot of positive press in photography websites and blogs, and people love how the deck effectively doubles as a camera reference sheet with rules and techniques about photography.
A few different versions of the deck were offered, and beside the main deck there was also a limited edition with green card backs, plus a blue-backed waterproof PVC deck. The standard version had black card backs which incorporate two cameras on tripods, as well as various iconography familiar from the world of photography.
Each suit cleverly focuses on a different aspect of photography: camera basics (Spades), composition (Hearts), technical (Clubs), and shooting styles (Diamonds). And it's not just the court cards that get the luxury treatment, but each and every card in the deck is filled with information and graphics about the principles and techniques of photography. It really is a photographer's dream come true, especially for amateurs looking to sharpen their skills.
All the things you'd expect are included, from important concepts like negative space, leading lines, rule of thirds, as well as technical details such as exposure, aperture, shutter speed, focal length, depth of field, and much more. I've dabbled in photography in the past, so I really appreciated the content, as well as the way in which it had been implemented and designed.
Photography websites seemed to be unanimous in their applause for the brilliance of the concept, and also spoke very highly of how the cards felt and looked. Like the two previous decks, these also use WJPC's 310gsm German black core paper with their "butter varnishing" finish, and overall have an embossed feel and satisfactory handling that you'd expect as a bare minimum for quality playing cards.
Compared with the above two decks, this one comes the closest to the looks and handling that I'd expect from a USPCC printed deck. The cards do everything right: they have the right stiffness, spring nicely, hold their shape, faro well, and generally handle pleasantly. After moderate use there's still some clumping, but less than the earlier decks, and less than what you typically get from the Taiwan printed decks of manufacturers like EPCC and LPCC.
WJPC 15th Anniversary Fluorescent Playing Cards (2021)
To commemorate the company's 15th anniversary in 2021, the company released a special deck of playing cards that employed fluorescent or UV light sensitive ink. I was fortunate to see these WJPC 15th Anniversary Fluorescent Playing Cards in person.
The tuck box has embossing and silver foil, with a logo on one side, and a circular pattern on the reverse side that matches the design of the card backs. Concentric circles in different colours with coloured tips in opposite corners immediately give a cardistry vibe. Before even pulling the cards out of the box I knew that this would be a deck well suited for card flourishing.
The card faces largely have a traditional design, which is chiefly noticeable with the court cards. But there are two main changes that have been made to make this deck excel when put through its paces in the hands of an experienced cardist. Firstly, the colours have been reduced to a binary colour scheme, with a dark blue paired alongside an aqua blue. Secondly, there's a triangle of colour in the middle of the long edge of the cards, which accentuates the beauty of fans and spreads. I'm not sure why the creator opted not to make this a symmetrical two-way feature, unless the goal was to make it a one-way deck for card magic, but when it comes to visual aesthetics it means the deck looks best in fans and spreads when the cards are all facing the same way.
But it gets better. This deck uses what the company describes as "fluorescent ink" on both sides of the cards, which card enthusiasts commonly refer to as UV ink. Strictly speaking it isn't the ink that is UV, but it is reactive to UV light, so to be technically correct it should be described as UV blacklight reactive ink. The idea is that this ink is completely invisible, unless it is viewed with a special UV blacklight source. My copy of the deck even came along with a mini UV torch, so that I could enjoy this feature.
And sure enough, once you view the deck with the benefit of a UV flashlight, it really "shines". Not only do the colours of the card backs really come to life, but on the faces of the cards a star pattern emerged out of nowhere and began to beam. This video will give you some idea of what it looks like, but quite honestly in the hands of a true cardist it looks even more amazing, especially when you start to do flourishes like a Cascade.
This particular deck is advertised as using card-stock that is 300gsm German black core paper, so the cards are slightly thinner than the decks with 310gsm paper covered above. The difference in looks, feel, or handling is barely noticeable, however. I can best compare it to the difference between crushed stock and non-crushed stock: the 300gsm stock feels a little softer and more pleasant, whereas the 310gsm stock feels a little stiffer and perhaps more durable. Both perform quite satisfactorily in my opinion.
Love is a Smoke Playing Cards (2021)
Another example of a more exotic deck that showcases the special features that WJPC is capable of is Love is a Smoke Playing Cards, which features artwork created by Giordano Loddo. Giordano Loddo is a digital art director and UI designer who lives in Italy, and whose graphic design work and illustrations can be seen over on Behance.
The deck was produced in a limited release of just 500 by Velata Playing Cards. The man behind the Velata brand is Riccardo Conturbia, former founder of Passione Playing Cards.
The tuck box design introduces us to an image that will recur throughout the deck, chiefly on the card backs. It features a stark design with pursed lips, from which smoke is emerging, with a single green eye depicted in the center of the smoke. The tuck box adds a heart and the phrase "Love is a Smoke" to this image.
Judging by the fact that all of the court card characters have a cigarette in hand, it appears to be a homage of some kind to smoking. (Kids, this doesn't mean that smoking is a good idea.) It's a fully custom deck, and the court cards especially don't disappoint, with bright colours, and a garish style that brings you back to the smoke filled days of the 1960s and 1970s.
But let's get to the design of the card backs, because these see the use of holographic foil, which gives the smoke and the borders an eye-catching iridescent look when held up to the light. The central eye proves to be a nice focal point for spins and twirls, and the cards really do look glamorous when used for card flourishing, courtesy of the creative and shiny holographic back design.
But that's not all. The edges of the deck also have holographic foil! I'm not sure if this has been applied through a traditional gilding process, or in some other way. But it sure looks absolutely exquisite, and complements the card backs beautifully. While this does immediately make faroing more difficult, this is obviously a deck that is intended to be enjoyed for its luxury looks first of all, rather than be put through the paces of extreme card flourishing. So I haven't given this deck heavy usage, because it's designed to be enjoyed slowly and carefully rather than for cardistry.
Even so it seems to handle reasonably well, and the cards fan and spread smoothly and pleasantly out of the box. Like the 15th anniversary deck, the cards use 300gsm paper stock, so they are slightly more flexible than the 310gsm decks, and they spring rather nicely.
Tarot and Oracle Cards
While WJPC has a lot of experience with playing cards, and that's also where the company's roots lie, they have now expanded to cater for the production of a whole range of other closely related printed products and accessories. These include tarot and oracle cards, educational flash cards, and playing cards for board games and card games. In addition, they also produce a wide range of custom boxes for decks of cards and games, as well as print instructional booklets to accompany custom decks and games.
But it's especially with some of their tarot and oracle decks that they have the opportunity to showcase some of their best work and highest technological achievements. Tarot decks and oracle decks typically don't have the exacting requirements of playing cards that are used intensively for cardistry or card magic. As a result, it is possible to focus more on extra features and luxury touches, without needing to worry that these won't be able to withstand the intense workout that a cardist or magician typically puts a worker deck through.
Standard tarot cards are 70mm x 120mm (2.75" x 4.75") in size, which is longer and narrower than poker-sized playing cards, but this different sized canvas presents tarot artists with different opportunities in design. Around a dozen different card stocks can be used, ranging from 270gsm to 400gsm, as well as PVC plastic. But it's especially the printing and finishing options that really give opportunity to add luxury and bling. These include holographic printing, various levels of gloss, gold or silver gilded edging, gold foil stamping, and more. And to complete the presentation, customers can select from various packaging options produced in-house by WJPC.
The number of different options can be somewhat dizzying, but the results speak for themselves. The cards I sampled included The Runic Odyssey (New Edition) by Hievaya, which is a stunning oracle deck, with relatively thick stock with a smooth feel (described by the creator as "velvet lamination"), and a matte black look. Both sides of the cards use lavish gold foil for the letters and artwork, and it looks absolutely exquisite. The edges of the cards are finished with matte teal. Someone needs to get the artist who produced this to make a custom deck of poker-sized playing cards with a similar look and feel! This particular project comes with other extras like a 262 page guidebook, a hinged neck box, a faux suede pouch, and a certificate of authenticity, all of which were produced by WJPC as well.
Hievaya's Runic Odyssey (Original Edition) is also rather lovely, and features a similar style and design on beige cards. While it doesn't have quite the same impact as the gold on black, the gold foil still is a visual delight. It looks particularly amazing on the cards which depict the different lunar phases, because this gives the gold foil an opportunity to shine - literally . The edges of this deck are gilded with gold, and because of the extra thickness of the cards, the gilding can be more easily admired when examining an individual card than a single card from a poker-sized deck, and I suspect it will be longer lasting too. And it's not just the ordinary smooth gold foil most of us are familiar with from a gilded deck, but has a sprinkled effect which looks even more impressive.
Several sample cards from other tarot decks also impressed me with their luxury looks. Because these kinds of decks can employ thicker cards, adding touches like gold foil on the front and backs is very effective, especially when these technical possibilities are taken advantage of by a skilled and creative designer. Some of the cards used holographic foils, and when applied the faces of the cards and to the edges, the results looked genuinely amazing. I would love to see more custom playing cards that utilize these kinds of options, and perhaps there are designers of custom poker-sized decks that can even learn a thing or two from the amazing cards that some tarot designers are putting out nowadays. There's no doubt in my mind that these are high end playing cards that are visually stunning.
Main Stock & Finish Options
As mentioned earlier, WJPC caters to a much wider market than merely poker-sized cards, and the clients they print for produce tarot decks, flash cards, card games, and more. All of these markets have different requirements, in terms of playing card size and the type of card-stock. Even things like durability and handling can become less important depending on how the cards will be used. But since most of my readers are interested in poker-sized decks, I'm primarily interested in how suitable WJPC playing cards are for card games, card magic, card flourishing, and for collecting; and my focus will be on how their cards live up to the specific needs of those communities.
WJPC offers a fairly wide range of card stocks for custom poker-sized decks: A-grade blue core (270, 280, or 300 gsm) paper and imported black core paper (Imported from Germany - 300, 310, or 330gsm, France - 300gsm, Italy - 280, or 290, or 305gsm). The range of options seems a little dizzying at first. So which should you use?
In the world of playing cards, you'll often find mention of "black core paper". Since playing cards are typically made from layers of paper, this is a reference to the central layer of adhesive which binds the two outer layers together. This needs to be opaque, so that you can't see straight through the cards and discern the printing on the other side. For quality playing cards, you typically want to avoid gray core and blue core paper, which may be fine for other uses, but are significantly inferior to black core paper. Black core paper is often sourced from countries like Germany, and not only does it ensure that the cards are opaque, but also has a good stiffness and durability, so that the cards will stay in shape after shuffling, and not remain permanently bent after light handling.
The WJPC-printed poker-sized decks in my own collection nearly all use German black core paper, with the 300 or 310 gsm thickness. This is fairly comparable to the thickness and handling performance we've come to expect from manufacturers like USPCC. The 310gsm stock doesn't feel as thin and flexible as USPCC's thin-crush stock, but is a reasonable equivalent in thickness and feel to a standard Bicycle deck. Comparing the 310gsm stock to a standard Bicycle deck and the 300gsm stock to crushed stock will give you some idea of how the two compare in terms of handling. Unlike some cheaper playing cards I've seen, the cards hold their shape quite well even after heavy shuffling and handling, so there's a healthy balance between stiffness and flexibility. I'm told that for cardistry style decks, the 305gsm Italian black core paper is a good choice, but I haven't personally had the chance to try a deck with that card-stock.
Experienced handlers are also fussy about the embossing pattern and finish used on their playing cards. All the custom poker-sized decks from WJPC that I've used have a standard air-cushion style finish for ideal handling.
WJPC also offers several options for the actual finish (or varnish) that is applied to the cards afterwards. Applying a finish to playing cards is standard practice in the playing card world today, and along with the embossing pattern in the paper stock, it ensures good handling and durability. The "butter finish" is what WJPC typically uses for most of their cards, and it is available either as a glossy varnish for ordinary playing cards, or as a semi-matte varnish for higher end playing cards like those used for casino games, cardistry, and card magic.
So how does it hold up? In terms of durability, the cards seem to hold up quite well. One difference one quickly notices is that some WJPC cards won't spread or fan evenly over the long term, and the deck will look quite clumpy, although this seems to be less of an issue with their more recent decks. That could make them less suitable for cardistry, however, and even some card magic. But that is typical of playing cards in the second tier of playing card manufacturers, other than those printed by the big two (USPCC and Cartamundi), so it is hard to fault them for that. There were apparently some issues with the finish and printing of the Elephant and Cyberpunk decks that WJPC printed several years ago, but that seems to be from their earlier days, and I haven't come across reports of similar problems with any recent projects.
I also found that in the case of a deck with borderless backs, after heavy usage the ink on the borders did start to eventually wear slightly, even somewhat making its way onto the faces of the cards. This wasn't a problem at all for decks with standard white borders, and it also depends on the ink colour (in this instance, the culprit was red, which is apparently more prone to this issue). It's not a big issue, but might be a reason to stay away from a borderless design, although this will really only be a concern for decks that are going to see heavy usage for cardistry or card magic. For the rest the colours and printing looks consistent, and stands up well.
Cut: Cut is also important to serious playing card connoisseurs, because it has an impact on the ability to do faro shuffles. WJPC uses integrated slitter cutting machines to do this job. So unlike the inferior quality decks that some printers manufacture and cut with lasers, and are thus impossible to faro shuffle, WJPC playing cards faro shuffle reasonably well, although perhaps not quite to the same standard as what you might be used to from a USPCC printed deck.
MOQ: I have also asked the WJPC about the minimum order quantity (MOQ), and was told that while 200 decks is officially the smallest batch that they typically print, it is recommended to order at least 500 decks. In reality the total cost for 500 decks isn't much more than it is for 200 decks, since a significant amount of the cost is a result of set-up costs and processing, rather than materials. But the sales team will typically work with customers to try to find the most competitive option.
Several well known creators have made use of WJPC as their printer for fulfilling their playing card projects. So rather than just limit myself to my personal impressions from handling several decks in my own collection, and seeing some additional sample cards from other decks, I decided to approach these creators to see what I could learn about their experiences with WJPC, and what they would recommend.
The creators I consulted primarily have a target audience for casual users in the mass market, rather than cardists or magicians, who have far more exacting standards and requirements for playing cards. They acknowledged that experienced handlers in cardistry and sleight of hand card magic have the expertise to observe miniscule differences in quality and handling, that primarily are noticeable when executing complex flourishing moves or difficult sleight of hand manoeuvrers. But aside from that particular subset of consumers, there was real satisfaction with the quality of the playing cards, both in terms of looks, feel, and handling. According to these creators, WJPC playing cards exceed the quality of the "average" deck of playing cards that most people are familiar with, and a laymen typically considers the performance to be very good, especially if they've not previously had experience with embossed "air cushion" style card stock that shuffles smoothly, and is as durable as these decks tend to be. Feedback from their customers has been consistently positive about the quality in that respect.
One creator had some less than satisfactory experiences when WJPC decks were first entering the crowdfunding marketplace, and there were some instances where the printing wasn't up to snuff, and where the finish was poor. In one case, WJPC reprinted an entire production run free of charge in order to rectify this, and in another instance a different creator reported that WJPC patiently listened to his concerns about one aspect of a print run, and also redid things with WJPC footing the bill. But these issues were only the case for one or two early decks, and since that time these creators have only had positive experiences, expressed complete satisfaction with the product, and indicated their intention to keep using WJPC for mass production going forwards. One creator also mentioned a concern he'd experienced with the tuck box sometimes being 1-2mm too wide on the short side of the deck, which can cause cards to wear or the box to become damaged during shipping.
They also had very positive things to say about WJPC's customer service, as one creator put it: "Their client relation process is fantastic - it is super easy to produce with them. They are quick, accurate and respectful in all communications - super important and surprisingly rare!" In comparison, the response times this same creator had with USPCC and Cartamundi was very disappointing. My own experience in communicating with one of WJPC's representatives has been similar. Even though I'm not one of their customers, I have bombarded them with questions about different things, and have always received prompt, polite, patient, helpful responses, and even transparent and openness about the potential drawbacks of particular printing options.
The creators I consulted also spoke highly of WJPC's comprehensive and wide range of products and options, and stated how helpful their staff were in suggesting different production methods, inks, etc, while showing a flexibility and willingness to make revisions on the fly. The cost was also a factor: "Their prices are very competitive". Particularly when producing in high volume the savings can be significant. One creator also noted an advantage about their location: "They are in mainland China, which means they are located near logistic support making importing to warehouses simpler." I'm not a creator and have no experience in most of these areas, so I simply pass on these observations from creators without further comment, except to observe that the reports are consistently positive.
People in the card industry have also spoken quite highly about the quality and handling. There was some frustration about inconsistency of the quality of early projects, but real satisfaction with more recent ones. Here are some comments from experienced collectors:
● "I did not expect them to handle as well as they did and I was pleasantly surprised." (on Bharata V2 - source)."
● "A great addition to the WJPC line-up ... it's handling is far superior to other Guru decks ... On the WJPC side, it sets an excellent balance between sturdiness and playability, slipperiness and resilience." (on Bharata V2 - source)
● "This WJPC deck basically handles very closely to a USPCC deck, the only visible difference being the coating that looks (not feels) glossed." (on Circuit - source)
● "I was pleasantly surprised with the handling of the cards. I was really leery about them being printed in China but they actually feel a lot like USPCC." (on Zoo52 - source)
● "The cards handle better than I expected." (on Zoo52 - source)
● "The recently printed WJPC decks that I have look great and handle great." (on Cernunnos and Montenzi No.7 Winter - source)
Overall, I've been quite impressed with WJPC's contributions to the playing card industry. There seem to have been some initial teething issues with some of the initial crowdfunding projects they were involved with (e.g. the Cyberpunk deck and Elephant deck from Elephant Playing Cards). But that was mainly pre-2018, when results were inconsistent, and in recent years reports I've seen have been much more positive. Judging by my own experience with some of their decks, they seem to be stepping up their game, and have figured out what kind of quality and standards people in the playing card industry expect.
It's not that difficult to satisfy consumers who have minimal experience with playing cards. For the average person, a WJPC deck will instantly be a step up in quality, and have looks, feel, and handling that easily exceeds what you'd find in a cheap corner store deck. These look and perform quite well, and I'd even consider them a grade higher than the cards you typically get from popular printer MPC. They don't quite match the levels of top tier playing cards printed by USPCC, but the average person won't notice that either.
The quality differences will mostly be obvious to experienced cardists and magicians, who rely on consistent fans and spreads even after significant usage, and are skilled at more technically difficult moves like faro shuffles, where small differences in cut can have a big impact. But the average person will never need or even notice those small differences in quality, and so for the typical collector or card gamer, any differences will go unnoticed for the most part. While a WJPC deck may not satisfy the very high demands and standards required for experienced card flourishers or card magicians, they'll do just fine for everyone else, and offer pleasing results.
But where WJPC really shines is in areas where touches of luxury or detail are needed, such as UV inks, metallic foils, and holographic foils. Designers of custom tarot cards have shown real creativity in this area, because many tarot decks are created with the goal of achieving a supreme look of luxury and beauty. If the tarot cards I've seen are any indication, WJPC has the goods to get this done.
The requirements of a tarot deck are admittedly slightly different than a poker deck. As a result, the usual requirements many of us expect in a deck of custom playing cards, such as embossed card stock, fall to the background. When these qualities become irrelevant, and all the focus can be on artistic design, and luxury touches like foils and special inks, the tarot cards WJPC has produced are absolutely spectacular. Perhaps designers of custom playing cards can learn a thing or two from the creativity and innovation that their fellow artists in the world of tarot are doing with the help of printers like WJPC. The custom playing cards we've seen produced by WJPC are already good, and with artists willing to experiment with the special features that WJPC offers, they can only get better.
Want to learn more?
● WJPC: Official website, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Youtube
● Acelion: Official website, Facebook, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube
● WJPC's Alibaba marketplace: Shop #1, Shop #2, Shop #3
For similar coverage of other playing card manufacturers, see: USPCC, Cartamundi, LPCC/EPCC, TWPCC, HCPC, NPCC, USGS, MPC, Shuffled Ink, Piatnik
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks here.
- [+] Dice rolls
The 52 Plus Joker Club and Virtual Conventions
Your chance to view the main events from 52 Plus Joker's annual convention (Part 6)
Collectors of playing cards enjoy talking to other collectors. Put two playing card enthusiasts in the same room, and they will quickly find something to talk about. Collectors enjoy showing each other decks from their collection, discussing their favourite playing cards and designers, talking about the latest and greatest news in the world of playing cards, and even buying and selling from each other. The playing card community is a particularly vibrant one, and it's not surprising that you don't have to look far to find many collectors active in playing card related forums such as Reddit and elsewhere.
So it's also no surprise to discover that playing card clubs also have a solid history. And of the many such organizations around the world, the most well-known and the biggest one for playing card collectors is 52 Plus Joker. Catering to antique, vintage, and modern playing cards, as well as playing card related ephemera, it is the world's premier playing card club to be part of.
But now that we're in the year 2022, things are changing. Not only are people around the world connected more than ever before with the help of the internet, but there are also new ways of meeting, courtesy of modern technology. The current global pandemic in particular has forced us to discover new ways of getting together virtually. It has also helped give us the tools and experience to do so.
And that's why 52 Plus Joker is at somewhat of a turning point, and arguably on the edge of a new era. Over the past two years it has demonstrated a willingness to experiment with new formats. Particularly their 2020 online convention was a landmark event. It is a harbinger of the exciting new opportunities that lie ahead for playing card enthusiasts in years to come. In this article I want to do a broad review of their 2020 virtual convention, and talk about what might lie ahead in the future.
The 52 Plus Joker Club
But first, a few things about the club itself. 52 Plus Joker was founded in 1985, which means that it's not that far away from its 40th year of operation. The Chicago Playing Card Collectors club is another long-standing club of this kind, and in 2018 the two merged to become the largest association of playing card collectors across the globe.
The club was founded out of a desire for people to get in touch with other collectors, to learn more about the hobby, and give opportunities for fellow enthusiasts to connect, trade, and share ideas. Benefits are numerous, even for those who will never attend an event in person. For an annual fee of $25 per year, you get access to the club's two magazines, entitlement to attend the annual convention, and the option of purchasing the club's annual deck.
I've personally been very impressed with the quality of the two club magazines. Card Culture comes out digitally every month, and is jam packed with interesting articles and information. I especially enjoy browsing through all the delightful pictures of historic and modern playing cards that are found within its pages. The larger periodical Clear The Decks comes out quarterly, and you get a hard copy mailed to your address. It gives the opportunity for more detailed exploration of playing card related topics. The magazines have regular contributors who are well informed and passionate, and both of them are well put together in a professional looking format. But perhaps best of all, with your club membership you also get access to all the back issues from both magazines. So the moment you become a member, you instantly have plenty of great reading to keep you busy for a long time!
The annual convention is usually a highlight of the club calendar, and includes auctions, presentations from leading figures in the playing card industry, and other special events. Because of COVID, in the past two years these events have been conducted online instead, including the auctions. The quality of the items up for sale at the auction is very high, with many rare and old decks being a real treat to see. Each year the club also produces a unique Club Deck, for which they often bring in big name playing card designers like Alex Chin, Randy Butterfield, and most recently, Stockholm17. And there's the annual Diamond Awards, which among other things recognize the Deck of the Year and the Artist of the Year.
The global landscape of the year 2020 was very different from previous years, and the pandemic forced 52 Plus Joker to reinvent itself and go digital. For the very first time in club history, instead of being able to meet in person, the annual convention was held online. So in retrospect, how did it go?
The virtual convention was organized using Zoom, and with some good techies on staff, the mechanics of this new initiative worked quite well. There were some technical issues from time to time, like a flipped camera, muted sound, and the usual growing pains you'd expect as everyone gets used to video conferencing. But overall things went fairly smoothly. Throughout the conference there were good visuals and audio, and opportunity for viewers around the world to participate and engage with speakers via the chat. There were typically 100-200 people in the chat room at any one time, who had the opportunity to ask live questions or share comments.
Lee Asher did a terrific job of running things from his President's chair, introducing the speakers, and being the main hinge around which the convention turned. He is a fantastic ambassador for 52 Plus Joker specifically, and for playing cards generally. It's hard to imagine anyone on the planet doing a better job of this than he does, or being more suited for this role. Seriously. Watch him do his thing and you'll see why. He is incredibly knowledgeable, and positively brimming with enthusiasm about playing cards. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that parts of his body are made out of playing cards, or at the very least that he eats them for breakfast. He is very welcoming to new members, and exudes warmth, and where appropriate, humor. Not only is he a fantastic President of the club, but he's perfectly suited for that role and for running a convention, and I can see him doing this for years to come.
One benefit of a digital format is that it makes it possible to preserve a record of all the events that were part of the online convention, and put them online for people to view. In previous articles I've already covered most of the components of the convention, in which I gave a short overview of each part of the conference, along with a summary of some of the main points gleaned from each segment. If you haven't seen those articles, I encourage you to browse through them. Even more importantly, do check out the convention videos yourself, to get a taste of what things were like. You'll find a chronological overview of all the events over on 52 Plus Joker's convention page and on their youtube channel.
There's no doubt that going virtual was a big success. When the 2021 Convention planned for Niagara Falls also had to be cancelled, a Virtual Day was organized on 2nd October, 2021, with a similarly run Deck Release Event on 21st October, 2021. But the party hasn't stopped yet, and plans are currently underway for a larger 2022 April Virtual Weekend event to be held on April 23 and 24, 2022. This will include presentation of the 2021 of the Diamond Awards, more lectures, another playing card game show, a "Desert Island Edition" show and tell, and an auction. The virtual convention format is obviously working well, and will only get better with the benefit of more experience.
So what are some things about the convention that help give us insight into the internal machinery of the club itself? To answer that, we got the chance to observe their 2020 General Meeting, which was one of the events that was part of the 2020 online convention. It is quite a privilege to sit in 52 Plus Joker's General Meeting, because normally non-members don't get the opportunity to see this, and it's held behind closed doors for members only. But the club is all about transparency and I'm glad that they released this for anyone to see.
Prior to the convention the Executive Board of the Club had an online meeting where they made various decisions, charting the way forward for the club. The first part of the General Meeting simply involved sharing the outcome of these decisions and various related details, such as a report from the treasurer, reports from the editors of the club's Clear The Decks publication and their monthly Card Culture magazine, and some internal reshuffling in the board as a result of a resignation. I found it interesting to learn that as a result of their new website, new membership in the club has gone up significantly, with around 25 new members joining each month. Some information was also shared about the annual Club Deck, the location for the next conventions, and the club's annual awards. The final part of the meeting gave members the opportunity to ask questions, or make suggestions and comments.
For an outside observer, this video will give you a good idea of how the club works, and the kinds of things they do. It's also very obvious that the club wants to be very proactive about attracting new members and spreading the word about playing cards. Historically, it has largely consisted of older members over the age of 60 or 70, who focused on antique playing cards, and many of these aren't tech savvy. Social media platforms like Instagram are a perfect example, because while they are flooded with cardistry channels and modern decks, there's less than a dozen collectors showcasing antique decks. There is a growing recognition that there is a need to share this love for older cards with a new generation, to pass on the wealth of knowledge, and also to bring modern collectors and cardists into the fold.
This was part of the vision of former president Tom Dawson, and is something Lee Asher really emphasizes as the current president. So the club has been taking steps like supporting new creators on Kickstarter, and looking at ways of providing scholarships for budding designers. With forward thinking visionaries like Lee Asher and others at the helm, it is obvious that the future of 52 Plus Joker is bright, and that the club will continue to grow, especially if more modern collectors come on board.
Watch the video here: General Meeting
While the pandemic has taken a lot of things away from us, it's also given us some good things too. And in my mind, 52 Plus Joker's 2020 Virtual Convention was more than just a historic first. I wouldn't be surprised if in years to come, it is something that people look back at as a significant turning point in the history of 52 Plus Joker, and an indication of good things that lie ahead for the club.
1. A broader participation
Historically 52 Plus Joker originated as a club for American collectors. While these do make up a significant part of the membership, it's now very much an international club rather than simply a national one. Over time the club has attracted a growing number of members from around the world. This virtual event is only going to accelerate that trend, by making it easier for a global audience to be involved and experience the benefits of the club. Unlike the past, you no longer need to be physically in the same room any more.
That certainly is a silver lining in the COVID cloud. The pandemic has forced all of us to learn how to use video conferencing programs like Zoom. And one benefit of that is that most people are open to the possibilities of having online meetings using this kind of technology, and have experience with them. It's hard to imagine a virtual convention like this being possible without the benefit of the experience most of us have been forced into as a result of COVID, and it wouldn't nearly have attracted the same level of participation. As a result, this really opens up new possibilities for doing this kind of thing more often, even in a non-pandemic setting, because it comes with the very real advantage of trumping geographic limitations, and enabling enthusiasts around the world to participate.
2. A broader scope
Historically the club has focused on antique playing cards, and on American playing cards. But already years ago the club's former president Tom Dawson had a real vision that if the club was going to survive and grow, it needed to broaden its scope. He believed that the club had to embrace and welcome vintage collectors, modern collectors, and cardists, since that was the way of the future, and they had to be brought into the fold.
Lee Asher is also a visionary who shares this perspective, and his arrival at the club was an important catalyst that helped make this expansion start happening. It's a vision he has continued to implement ever since he served on the board and once he became president. He is very intentional about this, and I've heard him make mention of it numerous times, including in his closing remarks at the 2020 virtual convention.
Playing card collectors have more similarities than differences, and can be united under one roof to keep the community thriving going forward. The types of events and lectures on the schedule of the 2020 convention reflects this vision, because there was a great balance of material, covering a range of things both old and modern. It might not yet be reflected with the auction listings (which mostly had antique decks) or the membership just yet, but that is slowly changing, and Lee has done a terrific job in executing Tom's vision, in order to ensure the ongoing and growing love for our beloved playing cards.
What lies ahead for 52 Plus Joker in the future, and what can we expect? I'm not on the executive, and I don't claim to speak for them. I do know that it includes some very competent and highly motivated individuals, whom I respect and admire greatly. So I have no doubt that the club is in good hands as long as they continue their good work. But I'd like to consider the future from a slightly different angle. The 2020 Virtual Convention should not only make us aware of the benefits of playing card collectors from around the world being able to connect, but also make us realize how important this is for the future. More specifically, the vision that Tom Dawson and Lee Asher have rightly recognized and have worked hard to turn into a reality is important for several reasons:
1. Antique collectors need modern collectors.
Folks putting out content about modern decks are a dime a dozen, and there's no shortage of material about that side of the spectrum of playing cards. But right now there's only a handful of guys on social media putting out content about historic and antique decks. Part of that is because most antique collectors are older people, don't use technology, and aren't on social media. A good number of the members of 52 Plus Joker are 60-80 years old or more, and not many of these are active online or technologically savvy, and you can hardly criticize them for that.
But what will happen to the love for antique decks when that generation is no longer around? And what will be the future of playing card collector's clubs 20 years from now? For clubs like 52 Plus Joker to survive, they need to embrace modern collectors and cardists. But just as important is the need for them to educate modern collectors about antique decks and get them interested. Otherwise valuable information about the past will be lost. Antique collectors need modern collectors to whom they can pass on the torch, and share their wealth of knowledge, and instil a love for the heritage we all share. Eventually there will be a critical mass where there's enough modern collectors who are part of the club, and can help ensure its future.
2. Modern collectors need antique collectors
Modern collectors typically don't know anything about antique cards, and they need to learn to branch out to older material. I know this because it's been part of my own journey: I got into collecting myself via modern decks. While I don't collect vintage/antique decks myself, I have come to realize how important it is to have a sense of the history that has brought us to the present, because that is the heritage that modern playing cards have inherited and are building on. It is critical for modern collectors at the very least to learn something about that.
This is something I personally enjoy, and it's a big reason why I've enjoyed picking up some reproductions of classic antique decks, giving me the opportunity to appreciate some of the heritage, without needing to spend the big dollars normally associated with antique decks. Putting the spotlight on content about the history of playing cards and about antique decks gives modern collectors like me a sense of perspective, helps broaden our vision, get more informed, be enriched, and be more appreciative of the past.
3. 52 Plus Joker connects the two
Clubs like 52 Plus Joker are playing an important role of connecting modern collectors with antique collectors, and giving both collectors a platform to share with one another. This crossover is essential, and both groups of collectors will become stronger because of it. Introducing a modern audience to the world of the past is essential if our heritage is going to survive.
The 2020 virtual convention has the potential to have a wonderful spin-off effect that promotes this kind of crossover and connecting. It helps make modern collectors see what other collectors are doing, and can make them interested in the club and its activities. And at the same time they start learning more about vintage and antique cards, and become more interested in that. That will really help the future of the club, and of playing card collecting generally. 52 Plus Joker is playing an important role in connecting these two groups of people who share similar passions, but might otherwise never meet.
One challenge 52 Plus Joker faces is to get a larger number of modern collectors into the membership, otherwise there's no incentive for them to use some of its features like the auction. Once there's a critical mass of modern collectors in the fold, it will potentially generate some real momentum, and finding ways like this to make the club appealing to cardists and modern collectors will really help it grow in years to come.
It's been a real blast to work my way through all the videos from the 2020 Virtual Convention, the 2021 Virtual Day, and the other online events that 52 Plus Joker has organized over the past 18 months. These developments and experiences bodes well for the future of the club. Given how successful these events were, surely we can expect more of the same in the future. Things can only get bigger and better from here, as the club gets more experienced in using the available technology, and putting it to work for playing card collectors around the world. The upcoming Virtual Weekend planned for April 23-24, 2022 promises to be another wonderful opportunity for playing card collectors to come together and have a grand celebration of all things playing cards.
Meanwhile, why don't you head to the website of 52 Plus Joker, check out what the club is about, and consider joining up? It's very inexpensive, and you'll immediately get access to all the back issues of the club magazines, which is a real treat. When collectors like you and me are willing to support clubs like this, the future of collecting playing cards will continue to be bright. And with 52 Plus Joker bringing us new opportunities to get involved online, the future looks bright indeed!
Where to learn more? Official website for the 52 Plus Joker American Playing Card Collectors Club
Want to be part of the next event? 2022 April Virtual Weekend (April 23-24)
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
- [+] Dice rolls
Deck Releases and Deck Awards at 52 Plus Joker's Convention
Your chance to view the main events from 52 Plus Joker's annual convention (Part 5)
If you're serious about collecting playing cards, chances are you already know about the world's biggest club for playing card collectors, 52 Plus Joker.
Each year they organize an international playing card convention, which gives the opportunity to listen to presentations on playing card related topics from leading figures in the industry, as well as a host of other playing card events. Sadly, the current global pandemic has forced the club's executive to cancel the two most recent conventions that would normally have been held in October 2020 and October 2021.
But the folks over at 52 Plus Joker aren't short on creativity. Instead of simply cancelling these annual events completely, they undertook a brand new initiative: a virtual convention. It involved running numerous planned events via Zoom, and was open to collectors around the world, including non-members. Genius!
Fortunately for us, these events were recorded, and this article continues my coverage of the convention events. As well as being an opportunity to be educated on a whole host of playing card subjects, the convention also showcases some new deck releases and announces awards for the best decks from the past year. So without further ado, let's recap some of the highlights from the club's Deck Release event, and the Diamond Awards.
2020 New Deck Releases
One of the highlights of each convention is the launch of several brand new decks, which are released to coincide with the event. The need to have the convention virtually was no reason to miss this special event, and several great decks were announced and released. Hosted by Bill Kalush, each release featured a presentation from the person involved with putting them out.
Screams at Midnight: Kevin Reylek introduced Penguin Magic's new Screams at Midnight deck. This is a marked deck created for Halloween, and has one of the best video trailers you'll ever see for a deck of cards. The marking system is an innovative one based on the occlusion principle, and the deck even comes with special red/blue glasses.
Jerry's Nugget box set: Bill Kalush introduced a special double deck box set of Jerry's Nuggets. What makes this set unique is that the cards are printed with double foil. This means that the card backs have no ink whatsoever, and consist entirely of two hot foils, as a result of a new process developed and fine-tuned in EPCC's new factory in China.
2020 NPCCD decks: Alex Chin introduced the 2020 National Playing Card Collection Day decks. With the theme of "Hindsight is 2020", this set of gorgeous designs was conceived as a response to a difficult year, and functions as allegory for our world, with each deck represented by a spirit from Pandora's Box. Alex Chin is a real innovator in packaging design, and one of the highlights of these decks is how the tuck box opens in a unique way, revealing a golden frieze. The artwork on the cards is by artist Kristina Carroll, and features imagery you could imagine discovering in a lost temple, with characters from Ancient Greek mythology.
Watch the video here: 2020 New Deck Launch
2020 Club Deck Release (Uusi)
The crowning item of the release event was the launch of the 2020 52 Plus Joker Club Deck. A top playing card designer is invited to produce this deck each year, and the 2020 club deck was created by design team Uusi, a partnership between studio artists Peter Dunham and Linnea Gits. The biggest section of their video presentation consisted of an extensive slide-show from Peter, giving an overview of Uusi and their work. They began in 2010 as a design studio, mainly making art objects and functional objects for the home, building off previous work they had each done individually.
Their Kickstarter-funded Blue Blood deck was their first playing cards release, and they were shocked by the incredible response this received, because they didn't realize how big the playing card community was. This was followed by five further releases, to complete a planned six deck set: Bohemia, Royal Optik, Blue Blood Redux, Pagan, Hotcakes, and Uusi Classic.
Following these successes, Uusi has branched out into a new market, by creating several Tarot decks: Brut Tarot, Pagan Tarot, Eros Tarot (much like Hotcakes). Then came several Oracle type decks, which are typically less formulaic than tarot, and come with guide books: Supra, and Materia Prima. The latter is especially interesting in how it applies the concept of Tarot/Oracle to the periodic table. Many of their playing card fans followed them into this new territory.
Although they have been expanding their range, Uusi hasn't abandoned the playing card genre entirely. Along the way they have also produced a new version of their Pagan deck published by EPCC, and a number of client decks, such as a custom deck for Hyde Park Mouldings, and their Junkanoo deck for Baha Mar Casino.
What is unique about Uusi's decks of playing cards is that all the artwork is created by hand using traditional methods. So it is very labour intensive, and their recent projects typically each take up to 12-18 months to complete. Along with each project they often feature unique art pieces and accessories that take advantage of their varied design skills, such as amazing custom wooden cases. Given the amount of work involved for these huge projects, today Uusi is spending all their time on creating playing cards and on the associated publications (e.g. guide books) that go with their decks. Despite their creative and original art style, which is classically inspired, it is important to Uusi to ensure that all their decks remain very functional and playable.
After this rundown of their history, finally the lovely 2020 Club Deck was unveiled, and we got to see what its tuck box and cards looked like. The artwork was hand-inked, and is inspired by earth tones. It features gorgeous mono-coloured faces with a woodcut look in red or black, and a Guilloche style back design. In 2021 Uusi would later release their Republic deck, which is based on Finnish/Nordic folk art and design, and takes over much of the style and artwork of the Club Deck.
Watch the video here: 2020 Club Deck Launch
2021 Club Deck Release (Stockholm17)
After the cancellation of the 2020 convention, hopes were running high that the 2021 convention planned for Niagara Falls would be possible. Alas, it was not to be. So instead, the usual deck release event hosted by the convention was instead held online on October 21, 2021. Michael Feldman, Kevin Reylek, and Bill Kalush all had the opportunity to present some new decks that were launching that day. But the feature that everyone was looking forward to was the presentation for the release of the 2021 Club Deck, which was created by rock star designer Lorenzo Gaggiotti. Better known as Stockholm17, Lorenzo is one of today's most sought after playing card designers. His presentation represented a marvellous opportunity to learn more about him, and to see the 2021 Club deck for the very first time.
Lorenzo first gave an overview of his own experience as a designer, which began after a move from Italy to Sweden in 2009. His first venture in playing card design was a custom deck in 2013, which was created with and for the company he was working for at the time as a graphic designer. He then set out on his own to create his first completely independent designs, Heretic and Requiem.
The goal of the 2021 Club Deck was to celebrate the classic deck of playing cards, hence a somewhat standard look and classic feel. But first there's a unique tuck box to admire, which has several cut-out features that showcase parts of the playing cards themselves. The card backs feature foils for a very shiny look, with the club logo incorporated as part of a two-way design. The court cards are spectacular, and have a classic look but were completely redesigned by Lorenzo from the ground up. These also feature foils, and all the pips (including on the number cards) have been touched with gold foil as well. A classic looking Ace of Spades and two Jokers with the club logo round out the deck.
Your appreciation for the tuck box will be enhanced as you get the chance to see Lorenzo's original sketches, which he created while developing ideas for the unique design of the two-part sleeve. From these initial concepts he then created mock-ups from card-stock, which he used to test the resulting ideas further. It was fascinating to see some examples of his early mock-ups.
Lorenzo also demonstrated how he designed the court cards. Getting an inside glimpse into the mechanics of the design process was particularly fascinating. He started with a semi-transparent version of classic courts as his base template, sketching over the top of this and making various changes along the way. The work required to edit individual aspects of the design is considerable. Lorenzo begins with his black and white image, after which he experiments by adding in different colours. He uses both Illustrator and Photoshop for this process. Each court card takes him a full day to create a vectored design in black, and then another full day to do the colourizing, while the back design is something he does off and on over the course of a week. The number cards are much easier, so in total this deck took him about a month to design.
This deck was limited to 999 numbered editions, which sold out very quickly. Like Stockholm17's other decks, these were quickly fetching high prices on the secondary market. The demand was much higher than anticipated, so the club has undertaken a special initiative to release an additional set of 500 unnumbered decks, with club members getting the first chance to get these. Like Lorenzo himself, these playing cards are all class, and it was no surprise to anyone that the 2021 club deck recently took out Portfolio52's 2021 "Deck of the Year" award, and also Kardify's 2021 "Deck of the Year" award.
Watch the video here: 2021 Club Deck Launch - from the 2021 Deck Release Event
2020 Diamond Awards
Each year 52 Plus Joker unveils the winners of their Diamonds Awards, which have been running since 2017, and which are the club's way of recognizing excellence in playing cards. This portion of the convention was hosted by club vice-president Don Boyer, who is the chair of the Diamond Awards Committee.
Dawson Award: Steve Bowling. The Dawson Award is named after two of the club's legends: Tom and Judy Dawson. It is a lifetime achievement award bestowed upon someone who has made a dramatic and positive award to the club and to the hobby of playing cards and collecting. The winner is hand-picked by Judy herself, and the 2020 recipient was Steve Bowling, who has fulfilled many roles throughout his involvement with 52 Plus Joker.
The two most prestigious awards for playing cards are "Deck of the Year" and "Artist of the Year". Out of the hundreds of decks released annually, only a small percentage get to be nominated for the "Deck of the Year" award, which goes to the best deck produced in the past year. While winning Deck of the Year is a real honour, the Artist of the Year is arguably an even more prestigious honour, because it recognizes the top playing card designers in the industry, based on their entire output that year. Both awards covered decks created and released in the period 1 July 2019 through 30 June 2020, with artists considered based on their entire output in this period. The Diamond Awards Committee nominated a short list of around six nominees for each category, from which the winner was chosen through a voting process involving 52 Plus Joker members.
Deck of the Year: 2019 NPCCD deck (Alex Chin). The Deck of the Year was presented by committee member PipChick, and represents the pinnacle of the previous year's releases. The 2020 Diamond Award for Deck of the Year went to Alexander Chin's 2019 National Playing Card Collection Day deck. From the hundreds of eligible decks, the other decks nominated by the committee were Ascension (by Steve Minty), Iron Spades (by Roxley Games), Luminosity (by Black Ink Playing Cards), United Cardists 2019 No 7 (by Montenzi), and Vivaldi (by Passione Playing Cards).
Artist of the Year: Jackson Robinson (Kings Wild Project). The Artist of the Year was presented by Don Boyer's wife, and the 2020 Diamond Award for this category went to Jackson Robinson (Kings Wild Project). Jackson has been nominated for four years straight, and finally came out with a win. It wasn't altogether surprising, given his prodigious output in the twelve month period, which consisted of 19 releases (23 decks), including several Kings Wild Shorts, and table players subscription decks. The other nominees for the award were Charles Adi (Blackout Brother), Alexander Chin (Seasons Playing Cards), Jody Eklund (Black Ink Playing Cards), Giovanni Meroni (Thirdway Industries), and Steve Minty.
Appropriately, all of the recipients got the opportunity to say some fitting words in receiving their awards. It added up to a lovely half hour show, and a wonderful way to bring the 2020 convention to a close.
Watch the video here: 2020 Diamond Awards
2021 Diamond Award Nominees
The nominees for the 2021 Diamond Awards were announced at the 2021 Virtual Day, which was held in lieu of the convention originally planned for Niagara Falls that year. Here is a quick overview of the candidates nominated.
Deck of the Year
● Bird Deck (by Hilary Pfeifer)
● Charmers (by Lotrek & Kellar O’Neil)
● Circus Playing Cards (by Marianne Larsen)
● Holographic Legal Tender Version II (by Jackson Robinson)
● Onda (by Alessandra Gagliano & Anthony Holt)
● Umbra (by Jody Eklund)
Artist of the Year
● Stephen Brandt
● Alexander Chin
● Elettra Deganello
● Alessandra Gagliano & Anthony Holt
● Marianne Larsen
● Giovanni Meroni
The video clip gives a quick run-down of all the nominees in both categories. Sadly the 2021 Convention had to be cancelled in the month leading up to it. So the votes are in and the winners have already been decided. But the Awards Ceremony has been postponed until April, when the winners will be announced as part of a larger 2022 April Virtual Weekend event on April 23 and 24. In addition to the presentation of the Diamond Awards, there will be some lectures, a playing card game show, a "Desert Island Edition" show and tell, and an auction.
In the meantime we'll have to wait to see who the winners are, although that's not to stop you from speculating about who they might be, based on the nominations! I'm particularly pleased to see some new names on the list of Artist of the Year. Stephen Brandt's flip-book animation decks are very novel. And the high class work of the talented Elettra Deganello is especially impressive. I look forward to finding out who the winners will be in April!
Watch the video here: 2021 Diamond Award Nominees - from the 2021 Virtual Day
Where to learn more? Official website for the 52 Plus Joker American Playing Card Collectors Club
Want to be part of the next event? 2022 April Virtual Weekend (April 23-24, 2022)
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
- [+] Dice rolls
The Collectors and Cards at a Playing Card Convention
Your chance to view the main events from 52 Plus Joker's annual convention (Part 4)
52 Plus Joker is the world's biggest club for playing card collectors around the world. Each year they host an annual convention, where creators and collectors meet, listen to presentations, and much more - all the while enjoying a shared love for playing cards.
When COVID made it necessary to cancel the two most recent conventions, the club ran a virtual event instead, which they opened up for free to anyone interested in playing cards. Everything was recorded on video, and in this article we continue our coverage of the main events from this online spectacular.
This time we get to watch several "Table Spotlights", where collectors show and talk about part of their collection. In addition, we get a front row seat to the club's "Mega Auction", which gives us the chance to see and learn about some delightful playing cards from the past. Finally, we round off this installment with a fun "Game Show", which is a fun format designed to help us learn more about the playing cards we love.
Over the course of the convention there were several "Table Spotlight" features, which gave individual collectors the opportunity to introduce themselves, talk about what they collect and like, show some of their favourites, and run through some decks they have for sale and trade. This turned out to be far more interesting than I had expected, and here are some highlights from each.
Table Spotlight #1
In the first Table Spotlight segment we meet Darren, a relatively new collector who especially focuses his collection around playing cards that are skull themed. Next up is Joseph, who had a very extensive personal collection, but was looking for a new home for a large number of prized items that many modern collectors will drool over just seeing.
Rounding out the first segment was Kelly ten Hove, who created Red Fox Playing Cards together with his wife, and who shared some of what they have produced.
Table Spotlight #2
The highlight for me in the second Table Spotlight segment was singles collector Kevin Dixler, who focuses on whiskey/beer themed cards. He gave a fascinating and informative slide-show in which I learned a lot about a collecting niche that I didn't know much about, and now have a new-found appreciation for.
Also very interesting was the portion with well-known Bicycle collector Jason Rideout, who not only had an extensive collection of decks for sale, but brims with knowledge and enthusiasm. Another collector was showcasing a number of very old decks in sealed condition, which were remarkable to see. It's pretty amazing to think that these decks have remained unopened across all those years.
Table Spotlight #3
The third Table Spotlight included several collectors of vintage advertising cards (e.g. airlines, ships, cigarettes, beer/liquor); a collector who had actual company badges from USPCC employees of yesteryear and some historic USPCC stock; and an enthusiastic new collector with some starting decks who shared some things he learned in his first year as a collector. Another collector makes and sells jewellery items (e.g. cuff links, hair clips, tie clips, lapel pins, earrings) that incorporate artwork from playing cards.
But the highlight for me in this section was a feature by Steve Bowling, a member of 52 Plus Joker's executive, who showed a number of older American decks and ephemera. He also did a slide show presentation that gave a historical overview of the evolution of Bicycle designs. I was amazed to learn that in 1905, Bicycle offered over 40 different designs to choose from.
Table Spotlight #4
In the fourth Table Spotlight there's a "show-and-tell" from another five collectors. Two of these had large collections for sale, the first being a lady who had inherited a lifelong collection from her mother, who was born in 1930 and had acquired many of her cards from her great aunt who worked at a card company. But real treasures were especially to be seen courtesy of a 92 year old collector who started collecting in the 1940s. He had many old decks in near mint condition, and also showed some wonderful playing card ephemera, much of it from the 1800s.
New board member Dave Hofmeister had a good range of things to show, and I was especially struck by his observation that when he started collecting more than ten years ago, there were about 3,000 playing card listings on eBay, whereas now this has grown to around 120,000. His fascinating story about why playing card factories appreciate having birds in the area is well worth hearing. Next up was a collector who had a great slide-show with tons of modern decks. Rounding out the segment was Kevan Seaney, better known as The Congress Guy, in view of his passion as a collector of Congress decks. He showed and introduced numerous rare and beautiful Congress decks from his collection, many from the late 19th century.
Watch the Table Spotlight videos here:
● Video: Table Spotlight #1
● Video: Table Spotlight #2
● Video: Table Spotlight #3
● Video: Table Spotlight #4
Watching the online auction proved far more interesting than I thought it would be. It's like watching a slide show with expert commentary. Auctioneer Larry Herold does a great job, and provides some interesting explanations about the auction lots along the way. Lee Asher adds some interesting comments and observations throughout as well, including sharing comments from other collectors in the chat. You'll certainly learn a thing or two about grading vintage and antique decks, and how that works. And it's a chance to see and learn about decks you've never heard about before, and increase your general knowledge about playing cards. If you like playing cards, then try watching some of these auction videos, and you may be surprised to discover how fascinating they are, and how much you will learn!
October 2020 auction
Most of the items listed for sale were playing cards, but there were also some ephemera, such as a book of card games from 1889. I really enjoyed seeing the wide range of playing cards, and it was especially neat to see many authentic decks from the 1800s. The auction included a significant amount of original decks from the late 19th century, such as a copy of the gorgeous Triplicates, and an original Samuel Hart deck. You'll even see some playing cards that are more than 200 years old, like the famous Thomas Crehore 1820 deck, which has square cards with no indices, and sold for $1000.
Many newer collectors of modern playing cards start hesitating at the thought of a Kickstarter deck costing over $20. But when you're talking vintage and antique decks, a hundred bucks is considered a bargain. Most of the older decks tend to go for hundreds of dollars each, and some even topped well over $1000.
For example, you'll get to see a Mediaeval Deck by NYCC from 1897 that went for $1200; a USPC Norwood #85 deck from 1909 that closed at $1950; and a Murphy Varnish deck from 1883 that sold for $2750. A Tarot of the Fools deck by Piatnik from 1864 didn't sell at its $1250 starting price, but looked lovely. A Hodges Court Game of Geography Deck from 1827 attracted a bid of $5000, but didn't sell because it had a reserve of $9000. It's amazing what some things can be worth!
Some ephemera can also be worth considerable amounts, like a Russell Morgan calendar from 1893 that sold for $2500. One of the prize items for sale was a limited edition double deck set celebrating the USPC-Cartamundi Merger. To add to its uniqueness, it was in a special numbered box (only 125 were made) made from wooden floorboards from the old Norwood factory. This went on to sell for $1500. The auction itself seemed to be a big success, and by far the majority of items did sell, with only ten of 114 lots going unsold.
April 2021 auction
Another club auction was held in April 2021, and the edited video for this runs for around 3 hours and covers 64 listings. By now the 52 Plus Joker team had found ways to improve the technical side of things, and the result was a smoother system. Once again, some fantastic items were listed, and it was a joy to listen to the banter and chitchat between auctioneer Larry Herold about the listings, although Lee's audio seemed to disappear about halfway.
I love just seeing the pictures of some great old decks, and hearing the guys talk about them, and as always I learned a lot. Watching auctions like this - even well after the fact - really is a great opportunity to get exposed to playing cards and ephemera that I wouldn't normally see, and to broaden my horizons and knowledge of playing cards and collecting.
November 2021 auction
The club went even one better for their November 2021 auction. In advance of the auction, they had a 90 minute glow-up, which consisted of going through all the auction items in advance of the auction, and discussing them with a panel of playing card collectors and experts: Judy Dawson, Dave Hofmeister, Harry Wastrack, Larry Herold and Lee Asher.
This is a terrific idea, and not only does it give potential buyers an opportunity to make well-informed and well-considered decisions when bidding, but it's also a terrific way to get to see some wonderful playing cards, and learn about them. This 90 minute video not only helped educate buyers, but is a treat for anyone interested in learning more about playing cards.
Watch the Auction videos here:
● Video: Day 1 Mega Playing Card Auction (Lots 1-28)
● Video: Day 2 Mega Playing Card Auction (Lots 29-50)
● Video: Day 3 Mega Playing Card Auction (Lots 51-80)
● Video: Day 4 Mega Playing Card Auction (Lots 81-114)
● Video: April 2021 Auction (Lots 1-64)
● Video: November 2021 Auction Glow-Up (Lots 1-63)
Lee Asher's Playing Card Game Show
If you attended an actual playing card convention in person, you'd get the opportunity to meet other collectors and chat about playing cards. Lee Asher came up with a great way for us to meet other collectors, find out something about what they collect and what interests them, and learn some trivia about playing cards at the same time: a game show!
The concept was simple: the production team randomly pointed to someone who was participating in the live event, and put that person's camera on screen for everyone, bringing them live onto the hot seat. About a dozen or so people were picked out in the course of the show, and it was especially fun seeing people's reactions of surprise when they realized they'd been chosen.
First we got to learn a little about the surprise `contestant', such as where they were from, and what kind of cards they liked to collect. After some chit-chat with Lee, he then gave them the choice to pick which category of playing card trivia they wanted to be asked about: modern, vintage, or antique. Even though 52 Plus Joker has a membership that especially thrives on antique cards, it was neat to see that the majority of people selected had a preference for collecting modern cards. With a correct answer, contestants got to "spin the wheel", and win one of many prizes, such as free club membership, or the 2020 Uusi Club Deck.
This was a great way to learn some interesting trivia and facts about playing cards, and I especially enjoyed that aspect. For example:
● Questions in the modern category included ones like these: Who is the owner of EPCC? What playing card project was the first to generate over a million dollars on Kickstarter? What graphic designer produced the back design for Smoke & Mirrors? What was Theory11's very first deck? What Ellusionist deck ignited the modern collecting movement in 2004?
● Questions in the vintage category asked about the location of USPCC's factories in Canada, anniversary decks created by artist Nick Martin, the Chicago playing card manufacturer that produced Duratone decks, and the name of the St Paul born graphic designer who created pin-up art decks for Brown and Bigelow.
● Questions in the antique category required you to identify the Boston playing card manufacturer who is one of the patriarchs of American playing cards, and to know something that even Hochman didn't - something of the parentage of William W. Russell of Russell Playing Card Company.
To learn the answers, you'll just have to watch the Game Show video! But contestants could get help from the chat to come up with the correct answers, and it was obvious that the goal was to have everyone who participated be declared a winner and go home with some prize.
Even though the `game show' idea may have felt a little cheesy, it was still a very fun format, and doing a quiz of some kind at an online virtual convention definitely has real potential. More importantly, collecting playing cards isn't just about the cards, but it's also about the community, and this really was a nice way to connect with other collectors and get a small sense of the many people out there who share our passion.
I'm very pleased 52 Plus Joker has made these videos available for posterity, because even if you didn't get the chance to participate at the time, it's a wonderful way to learn from others in the playing card community.
Watch the Game Show video here:
● Video: Lee Asher's Playing Card Game Show
Where to learn more? Official website for the 52 Plus Joker American Playing Card Collectors Club
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
- [+] Dice rolls
Who is Elettra Deganello?
Elettra Deganello is a respected freelance visual designer and illustrator who hails from Italy. She was only introduced to custom playing cards in 2017, but it didn't take her long to make an impression.
Her first successful projects were for the Passione Playing Cards label: Pinocchio (2018) and Florentia (2020), and were both artistic designs. You may also have seen her work in the stunning Blue Jay Dentistry deck, which was the second installment of the popular Meadowlark Playing Cards series. Her first solo project was the Bold deck, which was intended to be a more practical design well suited to card games.
As proof that Elettra should be considered among today's elite designers is the fact that she has been nominated as Artist of the Year for the 2021 Diamond Awards. These prestigious awards are bestowed annually by 52 Plus Joker, the American Playing Card Club. The Artist of the Year category recognizes the top playing card designers in the industry, based on their output that year. The 2021 winner hasn't yet been announced, but to be one of the six nominees is already an amazing achievement.
Her Pinocchio Playing Cards also were a Silver Design Award winner at the 2018-19 A'Design Award & Competition in the Toy, Games and Hobby Products Design Award category. This is an international award that recognizes excellence in original design, and is one of the highest achievements and honours that can be earned.
I have corresponded several times with Elettra, and she kindly agreed to do this interview, so it is a great opportunity for us to learn about her and the amazing playing cards she has been involved with creating.
For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background?
I was born and raised in Northern Italy, and ever since I was young, I have always nurtured a deep passion for art and illustration. My family supported me all my life, but since drawing has always been considered a mere hobby, I was never encouraged to study art. However, I continued drawing, and I regret nothing!
With this preamble, I studied Classics (*the Italian educational system is very different from the one you are probably used to), and after that, I wanted to become a doctor. Helping other people seemed to be the best way to give a sense to my life. Then by chance, I discovered the degree programs in Industrial Design and Design as part of the Architecture Department of the Università degli Studi di Firenze: the area of study was creative yet technical. It included some drawing classes, some philosophy, and I decided to give it a shot. Therefore, at 18, I moved to Florence, and here I got a bachelor’s degree in Design.
After university, I decided to stay in Tuscany, and I started working as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. Today I am still working as a freelancer, and I also teach classes on illustration and graphic design at the International School of Comics in Florence. When I’m not working, I am usually studying solfège or playing my cello, swimming, reading a book, or visiting an art exhibition.
When did you start designing playing cards, and what got you started?
I started designing playing cards when I was about to finish university. In 2017/18, I met Riccardo Conturbia and Maurizio Toccafondi, who were respectively the founder and the art director of Passione Playing Cards LLC before it shut down. I immediately fell in love with this world.
Since I wanted to convince Riccardo to let me design a deck, I started to propose a number of concepts until I came up with an "Alice in Wonderland" themed deck of cards to show him that I could do it. This persistence presented me with the chance to design Pinocchio playing cards (my debut project) in collaboration with the Passione team.
What are some of the things you especially enjoy about designing playing cards?
Playing cards are a design masterpiece with a delightful history and a significant depth, depending on how you approach the product. Designing a deck implies working on many different and challenging aspects or levels - it’s a design party that can involve research too. I think these aspects are the ones I love the most.
How do you come up with an idea for a deck design?
I usually receive specific theme proposals that I decide to accept or not, but sometimes one thing can lead to another - like most things in life.
For example, with Florentia, I had a clear picture of the project in mind. In the case of Pinocchio, Riccardo proposed the theme, and I liked it. In the case of the Rx Almanac, coming in 2022, it started as a special tuck box for 'Pharmacy on Main', and it became an extended concept. Every deck is different.
How many decks have you designed so far?
So far, I have completed 6 projects where I have designed 8 unique decks (Pinocchio and Florentia include 2 decks with 100% different faces). If we also consider other variations of my designs (e.g. book-like tuck boxes and re-colours, but not gilded editions), the decks should be 14.
Which deck in your portfolio of created designs is your favourite, and why?
This question is complicated (or I'd better say that the answer is). It's like asking a mom or a dad to choose one of their children. You know that, right?! I put all of myself in every design, and every design is a piece of my life, so every deck is unique in a different way. Considering that I tend to change style over and over again, it gets even more difficult for me to choose one deck.
Maybe Pinocchio because it is the first one, and the Rx Almanac because it is the most recent one, and it shows the artistic freedom that I think I am achieving thanks to music.
How would you describe the style of your playing card decks, and what characteristics help set your designs apart from others?
I tend to change style with every new design because I like putting myself to the test and learning new techniques. I am always looking for new challenges.
A common trait is that each deck tends to be different and unique! Other common traits include attention to detail and elegance, according to some supporters. A touch of whimsy always hangs in the air too.
What is your process in designing a deck of playing cards?
Every deck requires a different approach which depends on the purpose, the style and/or the theme. The development of the concept comes first, and the preparation of print files comes last. These are, in my opinion, the unique - trivial - constants.
What are some of the easiest and hardest parts of this process?
I do everything in my power not to make the process easy by using a new style, testing new printing techniques, combining illustrations and cultural purposes, and so on. Easy is boring.
The hardest part is the end: I have an existential crisis any time I finish a project.
What is it about designing a deck of playing cards as a creator that you wish consumers realised more?
Nothing in particular. I am thankful for every single consumer who appreciates the projects I make. My illustrations tell a lot about who I am, and I can only feel gratitude for every single supporter.
I particularly appreciate when people feel the depth I am committed to adding. The idea that someone bought Pinocchio and read the booklet, rediscovering Collodi's masterpiece, or that someone learned and deepened something new about the history of Florence and its architecture, or about Bodoni... this is one of the aspects I care the most about.
How long does it take to actually design a deck, and what aspects of this take the most work and time?
It can take from 3 to 12 months. Each deck is different and time-consuming in diversified aspects but, in general, I feel comfortable saying that the back design tends to be the most time-demanding design component.
Do you use playing cards yourself, and if so, what for?
Most decks are like books I read: they lay in my library until the opportunity arises to consult them again. From time to time, I also use playing cards for card games. I love using Bold for playing Scala 40 and Machiavelli with friends.
Regarding cardistry, I love it, and some years ago, I also tried to learn some moves. I think I actually learned something, but my efforts didn’t persist for a long time.
Do you also collect playing cards yourself, and is there anything you can share about your personal collection?
I do collect playing cards, but I’m not an avid collector. I rarely buy objects, and I like having only the essentials around me (apart from books, I have a problem with books).
My collection is modest, and it’s a bit like the deck I design: the golden rule is basically to have no rules. Sometimes I buy decks with notable features because they might be interesting for the lessons at the School of Comics.
What do you consider to be important elements of a quality design, and what should new collectors look for?
Taste is a moody, messy, very subjective topic. It's not an argument we can keep out, and even if this might sound markedly relativist, we can see something as 'beautiful' or 'awful' for a crazy amount of reasons.
The same can be said for quality: it can be aesthetic or functional, for example. But again, functionality implies the existence of a purpose, so functional for what? For playing a card game? And what card game? Functional for a left-handed person? Functional for the ambient, because the tuck box is fully recyclable? The matter is huge, and I don't feel comfortable making generalisations.
As for me, I prefer to buy only a few decks that are (very) special for me. Anyway, I would say that there is not a golden rule, and I would be arrogant in saying something different.
Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards that we are seeing today, and particularly how crowdfunding has impacted the industry?
First of all, I would like to say that Kickstarter is an opportunity. It’s an amazing tool.
Unfortunately, in the context of playing cards, crowdfunding platforms are increasingly used in an inappropriate manner. Even if their projects have already come to life and they have the instruments and the strength for not needing crowdfunding at all, indeed, some producers tend to use Kickstarter as an online store. These dynamics have harmful effects on smaller creators.
But thanks to playing cards and crowdfunding platforms, everybody can be world-famous for 15 minutes by producing a deck (Andy was right). My main concerns are about the saturation of printers and the increasing delays.
Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what might we see in the coming years?
The answer might be selfish, but right now, I am more focused on understanding where I will go from here in the coming years. I would like to move from Italy and I am looking for the right opportunity. But on the other hand, I have also started planning to get back to University as a working student in September. We'll see what happens in the months and years to come!
In addition, I tend to live in my wild imagination rather than observe what other creators do; if I had any ideas for bringing innovation into the industry, I would have already made some steps in that direction. Right now, my main concerns are overproduction, overprinting, and sustainability, and I have no clue if I’ll come up with some innovative ideas in the future. I only know I will release fewer products. As for other creators, I don't pay too much attention to what they are creating as I like to focus on my own plans.
What do your family and friends think of your love for designing playing cards, and how do you explain your work to non-enthusiasts of playing cards?
I don’t know what they think. I can tell that almost everybody gets enthusiastic after seeing hot or cold foil!
As for non-enthusiasts, they don’t need explanations. Once you have held a deck in your hand, admired the illustrations, played with it if you like, there’s no need for further clarifications: you can appreciate it, you can understand it, or you can’t (or choose not to). Quite simply, sometimes a thing is not our kind of thing.
Do you belong to any playing card organizations, or connect with other designers?
I am a member of 52 Plus Joker, of 7Bello Cartogiocofilia Italiana, and of United Cardists/Portfolio 52. Especially on Instagram, I usually connect online with other designers and collectors too.
What can you tell us about your current and upcoming projects?
First of all, the Genoese Tarot. It is a huge deck, and I have been working on its design for a year. It includes 12 honours (the traditional Genoese court carts), 22 reversible triumphs (commonly known as major arcana), 4 knights, 6 cards with points for playing cards games, plus 2 jokers, an illustrated ace, and, of course, all the number cards. Total 87 cards of which 42 illustrated if I’m not mistaken.
This deck is the result of a very thorough process of research, development, playtest, revisions, and then again research, development, playtest, revisions; the road was not that easy, but I am proud of the result. By the way, it all started after I received a contact from Jean Maillard, a card games enthusiast who had discovered my work thanks to Bold. I am enjoying working with him, so you can probably expect other designs from us as a team.
I also finished working on the Rx Almanac, a deck I designed for/with Meadowlark Decks, a second family to me. The deck is vintage and very dense in illustrations, spread all over the deck, including number cards.
The title might be a good start for understanding the theme. In American English, 'Rx' means 'prescriptions' and, in a more general term, indicates drugs and medicines. Given that an almanac is a compendium (typically vintage) on a particular topic in the shape of a book or of a magazine, the 'Rx Almanac' is an imaginary compendium on the theme of drugs and pharmaceutical products.
In particular, the deck is like a magazine but made with playing cards. And in the fiction of the deck, each illustrated card is a page of the 'Rx Almanac' and shows a fake, sometimes humoristic advertisement. I had 100% freedom on texts and illustrations, and it was super funny.
Lastly, in 2021 I started working on Once Upon a Fly, a transformation deck. The main character is a fly. This design started spontaneously (I can’t even remember how!), and I continued cultivating it in my free time. I hope I will have enough time to finish it in 2022!
There's no doubt that Elettra Deganello is one very talented young lady. She has a very respectable background, having studied both classics and design at an academic level. Her personal interests in music and art also inform her design work, and give unique influences. Elettra is no amateur dabbler, but has established a real reputation as a professional designer, and made her mark in the design sphere.
Once she turned her hand to designing playing cards for the first time in 2017, there was little doubt that she was going to succeed. The fact that her very first playing card design was a Silver Design Award winner in an international design competition already speaks volumes. And given the strength, diversity, and quality of her recent output, it is little surprise that she was nominated by 52 Plus Joker for their 2021 Artist of the Year Award. As further proof that she brings her academic credentials and expertise to bear on her design work is the fact that she is currently teaching a class at the International School of Comics in Florence, Italy, where she covers themes of playing cards and applied visual design. Undoubtedly this is the kind of class many of us wish we could sit in on!
What I particularly appreciate about Elettra's work is her ability to shine with different styles. Each of her projects has a very unique and individual feel, and yet there is always a sense of quality. While the Pinocchio project drew on the literary background of Carlo Collodi's famous work, the Florentia decks have more of a classical look that celebrates the birthplace of the Renaissance. The Bold decks are a wonderful reimagination of traditional playing cards while simultaneously exploring the world of type, ensuring a combination of functionality and style. But when it comes to elegance and luxury, few decks do it better than the amazing Blue Jay Dentistry decks, which have been highly acclaimed by playing card enthusiasts.
The upcoming projects Elettra is currently working on showcase her continued dedication to excellence and diversity. The Genoese Tarot is something very different from her previous work, and draws on a somewhat different heritage in the world of playing cards. The Rx Almanac deck promises to provide a real spark of creativity combined with warm humor, courtesy of the amusing fictional advertisements depicted on the cards. But I'm particularly keen to see the final result with the upcoming Once Upon A Fly transformation deck, since I'm a huge fan of transformation decks. Elettra's unique style really brings something fresh and artistic to the transformation genre, and the teasers she has released so far give every reason to have high expectations for this project.
Playing card designer Elettra Deganello hails from a country with storied and rich traditions, because Italy is the birthplace of much wonderful literature and art. The high standard of her work is worthy of the cultural and artistic creations that have preceded her. I await her future projects with keen interest, and highly recommend other playing card enthusiasts keep a close eye out for her designs, and get them while you can!
Where to get them? Some of Elettra's decks are available here:
● Pinocchio: Vermillion Red, Sapphire Blue, Double Deck
● Florentia: Antica, Nova, Player's Edition, Aeterna
● Bold: STD, Deluxe
Where to learn more? Head to Elettra's website or social media to follow her work and stay up-to-date with new projects and releases:
● Design portfolios: Website, Behance
● Social media: Facebook, Instagram
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.
- [+] Dice rolls