Many of us have played with decks of cards all our lives and are familiar with the four playing card suits: clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades. But have you ever wondered how we settled on those four names and the four symbols we see today? Well, if you have, this is the article for you as we look into the history of poker suits and explain how we arrived at the deck of cards we all know and love today.
When Did Suits Begin?
The earliest record of suits making their way onto cards is from the late 14th century, where Latin suits were adopted from cards imported from Moorish Granada and Mamluk Egypt. At this time, the suits were called cups, coins, clubs, and swords. This system was split between three commonly used variants at the time: Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian variations.
- Italian – The swords on Italian cards were curved outwards, the clubs looked more like batons, and the pips on the cards intersected one another.
- Spanish – The swords on Spanish cards were straight, the clubs looked more like conventional club-shaped weapons, and the pips on the cards did not intersect one another.
- Portuguese – The Portuguese suits looked identical to the Spanish suits, but the pips intersect one another like the Italian cards. They also sometimes have pictures of dragons on the aces.
These suits remained the default for over one hundred years until manufacturers started experimenting with different designs.
The Invention of the Modern Suits
Around the mid-15th century, manufacturers in German-speaking areas began experimenting with different suit designs to replace the commonly used Latin suits. One of the early decks made in these areas had five suits, adding an extra suit called “shields” to the preexisting Latin suits. However, in the 1450s, the Swiss Germans created their own suits, consisting of shields, roses, acorns, and bells. Ten years later, the Germans would replace the roses and shields with hearts and leaves (which look very much like the modern-day spades).
It wasn’t until around 1480 that the French deck was produced, replacing the German bells, acorns, and leaves with tiles (diamonds), clovers (clubs), and pikes (spades). This was the first record of the traditional clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds deck being used. It’s rumoured that the four suits were created to represent the four distinct strata of the French social system at the time.
- Spade represents royalty.
- Heart represents the clergy.
- Diamond represents the merchants.
- Club represents the peasants.
The French suits were the first two to introduce a two-colour system. All of the previous decks either used a monochromatic system or had unique colours for each different symbol. The French deck bucked the trend by making hearts and diamonds red suits and spades and clubs black suits.
While the two-colour system has remained for hundreds of years, there’s a growing movement to introduce a four-colour deck which changes diamonds from red to blue and clubs from black to green. It’s much easier to spot flushes with a four-coloured deck, making the game more accessible to new players. Many online poker sites, such as Natural8, allow you to change the settings and use a four-coloured deck in your game.
Why are Suits Important in Poker?
While all suits are treated equally the majority of the time, there is a certain order to the suits used in poker games to break ties in certain situations. It’s always good to know the standard poker suit rankings, just in case one of these situations occur in your game. The poker suits order from best to worst is as listed below.
The easiest way to remember the suit values is to know that they’re in reverse alphabetical order – spades are the last alphabetically, so they ranked as the highest suit.
While suits do sometimes matter in poker, they are never used to determine the winner of a hand. For example, if two players have a royal flush, the pot is split evenly between them, rather than the pot going to the player who has the better suit. That being said, let’s take a look at the common examples of when the suit order is used in a poker game.
- Determining the Dealer Button – At the beginning of a poker game, the dealer will deal one card face-up to every player at the table to determine who starts with the button. The player with the highest card will start with the button. However, if two players are dealt cards of the same rank, the winner is determined by suit order.
- The Bring-In – Stud games such as Razz, Stud High, and Stud Hi/Lo don’t use the traditional blind system that Hold’em uses. Instead, they use an ante and bring-in system, where each player’s ante before the hand is dealt, and the player with the lowest up-card pays the bring-in. However, if two or more players have the same up-card, the person with the lowest suit must post the bring-in.
- Splitting Odd Pots – If an odd chip is left over after evenly splitting the pot, the dealer may use suits to determine who takes it. In Hold’em games, this chip would go to the player to the left of the button, but in games like Stud, there isn’t a button on the table, so suits must be used to determine who wins the odd chip.
Check out our poker hand rankings guide for more detailed information on determining the winning hand.
Suits in Other Card Games
While the suit order in poker is always the same, it can vary across different card games. The most popular use for suits in other card games is for bidding and scoring, such as in the game bridge, which uses the same suit order as poker. However, there are plenty of other games that use a different suit order from poker, so it’s worth knowing what they are and the orders before you start playing. These are the most popular card games with a different suit order to poker:
- Big Two – A popular Cantonese card game where the object is to remove all of the cards from your hand. This game uses the suit order of spades, hearts, clubs, and diamonds.
- Ninety-Nine – A fun 3-player trick-taking game, Ninety-Nine uses the suit order of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds.
- Five Hundred – A popular American trick-taking card game derived from the game of Euchre. In this game, the suits are ordered hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades for bidding and scoring purposes.
There are many other examples of card games using a different suit order, so make sure everyone is on the same page before you begin playing!
Many people take for granted the history that’s in a tiny deck of cards and don’t even realise that the suits we see on the cards were created over 500 years ago! While knowing how the suits came to be won’t help you become a better poker player, knowing the suit order may help you win the button at the start of the game or win the odd chip in a split pot!