playing cards

by Sara Gran
Reversible tarot card

Image by Wm Jas via Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about cards this week. Cards occupy this weird liminal (I know I use that word too much) position that I love. Playing cards care used for gambling, but also for stage magic–which when you think about it isn’t really a given, although it’s so common as to seem so. Why cards, for either or both? Is it coincidence, or do cards contain a natural trickster-ish element that makes this inevitable? Gambling and legerdemain (possibly my favorite word) are combined in card cheats and in three card monte, which always seemed a little magic to me.  When I was a kid I would watch the three card monte dealers on Broadway, hypnotized into trying to find “the lady” (I remember them hiding a red Queen and calling it “the lady”). Their slight of hand skills were amazing–most of them cheated, but I think some of them didn’t need to. They just couldn’t be beat. Even if they were “cheating,” what a skill! Gifted men, dealt a bad hand in life.

People also tell fortunes with playing cards: I don’t know how to do that, but I do read tarot cards. Even if you don’t believe in any metaphysical ability of the cards, they’re useful as little Rorschach ink-blots to bounce your subconscious off of.  Or you could think of them as little paper dolls that you can use to tell yourself a story and see what happens. I bet you’ll be surprised. And I bet you won’t doubt their metaphysical ability for long.

There’s also business cards, those little bits that seem like a piece of themselves someone left behind, and in the old days people had calling cards, which they would leave so you’d know they’d been there. When you read old novels it’s easy to get confused by the elaborate rituals of dropping off calling cards here and there and the heavy significance of each one. In a magic spell, you can sometimes use someone’s business card as a substitute for the person themselves, and do to the card (the microcosm) what you’d like done to its owner (the macrocosm). There’s also credit cards and ATM cards and ID cards, each of which has magical properties of its own–credit and ATM cards can be turned into money and ID cards can tell a story (Illinois, 25 years old, blue eyes…). Credit cards can also tell a story, which is why American Express cards come in green, gold, and the coveted black.

Not only do cards themselves seem to hold a trickster-ish position but in playing cards, the trickster is built-in in the form of jokers. Jokers can be assigned a variable meaning or left “wild,” i.e. undefined, unformed, chaotic, pure potential. There isn’t much that’s left wild these days, so if you get a wild card, in cards or in life, appreciate it. These days were taught to fear the unknown–the wild–but remember: that’s where all the best stuff comes from. Including us.

A cautionary tale comes from what used to be my favorite short story, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, although I haven’t reread it in years. I do remember though, that the story agrees with me: cards are strange little things.  Read it yourself, play some cards, and see what happens.

9 Comments to “playing cards”

  1. This is beautiful Sara! Wow what a subject. It strikes me cards are mystical things (playing cards, business cards etc). They seem so personal and intimate somehow, whichever type of card you’re talking about…..

    I know for myself I have a complex relationship with playing cards, I don’t understand it completely but it has a lot to do with demarcating time and events. I can’t seem to amass enough decks of cards. Whenever I’m in an airport I stand in the shitty Hudson News kiosk staring at the cards, thinking I should buy another deck. My wife will always remind me we have tons of cards but I think why not more?

    In my household there must be upwards of ten decks of cards, but I never know where they are, and I am always surprised to see them…some have moved house with me for upwards of fifteen years, and it’s as if they slip into a moving box unseen. My wife and I have decks of cards that represent significant events/ travels….a pack with pictures of girls and some kind of Cyrillic lettering, I think they’re from the Ukraine, and these are what we used to play a lot of gin in the early years of our marriage, when we did a lot of flying here and there and weren’t concerned about much, there’s a longing and a sadness there when I think of them but also the memory of being drunk, stupid and irresponsible….likewise a pack showing “Icelandic horses” that we took on a miserable family vacation that renders these cards unusable lest they dredge up bad bad memories, and yet we didn’t toss them, I know they’re around here somewhere….and “Classic Hollywood” cards we bought in Japan that have the names of most of the stars spelled wrong (“Carry Grant”). In one case there’s a photo of James Mason and it says “Tony Curtis”.

    One deck is tough to look at, this we used lots when my wife was sick for a long period of time, it’s a straight up pack of the “Bicycle” brand which is my fave perhaps in terms of package design…but these cards need to stay with us, even if they suggest sadness or ill health or stagnation. Our playing cards, one pack can represent freedom, romantic travel, new love, and another pack illness and confinement. Maybe they contain the bad or good energy we’ve assigned them but regardless a deck of cards is not something you throw away lightly and at least in my world if you mourn those playing cards you lose on planes, on beaches, in hospitals regardless of what they represent. You remember them, you miss them.

    Tarot cards are too scary! I’m looking at the “Crowley” deck in my bookcase, scary! Never used them. And yet I would never throw them out. They cost like $35. Why did I buy them?

  2. Interesting stuff, so they are kind of filling a hole in your life as well, standing as markers for things–like they’re all calling cards! And I forget to mention those cards they give out in las vegas with the prostitutes on them, which also kind of magical–you punch some numbers into your phone and they turn into girls. I also forgot to mention that you can use any cards, even those hooker cards, for divination, which is kind of fun. Megan got me these little vintage alphabet cards which would be good for telling fortunes. IF you want to start with tarot (IF!), a good way to start is just to pull a card every morning and then at the end of the day see how, if at all, it related to your day.

    I think I like “icelandic horses” best! (And I sure hope your wife is better!)

    • yes i used to be fascinated with the “phone booth girls” in London, back when they had the red booths, same principle as the Vegas phenom….haven’t we all had our cards read? I know I have but I forgot what the outcome was….

  3. You know why you bought them, Nathan!

    I’ve always been fascinated by card sets, and have many unusual packs too—but you know what else seems so interesting? how the pack becomes useless if one card is missing. Obviously this is true if you’re using it to play a game, but there’s a sense you can’t even use a replacement card because it might stand out. It seems like something else might be going on. Lots of the packs i have are not full sets and there is a different feeling there….

    • Missing cards…where do they go….but now you wouldn’t throw out the whole pack just because they’re missing a card and have been rendered useless, now would you?? You can still play most games and just pretend you don’t know there’s a missing card. Would you throw those decks away? I can’t imagine….

      Sara how do you make a tarot set out of straight playing cards? Just assign each card some sort of symbol / meaning?

      I like the “icelandic horses” too….they’re all identical, they look like gray and white Shetland ponies with long manes over their eyes

      But that tarot set, I know exactly why I bought them of course.

      Remember that “magick” shop on 19th st? It was this amazing place…always wanted to work there as a teenager….wouldn’t it be fantastic to find some of that Crowley-ian stuff actually worked? A universe with demons and spells and surefire methods to get others to love you.

      Honestly though I was too frightened by it, I didn’t want to alert any potential demonic forces to my presence. Not that I buy that stuff but you know, it’s like prayer in a foxhole, why not play it totally safe just in case.

      There’s this card set called OBLIQUE STRATEGIES, developed by Brian Eno and used on those late 70s Bowie recordings, they’re great, I use them for work, I swear they are fantastic…SUPER pretentious and obtuse but they’ve served me well in a musical context:

      http://stoney.sb.org/eno/oblique.html

      and wow I bet they’d be great for writing. It’s like if one doesn’t make sense to you at that moment flip over another one.

  4. Megan, did you ever read tarot cards? are you interested? I think you be an AMAZING reader!

    So what’s the something else that’s going on–a sense of incompleteness?

    • We should do a virtual tarot card session and freak ourselves out.

      I see that I also have another set, the HR Gieger version, yuck-o! (that Swiss artist who did the design for ALIEN…sort of cyperpunk goth, eww)

  5. Don’t use word “Cheating”, it is all there hard work and practice. They are master in their tricks. When we watch these tricks we get some kind of pleasure.

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