Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts - Playing Cards at War

June 10, 2016

In a follow-up to the recent blog that we wrote on the war magicians, this edition of Ooh, Interesting! fascinating facts focuses on the unique role that playing cards have played in the wars of the twentieth century, most notably during World War II and the Vietnam War.

Bicycle cards are perhaps the most well-known of playing cards around the world. They are made by the incredibly patriotic sounding United States Playing Card Company and are used by the vast majority of working magicians today. Have you ever decided to hire a magician and marvelled at their ability to quickly shuffle cards and fan the deck beautifully? Every time you attempt the same trick, your cards barely part, you drop a clump of ten in one go and you spend the next minute picking them up from under the table. Just where did the Jack of Spades go!?

The reason that you have trouble is because you’re probably not using linen playing cards. Or more to the point, bicycle cards. They’re cheap to buy, easy to source and perfect for fanning. But that’s neither here nor there for this story. You see, we’re talking about them because they have a bit of a history in being useful during warfare and not only in helping soldiers pass the time by having a quick game of rummy.

During World War II, the Prisoner of War camps were a comparatively okay place to be with the Nazis allowing small hospitality packages from the allies to reach their soldiers. Naturally, these were all vetted in case countries were attempting to smuggle equipment through the bars, but the British and American armies were cleverer than that, carefully hiding various contraband in packages that wouldn’t ordinarily raise much suspicion. No German guards were too bothered about a spare board game or pack of cards in a bag. Besides, they were after all the help they could get from the Red Cross when it came to provisions.

The British created special versions of Monopoly in conjunction with Waddington’s, the manufacturer of the famous board game. Maps printed on silk (in order to survive any inclement weather) were hidden inside the box, whilst real money sat amongst the fake notes in separate French, German and Italian denominations. Not bad. Metal files and real compasses were also included in order to help facilitate an escape. Soldiers headed to the front line were even told about the sets in case they were caught; you’d know you had one if there was a red dot in the Free Parking space.

The US was in on the plans as well, creating special versions of their decks of cards. The bicycle deck was altered so that when cards were moistened, the glues holding the front of the cards would easily prise apart to reveal a map of the surrounding area. The ultimate magic trick! The United States Playing Card Company were put back into use twenty years later during the Vietnam War after US troops discovered that the Viet Cong were scared of the Ace of Spades; French fortune tellers used to use the symbol to signify death. Once this was discovered, whole decks of cards only containing the Ace of Spades were sent over to Asia, with troops placing them in strategic places to scare away the enemy.

A magician should never reveal their secrets but when it comes to these tales, we’re very glad they did!


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By Henry Fosdike