Likely because of their association with gambling and fortune telling, playing cards have long been regarded as objects of moral and spiritual danger, if not of outright evil. Dubbed “the Devil’s Picture Book,” they are viewed by some portions of the population as an inveiglement into a life of indolence and debauchery. Others see them as dangerous in and of themselves: a longstanding superstition among fishermen and miners prohibits any of them carrying decks of cards while at work, lest shipwreck or mine collapse follow. (Some who make their living at sea will take cards on their voyages, but will quickly pitch them over the side when storms threaten.) Those who thieve for a living are said to accord the pasteboards respect: burglars, they say, rarely steal playing cards when raiding homes lest their doing so turn fortune against them and result in their being caught. (Ergo, to punish a burglar, hide a set of cards in something he’s likely to make off with, thereby decking his haul.)
Yet the pasteboards also have a lengthy history of being viewed as an assist to the pious. Playing cards have been used as an aid to prayer and meditation since at least 1788, with this practice continuing well into modern times, as our write-up about a 2003 e-mail (also a 1948 song) details.
When it comes to cards, superstitions abound. Some of these attach to specific cards or combinations of them:
- The Curse of Scotland: The nine of diamonds was supposedly christened thus after being used by John Dalrymple, Secretary of State and Master of Stair, to pass on instructions for the infamous Glen Coe Massacre of 1692. Whether or not he did write “Kill them all” on this pasteboard, the arrangement of the nine diamonds on its face bears some resemblance to the Dalrymple crest of arms, which can also account for the association of this card with that man.
- The Devil’s Bedpost: Also called “The Devil’s Four-Poster,” and “The Devil’s Four-Poster Bed,” and “The Devil’s Bedstead,” the four of clubs is believed by many to be a blight upon any hand into which it is dealt, turning good cards bad (that is, transforming favorable-looking combinations into losers as play develops). Players feel particularly cursed if the four of clubs is dealt to them on the first hand of the session.
- Aces and Eights: Bill Hickok, so they say, was shot dead during a poker game in which he held two pairs, aces and eights. (The fifth card remains one of history’s mysteries.) That holding has subsequently come to be known as the “Dead Man’s Hand” and is commonly placed into the hands of characters in Westerns who meet their demises before the end of the film (e.g., Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).
- Black Jacks: Such a two-card combination is said to bring poverty and unhappiness.
- Red Jacks: Such a pair signals its holder has an enemy unknown to him.
Beyond the luck (good or ill) inherent to particular cards, various acts one might perform while playing cards are said to influence one’s fortunes. These behaviors are all supposed to fetch bad luck:
- Playing on an uncovered surface: Superstition has it that ill results await the player who engages in a game of cards on a bare table rather than upon one covered by cloth. (Which, in a way, makes some sense: cards could easily be read during the deal as they passed over a polished surface.)
- Picking up and examining one’s cards before the dealer has finished delivering them to all: There’s at least a little bit of something to this superstition as well: other players are more likely to read your reaction to what Fate has dealt you if they get the chance to view it independent of distraction (that is, when they’re not engrossed in examining their own cards).
- Picking up or playing one’s cards with the left hand: The left hand has long been associated with evil (“sinister” was born of a Latin word that had two meanings: “on the left side” and “unfavorable/harmful”), so handling one’s cards with this ill-favored appendage presages a bad outcome.
- Sitting cross-legged: One is, after all, making a cross and therefore working a hex sign on oneself. (Strangely, some regard sitting in such fashion as fetching good luck. Go figure.)
- Dropping a card during play, especially a black one: Possibly there is something to this superstition: someone who mishandles his cards likely doesn’t have all of his mind on the game and thus is more likely to make errors in play or miss opportunities to make the most of advantageous combinations of cards.
- Receiving a lengthy run of spades: This is an ominous sign, one said to herald a death, either of the player or of someone in his family.
- Whistling or singing: Either act during play of the cards is said to draw ill fortune to the warbler the way a newly-washed car draws a sudden downpour.
- Flying into a temper: Says popular lore, “The demon of bad luck always follows a passionate player,” meaning to lose control of one’s temper during the game is to lose at cards across the whole of the session. Once again, there’s something to this: angry people often don’t concentrate nearly as well as the sanguine, nor do they judge opportunities or risks as accurately.
- Using a fortune-telling deck: Cards employed for the telling of fortunes should never be used for card games, and vice versa. (Which brings to mind a Stephen Wright joke: “Last night I stayed up late playing poker with Tarot cards. I got a full house and four people died.”)
- Playing in a room where there’s a dog: Pooches bring bad luck to card players, apparently.
- Playing against a cross-eyed opponent: At one time it was believed the cross-eyed could see sideways and thus help themselves whenever they wanted to a good look at the contents of your hand.
These acts are supposed fetch good luck:
- Blowing upon the deck: As you shuffle, blow your breath upon the deck to make it fetch good cards for you.
- Reseating yourself: Change bad luck to good by getting up and walking around your chair or the table, then reseating yourself. When in desperate straits, turn your chair around and sit astride it. (“Turn your chair and turn your luck.”) To reseat yourself without the other players knowing what you’re about, slip your handkerchief between your bottom and the chair, thus breaking contact with the unlucky seat.
- Touching your favorite card: Before play has commenced, hunt through the deck for your favorite card, then touch it with your right index finger.
- Pinning your partner: To bring luck to one’s compatriot, insert a pin into his or her lapel.
- Hangman’s Rope: Carry a bit of it in your pocket to bring good luck at cards.
Yet the best known of all card superstitions is one so often proffered to those who have been served up an unfortunate run of cards: “Unlucky at cards, lucky at love.”