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A weekly show where we endeavor to answer one of your big questions. This week, Margaret asks, "Why is there a joker in playing card decks?"


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[Craig] Hi, I'm Craig.  [singing] I'm a joker, not a smoker, nor a midnight toker.  And this is Mental Floss video.

Today, I'm gonna answer Margaret's big question - why is there a joker in playing card decks?

Let's get started, kay?  Jokers wild.  You in?  Ante-up.  Five dollars.  Are you in?!

[Mental Floss theme music playing]

[Craig] Playing cards have been around since the 9th century in China.  They made their way to Europe in the 14th century.  And the joker card probably wasn't invented till the 1860's when it emerged in the United States.  

Those free-wheelin' joker sixties.

We can't be sure exactly why or when it was invented, but most experts connect it to the game Euchre.  The game requires a trump card, so there was always a highest trump card.  

But, up until the invention of the joker, it had many different incarnations, which went by names like Bower, Imperial Bower, and Highest Trump Card.  Or that card that's really really big important.

The first known example of this is a Samuel Hartin company playing card from 1862 featuring a tiger.  In an 1865 pack has a card with the text, "This card takes either Bower, Imperial Bower, or Highest Trump Card."

The Bower card probably evolved into a joker because Euchre evolved from a German game called Juker.  And this makes sense considering Bower was also inspired by a German word.

Plus, decks of cards have to be relatively generic, so the joker was a welcome addition because it gave manufacturers a chance to design unique cards that went with their brand.

Those poor bored manufacturers.

Some experts also believe that joker cards were inspired by Italian tarot cards, which featured a character known as the Fool.  This actually makes sense because the modern 52 deck of cards, which came about in the 15th century, may have also been inspired by tarot decks.

Everything makes sense, guys!  This is great.

Jumping forward in time, after the joker had been in the United States for a decade or two, it became pretty standard.

It started popping up in Europe in poker games, then it became a regular part of 52 card decks.  And then it would just show up at parties....with dip.

It was well-established enough by 1868 that in the book The Modern Pocket Hoyle, my nickname in high school, the joker is described as integral to two variants of Euchre in the game Pedro Sancho - my other nickname in high school.

It's worth mentioning that some have claimed the joker may have been invented to be the wild card for poker, but most card experts believe in the Euchre theory.  So just...idiot.

[Mental Floss theme music playing]
Thanks for watching Mental Floss Video, which is made with the help of all of these nice aces.  You thought I was gonna say jokers.

But if you have a big question of your own that you'd like answered, leave it below in the comments.  See you next week.

Alright, got a pair!  Boom!  What do you got Mark?  Royal Flush?!