Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jack of all trades

The Apollo astronauts took digital dexterity devices with them into space. Obviously the spacecraft weight had to be kept down but DDDs sounded appropriate to the payload team. It was an astronaut trick though. DDDs are playing cards. Just like astronauts Spaniards are great card players. Go to any Spanish summer seaside resort immediately after lunch and you will see family after family sitting on their terraces playing tute or mus or any number of card games. My first experience of cards, in Spain, was in the 1980s. I was invited to lunch and, after the meal, to play cards. As soon as the cards were produced I became more confused than Max Bygrave's soldier. The symbols were totally different to the ones I knew.

Like nearly everything playing cards were invented in China. People who know these things assure me that somehow this 12th Century invention migrated to 13th Century Mamluk Egypt and from there to 14th Century Southern Europe. As the cards did the Grand Tour the complex Islamic design of the Mamluk cards was replaced by something less ornate and with symbols more recognisable to European eyes.

The card deck we Britons normally use, with 52 cards, is actually a French deck. The Spanish deck has just 48 cards. The four “missing cards” are because the Spanish deck has no ten pip card. Both packs have three picture cards but, whereas the Jack, Queen and King have values of 11 to 13 The Sota, Caballo and Rey go from 10 to 12.

The first of the Spanish picture cards is called a Sota. In the past, the word sota was used to describe a rough and sometimes undesirable person just like the origin of Knave or Jack. The equivalent of the Queen is a horse or Caballo and for the King, well, there's a King or Rey. The majority of traditional Spanish card games use only forty cards. The eight and nine pip cards were hardly ever used so many decks were sold without them. Nowadays most packs have the eight and nine cards included as that allows a wider variety of games to be played. It's the same with the Comodines or Jokers; cards that can be used as a substitute for other cards. Traditionally there were just two in a Spanish pack but now it tends to be four.

The forty eight cards are sub divided into four suits or palos - "oros" or coins, "copas" or goblets, "espadas" or swords and "bastos" or clubs. These four palos were inspired in the Middle Ages with each representing a social class. The coins represent the merchants and traders, those with wealth and money. The goblets represent the clergy and the Roman Catholic church. The swords are for the nobility and army. The symbol for the workers, farmers and servants is the club. It's noticeable that the Spanish deck has no female figures – the Queen has become a horse and the Sota may look a bit feminine but is decidedly a man.

If the card suits are Mediaeval in origin the current design is 19th Century. A chap called Heraclio Fournier, designed the cards for a competition in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1868. His cards are still the basis of most Spanish packs. One of his innovations, which makes them different from the Swiss, French or German decks, is that there is a broken line around the edge of the cards. The number of interruptions makes it possible to distinguish the suit without being able to see all of the card. The coin cards have no interruptions, cups have one, the swords two and the clubs three.

So now, if you are invited to play snap with Spaniards it shouldn't be such a shock!

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