Your chance to view the main events from 52 Plus Joker's annual conventionby BoardGameGeek reviewer EndersGame
In my previous article, I shared information about a great opportunity: the chance to sit in on some great speeches about playing cards delivered by experts and leading figures in the industry. Via online videos, we could get front row seats inside an international playing card convention organized by 52 Plus Joker, the American Playing Card Collector's Club.
This prestigious club has managed to find a silver lining in the cloud called COVID. They had to cancel their annual convention, but they didn't let this disappointment rain on their parade. Instead, they turned it into a wonderful opportunity. Rather than nuke their convention entirely, they decided to go virtual, by taking events they had planned for their 2020 and 2021 conventions, and running them online via Zoom.
So now we get the chance to enjoy these informative lectures and terrific presentations after the fact. For free. Even if we aren't members. Let's quickly slip inside the lecture room before they change their mind!
== Featured Speakers ==
Jason McKinstry: Antique Playing CardsJason McKinstry is an avid researcher and playing card historian, who is an expert on antique playing cards. He specializes in American playing card manufacturers, and can be considered an heir to the throne occupied by Hochman and the Dawsons. He enjoys writing biographies of the important playing card makers in American history, and is author of the book Paper Empires, which covers the history of the first four US playing card manufacturers. He also writes actively about these topics on a monthly basis for the Card Culture club magazine.
An expert like Jason is the perfect person to help us understand the larger story behind the playing cards we enjoy. You'll immediately be blown away by the gorgeous antique Aces and decks behind Jason as he talks. Throughout his lecture he shows delightful vintage photographs, and of course, cards from the antique decks themselves. You'll also find some great pictures and information over on his website worldofpaperempires.com, and his Instagram channel (jason_mckinstry).
Jason's own journey into this world of history began by being captivated by the playing cards themselves, especially from the time that he describes as the golden age (1835-1935), when several manufacturers were giants of the industry. During this era important discoveries were made that had a huge impact on playing cards and on printing more generally, like the four-colour printing press by Lewis I. Cohen. New York was the heart of the playing card industry at the time. Many of its leading playing card manufacturers were closely connected by blood or marriage, such as Lewis Cohen, John Lawrence, John Levy, and Samuel Hart, whose companies would later join forces in 1871 to establish the New York Consolidated Card Company. Another big name is Andrew Dougherty, a self-made man who built up his own remarkable playing card empire, and who had close connections with Abraham Lincoln. I was surprised to learn that this is just one of many connections between playing card makers and important political figures.
Then there is the famous duo of Russell and Morgan, who established their business in 1881, and had a huge impact on what would happen in years to come. They had several levels of quality, ranging from Tiger (lowest) to Congress (highest). Despite their diverse range, all their decks had a similar look, particularly their classic Ace of Spades that depicted the Statue of Freedom, which was a genius branding move. Russell & Morgan's company became the United States Playing Card Company in 1894, and over time would start eating up all the competition by absorbing the smaller playing card makers. By then playing cards were becoming quite standard, so USPCC could focus on branding. They did this with great success especially with their Bicycle Playing Cards, which came out in 1885, and reflected the fascination of the world of the time with actual bicycles.
Along the way Jason has many stories and details to share. For example, what deck was Wild Bill Hickock using with his famous Dead Man's Hand in 1876? He posits that it was likely not a faro deck as is often thought, since by this time in the late 19th century poker cards had begun to replace faro playing cards. The famous story of Wyatt Earp also includes playing cards, and so do many similar tales. As Jason demonstrates, the history of playing cards ties in very closely to American history more generally.
There is a lengthy Q&A session following Jason's lecture, and as part of that he shows some of his collection. His goal is to collect one of each deck Dougherty ever made, and he's well on his way to achieving that. He also displays some great historical ephemera. Jason is a carpenter by trade, and it is neat to see the gorgeous miniature models he's made of historical factories, as well as other cool playing card related items he's cleverly constructed out of wood. Some other interesting topics also come up for discussion, such as why the standard colours for playing card backs are blue and red, Jason's plans for a series of unboxing videos for antique decks, his Paper Empires book, and tips on getting into collecting antique playing cards.
At the "Virtual Day" in 2021, Jason gave a further 15 minute video presentation, in which he displays and provides commentary on a number of rare playing card items from his own collection. This includes some lovely antique advertisements, portraits of key figures in American playing card history, a printing plate, and various other ephemera from the 1800s and 1900s. The presentation begins and ends with a wonderful video montage of Aces, Jokers, and other memorabilia, which Jason created as a tribute to USPCC's 140th anniversary. This man is a real asset to the playing card community, and it's a real pleasure to watch these videos and learn from his incredible knowledge.
● Video: Antique Playing Cards - lecture (Jason McKinstry)
● Video: Antique Playing Cards - Q&A (Jason McKinstry)
● Video: Rare Playing Card Items - presentation (Jason McKinstry) - from the 2021 Virtual Day
Patrick Varnavas: Future Playing Card InnovationPatrick Varnavas is a cardist from New Jersey, and is the guy behind the Instagram channel bestcardistalive. He's one of the forerunners of today's cardistry movement, with years of experience, as is amply evident from the fact that at the time of his presentation he had over 1600 curated posts to his credit. It's hard not to be impressed with his opening 3 minute video segment, which showcases some of the best cardistry seen over the last half a dozen years or more, and gives a good idea what all the fuss regarding this art-form is about. For those unfamiliar with cardistry, Patrick's presentation gives a sense of how much cardists value playing cards, and how they use them.
He explains that good cardistry takes full advantage of all the properties of playing cards, in contrast to the regular user of a deck that uses it for card games or card magic. In his view, playing cards are in essence a toy that can be used in a variety of ways. Very few people have an interest in improving this product, other than initial improvements like rounded corners and the addition of indices. But unlike others, cardists are the ones that want to get the most out of their playing cards throughout the entire life of a deck. They will even use cards in ways in which they weren't designed to be used for, and they really test their limits. There's no doubt that cardists are the ones pushing innovation beyond the status quo.
The current quality level of USPCC playing cards is high, and Varnavas compares a typical USPCC deck to the waves on which cardists surf. As such he believes cardists don't need playing cards to change or improve, since cardists surf with whatever they've got. But cardistry has now achieved a level of popularity that cardists like Patrick and others are being approached by playing card manufacturers to see if playing cards can be improved. After all, cardists have the unique ability to isolate and test individual qualities of a deck, and have very useful insights to share on these topics that manufacturers can take advantage of. Patrick does believe there is room for innovation and improvement in playing cards, and that cardistry itself will mature and grow in tandem with this. Having manufacturers sponsor cardists and making them part of the evolution of playing cards will not only help lead to an improved product, but will also promote brand recognition, and help cardistry advance even further.
According to him, putting decks into the hands of cardists is one of the best things that a manufacturer can do in order to get good feedback about what works and what doesn't. An example of this is the arrival and embracing of crushed stock, which has quickly become an industry standard. Alternative and non-standard back designs have also had an impact on cardistry due to the visuals. Some aspects of design like borders or specific geometric shapes affect the look of cards in motion, and can introduce new elements, which will also change the nature of how a deck looks. Many factors come into play here, and different qualities like the weight, size, shape, and friction of playing cards all change how playing cards handle and look. Later in the Q&A section Patrick admits that sponsoring this kind of cardistry requires choosing the right people, giving them the right resources, and ensuring it develops the brand, otherwise it could just be a waste of money for the sponsor.
The Q&A session includes some interesting discussion about the innovations and qualities of specific decks, like the Red Dots decks from Anyone Worldwide, and FLUX by Lotusinhand. Patrick's comments about different stocks and finishes will be of real interest to many viewers. He also emphasizes that innovating and shaping taste requires a historical perspective, and that looking back to the past is essential. I also love his suggestions for how to get started: don't use cardistry trainers, but use a regular deck, and just get going with tutorials like Lotusinhand's Cardistry Bootcamp. He also suggests basic moves to begin with as an essential foundation for more advanced moves. Rather than describe cardistry as juggling, he prefers to see it as an art form like poetry or skating, with a very personal component. Patrick also shares some great thoughts about Cardistry Con, and how it can also innovate and improve.
● Video: Future Playing Card Innovation - lecture (Patrick Varnavas)
● Video: Future Playing Card Innovation - Q&A (Patrick Varnavas)
Rory Rennick: Racially Charged Playing CardsRory Rennick is a comedy magician, with an interest and expertise in researching magic and the history of playing cards. He also writes for Card Culture, where he has penned great philosophical one-liners like this: "Playing cards are objects of art that can speak to a people and for a people." But can we really talk about how playing cards have depicted race and colour? When he grew up people were taught not to talk about politics, religion, and race, and in his view this led to many important conversations being stifled or avoided. Rory rightly sees himself well-qualified to speak about this sensitive topic in a respectful and informed way, because of his perspective as a black person. He explains something of his own journey, and the painful emotions and feelings that the depiction of coloured people can produce.
He describes his lecture with the title "A Journey of Jokers, Juice, and Models". It takes the form of a brilliant slide presentation with many terrific images that serve as examples for his insightful commentary, which walks through a lot of his own original research.
Jokers: Black people were already depicted in the Cotta's Almanac transformation deck (1805). But for the most part they were absent, until the late 1800s when they were often depicted with exaggerated features, such as the "Watermelon Jokers" and later the "Watermelon Aces". The Cotton Belt Route deck (1903) was the first deck to have a black person depicted on all the cards, via a "safe choice" of artwork on all the card backs. But when they were pictured on playing cards, black people were typically depicted in subservient roles, engaging in working class activities, or pictured as lazy, playful, or flamboyant. They were often stereotyped and misrepresented as being lazy workers, even though in reality they experienced much hardship and worked in poor conditions.
Juice: The first time a black man was pictured on the back of a deck was the Green River Whisky deck in 1935, which depicted someone leading a horse, an image also found in their other advertising materials. After extensive detective work, Rory managed to track down the source of this image to an 1899 photo. He also uncovered other artwork from the artists behind it, including some that depicted young Negro children under the horrifying title "alligator bait." But the real prize he shows is a postcard photograph of a black man named Henry (pictured with a horse, black woman and child), which he posits is the model behind the famous Green River Whisky picture.
Models: Black women were often depicted negatively on playing cards in the early 1900s, much like the black woman on the above-mentioned postcard. That's because black women were often defeminized and simply regarded as breeders or sex objects. Only from the 1950s did they begin to be depicted with any kind of glamour or positivity, such as in the black-oriented Ebony magazine, which featured striking Negro models like Ann Porter and Harlean Harris, who also made it onto playing cards.
Rory is an extremely informed researcher who isn't afraid to do the hard work of trawling through primary sources to come to his conclusions, and to tackle important and difficult topics like race. His lecture gives the vocabulary and background to help us have important conversations about sensitive topics like this. It has to be admitted that playing card manufacturers reflected the social norms of their day, and the images he brings to light are good examples of propaganda that was not always helpful.
But while such playing cards may not be acceptable for us today, they are still historically significant. Rory rightly points out that playing cards are historically and culturally significant because they depict the values of a culture, and we can use them to learn about the cultural norms of the past, even if it means we must challenge those norms today. It takes real maturity and wisdom to be able to use images as teaching tools in this way, rather than just brand them as racist and want to destroy them - as Rory admits was his initial inclination and response. His solution isn't to encourage a cancel culture, but rather to include cards like this in our collection, providing we give them an appropriate context and perspective. His own collection of playing cards about black history is a fine example of how you can provide a context for correctly interpreting and understanding the artwork we see.
The Q&A section includes some interesting questions about collecting decks that feature black history or black pride, and about Rory's personal collection.
● Video: Racially Charged Playing Cards - lecture and Q&A (Rory Rennick)
Niyomwungeri Maxime: Gakondo Playing CardsNiyomwungeri Maxime has the distinction of being Rwanda's first playing card designer and producer, with his brand Gakonda Playing Cards. His goal with his playing cards is to share aspects of his culture and heritage, and this objective is also the subject of his presentation. This was not part of the 2020 convention, but was part of the "Virtual Day" held the following year. Although his presentation itself is brief, the Q&A that follows gives the opportunity to learn a great deal about the many ways that Gakonda is successfully communicating the rich heritage of Africa via playing cards.
Maxime's journey towards creating his own playing cards and brand started four years earlier, when he began asking the question: why don't we have our own playing cards here in Rwanda? But from the outset his vision was much bigger than just having a custom deck that Rwandans could call their own. He wants to use this as a tool to revive game-playing, and to pay tribute to his people's rich tradition, culture, and heritage. And most importantly, he wants to help educate the next generation with the help of playing cards. The concept is ingenious: playing cards can start important conversations. So put a custom Rwandan deck in the hands of youngsters, get them asking questions, and get them talking.
The name Gakonda is a word that means origins, roots, or foundations, and captures Maxime's vision for his brand. As it turns out, few traditions are more important to old Rwanda than cows. Hear me out here, because cows are going to become very important for Gakonda decks. In old Rwanda every king typically had various items that indicated his social status, such as a drum, a shield ... and cows. Naming his cows was an important part of this, and traditionally cows were named corresponding to their colour. Cows especially had importance because they represented wealth, particularly if you had a large group of cows. In fact, 12 cows were needed to move up to another social class. Maxime cleverly came up with the idea of creating a series of 12 decks, each with a different colour and name, much like the cows of old Rwanda. In other words, collectors can have the goal of assembling 12 different decks inot a brick, with each deck representing a different cow.
Besides this initial series Gakonda Playing Cards is also in the process of producing six decks about the heritage of Africa as a continent, beginning with their Dark Continent deck. The Dark Continent deck captures how different empires influenced and shaped Africa. The court cards of this fully custom deck depict real historical figures, with all the details (e.g. hair styles, and beads, which symbolized social classes) being historically accurate and significant. Clearly Maxime has put a huge amount of thought into all the aspects depicted in the deck. Eventually he'd like to broaden his Gakonda brand to include games, books, and other lifestyle merchandise, and he already has some good ideas for this.
It's hard not to be impressed with Maxime's passion and enthusiasm. He's clearly a real visionary, with a love not just for playing cards, but for humanity. He is a bright young man who is remarkably articulate and sophisticated. He values important qualities like integrity and kindness, and they are part of his vision for his brand. He'd love to see the next generation learn to connect with who we are as human beings, and he is eager to promote education and critical thinking as a means to that end.
Despite the differences between people around the world, you'll feel much in common with this Rwandan designer. Because his passion for playing cards and his respect for his fellow humans transcends the barriers of language and culture. What a wonderful way to connect playing cards with culture. And even more importantly, what a wonderful way to pass on the kind of values that are important for us all.
● Video: Gakondo Playing Cards - lecture and Q&A (Niyomwungeri Maxime) - from the 2021 Virtual Day
Where to learn more? Official website for the 52 Plus Joker American Playing Card Collectors Club
About the writer: EndersGame is a well-known and respected reviewer of board games and playing cards. He loves card games, card magic, cardistry, and card collecting, and has reviewed several hundred boardgames and hundreds of different decks of playing cards. You can see a complete list of his game reviews here, and his playing card reviews here. He is considered an authority on playing cards and has written extensively about their design, history, and function, and has many contacts within the playing card and board game industries. You can view his previous articles about playing cards here. In his spare time he also volunteers with local youth to teach them the art of cardistry and card magic.