Cards are just cards, right? Wrong! Players cards have a very long history, and there's a lot more to them than just their pattern or texture.
There's a world of difference between the cheap paper cards from the dollar store and plastic cards from a premium brand. Here are some key factors to take into account.
- Size - cards come in three common sizes:
- Poker-size; and
- Material - paper and plastic are the most common materials used, but there are many novelty cards available - including wood, metal, and carbon fiber!
- Waterproofing - some cards are splash-proof, while others are fully waterproof and so they can be washed. But most paper cards should be kept away from liquid.
- Durability - paper cards are inexpensive but quick to bend and mark, while plastic cards cost more - but can last a very long time.
- Readability - Cards come in various "indexes" which determines how large the text is on the card, including regular index, jumbo index, and indexes large enough for the visually impaired.
- Glare - the shinier a card's surface, the more likely glare will be an issue (especially if you play in a well-lit room).
- Texture - there is a wide variety in texture, even between cards made of the same material. Paper cards use embossing to give different finishes. The texture isn't just about how the cards feel to hold, it will also affect how easy it is to shuffle and deal the cards.
- Thickness - Casino cards are usually thin, but some people prefer thicker cards.
- Back design - There is a great variety in back designs, but the main purpose for them is to make the cards more opaque.
- Front style - Most cards use a variant on the standard English pattern of the French suits, but there's a wide range of customized cards out there too. It's largely a matter of personal preference but poor design can lead to confusion.
- Casing - from cellophane wrapping to the humble cardboard box to luxury metal display cases, cards come in all sorts of packaging.
In terms of playing card sizes, B8 is the most common size for cheap cards. Poker cards are a little wider than B8 cards, but not by much. Bridge cards are significantly narrower than both. There are also many novelty-sized cards, such as mini and over-sized cards.
Materials of Poker Playing Cards
Most poker playing cards are made from plastic or paper - but there are also some novelty cards made from unusual materials too.
Paper playing cards are by far the most common type of card available. They are usually constructed from two layers of card stock stuck together with black glue to make them opaque.
The type of stock used and type of texturing makes a big difference to different types of paper cards' quality and handling.
Texturing is what gives different brands of cards their specific finish. It's not the coating that creates the finish but a separate texturing process. Nowadays the stock is usually pre-textured, but in the old days the card stock would be run through a texturing machine. Some card manufacturers still use this step.
The finish can be smooth, as with the Aviator brand - or embossed, as with the industry-standard Bicycle brand. Bicycle cards have the "Air Cushion" finish, which helps them slide and makes them more springy than cheaper paper cards.
Other cards might have what's known as a cambric, linen or linoid finish, which is fairly similar to the Air Cushion finish - although many players will have a preference! But the real difference is between smooth and embossed finishes.
The latex coating is applied after the printing process and it gives the cards a little bit of protection but also helps the handling. It can also be used to make the cards matte or glossy.
There are many downsides to paper cards. The corners fray easily. Even the most expensive are not particularly elastic, and will have a "memory" when they bend. Paper cards also tend to absorb moisture. They are just much easier to mark than plastic cards.
But there is one major upside: paper cards are significantly cheaper than plastic cards. The question is whether the lack of durability makes them worse value - and that depends on your particular needs.
The other thing to remember is some people just prefer paper cards over plastic.
Plastic cards are generally seen as a step up from paper cards, and are usually more expensive. They are completely waterproof, very durable and "elastic" - that is they spring back when bent.
That's not to say plastic cards are invincible. They break rather than tear, and they do not cope well with heat and sunlight.
There are many types of plastic used in playing cards.
KEM cards use cellulose acetate, while Copag cards use PVC. But many cards manufacturers will use their own proprietary plastic - some have proprietary names, like Platinum Acetate from Modiano. But with others, the cards are just described as plastic with no further information.
Plastic cards have a particular feel, smell and action to them that some people dislike.
Metal isn't the easiest material to make playing cards from, and it definitely isn't the easiest to play cards with. Metal cards are heavy, rigid and impossible to shuffle. They are smooth and slide about too much. A metal deck will set you back over a hundred dollars, so there are plenty of downsides. On the plus side though, metal decks are very durable and look cool!
Like metal decks, carbon fiber decks are very rare, and very expensive. They are lighter and easier to shuffle and play with than metal decks though. They're better as a conversation piece rather than poker playing cards.
In the league table of materials unsuitable for playing cards, wood has to be near the top. They do exist, but they are so impractical that we can't recommend them for playing poker. Maybe consider buying Bicycle's wood-effect paper cards instead?
If you thought metal, wood and carbon-fiber cards were weird, there's a whole world of strange playing cards out there.
Pixelated cards use lenticular printing to make the fronts invisible to everyone but the holder - sounds useful but in practice you'll soon give up and go back to your regular deck, especially in a community card game like Holdem.
And for the bling-lover, gold- and silver-foil cards are available too. Just don't expect them to last long or handle well!
Brands of Poker Playing Cards
Although we've rated some major brands in the table below, please bear in mind that personal preference plays a big role in rating playing cards. Some people much prefer Copag to KEM - and others much prefer paper cards like Bicycle to plastic decks!
|KEM||5 out of 5||5 out of 5||Super Premium|
|Copag||5 out of 5||5 out of 5||Premium|
|Modiano||4 out of 5||5 out of 5||Good Value|
|Bicycle||3 out of 5||2 out of 5||Cheap|
|Bee||3 out of 5||2 out of 5||Cheap|
These are some of the best-known playing card brands, but there are so many others - e.g. Tally Ho, Kings Wild, Aviator - that we just didn't have room for.
KEM was the first brand to offer completely plastic cards, and many consider them to be the market leader. However, they are the most expensive, at around $16 per deck. Their cards are made from Cellulose Acetate, which is a food-safe material.
KEM decks were first manufactured in 1935, and the company was acquired by the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC) in 2002. USPCC are now owned by the Cartamundi group.
Copag cards are the main alternative to KEM when it comes to plastic cards. They are much less expensive, at about $8 a deck.
Their cards are made from PVC rather than CA. This means the cards can have a plasticky odor that some people don't like, and there are some concerns about whether PVC degrading is a health hazard. That said, PVC is the material of choice in medical tubing - so make up your own mind.
Copag are a Brazilian company, but they are also now owned by the Belgian Cartamundi group.
Modiano is an Italian playing card manufacturer that offers plastic playing cards at lower prices than Copag and KEM. They were founded in 1868 and are the only brand listed here not ultimately owned by Cartamundi. Instead, they are part of the Italian Grafad Group.
Modiano's cards use a propriety plastic called "platinum acetate", which they claim is superior to both PVC and CA. Their front designs are slightly different, with rounder spades.
When Modiano cards were used for the 2015 World Series of Poker, there were numerous complaints from the players - particularly that the spade design was confusing. The WSOP now use Copag cards.
Bicycle is the flagship brand of the USPCC. They've been around since 1885. These cards are a timeless classic and the industry standard for paper cards.
Bicycle cards have a patented "Air Cushion" finish, and the iconic (and nonsensical) "Rider Back" design featuring a cherub riding a bicycle.
A great all-round playing card at an affordable price - just don't expect them to last very long before they get marked and bent out of shape.
Bee are another brand of paper playing cards from USPCC. They are made from a thicker stock than the Bicycle brand, and the finish is slightly different. But generally, there isn't much difference in quality or durability. It's more a matter of personal preference.
One key difference though is the back design. Bee cards use a simple diamond back design rather than the intricate design of the Bicycle.
Sizes of Poker Playing Cards
Playing cards come in various shapes and sizes. The table below sets out the three most common card size categories - but there are many more. This can be a problem with automatic shufflers - so make sure you look into this if you're thinking of getting one.
|Card Type||Width (in mm)||Height (in mm)|
Most cheap playing cards are B8 sized, so it's probably the most common size out there, and the one most people have played with the most. This is because B8 is a standard paper size (think A4, A3 etc) and so it's cheaper and easier to mass produce than the traditional poker size.
B8 cards are very unlikely to be even mediocre quality because if the manufacture cared enough about overall quality they would put the effort in to cut the cards to poker size and not B8.
Poker cards are slightly bigger than B8 cards, but the difference is fairly small. The average casual player probably won't notice - but anyone who handles a lot of cards definitely will.
Technically this is the standard card size for most card games, it's just that people are so used to seeing the mass-produced B8 variety it can seem like they are the standard and poker cards are the variant!
Bridge cards are noticeably narrower than poker cards and B8 cards. This is because in the game of bridge, players have to hold a lot of cards in their hand at once.
Not really a problem for Texas Hold'em players as we don't tend to pick up our hole cards - but draw poker players and stud players with smaller hands might find bridge cards are a better fit. And some people just prefer bridge cards as a matter of personal preference.
Surprisingly enough, many casinos and card rooms will actually use bridge cards at their poker tables instead of poker cards! There are quite a few reasons for this. Smaller cards are easier for the dealer to handle, they work better with automatic shufflers, and they use less material - when you go through as many card packs as a casino that means a big cost saving.
Styles of Poker Playing Cards
The standard 52-card deck we all know and love is actually the French variation, and the face-card design is known as the English pattern. This design is not under copyright and so is widely used.
But different brands will use different fonts and layouts, and some will even have their own designs. There are some really distinctive designs out there. This can be good fun, but people tend to like the standard design because they are used to it. Radical departure from the classic English pattern of the French design will tend to slow down your game and annoy people! There's a fine balance between originality and playability.
Modern card fronts are reversible, meaning they can't be upside down. Another important aspect of front design is the size of the text and pips. This is known as the index, and it varies from standard index to jumbo index to cards with text big enough for the visually impaired.
The back design of playing cards differs between brands much more significantly than the front design. Backs used to be plain, but these were too easy to mark. There's less room to annoy people here, so long as the back is the same on every card of the deck.
Sometimes card backs are subtly different depending on which way up they are - the backs are not reversible! The technique of "edge-sorting" uses this to gain an advantage. Phil Ivey recently lost a court case after edge-sorting in a London casino.
Custom Poker Playing Cards
There are plenty of websites that allow you to make your own custom decks. You upload the back and front designs, then choose your material and finish.
The quality of the finished product will depend very much on who you use. Many printing companies offer a custom card service, but these cards are intended as novelty gifts for weddings and other special events - not really for serious card playing.
If you need a lot of customized decks because you are running a private poker club or just really serious about your home games, then USPCC also offer a custom playing card service. It's much more expensive - and there's a minimum order of at least 100 - but the quality is guaranteed. You also get much more choice, including paper or plastic.
Playing Cards for Poker - FAQ
Answers to the most common questions about poker playing cards.
Do casinos use plastic playing card?
Casinos use plastic playing cards instead of paper cards. Plastic cards are harder to mark and much more durable. But even then, casinos still swap their decks regularly - the average casino gets through hundreds of decks every day.
What is the best material for playing cards?
The best material for playing cards is largely a matter of preference. Plastic is more expensive but more durable, and the choice of casinos and televised poker tournaments. Paper is nowhere near as durable, and the cards are easier to mark - but it is considerably cheaper, and some people just prefer it.
Are plastic playing cards really waterproof?
Plastic playing cards are waterproof - but plastic-coated playing cards are only spill-resistant at best. Plastic playing cards like those manufactured by KEM and Copag can be washed in soapy water. However, they don't respond well to heat, so use cold water!
What is the best brand of playing cards?
The best brand of playing cards is a matter of preference - but it's generally accepted that KEM, Copag and Modiano are the industry leaders for plastic cards, while USPCC's Bicycle brand is the industry standard for paper cards.
Can you play poker with metal playing cards?
Fully metal playing cards are available, and you can certainly try to play poker with them. But they are heavy, impossible to shuffle and slippery so it will be an unpleasant experience. Really they are more of a novelty item, and not for serious card play.
How to clean playing cards?
How you should clean playing cards depends on the type of material they are made from. Plastic cards can be washed in water like any other plastic item (but best to use cold water in case of warping) - while paper cards should be cleaned by shaking them in a bag with talcum powder.
Playing cards come in many sizes and materials and vary greatly in quality and price. Of course, you don't need expensive poker playing cards to play poker - but just spending a little more will really improve your playing experience