MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do Decks of Cards Have Jokers?

JOKERS WILD: The Reason Decks Of Cards Have Jokers

With all of us in lockdown during the pandemic, chances are you probably played a card game or two (hundred). So, be honest: have you ever played a card game where you actually used the joker cards? And I’m not talking about using them as stand-ins for missing cards. There just aren’t hardly any games that use joker cards. So why do decks have joker cards in them at all?

Jokers were originally added to card decks in the 1860s, well after card decks had become common. Jokers were added to capitalize on the popularity of “euchre”, a game derived from the Alsatian game “juckerspiel”. In its beginnings, the top trump cards in juckerspiel were the two one-eyed jacks, known as the “right bower” & the “left bower”. (FYI: while the direct translation of the German word “bauer” is farmer, bauer is actually the word they use for “jack”). But juckerspiel players eventually created a card that could trump even the high & mighty jacks. They called that card the “best bower,” which we now know as the joker.

Joker sounds pretty similar to “jucker” & “euchre”, so some folks think that that’s where the name of the card came from. But not everyone agrees with that assumption: Bicycle, the playing card company, says they’re certain that “it’s no more than a coincidence”. It’s could be that the jester/joker character was chosen merely because it worked well within the whole courtly medieval theme of kings & queens.

But why does every deck include two jokers, when euchre is only supposed to have one “best bower”? Well, no one’s really sure about that. The most likely reason is that playing card manufacturers just decided to keep with their traditional standard operating procedure of having an even number of cards per deck.

Euchre eventually fell by the wayside, as more Americans took up bridge as their card game of choice. But jokers eventually factored into a few other different games (poker, canasta, war, etc.) where they mostly serve as trump or wild cards (hence the phrase, “jokers wild”).

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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