How “Satanic” Playing Cards Gave Appalachia “Rook”

Photo courtesy of HuginnGreiling; Playing cards from the 1906 card game "Rook".
Photo courtesy of HuginnGreiling; Playing cards from the 1906 card game “Rook”.

Despite the fact that playing cards have been around since the 1300s, for many centuries they were derided by faithful religious adherents as being associated with wickedness, ungodliness and of having demonic origins and messages.

Even today, a standard 52-card deck is viewed with suspicion or even downright disdain by various members of some Christian denominations.  JD Carlson has written an account of how some believers from only a generation ago interpreted the meanings of playing cards, writing, “The Church in days gone by took its stand against the card game; ministers preached against it and big bonfires were built as people burned their playing cards.  Dr. Talmadge, as great a minister as ever served the Presbyterian denomination, said he would rather have his children play with a nest of rattlesnakes than with a deck of cards.  Of course this was years ago.  Today and for many years the Church and the pulpit have been silent in speaking against card playing…  A deck of cards used to be called, ‘The Devil’s Bible’ and in the Seventeenth Century it was called, ‘The Devil’s Picture Book’.  This is very important for us to know.  Each card in the deck has a special meaning… The KING card represents the Prince of Darkness – The Devil.  The 10 SPOT speaks of the spirit of lawlessness.  It speaks in opposition to the moral law as found in the Ten Commandments in the Bible.  Then the CLUB card represents violence and murder. The JACK speaks of the loose living man, the lustful man, the licentious individual who only lives to satisfy his lower nature.  The QUEEN card represents Mary – the mother of our Lord.  In the language of the cards, however, Mary is represented as an impure, dissolute, immoral woman. There is the JOKER.  It represents Jesus Christ.  But, also, the climax of all that is diabolical in connection with the language of cards is this: Jesus Christ, the joker, is said to be the child, the offspring, of the licentious Jack and the Queen.”

With such an offensive and vile association being placed upon traditional playing cards — whether true or not — it should come as no surprise then that a multitude of Christians refused to even allow such cards into their homes.

Recognizing an untapped market of religious rural families who rejected traditional playing cards, Massachusetts resident, George S. Parker and his wife Grace sought to create a deck of cards that could be marketed to people with religious objections to the standard deck.

To accomplish this, George and Grace recast the standard deck of playing cards, replacing the Ace with a “1” and the jack, queen, and king with “11”, “12”, and “13” cards, and added a “14” card as well. The hearts, spades, clubs, and diamonds were replaced with “suits” of colors: red, yellow, green, and black. With this new fifty-six-card deck, whist and most other common card games could be faithfully played.

Grace chose the name “Rook”, and with the addition of a “Rook” card (serving as the Joker) the 57-card deck took its final shape.

The cards were an instant success, becoming the company’s top selling card game even to this date.  The official rules for Tournament Rook (also known as Kentucky Discard) are as follows:

Four players are organized into two teams of two players each, sitting opposite each other. Players must keep their hands secret from all other players, including their teammates. The object of the game is to be the first team to reach 300 points by capturing cards with a point value in tricks. If both teams have over 300 points at the end of a round, the team with the higher point total wins.

Only certain cards have a point value. These are known as counters. Each 5 is worth 5 points, each 10 and 14 is worth 10 points, and the Rook Bird card is worth 20 points.

Rook has become a staple of Appalachian life and in small towns across the mountains, weekly and monthly rook tournaments are held.

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