Playing cards probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Russia. We bet they’re not even in your top 10!
Nevertheless, playing cards and card games have served an integral role in Russian culture since the 1600s and the early days of Romanov rule. Ruling classes and commoners alike have enjoyed cards throughout history, even during times of prohibition.
Here’s a look at how playing cards first landed in the country, how the government assumed control of card production and a few card games that are uniquely Russian.
All on the Table – The History of Playing Cards in Russia
The first playing cards in Russia arrived early in the 17th century from Central and Western Europe, with much of the influence likely coming from Germany and Poland. In 1649, a new code of law, Sobornoye Ulozheniye, effectively outlawed card games, labeling them as “thief’s crimes.” A lashing punishment awaited anyone caught playing cards in those days.
Little is known about the actual enforcement of anti-card game laws in the immediate years following the enactment of Sobornoye Ulozheniye. However, by the time Peter the Great ascended to rule Russia in the late 1600s, many ignored the card bans.
The Russian Government made other attempts to restrict card playing throughout the years, without much tangible impact. Ironically, card games were quite popular among Russian nobility through the 18th century.
Nearly all playing cards in Russia imported from Central and Western Europe up to this point. Beginning in 1765, a hefty tariff was on all playing cards entering the nation.
Sensing that more money would result from domestically produced than the import taxes, Russia flipped the paradigm on playing cards in 1819. All previous restrictions on cards lifted, and the government prohibited imports. Russia began a playing card monopoly, manufacturing card decks at the Imperial Paper Mill in present-day Saint Petersburg.
What’s the deal with Russian playing cards?
Taking design cues from German and French decks, card decks made in Russia came in varying qualities. But it was Adolf Charlemagne, a renowned Russian painter, who created a modern design in 1862 that remains in production today.
The standard Russian card deck contains 36 cards ranking six through ace; also, a typical format found in German decks. Other card decks may contain between 32 and 52 cards.
Five Popular Russian Card Games
Durak has been the most popular card game in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
Played with two to six people or alternatively, four to 12 people arranged in pairs, the object of this game is to get rid of all assigned cards in hand once the central talon (community pile of cards) exhausts. The games consist of a series of attacks and defenses. The successful attacker gets to eliminate a card from their hand while the defender adds a card from the talon.
There is no single winner, and the loser is the last remaining player holding cards, earning the dubious distinction of “durak” or fool.
Preferans originated in Russia around the 1830s and was the national card game before Durak surpassed it in popularity.
Generally, a game for three, this trick-taking game begins with a dealer distributing 32 cards — 10 to each player and two to the talon. Bidding then ensues to determine the trump suit. The player on the left of the highest bidder leads first. Players must follow suit or otherwise discard or trump. The highest card of the suit or highest trump wins the trick and, in turn, becomes the next lead.
A trick-taking game like rubber bridge, Vint emerged during the latter half of the 1800s.
In this game, four players each take turns bidding or outbidding one another until the highest bidder makes the trump. Players must follow suit, or if unable to do so, play any card. The winner of each trick begins the next one. Enter scored tricks under the line, and points for honors, slam and penalties for undertricks are above the line.
Svoyi Koziri is a matching style of card game played in Russia since at least the early 20th century.
In this game, there are two players, a dealer and opponent, using a 32-card deck. The dealer selects any two suits and appoints one for trumps. The opponent chooses a trump card from the remaining suits.
The dealer starts the game by placing a card on the table. The challenger then answers by playing a higher-ranking card of the same suit or one of their trump cards, with the winner of the round then playing the next card followed by a card from the opponent. The winner of the second round then sets the lead card. The play follows this pattern until one player gets rid of all their cards and declares the win.
A live dealer game of Russian poker.
Another card game that rose to prominence in Russia following the Soviet Union’s demise, Russian poker is a domestic variant, much like Texas Hold ‘em or Omaha Hi-Lo in the U.S., played with a 52-card deck. Aces are high (or low in a straight), and twos are low in Russian poker. The objective is to obtain a hand that outranks the dealer.
This variety also offers a twist in poker psychology because players compete only against the house or casino dealer; there’s no action between individual players, as they are independent of each other.
Russian poker has spread around the world in recent years, making it one of the more popular varieties of online poker.
Playing cards have held a fascinating role in Russian history for over 400 years. The shift from imported card decks to domestically produced decks roughly correlates with an uptick in the number of card games developed in Russia. Modern games like Durak and Russian poker have carried Russia’s claim as a nation of card lovers well into the 21st century.