Buying the Perfect Playing Cards

By Kelli Mix | April 6, 2009

Playing cards are believed to have originated in China, where paper was first invented. The cards we are familiar with today were designed in France. Many new decks have since been designed all over the world, yet the standard 52 deck with four suits remains the most popular. When hosting your own poker game it is important to buy quality playing cards that will withstand frequent use. There are several factors to consider before placing your first order for new playing cards.


You want to have more than one deck of cards available during a poker game in case a card is damaged during play. Professional cards usually come in sets of two decks. You should always have at least three sets of cards in the room. Superstitious poker players will ask for deck changes as well as entire set-up changes.

Three sets will provide six decks of cards to work with throughout the night. This is per table, so if you have more than one table, adjust accordingly. If you are hosting a poker tournament, you will want to have approximately three decks per table. This is less than the recommended average for a live action game since the odds of multiple tables having card deck issues is minimal.


There are two basic types of playing cards on the market today – paper cards coated in plastic and 100% plastic cards.

  • Plastic coated or vinyl – These mass produced cards can be purchased at almost any check-out line in any chain store and are the cards you played with while growing up. These cards are less expensive than real plastic cards, but also crease, bend and tear easier. They are easy to mark by indenting the corner with a fingernail. Plastic coated cards are fine for occasional use, even suited for a night of ‘kitchen poker’; however, they will not withstand the frequent use from a regular poker game.
  • 100% plastic – These professional quality cards, used in casinos, are an ideal choice for any home game. 100% plastic cards are more expensive than other types of cards, but they are extra durable, effortless to clean, and difficult to mark. These cards are the easiest type of cards to deal and they slide well across the poker table. They are comfortable to shuffle manually and are the only cards that will work properly in an automatic shuffling machine.


2 ½ x 3 ½ is the industry standard for poker cards, though there are other sizes available including the narrow poker deck, which runs approximately 2 ¼ x 3 7/16 or a bridge deck sized at 3 ¼ x 3 ½. Most players and dealers are more comfortable using the standard size deck, so it is best to stick with the norm.

The only exception to this rule would be in home games that play multiple variants of poker where games require players to hold several hole cards. Narrower cards would be a more suitable option in this situation.


There are numerous brands of playing cards available on the market. US Playing Card Company is a leading manufacturer of various playing cards. The most popular line of their cards is Bicycle (see above), followed by Bee, Hoyle, and World Poker Tour cards. This company also manufactures most of the novelty and character cards found in stores. All of these cards can be found for a low price ($1.99 – $4.99 per deck) in any chain store.

The following brands are popular high quality plastic playing poker cards that can be ordered in sets of two and usually include a protective plastic case. They are all more expensive than the above mentioned plastic-coated cards, but last much longer. There are many other playing cards on the market that also work well for home games, but these are amongst the most recommended for frequent use:

  • Copag- Copag is a good quality card made of 100% PVC plastic and comes at a lower price than its biggest competitor (Kem), averaging $15 per set. Some skeptics complain that the graphics are a little faded on this brand, but it doesn’t make them any harder to identify.
  • Gemaco – These cards are a bit thinner than the other plastic cards listed here. They are a nice quality card that can be ordered with a high quality acrylic box. The average cost is $15 per set.
  • Kem – Kem, manufactured by the US Playing Card Company, are arguably the most popular plastic cards. They are made of cellulose acetate plastic and are a bit more expensive, averaging $22 per set. The Kem Arrow cards are said to be what most plastic poker cards are measured against. Kem cards are used on both the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker.
  • Modiano – These cards are plastic, but have more of a paper feel to them and are a bit thicker than the other cards on the market. Modiano has a large variety of different cards and average $18 per set. DaVinci is a brand of Modiano cards that are very similar in quality and appearance, but a little lower in price.

Card Face Design

The face of poker cards has not changed much throughout recent years. They still contain the standard denomination, suit, and court cards. The only real change is graphic size and where the pips appear on the cards. Some companies have toyed with color changes, but the white background is the easiest to see and by far the most popular. Another color change on the face of cards is with the suits. In addition to the standard black and red suited cards, many manufacturers now offer four color suits comprised of; black, blue, green and red.

There are five common designs on the face of poker cards, standard, super/jumbo, magnum, and peek/dual index cards.

  • Standard index size – This is the most common size found on all types of cards and really the size most players would prefer to see.
  • Super or Jumbo index size – This is a larger print that makes it easier for players who have a hard time seeing the smaller, standard size print on cards.
  • Magnum index size – This is an extremely large size print that takes up most of the face of the card. While this size would be nice for easily seeing board cards, it would not suit a professional poker game where players are trying to conceal the value of their hole cards.Four pip index – These cards can be found in standard or jumbo size and include the pips on all four corners of the cards instead of just the top left and bottom right hand corners.
  • Peek or dual index cards – The peek cards have standard size print on the face with additional fine print pips on the corners of each card. This is convenient for players who prefer to keep their hole cards on the table and peel up just the corners of the card to “peek” at its value.

Card Back Design

The backside design on a card can range from pre-printed simplistic patterns to custom graphics or photographs. What you choose for the back design is not important as long as you select an opposing design when using multiple decks in a game. It is common for dealers to have a set-up containing one blue deck and one red deck or one green deck and one red deck. This way, decks will not get mixed up and players can request deck changes based on color.

There are a lot of factors to consider when ordering cards for your regular poker game. Decks can range in price from as low as $1.99 per deck up to $30 per set, so if you are planning to run a regular poker game, be sure to weigh your options carefully. You may consider purchasing a couple different decks until you find the perfect match.

Once you settle on a card type, keep the cards stored away from heat in a dry area. Do not expose them to direct sunlight. When a card is damaged, save the remainder of the deck to use as replacement cards for other decks.

By Kelli Mix

Kelli is the author of the 'Game Day Poker Almanac - Official Rules of Poker'. She lives in Carrollton, Georgia, where she is the state director for the Poker Players Alliance.


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