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Original Issue

Riffling through a cardsharp's garden of Bicycles, Bees and Bulldog Squeezers

The longest poker game begins with but a single card. And chances are the card comes from Cincinnati, home of the U.S. Playing Card Co., maker of around 60% of the estimated 100 million decks sold in the nation each year. (The company is close-mouthed about its exact annual output.) Although U.S. Playing Card is also engaged in the production of cards for other games—including the Gypsy Witch fortune-telling line—its main product is still the traditional deck of 52, plus jokers, that comes in two basic colors: red and blue.

Andrew Luther, president of the company, leans forward in his chair at his Cincinnati headquarters and in a quick flourish fans out a deck of Bicycles into a "gambler's rose." It is, he explains, one way of examining a deck for marking. At the U.S. Playing Card Co. plant, he says, the women inspectors use a simple spread to examine the backs of every deck sold, looking for telltale markings that will give away a certain card. "A player must trust his cards," says Luther. "In a sense that is what we are selling—trust."

He tells about some of the mail he gets from aggrieved gamblers like the one who wound up losing with a pair of sevens to a man holding three of them. The complainant was understandably perturbed at the manufacturer of the deck, but Luther says it was the player's own fault that he dropped $107 in the pot, and the company declined to make good on his loss. "The rules clearly state that an incorrect pack voids the deal," says Luther, who ought to know. His company prints the Official Rules, now in its 57th edition.

Flawed playing cards do turn up, but they are comparatively rare. In the printing process, for example, the back plates of the cards (one plate for each deck) are changed frequently to avoid the possibility of having the same flaw show up consistently on the backs of any one number. Making first-rate cards begins with twin sheets of high-quality rag paper that are pasted together with black paste and crushed between two rollers. The laminated result is heated to dry the paste, then coated for slickness, then crushed again between rollers and cut into sheets. Each sheet off the presses represents one deck. After examination by hand, the decks are sealed, packed and shipped. Prices range from 25¢ to $1.25.

Most decks that are produced in Cincinnati are familiar to regular cardplayers, bearing such names as Bee, Bicycle, Aviator and Congress. One of the true curiosities about playing cards, however, is the almost fanatical regional devotion that is paid to them. Bees are highly popular in the West, but Southern California is Bicycle country. The Midwest goes for Bicycles, too, but there are the strictly regional decks, which have a thriving sale in one part of the country and are practically unheard-of elsewhere. Blue Ribbons, for example, and Angel Squeezers, Tally-Hos, Bulldog Squeezers and Aristocrats, all of which have their avid followers in the East and South—and nowhere else.

No one knows why these preferences hang on. Luther suggests it is because card salesmen in the old days were overly enthusiastic in hustling their favored brands to the exclusion of all others. Whatever the reason, the five regional brands outsell everything, including Bicycles and Bees (the U.S. Playing Card Co.'s flagship brands) in these areas of special appeal. Sometimes the preference migrates. Players in New York buy a lot of Tally-Ho cards, for example, and then at holiday time take their loyalties with them to Miami, which has a vigorous Tally-Ho trade in the winter months.

The coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania, between Philadelphia and Harrisburg, remain devoted to Angel Squeezers, and Blue Ribbons are hot sellers in Philadelphia and nearby parts of New Jersey. Aristocrats are very big in upstate New York, as well as Connecticut, and the Bulldog Squeezer—which even Luther admits is "not a very appealing card"—is still a favorite in southern Louisiana.

This card was first manufactured to commemorate an 1877 sales agreement between Andrew Dougherty and the New York Consolidated Card Co. (later absorbed into the U.S. Playing Card Co.). The name Squeezers refers to the way gamblers began handling their cards when numbers first appeared in the top left-hand and lower right-hand corners (players previously had to count the pips). The back on the Bulldog Squeezers shows two snarling bulldogs chained to their doghouses under a leering moon and wearing collars that read, in turn, "Trip" and "Squeezer."

The company is a reservoir of more playing-card lore than anyplace else in the world, and this fact brings in thousands of letters a year seeking information, rulings or facts on card history. The company can tell you, for example, the historical figures on which the face cards are based: Julius Caesar is the king of diamonds, Charlemagne the king of hearts, Alexander the Great the king of clubs and King David the king of spades. In a pinch, Luther and his experts always look up an esoteric fact in a volume by Catherine Hargrave, called A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaining. They can vouch for its authenticity, too. They commissioned the book in the first place.