He’s a casino demagogue, the captain of the cards, the Kaiser of the cash, and the King of Kings —that’s right; we’re talking about the King of Spades, the guy you love to hate.
The King of Spades, like the rest of the cards in traditional 52-card playing deck, has its origins in the Tarot, a much more ancient deck of 78 cards, which is also a suited combination of numbered and royal court cards. According to enthusiasts, part of the purpose of the tarot is to illustrate the fundamental archetypes found in the human psychology. If we are to believe the hype, every type of person is illustrated within those 78 cards.
So, what does the Tarot have to say about the nature of the man who finds himself at the top of the trump chain?
King of Spades: Ambulance Chaser?
King of Spades is often depicted as a dishonest lawyer—the card is representative of an individual who is intelligent and authoritative in judgement, but ultimately hard to get along with because of that fact.
This sounds about right, doesn’t it? When you get the King of Spades you are often thinking, “I have the law on my side. I can’t lose.” You have the top suit and nothing can beat you except for something unlikely like an ace falling from the heavens. Yet time and time again, the King of Spades seems to suffer crushing loses that should not occur where he simply shrugs, explaining, “in poker law, nothing is a guaranteed.”
The David and Goliath Paradox
The French card makers developed a template system that allowed them to build an empire of cards, the designs from which would eventually spread throughout the rest of the world. It is the French notion that the King of Spades is supposed to represent Israel’s King David, who kills the giant enemy soldier Goliath. Soon this would become the unofficial story worldwide.
It is ironic, then, that in a complete role reversal the King of Spades should come to represent the large enemy solider that seems to be felled by smaller cards at the most inopportune times such as what transpired in the Valley of Elah. When your entire kingdom’s future is on the tournament line, what is supposed to be your giant warrior of a card gets knocked out by the equivalent of a pre-flop rock to the forehead.
Instead of embracing the king that was once a much-beloved hero, people seem to get more satisfaction taking the King of Spades down. When you are the reigning face card of the best suit, you know people are gunning for you, most especially the professionals that love to pray on the amateurs that place too much value on those two attributes. Think about it: the only thing worse than a King of Hearts kicker losing to an ace of spades is a King of Spades kicker losing to an ace of spades.
The Missing Slingshot
So where did it all go wrong for the King of Spades? Where and how did the one-time hunter become the hunted?
In his book on poker and card history, Positively Fifth Street, James McManus writes, “as standard playing cards became double-ended, designers had to jettison the heraldry on the lower halves of the court cards. King David’s slingshot disappeared, making his kingship more generic.” This is a big deal because David’s whole identity is wrapped up in the sling shot. Without it, he is just another detestable ruler born into a position of influence. He has no story. He has the wrong weapon. He has nothing to give him that special edge over the other Kings.
Nowadays, the good king denies his real past to those that even muster up the courage to ask. It is another life from long ago that he has faded into the burn pile of history. Unlike all the other kings, who are depicted facing left, the King of Spades turns his head away from it all to the right.
However, the next time you see him in your hand remember: at one point long ago the King of Spades was actually a commoner-turned-warrior who took down an army-slaying behemoth with a couple stones from a nearby creek. It might seem like all he does now is spend his time shoveling dirt around his manor with his garden spade, but every once and a while you catch a glimpse of the real king in action. He’s one bad ass warrior when he wants to be.
Check the rest of our series, the Secret Histories of the Four Kings.