Playing Cards: Harmless Pastime or Tool-of-the-Devil?

Several years ago, a family member was attending Scout Camp with an LDS troop. They had a rather “orthodox” member of the bishopric go up to scout camp for a few days. As happens with LDS troops, a few non-member boys were along for the trip, and one of them had brought face cards (there had been no nention of not bringing them in the pre-camp meetings).  One night the boys were playing a non-gambling type card game, and this leader saw what they were doing, and said something along the lines of “Boys, face cards are a tool of the devil!”. He then picked up the cards on the table and tossed them into the fire. From what I heard, he single handedly negated any goodwill the non-member boys had developed towards the church.

This past week, I chaparoned our own ward’s boys at Scout Camp, and made sure to bring along a couple decks of playing cards.  We spent a lot of time playing all sorts of non-gambling games, and it made me think about this odd artifact of LDS culture.  It seems some LDS families are rabidly “anti-playing cards”, while others have no problem busting out a deck of Hoyle’s for a game of Hearts or Spoons.

Obviously, I have no problem with it, because I find the three reasons usually given are rather easily shown to be inconsistently applied, or spurious to begin with.

Argument 1 They waste time.  Seriously, who are we kidding?  They don’t waste anymore time than video game playing, Monopoly playing, ping-pong playing, or countless other recreational activities.  And playing cards with friends and family is a much healthier, positive activity than most television and movies these days.  And it’s very economical.  Arguments about “time wasting” are usually rooted in comments from early 20th century Church leaders, when there was apparently a much higher premium on free time, and much less variety for recreation.

Argument 2 They promote/ lead to gambling, or hanging out in dens of iniquity.  I would find this argument to be more persuasive were it consistently applied.  But it isn’t.  After all, this would also be true for pool tables, which are common in the houses of many members of the stake leadership where I live.  Dart boards.  Pinball machines.  Even slot machines are becoming more “video game-like”.  Not to mention there are so many card games that don’t involve gambling, I can’t believe anyone would argue this.

Instead of saying “do not ever use playing cards”, it would be more effective to say “do not ever wager on games of chance”.  It’s been my experience that people who have a “gambling mentality” will find ways to risk wagers over anything, no matter how stupid it seems, as was philosophically dramatized in the motion picture “Dumb and Dumber”:

Harry: I think you’re wrong Lloyd.
Lloyd: How much you want to bet?
Harry: I don’t bet.
Lloyd: What do you mean you don’t bet?
Harry: I mean I don’t bet.
Lloyd: Yeah, right. I bet you 20 bucks I can get you gambling before the end of the day.
Harry: No way.
Lloyd: I’ll give you 3 to 1 odds.
Harry: No.
Lloyd: 5 to 1.
Harry: No.
Lloyd: 10 to 1.
Harry: You’re on.
Lloyd: I’m gonna get ya. I don’t know how, but I’m gonna get ya.

And those (like me) who have no propensity to gamble, could play recreational poker or blackjack for days, and never feel the desire to involve risk or money.

Argument 3 They derive from Tarot cards.  If you research this issue, you’ll find there is some merit to this claim.  But the fact that modern playing cards may have derived from ancient tarot cards doesn’t really mean anything.  Again, it’s not so much the nature of the argument, but instead how consistently it is applied.  How many ancient objects have been used to “divine” the future or used for occult-seeming purposes?  Are all such objects to be verboten in LDS homes?  Tea leaves, palms, crystal balls, dice, water, salt…  Does this mean I should never allow any sort of leaf on my property?  Must I chop off my hands?  Must I rid my house of all basketballs or other spherical objects that resemble ancient fortune telling mediums? Do I have to get rid of games involving dice (Risk, Monopoly, Clue)?  And water and salt?!

It would be odd that the Church leaders could overlook so many other common household items of the occult.  I have no problem with outlawing Ouija Boards, since they really don’t have any legitimate uses anyway (not to mention that they’re bunk and nonsense, as are the other fortune telling mediums previously mentioned).

It is my impression that the opposition to playing cards is becoming more limited to smaller segments of LDS culture, and I hope this trend continues.  While I support the counsel against poker and other gambling, a general antipathy to “playing cards” is neither logical nor doctrinal.


Filed under Doctrines, Teachings, Policies and Traditions

11 Responses to Playing Cards: Harmless Pastime or Tool-of-the-Devil?

  1. Seven

    Love the Dumb and Dumber reference.

    I hadn’t even heard of the face card issue until after I was married.
    We have an in law who refuses to let her husband play a traditional card game with his family because of a quote she read. It’s really sad because this game has special meaning to their family, doesn’t involve any gambling, and was taught by their Grandfather.

    This same woman won’t allow her girls to get their ears pierced from a quote by SWK?
    I guess GBH’s continuing revelation on the earings didn’t trump the old doctrine for her.

    Yet this girl eats meat almost every night of the week and believes there is nothing wrong with hunting for sport……. ignoring SCRIPTURE. (and even a quote from SWK on not killing birds)

  2. Seven

    I wanted to add that this traditional card game is played at every family gathering. He has missed many hours of interaction with his siblings and parents because she won’t allow him to disobey a church leader. All because she read a stupid “opinion” years ago.

  3. Cinepro

    There have been many such opinions expressed in years past. Bruce McConkie’s is probably the most well known:

    “Members of the Church should not belong to bridge or other type of card clubs, and they should neither play cards nor have them in their homes. By cards is meant, of course, the spotted face cards used by gamblers. To the extent that church members play cards they are out of harmony with their inspired leaders. Innocent non-gambling games played with other types of cards, except for the waste of time in many instances, are not objectionable.” (Mormon Doctrine, p.113)”

    When I think of the hours of fun I’ve had with friends and family playing non-gambling card games at family gatherings, Scout camp, and with my sisters when I was younger, I am a little mystified by the attitude expressed by some Church leaders and members.

  4. Sazia

    I personally feel playing non-gamling card games is an innocent harmless way to have fun. Some poeple think other wise, because of things they have heard, but my suggestion to them is to try playing a game of cards themselves, and see if they feel the sudden urge to gamble after playing a game of gold fish with their children.

    Then after doing that I want them to see if they feel any less spiritual. If you do these things you will find that the things you have heard are untrue. Card games are like any other game that you play, and different people have their own beliefs on the subject. But dont let others beliefs influence how you feel, because you could miss out on alot by doing that. Like enjoying a friendly, fun game of cards with your loved ones.

  5. Steve Davis

    I was raised in the LDS church but my family never followed any of the anti card preachings of the church. I had extended family that refused to let decks of cards in their homes and never understood why.

    About 7 years ago I started playing poker for money. It wasn’t until I had spent several hundred of hours at the poker tables that I realized that there is a lot more to cards than paper. I believe that cards are a pathway to the spiritworld much like a Ouigi board or tarot cards. I have seen players become possesed when playing. The skill in poker is not odds but, “reading” opponets, “intuition” (predictions), or “feeling” the cards (which is basicly something telling you). If you want to know what this looks like look at Phil Ivey videos on youtube. Nothing has ratified my belief in God and the afterlife more than playing cards. I would never let my kids touch a deck.

  6. Steve Davis


    If you would like to see how dabbling in cards ends up watch the movie “High Roller” and read the book “1 of a kind”. It is movie & book based on the real life of poker champion Stu Ungar. There are videos on the web of Stu where he admits his skills at poker come from the dark world.

  7. Sophocles

    I grew up in a face card-friendly but otherwise fairly strict LDS home. We weren’t taught poker and blackjack, of course, but we all knew how to play solitaire–and games like go fish, old maid, hearts, and spades–with proper face cards.
    * * *
    I once brought a deck of face cards to church on a Wednesday night. For whatever reason I wanted to be prepared for some downtime with my friends. Maybe basketball wouldn’t be an option for some reason.
    * * *
    When my dad saw me playing cards in the foyer he went off on me. What was I thinking, bringing face cards to church, he demanded. I was bewildered. I don’t think I had ever even heard them referred to as “face cards” before, and I certainly wasn’t aware of any church rule against them.
    * * *
    I think when he grew up it was commonly taught at church that face cards should be avoided, and even though he didn’t have a problem with them at home, he assumed that the prohibition was still prominent enough in youth Sunday School lessons that we would all be aware of it, and have enough sense not to advertise the fact that we played with them at the church.

  8. Ross

    My Mormon in-laws in Lethbridge and Calgary were anti-face card types. I was told they were pagan gods. They played Uno though – no face cards.

    Later I found out where this idea originated – St. Bernardino of Siena, in the early 1400s, preached against all kinds of games. He created a narrative in which the Devil called his demons together, and invented a way to parody the rites of the Church – games. The tavern was the church, dice were the prayerbook, cards the images on the altar, etc. This is the origin of the idea of “The Devil’s Picture Book”.

    This idea was propagated by both Franciscan and Dominican preachers during the 15th century. During the Reformation, several authors reached back to an early Christian text by St. Cyprian which was against gambling (dice and backgammon). Cyprian said that the Devil invented gambling and incorporated his image into the game, and before anyone could play, they had to sacrifice to the image by kissing it or pouring out wine to it. The 16th century authors interpreted Cyprian to mean cards, and face cards were the images of the gods to be sacrificed to.

    Calvinists in particular picked up this story, and it was current in France, Germany and England in the 17th and 18th centuries. I assume it arrived in America with the Puritans, and influenced the opinions of many Protestants in the US, including the original converts to Joseph Smith’s doctrine. Thus while it has never been official LDS teaching, there are LDS family traditions descending from the original Protestant backgrounds of the first generation.

    Finally, Tarot cards were invented after playing cards, in Italy in the first half of the 15th century. They are used for playing a trick-taking game, with a permanent trump suit. This game never took hold in England, and Tarot only became known there in the 19th century after it had been given an esoteric pedigree by French occultists.

  9. Ross

    Somehow I doubt it (do you mean LDS or Catholic Church, or other Prostestant denominations? – doesn’t matter). I think people have almost forgotten this superstition – my people only knew it through rumor, handed down in their families, and it was hardly known in the 1980s, let alone now.

    I think video and internet games have taken all the punch and mystery out of playing cards and their little anachronistic figures of Kings, Queens and Jacks. Online gaming – talk about wasting time! And many games actually use mythological figures – no need to hide them anymore.

    Tarot is only known in the English-speaking world for fortune-telling, so this still gets religious authorities stirred up, and probably always will.

  10. Mary

    I was not raised in the LDS Church, but joined when I was a young adult. I played cards alot when I was a child with my grandmother, who was confined to a wheel chair. We played rummy most of the time. Some of my fondest memories of her were sitting there at her dining room table playing cards. However, anything that is not in moderation is not good.. I do own cards to play solitaire with. That is the only card game that I play. It brings back the sweetest memories of my Grandmother. I wish our present day Prophet would speak about this like the church has recently done on caffeine to put our minds at rest one way or another. If he says throw them all away I will comply. Remember, we follow the living Prophet.

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