Asian Games: The Art of Contest


Games of Matching, Memory, and Identification

Matching cards
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Matching cards (E-awase karuta)
Japan; Edo period (1618–1868), 19th century
Ink and color on paper; 8.2 cm x 5.6 cm each
Tokyo National Museum

Games of Matching, Memory, and Identification
Sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, a new type of game appeared in Asia and Europe. Instead of the win depending on the movement of the pieces within a set matrix (i.e., on a board), it was defined by different forms of matching, both sets and sequences. Playing cards are now perhaps the most common type of game played worldwide, exceeding even board games in popularity. Among the many reasons for the popularity of card games, convenience and versatility are surely important. Less bulky than most board games, a pack of cards can be carried anywhere. Many different types of card games can be played with a single pack, involving variable numbers of players. Few board games can match this range of possibility.

It is not surprising, therefore, that playing cards spread like wildfire. Their origins remain a matter of dispute, but Asia or the Islamic world is the likely source. China remains the most probable place of origin, not only because the earliest indisputable reference to playing cards survives from China, but also because of its widespread use of paper and printing. China lays claim to the earliest use of woodblock printing in the seventh century, antedating by more than six centuries the appearance of religious prints and block-printed books in Europe in the early fourteenth century.

Although playing cards are the most familiar form of matching game, they are not the only type. Tile games such as mahjong and dominoes are closely related to playing cards, and the Japanese shell-matching game (kai-ooi) embodies the principle of matching like with like that is common to playing cards.