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Who is Lee Asher?I first came across the work of Lee Asher many years ago. At that time I was exploring my long-time interest in card magic, and Lee had made some good contributions in that area. One of his signature tricks that he is well-known for is an ace routine called the Asher Twist. If you enjoy card magic, you'll appreciate the cleverness involved and the impossibility it apparently creates. Lee is skilled magician, and his name will be familiar to many from his work as a magic consultant.
But Lee Asher's credentials extend much further than the contributions he's made as a magician. Self-described as a "playing card and sleight of hand expert", it's especially his expertise in the area of playing cards that will interest most readers of this article. When my personal interest in playing cards was revived in the last number of years, I kept coming across his name in several places. When researching things like the iconic Jerry Nuggets Playing Cards, I came across his outstanding article on the subject. While looking up information about dating playing cards, his name popped up yet again, once more with a very informative and authoritative article about this. Via the official online portal for the 52 Plus Joker American Playing Card Collector Club, PlayingCardForum.com, I learned that Lee is in fact the current President of this highly respected organization for collectors of playing cards.
All this is to say that when it comes to experience with playing cards, it's hard to think of someone with finer credentials than Lee Asher. From his personal experience as a magician and a collector, as well as his involvement with 52 Plus Joker and as President, it's obvious that he knows what he's talking about. And fortunately for us, Lee was happy to talk to us, agreeing to this interview, in which he answers questions about himself, about playing cards, about collecting, and of course about 52 Plus Joker. So let's hand it over to Lee, and hear what he has to say!
The InterviewGeneral background
For those who don't know anything about you, what can you tell us about yourself and your background?
My name is Lee Asher. I'm 42 years old, and I'm a second-generation sleight of hand artist. My father taught me magic at the ripe age of seven. When I was about fifteen, I started performing magic for money at restaurant and private gigs. Eventually, I moved from my birth state of Florida all the way to Las Vegas, Nevada to attend University and study casino management (UNLV).
Directly after graduating in 1999, I threw all my possessions into a Las Vegas storage locker and chased my heart to Paris, France. During this sublime period of my life, I also traveled around Europe performing and teaching my brand of sleight of hand to other magicians.
Once I conquered Europe, I began performing and lecturing around the rest of the world in cities such as in London, Singapore, Buenos Aires, Copenhagen, Kuala Lumpur, Perth, Shanghai, Taipei, Santo Domingo, Beijing, Tokyo, Glasgow, Tel-Aviv, Hong Kong - and the list goes on and on.
Eventually I moved back in the Americas. Now I live in Canada, married to the woman of my dreams. My wife's name is Christina. And while we have no children, we have a big lovable boxer dog named Quinton.
What do you currently do for a day job and/or what are your other interests?
I'm a magic consultant, magician and playing card expert. In my spare time, I like collecting antique, vintage and modern playing cards. I also like creating sleight of hand and other fun moves. But when I'm not holding cards, I'm reading, cooking, watching movies or playing card games with my wife.
Given that you have had a successful career in magic, what would be some highlights in your personal curriculum vitae?
I'm fortunate. I have a bunch. Here are a handful of highlights that mean the the world to me: ● 1993 - Performed with my father as a walk-around magician on Miami's exclusive, Fisher Island. ● 1996 - Performed at the Magical Empire, a 66 million dollar attraction at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas. ● 2001 - Lectured at London, England's prestigious Magic Circle on September 10th, 2001. ● 2005 - Performed as an Absolut Vodka ambassador during their 'Magic of Winter' campaign using the now famous Absolut cards. ● 2016 - Magic celebrity judge on Amazing Magicians with China's most famous movie actress, Fan Bing Bing.
What sparked your interest in magic to begin with, and what is it about magic that you still love today?
My father. He's a eye doctor by day, and a magician at night. He's how I got interested in the art of magic. Adequately reflecting on his significance in a mere several hundred words is impossible. Nonetheless, I’d like to share some interesting facts with you about my dad, Mark Horowitz.
Let’s back up to the mid-1950s when my father was a child. New York City was a hotbed for magic in the United States, only rivaled by cities like Chicago & Los Angeles. Fortuitously, Dad learned from a handful of New York’s finest magicians. Mega legends like Al Flosso and Lou Tannen nurtured his love for the art. These men taught my father the foundations of magic. You can say these formative experiences helped mold him into the magician that Dad is today. On occasion, you’ll hear him reminisce fondly about spending time in those famous NYC magic shops.
BTW, Dad never became a full-time pro. Though he managed to support himself with magic gigs throughout university and optometry school. After graduating, he became a licensed optometrist with his own practice. He also became the resident trade show magician for Swan Optical and HydroCurve, a major contact lens company owned by Revlon. On top of his day job, Dad flew around the nation entertaining high-ranking executives and high-profile clients of the optical industry. Without a shred of doubt, my father paved the way for me to be a professional magician.
Moreover, if you've met him before, then you’ll know that Dad indulges by collecting artifacts from his youth. If it triggers fond memories of his illustrious past, he collects it. Of course it's impossible to own everything. So like any seasoned collector, he's refined his tastes over the years. Currently, he prefers acquiring magic-themed comics, autographed magic books and unique magic ephemera. His lifelong passion for collecting led him to amass the world’s largest magic comic book collection. This impressive feat landed him on the cover of MAGIC Magazine in April 2007.
During an early point in his life, my father immersed himself in the political side of magic. Year after year, he's generously helped organize IBM magic meetings, lectures and conventions on a local, state, and nationwide levels. To this day, he’s still involved with his local IBM magic club's affairs.
There's no question that his lifetime of remarkable dedication and outstanding service to the organization exemplifies his genuine reverence for the art of magic. While the word count on my heartfelt tribute here answering your question will sadly run out, the love I have for my father will not.
About playing cards
What kind of playing cards did you first use when you started magic?
My dad had already amassed a bunch of decks from years of performance and collecting, so my earliest memories of holding cards and practicing are with US Playing Card Company (USPCC) 808 Series Bicycle 'Rider' backs. Not too long after, I found Tally-Ho's, Bees, Blue Ribbons, and Aristocrats. Eventually, other brands like Hoyle (shell backs) made their way into my hands, too.
As you know, these are all American-made decks. So the first European deck I touched was in 1989. I was thirteen. It's also when the Klutz Book of Card Magic was released. It came with a bridged-sized deck of Piatnic playing cards. They were glorious! I never felt such a thick, smooth, robust deck of cards. My adventures with European decks would not end here. More on that later.
Do you use playing cards for anything other than card magic? (e.g. card flourishing, card games, or anything else?)
Sure. I play card games with my wife all the time. Lately, we've been enjoying a lot of Monopoly Deal (made by Cartamundi). She's savage and plays a mean game of cards. I hardly ever win!
As for flourishing, I still dabble. Though, I don't have the time to practice as much of it as I should. It's true what they say; you must use it, or you lose it. Back in the day, I was influenced by renowned skateboarders like Stacey Peralta and Rodney Mullen. I introduced aerial moves to the flourish culture like ‘Yo’ (1997), ‘Diving Board Double’ (1997), and rail slide-esque techniques like the ‘Silver Surfer’ (1998).
Unquestionably, I'm exhilarated by this new generation of cardists and magicians. It also thrills me when I see people playing with my techniques. For instance, a simple search yields hundreds of videos of young people performing these moves. It's an honor watching the material grow larger than I could have ever imagined.
What do you think are the essential qualities of a good deck of playing cards in terms of design?
I'm a magician. Thus, I'm answering like a magician. I need a deck of cards that people can recognize. For instance, if the courts are beautifully customized but no one realizes they're looking at a King of Clubs, then the design hinders the performance.
I also believe the cards should be somewhat symmetrical, though I'm open to interpretation. There are some beautiful one-way patterned decks. Plus, if subtle enough, the one-ways help me achieve some stunning magical effects! Shhhhh.....
What should buyers today look for in a quality deck of playing cards?
Honestly, a majority of buyers aren't aware of the diverse qualities found in playing cards. There are a plethora of options available on the market today.
My advice: Buy a few decks made by different manufacturers --from around the world-- and start playing. Gather your own empirical evidence. Do you like cards feeling thick? What about thin? Embossed? Or smooth? Believe it or not, this is a personal journey. You never know, you might discover something new about yourself along the way.
The playing card industry has changed rapidly over the last two decades. Do you have any thoughts on the explosion of custom playing cards?
As the self-proclaimed 'king of playing card geeks', I approve of what's happening. Every day I wake up and see new decks appear for sale from different producers, all around the globe. It's a playing card aficionado's wet dream.
Certainly it doesn’t take a psychologist to comprehend the decks we are attracted to --the ones we use for playing, performance and collect in our vaults-- speak to our own personalities and beliefs. They help make us feel unique, and it’s fair to say all these modern decks cater to this meaningful need.
Simply put, they offer a bit of happiness to those who find part of themselves represented within the design, color, and even texture of the deck. Again, I approve.
What impact has crowdfunding like Kickstarter had on the custom playing card industry and collecting? And what has your own experience (if any) with this been like?
Kickstarter and the crowd-funding concept have rewritten the rules on how items are produced and purchased. In 2009, when Kickstarter began, there were under fifty decks launched; now there are hundreds of decks per year looking for funding. Of those projects, at little less than half succeed and find financial backing. In the big scheme of things, that’s impressive!
More important, Kickstarter is where we’re seeing wonderful grass-roots innovation. If the crowd decides that the project isn’t interesting, then the project isn’t funded. So, no one wastes time on unnecessary R&D. The items that receive funding are the items people want. That, in itself, is an innovation. And because of the low risk involved with crowd-funding a project, more avant-garde, ground-breaking concepts are put forth. These kinds of ideas won’t be attempted by any of the larger card producers scared to waste money 'testing the waters'.
But it gets better. The internet encourages fans connecting with artists. Which, in turn, encourages artists pushing the limits on what they create. It’s a beautifully symbiotic relationship.
All the while, playing card manufacturers are looking for innovative ways to accommodate. As a result, ground-breaking innovation and even long forgotten vintage techniques are making major comebacks -- in modern ways.
Where do you think the custom playing card industry will go from here, and what innovations or changes might we see in the coming years?
Roughly ten years ago, I went on record saying most playing card innovation will focus on the tuck box. And that's what happened. We've seen a strong push re-popularizing vintage 'bells and whistles' that were famous in the 1970s. For instance, decks printed with metallic inks, extraordinary embossing, and tricked-out foiling have become vogue again.
Consequently, I believe the next ten years will usher in innovative improvements to stocks and finishes. We've satisfactorily tackled the aesthetic, now it's time to pioneer undiscovered tactile fronts. Companies like Expert Playing Card Co. and Cartamundi already lead the way. Cardistry, magic and card games also help drive innovation.
What can you tell us about the Lee Asher 605 Playing Cards, which you produced yourself?
As I mentioned earlier, my taste for European playing cards came early on. Because I lived in South Florida, you could find Fournier playing cards in certain shops. For those who don't know, this wonderful Spanish playing card company was founded back in 1868. In 1986, they merged with the US Playing Card Company. Now though, Cartamundi owns Fournier. Yet, Fournier continues to keep their unique style of printing which differentiates them from everyone else in the world.
When it came time to print a deck, I had several choices of manufacturers. Ultimately, I picked Fournier. Constant innovation, the desire to improve quality and their exquisite attention to detail makes Fournier a leading card manufacturer. These were my guys! My team worked with Fournier's art department. We scrapped our original thoughts and started to play with the Fournier 505 back design. It's beautiful and classical. We wanted to change it and put it to new use. Once out of pre-production, Fournier's art team dubbed these cards the 'Lee Asher 605 Signature Series'. It was great honor!
Printed on Fournier's best stock, my 605s are heavier and thicker than USPCC's casino-grade cards. Each deck of the 605 series is free of defects, and guarantees a precise slide due to the special varnish formula used. This varnish is exclusive of Fournier and follows a secret formula only known by two persons at the plant. At least, that's the story they told me.
This varnish gives Fournier cards their unique feeling and sliding ability. Plus it also adds to longer durability making them higher in quality than other cards on the market. Afterwards the card sheets dry in an oven and later, pressed. This process also gives the cards more resistance and durability.
Each deck goes through twelve (12) different quality controls along the manufacturing process. It ends in a final Intelligent Eye printing check and an optical infrared light test. This guarantees that each deck contains 55 cards. Unlike other manufacturers, all Fournier decks get cut one-by-one. This way, all cards (including the edges) have exactly the same size.
Without a doubt, you can feel a difference between my high-end 605 series decks and the ones produced in America.
You personally have a huge interest in learning about and collecting playing cards. When did this interest begin, and what got you started in collecting?
Again, my father is an avid collector of magic memorabilia and other stuff that reminds him of his childhood. So it's in my blood. I have no choice.
But the playing card side of my habit didn't become apparent until University. That's when I had hundreds of decks littering my dorm rooms and apartment. You'd walk in on any given Sunday and find Jerry's Nugget, Golden Nugget, Desert Inn, Arizona Charlie decks and other random casino cards strewn across the floors. Without a doubt, practicing sleight of hand and cardistry can be messy!
What are some of the reasons motivating people to collect playing cards?
As I mentioned earlier, playing cards speak to our own personalities and beliefs. That means there are many reasons why people collect them. But it usually distills down to two different personalities types: ● Type A - People who collect a specific category, image, artist, brand, feel, reason, etc. ● Type B - People who speculate for money.
Which type are you? The good news is, there's plenty of room for both. The playing card world is inclusive. Also, if you collect long enough, you'll find yourself selling decks to buy other cards. It's natural. Ignore the opportunity to feel ashamed of any capitalist tendencies along your journey.
What are some of the things you personally and especially enjoy about collecting playing cards?
I appreciate the back story. It started with casino decks because of their history. Now I cannot help but notice that during the past decade, my collecting tastes & sensibilities have become refined. What I was originally passionate about back then, now curiously finds itself in the company of other newly formed interests.
Conversely, if you told me back in the beginning that I would find great pleasure in hunting down antique private-die playing card stamps, the younger me would have laughed out loud at the notion. These days, however, I look forward to sharing my label collection with anyone interested in seeing it. I even revel in finding better versions of private-die playing card stamps I already own. Coincidentally, if you are in possession of that almighty Caterson, Brotz & Co. label, give me a call and we will speak.
Within the past several years, I’ve been connecting the dots between U.S. Patents, inventors/artists & the actual playing card products manufactured. I write a monthly article titled the PATENT FILES that should interest any researcher out there. Digging through Google’s digitized patent area has uncovered a real treasure-trove of playing card history & information.
Once again, if you asked the younger me about working on this kind of historical research, I would have scoffed, made several snarky comments and declined. Yet now, all I can do is get excited thinking about it. My, how times have changed.
How many decks would you estimate that you currently have in your personal collection?
Lots. But that means absolutely nothing. Heed the old saying, "quality over quantity". It's impossible to own every deck of cards ever produced. Yet, it's possible to own the best of all the cards produced.
How do you organize and display your collection of playing cards?
Usually, I like my collection sorted by antique, vintage and modern categories. But lately I've been lazy and unorganized, so everything is mixed and thrown together. One of these days, I'll take some time and put everything back into some semblance of order.
Consider me a user as much as I'm a collector. Without a doubt, I play with my cards. But at the same time, they also get shelved to stare at from a distance. Finding a balance between the two has its difficulties.
When it comes to showing off my cards, they aren't presented well; I've got display decks in Carat Cases and what not, but it could be better. My friend and fellow playing card collector, Jay McKinstry (a master craftsman/artisan), asked if he could make some beautiful displays for me. This guy is the Michelangelo of wood craft, and that would be a dream come true.
One of these days, with McKinstry's help, I look forward to everyone appreciating all the cool stuff I've collected over the years.
Do you have any special categories of decks that you focus on collecting, and what are your favourite types of decks to collect?
We can break down American playing card collecting into three categories. Are you a modern deck collector, or maybe you fancy yourself as an antique collector? Vintage? Not sure? The easiest way to tell is by the age of the decks you collect: ● You’re an antique collector if the majority of your deck collection pre-dates the 1930s. ● You’re a vintage collector if the majority of your deck collection dates from 1931 to 1995. ● You’re a modern collector if the majority of your deck collection dates from 1996 to today.
It seems, the more you learn about playing cards in general, the more interesting each category becomes.
While I consider myself a vintage card collector, I’m the proud owner of some wonderful antique decks as well as a plethora of modern decks. That makes me a hybrid playing card collector. Apparently, we're a growing breed!
What would the most valuable deck in your collection be, and what accounts for its value?
Everybody is quick to speak about value, but no one ever discusses the worth of sentiments. What's my first European deck valued at on eBay? Maybe $5? $10? For me, it's priceless. So assigning value to my collection is much tougher than it looks. At least, for me. Maybe you feel the same way?
Where can we learn about grading and dating older decks of playing cards?
Pick up a copy of the Hochman Encyclopedia of American Playing Cards by Tom and Judy Dawson. This is the best resource on collecting American playing cards, ever written. They took all of long-time collector Eugene Hochman's research, and compiled it into one big volume. In those pages you'll find discussion about grading and dating your playing cards.
On a side note, if you Google search for info about dating and/or grading your deck, you'll find a bunch of articles relating to these topics. Most, if not all, of this info comes from the Hochman Encyclopedia and/or Tom and Judy Dawson. For instance, here are two links that cover the topics at hand: ● How To Date Your Playing Cards ● How To Grade Your Playing Cards
I'm a new collector. Should I go out and buy a deck of 1970s authentic Jerry's Nuggets right away?
LOL! If you love collecting vintage casino decks, then sure. If you're speculating, buy as many as you can. But if you hear these sentiments and feel they're not applicable to you, then I'd suggest spending your money elsewhere. Like I said before, this is a personal journey. Take the time and discover something new about yourself. Collect what you think is worthy of collecting.
The 52 Plus Joker collectors club
How and when did the 52 Plus Joker come about?
In 1985, 52 Plus Joker formed to cater to the interests of American antique playing card collectors. We have long since broadened the scope of the club to include collecting playing cards of all sorts, from around the world. With the internet spurring the recent surge of interest in playing cards; geographical and categorical lines blur daily.
52 Plus Joker community facilitates: ● The collection and trading of antique, vintage and modern collectible playing cards and related items, ● The advancement of knowledge about the history, manufacture and artistic aspect of playing cards, ● The promotion of fellowship among members with similar interests.
52 Plus Joker welcomes you whether you're an experienced collector or newcomer to the world of playing card collecting. If you want more info or would like to join 52 Plus Joker, please visit their official website. For the record, it's the best $25 USD I spend all year long!
In your experience, what have you found to be some of the benefits of being part of a playing card organization like 52 Plus Joker?
52 Plus Joker Club membership provides a wide variety of benefits, including: ● Attend our annual playing card convention. A unique experience unlike any other. ● Auctions of collectible, unusual and rare decks throughout the year. ● Quarterly printed magazine 'Clear The Decks'. Broaden your playing card horizons. ● Monthly digital magazine 'CARD CULTURE'. Delve deep into playing card life. ● Inclusion within 52 Plus Joker's membership roster. Meet like-minded individuals. ● Access to the Ask Alexander database of all our archives. ● Personal club account on the world’s largest Playing Card Forum. ● Plus more!
When did you first get involved with 52 Plus Joker, and how would you describe what your role as President involves?
This will be my 10th year involved with 52 Plus Joker. I found them back in 2009. By chance, I stumbled upon an online advertisement for the combined 52 Plus Joker / International Playing Card Society convention in Toronto, Canada. Twenty-four hours after registering, my phone rang with the caller ID - THOMAS DAWSON! I already owned a copy of the Hochman Encyclopedia and knew who Tom Dawson was. I became star-struck that a luminary like him would call a neophyte like me.
Turns out he and his wife, Judy, lived in Toronto, too. As soon as Tom spoke, it felt like we were old friends. Within minutes, I he gave me an invitation to come over and see their playing card collection. I’ll never forget that moment. Receiving an invitation was an honor back then and it’s still an honor to reminisce about it now. For Tom though, he was simply acting like a playing card ambassador. There could not have had been a better welcoming committee to 52 Plus Joker.
About a week later, I attended the club's annual convention. WOW! I'd never seen so many unfamiliar decks of cards in my life. I had so much to learn. At one point, Judy Dawson remarked how the club could use a little more youth. She thought young people had little interest in collecting playing cards. Her comment was confusing. Was she unaware of the massive explosion of custom card collecting online? Apparently. Actually, 95% of the club had no idea. Quickly thinking on my feet, I requested some day passes. I blurted out that I could convince ten playing card collectors under the age of 30 to show up on the final day of the convention. Some members of 52 thought I was crazy. Judy was hopeful, but placed little faith in it.
To make a long story short, ten playing card collectors under the age of 30 turned up on the last day of the convention. Obviously, it wasn't hard. This club had yet to introduce themselves to the new generation of card collectors. With my help, that was about to change. I was unanimously voted onto 52 Plus Joker's executive board. They made me 'Head of Publicity'.
That was ten years ago. Since then, I've risen through the ranks. In 2016, I became the youngest president in the club’s existence. Without a doubt, our playing card future illuminates with great opportunity. It’s my pleasure to lead us into this bright light.
What can you tell us about the annual 52 Plus Joker decks?
Of course! I'd love to brag about this. Each year, we ask the some of the greatest playing card designers in the world to craft a club deck. Incredible artists like Jackson Robinson, Paul Carpenter, Mark Stutzman, Alexander Chin and Randy Butterfield have the distinct honor of creating masterpieces for us. Without a doubt, we’re the luckiest club on the planet to work with such amazing talent.
For our 2019 deck, we picked one of Europe's finest playing card designers, Lotrek. He says he’s working on a special deck that’s sure to knock our socks off. Lotrek is a man of his word and we all look forward to what he creates.
If you want to see and own this year's club deck, we release it every year at our annual convention. It's one of the highlights of our entire event.
Each year the club hosts a convention. When is this and what is it about?
We held this year's convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on October 9th - October 12th, 2019. It's a chance to meet legendary collectors & designers, hobnob with premier card manufacturers, and talk decks with other enthusiasts all night long. There's nothing like it in the world.
For more information or if you want to join us at future conventions, please visit here.
What can you tell us about the CARD CULTURE magazine that you are the editor of?
CARD CULTURE was my answer to satisfy the digital end of our membership. Plus, it allowed us to connect with members on a monthly basis. After pitching the idea to Tom Dawson (who was the President at the time), I enlisted Don Boyer as the editor in chief. We also managed to wrangle a handful of writers for monthly articles.
On the 15th of each month, CARD CULTURE gets delivered to your email inbox [sample issue]. Most of our membership consumes it on their tablets or phones. Though, we offer it at a high resolution so you can print it, if you want a hard copy. We try our hardest to impress you on a monthly basis.
Don ran the show up until the 25th issue. After his departure, I took over. In May, we published our 52nd issue!
Is there anything else you'd like to share about collecting playing cards, or about playing cards?
The playing card world constantly changes. For instance, European card manufacturer Cartamundi purchased United States Playing Card Company. I made a video about it if anyone cares to hear me rant about playing cards: Lee Asher on USPCC's Merger With Cartamundi
We're living in fascinating times, and I look forward to what our future brings! Thanks for allowing me to share my thoughts about playing cards, EndersGame.
If anyone reading this wants to continue the conversation, please email me at [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]). I'm always interested in meeting other fellow magicians, playing card collectors and enthusiasts. Speak soon.
ConclusionLee Asher certainly has a lot to offer and share when it comes to playing cards, and I for one are very grateful that he was willing to do this interview. He has a wealth of knowledge, and his insights are helpful, and his enthusiasm is infectious. If you haven't yet seen it, I highly recommend listening to him talk about Cartamundi's recent acquisition of USPCC [link] - it's obvious that he's knowledgeable and passionate, and you'll learn some fascinating things from what Lee has to say.
Collectors in the United States will also appreciate learning more about the 52 Plus Joker club. If you're really keen, you may even want to attend the annual convention in October. Certainly take a look at what they offer, including the very interesting Card Culture magazine.
Once again a huge thank you to Lee Asher for conducting this interview - I know I've learned a lot, and enjoyed hearing what he had to say. Lee's enthusiasm for playing cards is something that many of us around the world share, and I'm sure I'm not the only one that sees somewhat of a kindred spirit, with our shared love for playing cards.
Where to learn more? ● Official website for Lee Asher ● Lee Asher 605 Playing Cards ● Lee Asher's articles on magic and playing cards ● Official website for the 52 Plus Joker American Playing Card Collectors Club ● The Annual 52 Plus Joker Convention ● Card Culture sample issue
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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The Bicycle Brand: Is it Really Worth the Money to Get a Bicycle Deck?A common question from many people new to cardistry and to the world of custom playing cards generally is about the Bicycle® brand of playing cards. It is a very recognizable and familiar brand. But they tend to cost a little more than a cheap deck at the corner shop or department store. Is it really worth spending the extra money to get something with the Bicycle brand, and are they really better? And what about a custom deck of playing cards - is the name Bicycle on the cover any indication or guarantee of quality? And are these good decks for card flourishing?
The familiar brand name
A Short History of Bicycle Cards
As it turns out, Bicycle is just one of the brands used by The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), which prints the cards. Established in 1894, they have been in business for over a century. Today they are one of the world's biggest producers of playing cards, and certainly the largest in the USA.
The famous Bicycle brand playing cards were first produced in 1885, and over time this has become USPCC's signature brand. At the time, high wheeled bicycles were the fashion, and that is what accounts for the name - the company was capitalizing on the popularity of the new bicycle trend. The bicycle naturally became an image associated with the deck and the brand, and it is one reason why even today Bicycle playing cards often have the classic "rider back" design, which typically is printed in either red or blue. Today, inside a standard issued Bicycle deck you can expect to find 52 playing cards with this traditional design, along with two Jokers, plus two extra cards: often an advertising card and a card with the ranking of poker hands. The back design, the Jokers, and the Ace of Spades are signature elements of this classic design, which typically has the number 808 on the Ace and Jokers, identifying it as the classic Bicycle line.
Besides their well-known Bicycle brand, USPCC also prints playing cards for several other well known brands, such as Bee®, Aviator®, and Tally Ho®. Over time, USPCC has acquired and absorbed smaller publishers of playing cards, and many of these brands represent other manufacturers that they have taken over (e.g. Hoyle Products in 2001). USPCC has often continued printing under the names of the established brands that they inherited, even though the card quality of these different brands is now basically the same as their own Bicycle cards. But they are a massive producer of playing cards, and according to one source, if placed end to end, the Bicycle cards made in a single year would warp the earth 7.5 times!
Other Branded Decks Produced by USPCC
In terms of quality, you can expect a deck of cards with the Bicycle brand on the box to perform similarly to most of the other cards produced by USPCC, including their other brands like Bee and Tally Ho. The reason is that these different labels are mostly about perpetuating other established brand names, rather than any actual difference in card quality or handling. As mentioned above, decks like Bee, Aviator, and Tally Ho - all of which are now registered trademarks of the USPCC - have become popular name brands in their own right, and so it was simply a smart business move for USPCC to keep printing these branded decks under their own labels.
Some people will swear that Tally Ho decks are always better than Bicycle decks, and vice versa. In fact, however, the quality and handling today is essentially the same. The actual handling of a particular deck can vary from one printing batch to another, so you can expect to see some normal variance. But this is not a result of a different product for different brands, but is simply normal and accepted variance that you will find within any particular brand as well. Even the Phoenix playing cards produced by Card Shark from Germany, marketed as an ideal deck for magicians, and a deck which some magicians would like to consider as a preferred alternative to the traditional Bicycle rider-back, is actually printed by USPCC, and thus has basically the same card quality.
Tally Ho brand
Unbranded Decks Produced by USPCC
Furthermore, the Bicycle name on the box does not necessarily mean that you will find the "standard issued" Bicycle rider-back cards inside the box. As long as you pay them the right amount of money, if you are having USPCC print a deck of cards for you, they are happy to print "Bicycle" on the box for you.
As a result, you will find that some crowdfunding projects for custom playing cards will offer the option of either a "branded" deck and an "unbranded" deck; the branded deck has Bicycle on the box, while the unbranded deck does not. The reason is obvious: putting Bicycle on the box creates an immediate brand recognition, and since the average person associates this name with quality, it can be a good move to have your custom deck produced as a Bicycle deck.
But in actual fact, both the branded and unbranded decks are usually identical in quality, since both are printed by USPCC, and it is just a matter of labelling. What you really need to look for is not whether the deck has Bicycle on the box, but whether it was printed by USPCC, which will invariably be mentioned on the box of both the branded and unbranded decks that the creator is producing.
Blue Seal Versus Black Seal Bicycle Decks
The only real difference in handling that the professional cardist might notice is with some older Bicycle branded decks printed by USPCC, and this is a result of the playing cards being produced in a different factory. After operating out of a plant based in Cincinnati, Ohio, for many years, USPCC relocated across the river to Erlanger, Kentucky, in 2009. Along with this move, they discontinued using some stocks, one example being the special "UV 500" stock that was sensitive to ultraviolet/black light (a quality that made the very striking Black Tiger deck from Ellusionist so appealing).
But more importantly, printing in a different plant may have also had some small impact on the quality of cards. Bicycle decks produced in the new Kentucky plant typically have a black seal, while Bicycle decks printed in the older Ohio plant can be identified with a blue seal. The machines used to print, finish, and cut the cards are different, and some people who are very experienced with playing cards claim that they do notice slight differences in handling, and that they have a preference for the cut or feel of the old decks. In reality any differences between these decks are small, and certainly will go undetected by the average person. There were some teething issues immediately after the move, and during the transition the new machines did create some initial concerns about the quality of black seal decks for a brief period, but those have been long resolved.
As a general statement, it can be said that USPCC has continued to produce high quality Bicycle branded cards after their relocation, just as they did before the move. Blue seal or black seal - it does not make much difference in most cases, because both are comparable and high quality products.
The standard deck
The Quality of Bicycle Cards
There is good reason that USPCC is the largest producer of playing cards in the United States, and that is not just because they produce trusted brands like Bicycle, but also because they have a reputation for quality. Besides their Aviator cards that have a smooth finish, all the other brand name cards produced by USPCC have an embossed finish that results in consistent, smooth, and good handling. These are going to be one of the most important qualities necessary for handling a deck of playing cards. In practice, this means that if a custom deck of playing cards is produced by USPCC, regardless of whether or not it has the Bicycle name, it is almost certain to have the embossed texture that they call their "air cushion finish", and the cards will handle nicely. Of course the Bicycle name on the front will tell you that immediately. In the end, the handling of Bicycle decks will not vary significantly from one deck to another, besides the odd batch that might slip through with a lower quality, but that can happen with any publisher of playing cards.
The printing and colours of USPCC produced decks is usually good, but there can be one small exception: print registration. This refers to how accurately an image is centred on a card. With wide borders, slight discrepancies will not be obvious, but with a custom deck that has narrow borders, this can be a real problem, and narrow borders can magnify how bad this looks. I have seen this issue occur on quite a few USCPCC produced decks, so it is something to watch out for, especially if you have custom playing cards that do use narrow borders. Of course, with standard decks with wide borders like the Bicycle rider-back, this is usually a non-issue.
Some have also expressed a concern that with the high volume of cards that USPCC produces, there can occasionally be a backlog in production at their factory. In order to catch up with the fulfilment of orders, it becomes necessary to speed things up. Since quality control is not always what it should be, this can affect the product that is produced, and unfortunately this can mean that the level of quality in production can vary from month to month, and occasionally a batch of decks is produced where cards quickly clump together, and handle more poorly than they should. Fortunately, however, this seems to be an exception rather than the rule, and I have not seen definitive evidence to support this claim.
Bicycle branding supersized
The Consistency of Bicycle Cards
One nice thing about a Bicycle deck is that you know what you can expect before you open the box. From one deck to another, cards will have the same sort of feel, and the same sort of handling. USPCC does offer three different options of paper stock, namely their standard Bicycle stock, the superior Bee Casino stock (which is thicker), and their new Thin-Crush stock (which is thinner). This mainly affects durability and how "soft" or "stiff" the cards feel, with the thicker Bee Casino stock feeling more firm and being longer lasting, and the thinner Thin-Crush stock feeling more soft and wearing quicker.
Premium decks from Ellusionist, Theory11, and Art of Play are often printed with the thicker Bee Casino stock, but the typical custom deck of playing cards will use the standard Bicycle stock, and so decks will perform in exactly the same fashion from one to the next. This makes it very easy to crack open a new deck, because you do not need to adjust to the cards, and will have an immediate sense of familiarity, and the comfort of feeling right at home with a new deck. This is one of the reasons why many magicians prefer USPCC produced decks, because they have become a staple for them, and they do not want to be pulling out a new deck in a performance that will handle in different or unexpected ways, potentially screwing up critical sleight of hand moves.
More quality control
The Popularity of Bicycle Cards
Bicycle is unquestionably one of the most recognized brands of playing cards, at least in the United States. A practical consequence of this is that over time the classic rider-back Bicycle deck has become the deck of choice for magicians to use in performances. One of the advantages of this is that it is immediately recognizable and familiar, and to the spectators, a Bicycle deck immediately sends a message that it is nothing than what it seems: an ordinary deck. Most magicians you see performing on TV specials will typically use the standard rider-back Bicycle deck for this reason.
A good magician can perform real miracles with almost any deck of playing cards, but if you do perform magic, often you can find yourself being challenged that you are using a "trick deck". One way to avoid this, of course, is to stick to using a borrowed deck of cards. The disadvantage of this is that you might find yourself using very worn and tattered cards, in some cases where the cards are effectively "marked", and where the cards handle terribly, making it difficult to perform certain sleights. But when one uses a standard rider-back Bicycle deck, there is almost an immediate sense of familiarity, because it is typically seen as the model of a "normal" deck. Using a heavily customized deck can sometimes scream "trick deck", although this perception is gradually changing as the custom playing card industry grows, and as it becomes increasingly common for magicians to use custom decks in online videos and in performances.
One other consequence of the Bicycle brand's popularity is that playing cards with the rider-back design are most commonly used for gaffed and gimmicked cards. It is true that sometimes custom decks will come with a couple of gaff cards, especially if they are a deck produced by USPCC, given that their decks normally contain 56 cards, thus including two extras besides the usual 52 cards and 2 Jokers. But gaff cards with the rider-back design are still the standard, and are the ideal "all-rounder" for the magician, because you can immediately slip them into any easily obtainable rider-back deck as needed.
The Competition to Bicycle Cards
All this is not to suggest that Bicycle branded cards from USPCC are the only ones that are a quality product. As mentioned already, other brands printed by USPCC are also high quality, including Bee and Tally-Ho. And an unbranded deck that is USPCC deck will typically also have cards of matching quality. But there are also some other reputable companies that produce high quality playing cards, and the biggest players in recent years include the Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC) operated by Bill Kalush, and Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) operated by Lawrence Sullivan. These two companies both operate using the same factory in Taiwan, and often will collaborate and even work together.
EPCC/LPCC produced decks tend to be just as high quality as USPCC produced decks, although their handling and feel can be different. They offer a number of different finishes, which correspond to different types of paper stock they use. But the feel of their Classic Finish and Elite/Damask Finish decks is quite similar to what you will find in a Bicycle deck from USPCC. Their Diamond/Master Finish and Emerald/JN Finish decks have less embossing than a normal air cushion finish, and also have a thinner stock that is surprisingly more stiff and also very durable. The result is that these cards have more of an oily or plastic feel, and their handling can take some getting used to due to this different feel, but there is no doubt that these are also high quality playing cards.
You will see quite a few decks from EPCC/LPCC on crowdfunding projects on Kickstarter, and the EPCC/LPCC label is almost a certain indication of quality. You might just want to check what finish a deck in question is, so that at least you know what to expect. Unlike many Bicycle branded decks that have a modern cut, these decks typically have a traditional cut, which is mainly a preference for magicians and cardists doing faro shuffles, but otherwise irrelevant to the average person. They also have super smooth edges, that make USPCC decks feel rough in comparison. One final strength of EPCC/LPCC produced decks is that their print registration is nearly always perfect, and so they are the ideal publisher for decks that have thin borders, because unlike some USPCC decks, the borders are almost certain to be printed accurately and consistently.
Cartamundi is another big name from the boardgame industry that has recently been making a splash in the custom playing card market. Their playing cards are much softer than normal Bicycle cards, and handle much like USPCC's thin-crush stock, so they are great for card flourishing. At the same time they are thicker than a normal Bicycle deck, so they are still very durable. Time will tell whether they will prove to be serious competition for the traditional Bicycle deck.
Besides Bicycle decks and those produced by EPCC/LPCC and Cartamundi, there are a few small players in the industry. Ideally you want to stick to decks from these industry leaders to be assured of high quality. In contrast, cheap playing cards that are typically sold in corner shops, department stores, or tourist outlets, are noticeably inferior. To begin with, many of these decks are narrower bridge size cards, rather than the wider poker size cards that are standard. They are typically printed on inferior and thin paper stock, so they will bend and get damaged easily. They usually also have no embossing whatsoever, and as a result they will not fan or spread evenly, and cards will quickly clump together. Do not bother with these if you want decent handling and durability - stick to USPCC decks like the Bicycle brand, or those of other industry leaders like EPCC/LPCC and Cartamundi.
As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for! If you buy a cheap non-Bicycle branded deck from a corner shop, you are likely to get an inferior product that will quickly wear out, and even make for an unpleasant handling experience. Certainly the magician and cardist will want to stay far away from cards like these!
In contrast, the Bicycle brand is a guarantee of quality. While there are also other reputable publishers like EPCC/LPCC and Cartamundi, Bicycle is certainly the brand of choice. Any deck of custom playing cards that is produced by USPCC, with or without the Bicycle brand on the tuck box, is almost certain to have a quality that you will be very pleased with.
For someone starting out in card magic or card flourishing, I strongly recommend starting with a standard Bicycle deck. It will cost you a bit more than a typical corner store deck, but it is well worth it. In fact, a classic rider-back deck will cost you far less money than a deck of custom playing cards, and yet will usually handle the same. Given their popularity, it is the perfect deck for the budding magician or cardist to begin with.
Of course custom playing cards work just fine for magic and cardistry too. But these typically cost more because you are paying for the unique artwork and stylish customization which is the very reason for their appeal. There is a wide range of custom decks that will cost you more money than a basic Bicycle rider-back deck, but those are mostly geared to the collector or the person who enjoys customization, and there is a growing number of great decks with artwork optimized for cardistry. Do not believe the hype that the quality of a custom deck is so much greater than a Bicycle deck, because in reality they perform and handle the same, and the extra cost is primarily about the customization in artwork, and often a more luxurious tuck box. Of course if it is a custom deck with the Bicycle brand, it will be a quality product, and that means that it will not only have the visual appeal that you want, but it will also perform at a level that you need for magic.
As the old adage says, the bad workman will always blame his tools. Even the best deck in the world will not make up for the other essentials of good magic or skilful card flourishing, both of which require sound and well-practised technical skill with cards, and in the case of card magic, also good patter and presentation. But if you are going to try card magic or card flourishing, it is going to be a much more satisfying experience for everyone if you have a decent deck in your hands, and that is exactly what you are getting with a Bicycle deck.
For most people, regardless of whether you are looking for a deck for card magic, for card flourishing, for playing card games, or for collecting, it is a good idea to stay away from those cheapie corner shop decks. These will quickly wear out and become a mess, and only disappoint in the end. At a minimum, spend a little extra and get a standard Bicycle deck. And if you are looking for a custom deck, the Bicycle name is an assurance of quality, as is almost any deck produced by the United States Playing Card Company.
So is it really worth the money to get a Bicycle deck? If quality is what you need, then absolutely!
Where to get them: Do you want to pick up some quality Bicycle decks? Look no further - you can get them at PlayingCardDecks.com. Start with the tried and true classics: the Red Rider Back and the Blue Rider Back. Or perhaps you might enjoy a variation of the Rider Back deck in one of many other colours or styles. Alternatively, to see the massive full range of playing cards with the Bicycle brand, check out their complete online catalogue of Bicycle Playing Cards.
Join the discussion: What do you think of Bicycle Playing Cards? And are they worth the extra cash?
Author's note: I first published this article at PlayingCardDecks.com here.
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|IAmA||I used to work in an Apple Store AMA||Apple|
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|nottheonion||Protests as McDonald's opens in Vatican||McDonald's|
|gaming||Lego Super Mario Run - Lego Mario Funny Parody||Lego|
|IAmA||I used to work for an Apple Premium Reseller AMA||Apple|
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|todayilearned||TIL: Alabama football coach is the highest paid public employee in the United States.||United|
|AskReddit||How were they able to use the BP and Transocean logos in the Deepwater Horizon film without being sued by either company?||BP|
|funny||Remember using Yahoo Answers?||Yahoo|
|mildlyinteresting||The shadow cast by my bathroom window looks like the Microsoft Windows logo.||Microsoft|
|Jokes||The House With The Fluorescent Orange Door||Orange|
|Futurology||Algorithms: AI’s creepy control must be open to inspection - The accountability of artificial intelligence systems, from Facebook to healthcare, is shaping up to be a hot topic in 2017|
|Showerthoughts||Why does the sprint guy that use to work for Verizon saying" can you hear me now " , think I give a fuck about his opinion? He be be like " I use to be with Verizon..." I don't give a fuck about your opinion bitch . Stfu||Verizon|
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|aww||Taco Bell dog 2.0||Bell|
|AskReddit||Which Youtube Video was your Favourite ?||Youtube|
|pics||Brad Pitt - University of Missouri - Kappa Delta - 1984||Delta|
|gaming||How to play Battlefield 1 on Google Pixel!|
|todayilearned||TIL Albert Kohte, The original caretaker of the Hollywood sign, destroyed the "H" in the early 1940's by losing control of his Ford Model A on top of Mt Lee and driving it off of a cliff into the "H". He was intoxicated.||Ford|
|AskReddit||Why is the Youtube Comment Section such a Toxic Place?||Youtube|
|funny||An edgy 7-Eleven knock-off.||7-Eleven|
|funny||Belfast chip shop goes viral after delivery order for cold and flu tablets - BBC News||BBC|
|funny||Anyone else triggered by this Walmart Nirvana shirt?||Walmart|
|Music||Baby Lexus - BABY GIRL ft. Lord $eez Official Music Video||Lexus|
|videos||Adding a Google Calendar to a Google Site New Videos 2016 No2|
|todayilearned||TIL That Walmart Has a Higher Search Rank Than a Venus Flytrap||Walmart|
|worldnews||Drunk pilot arrested in Canadian cockpit before take-off - BBC News||BBC|
|gaming||Trying to pick a good co-op game for PS4 or Xbox one||Xbox|
|videos||Drake Bell - #whereswalter HELP!||Bell|
|mildlyinteresting||My Nike Hoodie with a paint splat design has a splat of paint that looks like the Nike logo||Nike|
|AskReddit||Cameramen of MTV True Life and the likes, what are some crazy stories?||MTV|
|explainlikeimfive||ELI5: How does Google search the internet faster than Windows searches my hard drives?|
|todayilearned||TIL There was a Species of Parakeet Native to the United States||United|
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