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Playing cards deal elegant new designs

Collectors, gambler and magicians embrace edgy new card companies.

Three fanned aces and a pack of Provision paying cards.
Playing cards from theory11 take classic designs and give them an elegant, modern twist.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Playing cards are not hard to find. Almost every household has a few decks. We have seven just in two drawers in the coffee table in our living room: three Bicycle Standard, one unopened; two with pictures of kitties, one in 3-D; two souvenir decks (Nashville, New Orleans) and a football-shaped deck, a favor from some long-ago birthday party. I’m sure I could hunt up more.

That’s plenty, since I never play cards or think about cards.

Until recently.

An ad popped up on Facebook for Provision Brand Playing Cards by theory11, showing an elegant, gold and orange trimmed box, prompting a thought I’ve never had before nor imagined possible:

“What beautiful playing cards. I want those cards.”

I clicked on the link, and marveled at a picture of an ace of hearts, the heart being held by a knight’s gauntlet. It was both new and old, different yet familiar.

“Our original intention was to create cards for magicians,” said Jonathan Bayme, CEO and founder of theory11. “We were doing instructional videos for magic on the web.”

The goal was to “make magic look cool and modern and relevant,” which is not easy.

“People still associate magic with cheesy, hokey silks and canes and top hats,” said Bayme. “We thought: How do we combat that? What if we use tools like playing cards, which look cheesy, with pictures of baby angels on the back. They don’t look sophisticated and modern.”

So in 2007 theory11 began designing sophisticated, modern playing cards for magicians.

Aren’t cards just a prop? I wondered if professional magicians appreciate the aesthetics of playing cards.

“Sometimes I do,” said Rob Mendell, who has been doing magic in Chicago for nearly 50 years. “I have lots of playing cards, hundreds of decks.”

Playing cards have been around since the 14th century. It’s hard to assess the entire swoop of their history. Still, it feels as if we are in a Golden Age of Playing Cards.

Two years ago, Will Roya began playingcarddecks.com.

“I’ve been a magician since I was a teenager,” said Roya, who lives in Las Vegas. “But I’ve always been doing side hustles, selling products as well as performing. I started out on eBay, but as I get older I do less performing and more selling product.”

He now offers 1,500 styles of decks, ranging up to $200 for a deck of cards made from carbon fiber.

“It’s doing really well,” Roya said. “Two thousand orders a month, approximately. 2018 was our first full year in business. We did $600,000 last year; this year we could double if we get a good holiday.”

Why are playing cards taking off now?

“Two things happened: Kickstarter, and the United States Playing Card Company started allowing custom decks, loosening the rules on printing decks for other companies,” he said.

Do players care what cards they use? I know one tournament champion poker player, my colleague Richard Roeper, so asked him.

“When poker players (especially the top-level pros) are at work, so to speak, they’re concerned only with the ‘boring’ side of the cards, i.e., a card design that immediately tells them they have an Ace of Spades or a Jack of Clubs or a Five of Diamonds when they glance at their hands,” Roeper wrote. “They don’t pay much attention to the design on the back of the cards.”

“But that doesn’t mean poker players don’t appreciate the artwork of specialty deck companies such as theory11,” he continued. “I know a number of poker players who collect fun and interesting decks, and I have about a dozen such decks myself. In fact I recently bought a deck of cards at Walgreen’s if you can believe it, because the design was actually really cool.”

Decks from theory11 recently became available in Walgreens, priced at $10, making them good stocking stuffers and grab-bag gifts.

“I’ve always tried to keep the cost down,” said Bayme. “I want people to actually use the cards. I wanted these to look beautiful, but they are 10 bucks. Use them, destroy them. If we make products that sit on your shelf, we are going to sell less.”

The moment I got my Provision deck, I did something I hadn’t done in years. I broke open the pack, shuffled, then played a game of Solitaire.