People don’t like change, and poker players in general are notorious for being tough to please. Just as it’s inevitable that you’ll hear soccer players complaining about the new ball design each time the World Cup rolls around, it was likewise obvious from the moment that the World Series of Poker announced a change in deck manufacturer that the new cards would be a subject of discussion this year. It’s tempting to dismiss the complaints about Modiano’s deck design out of hand for that reason; no matter what they did, someone would be unhappy with some aspect or another.

We’re now into the second week of the series, however, and the thing about the complaints we’re hearing is that they’re very specific and very consistent. It seems that everyone hates the way the spades are designed, and says that they’re too hard to tell apart from the clubs.

I hadn’t actually seen the cards until this morning, but upon reading Daniel Negreanu’s explanation of his beef with the cards, my immediate reaction was, “Oh no, they made the top of the spades convex, didn’t they?” So I went to Google to get a look at their design, and sure enough, that’s what they’ve done.

Whereas hearts and diamonds are geometrically very different, and thus easy to distinguish no matter how you design them, within reason, spades and clubs bear an unfortunate resemblance to one another: both have a stem at the bottom, curved sides, and then get narrower at the top.

Depending on the design, the bottoms of the two shapes can in fact be entirely identical:

A spade and a club with identical bases

Thus, distinguishing between the two comes down to how they look up at the top. There are two differences here. Firstly, clubs have indentations in their sides, and secondly, spades come to a sharp point at the top, while clubs are rounded.

That first difference is not as reliable as you’d think. Narrow indentations in the edge of a shape are one of the first details to be lost as you blur it. Although those indentations may seem like the most important difference when you’re looking at the shapes up close, you can’t count on them when squinting at a card across the table. See how the point on this shape remains visible as you blur it, but the indentation is quickly lost and ends up reading more like a flattening of the bottom of the shape:

Illustration of the difference between a protrusion and an indentation as the shape is blurred

Thus, the upper tip of the spade is the real key to recognizing the difference at a distance, in poor lighting and/or for someone suffering from bad eyesight. Now, distinguishing between a curve and a sharp angle comes down mostly to how sharp that angle is. Lines which meet at an acute angle are much more obviously “pointy” than lines which meet
obtusely. Here we compare the upper sections of two ellipses with those of diamonds of identical proportions. There’s no question which easier to distinguish:

Comparison of an acute and an obtuse angle next to equivalent curves

It’s for this reason that spades are almost always designed with a concave curve at the very top, just before the point. Pushing the sides in like this brings them closer together and makes the point much sharper. In fact, the sides of the diamonds are traditionally designed this way as well, for the same reason.

What Modiano did instead is to make their spades identical in shape to their hearts, except black and with a stem. This looks nice, in that it’s consistent and makes it look like the hearts and spades belong to the same deck, but it ignores the much more important issue of keeping that point as pointy as possible.

Here we have two (rather crude) spade designs; one with convex sides like Modiano’s, one with more typical concave sides:

Two possible spade designs

Here’s what happens when you blur them and lie them down flat, as you’d see them from a distance on a card at the far side of the table:

The same spades, blurred and in perspective

The one with convex sides ends up looking like a round blob, while the one with the concave sides retains a visible point, which is what Negreanu is talking about. You might be able to distinguish the first one from a club lying right next to it, provided that you could make out the indentations on the club, but on its own you might not be quite sure what you were looking at. The one of the right is, on its own, much more clearly a spade.

Why don’t we just use four-color decks?

This raises the obvious question of why the poker world doesn’t just switch to a four-color deck as the standard. After all, almost everyone who plays seriously online uses that option, especially when multi-tabling. When you think about it, there is absolutely no logical reason why a poker deck should use exactly two colors; in the rules of poker, hearts have nothing more in common with diamonds than they do with spades or clubs.

Unfortunately, people tend to be drawn to familiarity and put off by unfamiliarity. The world of live poker is intimidating enough for new players as it is; the cards themselves are the one thing that’s likely to be comfortable and familiar to a player who is setting foot in a card room for the first time. And so, two-color deck design is just one of these things which makes no sense, but has been the standard for too long to change it without backlash.

One thing that I’ve seen done on occasion, and which I think should become a standard is to use a lighter fill for one suit of each color. That way, the standard, traditional colors are preserved and the deck still feels familiar, yet there is an obvious visual cue other than shape by which one can distinguish suits:

Four suits with paler fills on the diamond and spade

The most likely counter-argument is that it simply doesn’t look as clean and elegant, though I think you could achieve quite a nice design this way if you put sufficient work into it. Regardless, Modiano and other manufacturers would do well to remember that during major poker events like the WSOP, confusing one card for another can potentially cost a player huge amounts of money. With that in mind, it should be obvious that functionality should always trump aesthetics when it comes to designing a deck for use in this sort of context.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.