The Suicide King Card – Which Playing Card Is Nicknamed Suicide King?

suicide king

6 minutes

Posted by: Ivan


If you’ve been around card games for some time, you’ve probably heard players mentioning the “suicide King.” The not-so-jolly nickname may have sent shivers down your spine but also created curiosity.

You may have wondered what this infamous suicide king card is and where the nickname originates from.

If this happens to be the case, you’ve stumbled upon the right article as I’ll try to answer all of them and share with you some tales and interesting lore.

I’ll also talk briefly about what the term suicide king means in the modern poker environment and how the infamous nickname found its way into the title of one of the most exciting poker books ever written.

What Playing Card is the Suicide King?

To start at the top, let’s first answer what playing card is nicknamed the suicide king. This peculiar name is reserved for the king of hearts, and there is a very good reason for it.

Namely, all kings in a deck of playing cards are depicted holding a weapon. But with the king of hearts, it seems like he’s stabbing himself in the head with a dagger.

There is a lot of debate about whether this was the actual artist’s intention with the suicide king card, or it was just a result of not noticing the picture could be interpreted in this way.

Going back in history, all four suits showed kings with their weapons drawn out and ready for battle.

Originally, the king of hearts was depicted holding an ax, with the other three kings wielding a sword, a spear, and another ax.

Another peculiarity is that the suicide king is the only one without the mustache, further adding to the mystery that remains unsolved to this day.

So how did it happen that the king of hearts became suicide king, different from the rest of his royal brethren?

Lost in “Translation”

Playing cards as we know them today have their roots in France. The deck version that reached the rest of Europe is known as the Rouen Pattern, which was imported by England and quickly became the standard in the country.

Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Rouen Pattern decks were heavily reproduced to meet the needs for playing cards, but the printing technology back then was far from perfect.

As a result, by the end of the 17th century, cards had an appearance much different from that of the original pattern designed by one Pierre Marechal.

In this original card deck, the king of hearts was presented holding an ax, and it was in no way the “suicide king” that we know today.

Historians still don’t have an answer as to how the design of the card changed to depict the king seemingly thrusting a dagger or a short sword into his head.

According to Simon White of the World of Playing Cards, the change came about sometime in the 18th century.

suicide king card

Image courtesy of The World of Playing Cards

The ax was replaced by the sword or the dagger, and all the decks from the early 1800s onwards contained the suicide king card.

The only explanation that we have for this change resides with poor copying skills at the time. Over the years and countless copies, the print on the king of hearts changed, and it became similar to what we have today.

The same explanation seems to apply to the fact that this is the only mustacheless king in the deck. The mustache was, too, lost over many years of reprinting the card design.

What Historical Figure Inspired the Suicide King?

Another interesting tidbit about French playing cards is that all four kings initially had names printed alongside the pictures.

The legend has it that every king in the deck was inspired by an actual royal figure.

As for the king of hearts, the name printed was “Charles,” and it is believed it refers to Charlemagne or Charles the Great.

Charlemagne was the first king of the Holy Roman Empire, ruling from 800 to 814. He was a great conqueror and an important historical figure, so it is hardly a stretch he would be included in the deck as one of the royalties.

what playing card is the suicide king

That said, Charles the Great died of a lung infection in 814, so his death couldn’t have been an inspiration for the later portrayal of the “suicide king.”

Suicide King in Modern Poker Culture

The term itself may be an interesting one, but there is a particular reason why it has become so popular among poker players, and that has nothing to do with their interest in medieval history.

The reason why so many people are Googling “which playing card is the suicide king” probably has to do with the fact that the expression found its way into the title of a popular poker book.

Of course, I’m talking about “The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time” by Michael Craig.

The book recounts true events that took place in 2001, when a rich banker from Dallas came to Las Vegas, intent on taking on the world’s best poker players.

Ready and able to put millions on the line, Andy Beal was fearless, and over the span of a few months, he played against the likes of Howard Lederer, Doyle Brunson, and Jennifer Harman.

Professionals got together to form the Corporation, pulling their money to be able to match Beal’s increasing demands to play increasingly higher stakes.

Despite their experience and best efforts, Beal was able to win $10,000,000 off of them, and things were looking bleak.

It was at this point that the Corporation’s new star took over and changed everything around. It was Phil Ivey who sat across Andy Beal for what was likely the final match.

If he were to lose, the Corporation would have a hard time recovering, and perhaps the “suicide king” in the book’s title refers to Ivey himself.

But in that match, Phil showed why he was one of the game’s greatest. Over the course of two days, he took the Dallas banker for over $16,000,000, recouping all the losses and making a significant profit for the Corporation.

which playing card is the suicide king

After this defeat in 2044, Beal left Las Vegas with the promise he’d never play poker again. He did come back, though, in 2006, but that’s a story for another time.

So, while it’s not perfectly clear who the “suicide king” Michael Craig references in his book’s title is, there is no doubt that his work helped popularize the term.

What Else Should You Know About Suicide King?

The suicide king is just another card in the deck, but the one with perhaps the riches lore behind it. This makes it somewhat special and unique, but there are no special bonuses for being dealt the king of hearts when playing poker.

If you can pair it up with an ace or another king, though, it is a different story, and it’s definitely the kind of poker hand you want to see.

Beyond this, knowing what playing card is the suicide king and being familiar with some lore behind it can be a great conversation starter at the tables.

If you enjoy getting in the mix and talking to your fellow players, sharing some details about the infamous suicide king card will serve as a great intro.

There is also some “fan fiction” out there, offering some wild explanation as to how this strange nickname came about.

From all the research I did, I couldn’t find any confirmation for these crazy theories, but they are fun to read nonetheless.

There you have it – the next time someone asks you about the suicide king or the conversation about this particular card pops up, you’ll have a wealth of knowledge to share.

It may not give you an edge in the game, but who doesn’t like a good story to pass the time when on a dry spell of cards?

Ivan Potocki

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