Before You Buy a Deck of Playing Cards

Men's hands shuffle a deck of cards
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If you're just starting out playing poker, one of the first things you'll need to buy are a few decks of playing cards. Not all decks are created equal, though, and there are a few things to learn about cards, their design, and the materials that make them up. So before you shuffle up and deal, consider these simple yet important questions.

Paper or Plastic?

There are actually three different kinds of materials playing cards are made of: plastic, vinyl, and paper. Plastic cards are the most durable, highest quality cards and are used in almost all casinos. Vinyl cards are a good, slightly cheaper choice, though they will bend and won't last as long as the 100% plastic cards. Paper is the cheapest and least durable -- the corners will fold, and you'll have to get new ones often. But in a pinch, paper cards are better than none.

What's the Design?

Before you select a deck, you want to think about both the design of the back and front of the deck. The back, ideally, should have white borders, because it makes it hard for card mechanics to bottom-deal or otherwise cheat. The simpler the back's design, the harder it is to mark the cards, again preventing cheating. As for the front, readability is key. Pick cards that are easy to read even from a distance of five feet, so that players seated anywhere at the table can tell what suits and numbers are showing. You should also be able to read the number and suit of the card easily with the cards close together as that is how most players hold them.

Two or Four Color Suits?

The new trend in poker cards is a four-color deck, where the spades and hearts remain black and red, respectively, but the diamonds are blue and the clubs are green. Although you never run into someone thinking they have a flush with four diamonds and a heart like you might with a traditional two-color deck, a lot of players (myself included) prefer the two-color deck. I am sure, however, that if I ever gave it a real chance, I would get used to it.

Novelty Cards?

To add some fun to the game, you might want to add a deck that adds some flair to the design. Especially for lighter home games, it can be pretty entertaining to use a "most wanted" deck, cards adorned with pin-up girls or guys, or even one of the new "invisible" decks.

But be careful! A lot of the novelty decks can be pretty hard to read. Make sure your novelty deck still meets the design qualifications above and get the best of both worlds when you play.

What's it For?

Above all keep in mind what the deck is for. If it's a friendly game for candies with your kids, a cheap paper deck will suffice. A bachelor party or other themed get together? Novelty deck. If it's a fairly serious game, you're going to want several plastic decks that are eminently readable and hard to mark. And finally, don't be afraid to poll the players. Get some input and see what they want.