Mormon Doctrine: Face Cards

by: Mormon Heretic

August 12, 2013

gamblingI’ve never been much of a gambler; my dad loves to play Solitaire (with real or computer cards), and it was a fun game.  We were taught that gambling was bad, and growing up thought it was a sin.  We played Uno, Crazy-Eights, and many card games with or without face cards.  With the Wheatmeister poll this weekend, it reminded me that a few months ago, my wife was concerned that my dad taught my son how to play Solitaire with face cards.  My reaction was “Are you serious?  This is a problem?”

The funny thing is that my sister likes to play Nertz, a game similar to Solitaire played with a deck of cards per person.  My wife has played without calling the face cards into question.  I’ve also played Rummy and Canasta on my mission.  I had heard that some Mormons thought face cards were evil, but I never understood why.  Hmmm, I wonder if this has something to do with the book Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie.  I looked under “face cards” but found nothing.  However, under “Card playing”, I found the following in all 3 editions (1958, 1966, 1979.)

Card Playing

See Apostasy, Gambling, Recreation.

President Joseph F. Smith has stated the position of the Church with reference to card playing in these words:  “Card playing is an excessive pleasure; it is intoxicating and, therefore, in the nature of vice.  It is generally the companion of the cigaret and the wine glass, and the latter lead to the poolroom and the gambling hall….Few indulge frequently in card playing in whose lives it does not become a ruling passion….A deck of cards in the hands of a faithful servant of God is a satire upon religion….Those who thus indulge are not fit to administer in sacred ordinances….The bishops are charged with the responsibility for the evil, and it is their duty to see that it is abolished….No man who is addicted to card playing should be called to act as a ward teacher; such men cannot be consistent advocates of that which they do not themselves practice.

“The card table has been the scene of too many quarrels, the birthplace of too many hatreds, the occasion of too many murders to admit one word of justification for the lying, cheating spirit which it too often engenders in the hears of its devotees….

“Card playing is a game of chance, and because it is a game of change it has its tricks.  It encourages tricks; its devotees measure their success at the table by their ability through devious and dark ways to win.  It creates a spirit of cunning and devises hidden and secret means, and cheating at cards is almost synonymous with playing at cards.” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed., pp. 328-332)

Members of the Church should not belong to bridge or other type of card clubs, and they should neither play cards not have them in their homes.  By cards I meant, of course, the spotted face cards used by gamblers.  To the extent that church members play cards they are in apostasy and rebellion.  Innocent non-gambling games played with other types of cards, except for the waste of time in many instances, are not objectionable.

The funny thing about face cards and gambling is that when I teach probability in my statistics classes, I teach that probability was discovered by mathematician Blaise Pascal because some gamblers came to him wanting to understand the math behind gambling better.  Gambling is one of the best ways to teach probability, and I know that statistics classes at BYU and BYU-Idaho use gambling problems to help students understand the concept.  (I’ve also heard that at BYU-Idaho, they have students write a paper on why gambling is bad.)

Some other quotes that I use in class:

  • “Las Vegas was built for people who are really bad at math….” Penn Jillette (Penn & Teller)
  • There are no casino games or bets where the house does not have a clear advantage. The odds either favor the house …or they get a commission. And if you are not familiar with basic information about the games you play or bets you make, you are just about a guaranteed loser. In short, casino owners are in business to make a profit. They did not build all those gorgeous hotels by giving away money.
  • In State Lottos, the payoff amount is determined after the state takes a cut.  “Some say instead that it’s a tax on people bad at math or statistics.”  In horse racing, the win is based on the amount bet on each horse.

I even teach that it may be easier to get struck by lightning than to win the lottery.  This article has been removed, but the headline remains:  Man struck by lightning buying lottery ticket.  I also note that casinos give patrons free alcohol to keep them gambling and make stupid decisions.  Those casinos know what they’re doing.

Lest anyone think I am encouraging vice and gambling, let me state clearly that gambling is dumb.  Having said that, I don’t think it’s quite the bogeyman that Smith and McConkie stated.  Apostasy and Rebellion?  Come on.  Church members  “should neither play cards not have them in their homes.”  Do you find this outdated, or do you think having face cards in the home is apostasy?  So is Canasta, Rummy, Nertz and Solitaire grounds for stopping you from being a “ward teacher” (now known as a “home teacher”)?  If so, I think many men would confess to using face cards in order to be released from home teaching…..

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18 Responses to Mormon Doctrine: Face Cards

  1. wonderdog on August 12, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    “The card table has been the scene of too many quarrels, the birthplace of too many hatreds, the occasion of too many murders to admit one word of justification for the lying, cheating spirit which it too often engenders in the hears of its devotees….”

    So, Monopoly is out too?

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  2. rk on August 12, 2013 at 6:42 AM

    Loved the post. My parents didn’t have a problems with face cards despite what Elder McConkie said about them. The only condition we had was to not use them to play for money. Some of my best memories are playing pinocle at family parties and reunions. I don’t think playing cards have any mystical significance other than what we give them. I see some video games as being more problematic. Any type of game can become problematic if too much time is spent playing or if bets are placed.

    I really love your story about playing poker on your mission. I would have loved to see your missions presidents reaction. My family and extended family were rather amused by some members irrational fear/disgust of face cards. We always got a good chuckle and frankly enjoyed our “rebelliousness” and nonconformity. My family saw those with the attitudes in your post as too high strung.

    I remember a conversation about parents of the bride coming for an upcoming wedding. My relative who’s son was getting married said: “I hear they are nice, but very strait laced. We will wait a few days before bringing out the cards. We will teach them to play a couple days after that.”

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  3. Bryan H. on August 12, 2013 at 6:49 AM

    Yes, it’s outdated. I liked doing magic tricks as a kid and knew several card tricks until my grandparents (from Idaho) came for a visit and convinced my parents to take my face cards away. I picked it back up a bit when I was on a mission and realized the neighborhood kids were less inclined to throw rocks at us if we made friends with them and a magic trick was a good icebreaker. But every so often I’d get a missionary that would mutter something about “Hmmm, face cards” coupled with a self righteous stare.

    It seems to me that old people often have irrational fears or hatred of harmless things like face cards that are holdovers from a bygone era. As missionaries we weren’t allowed to chew gum because the mission president would inevitably get calls from old people in the church. I thought it was an English thing (I served in the UK) until I saw David Letterman interviewing Joaqin Phoenix and get genuinely pissed off that Phoenix would chew gum during their interview. “How about I come over to your house and chew gum?” were his exact words, I think. Which is preposterous but makes sense when you realize that old people hate irrational things.

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  4. DB on August 12, 2013 at 7:02 AM

    Here’s a modern update to the above quote:

    “Video gaming is an excessive pleasure; it is intoxicating and, therefore, in the nature of vice. ….Few indulge frequently in video gaming in whose lives it does not become a ruling passion….A video game controller in the hands of a faithful servant of God is a satire upon religion….Those who thus indulge are not fit to administer in sacred ordinances….The bishops are charged with the responsibility for the evil, and it is their duty to see that it is abolished….No man who is addicted to video gaming should be called to act as a ward teacher; such men cannot be consistent advocates of that which they do not themselves practice.”

    Is there really any difference? I wonder how many faithful LDS families have banned playing cards from their homes but have spent hundreds or thousands on video games? Just another example of blindly following non-doctrinal guidance as if it came straight from the Lord’s mouth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all against gambling because it’s a stupid way to lose your money. Here’s one of my favorite quotes on lotteries by Adam Smith:

    “In order to have a better chance for some of the great prizes, some people purchase several tickets, and others, small share in a still greater number. There is not, however, a more certain proposition in mathematics than that the more tickets you adventure upon, the more likely you are to be a loser. Adventure upon all the tickets in the lottery, and you lose for certain; and the greater the number of your tickets the nearer you approach to this certainty.”

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  5. Jack Hughes on August 12, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I didn’t find out about the face card taboo until I was well into my teens, and already living in an LDS family that had no reservations about card playing with full decks. To me it always just seemed like one of those relics of the past (like keeping garments on one arm or leg while bathing), or perhaps a cultural marker for the exceptionally righteous/pious members to stand above the average ones (my family definitely falls into the latter category). I also knew of some LDS families that eschewed playing with dice, even in harmless children’s board games, perhaps for similar reasons. They used homemade spinners to move their pieces instead.

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  6. Will on August 12, 2013 at 10:51 AM

    In spite of my email on a similar post, I still like to play a game of 21 occasionally. Yes, I’m a sinner. For sure if it is a single deck (so I can count cards), but will sometimes play multi decks. I usually keep it under $1,000 – have never wagered more than that amount. Counting cards I can swing the odds in my favor a bit, but I realize the dealer still has the odds slightly in their favor.

    I had a meeting in Idaho Falls last week and on the way back to SLC I stopped by a casino on the reservation and planned on playing 21. The 21 tables are all digital now. Like video poker and slots they are now just computer programs. You would have to be stupid to play against the computers as the odds are not in favor of the dealer; they are guaranteed to win.

    Right of college I wrote computer code and understand the structure pretty well. Most of these machines are coded in C, or some derivation of C, with the If..Then..Else logic. In other words, there is no chance the casino will lose. None. Something like.. IF payout < 5% THEN let take their money ELSE run a routine to make sure we get at least 5% (or whatever amount they want to win or are allowed to win by state or federal rules).

    In short, I will sin, but won’t be stupid. If you play against machines for money you are stupid. They will always win.

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  7. Brian on August 12, 2013 at 11:19 AM

    I joined the church in 1971 as a 17 year old. This taboo was as weird as polygamy to me.

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  8. Hedgehog on August 12, 2013 at 1:22 PM

    I grew up hearing stuff about playing cards and dice at church from various people, always in terms of the them being of the devil, though we had both at home, so clearly they weren’t. I began to wonder whether people had got the cards confused with tarot cards at one point, but your post explains why nicely.

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  9. rk on August 12, 2013 at 3:42 PM

    Playing cards was frowned on in the the 19th century although that didn’t stop people from playing. There are accounts of civil war soldiers on both sides throwing their cards away before a battle so that the cards would not be sent home to their families if they happened to be killed. The church’s aversion to face cards originates from the 19th century. Many Christians opposed them.

    Here is an interesting article on playing cards and the Civil War.

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  10. MH on August 12, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    Will, I think you admitted gambling so you can get released as a home teacher… :)

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  11. TH on August 12, 2013 at 6:35 PM

    I’m 49. We played “poker” with Pringles as chips in our tent at girls camp (in FL) LOL

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  12. hawkgrrrl on August 12, 2013 at 7:52 PM

    Oh, brother! That quote is outlandish!

    My family often played card games as I was growing up. We weren’t so engrossed in card playing that we neglected our chores or Christian duties. My parents did have a stake president who asked in a temple recommend interview if they played with face cards. When they said they did, he said “technically” he couldn’t keep their temple recommends from them, but they should throw them out and not play any more. This was in the 1990s. That stake was crazy. He also told them they shouldn’t drink Coke or likewise he felt they were unworthy to hold a temple recommend.

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  13. Ellen on August 13, 2013 at 12:31 AM

    Our family (parents were converts) had some of its best moments playing cards. My husband’s family (pioneer stock on both sides) never played. He said that the prophet – didn’t specify which one – had said not to have face cards, so they didn’t. I was surprized because they disregarded a lot of other prophetic counsel. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out that we’re ALL cafeteria Mormons!

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  14. mark gibson on August 14, 2013 at 12:39 AM

    Our kids learned math skills very early as we played “ONO 99″. The thing with cards is kinda like what’s being said about rock music. Too broad a brushstroke.

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  15. Heber13 on August 14, 2013 at 5:23 PM

    Some of my favorite family night memories involve face cards and heavy quarreling :)

    Yes, face cards are as outdated as prohibiting consumption of coffee and tea … somehow those liquids got specifically put in the rulebook as forbidden. Cards and pool tables were just “shouldn’t do” instead of “it’s a sin”.

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  16. Mrs. Hansen on May 14, 2014 at 4:12 AM

    I’m a little surprised that there isn’t one single comment here that supports the prophet Joseph F. Smith. Guessing it’s because of the very small number of people who took the time to comment on the advocacy of playing face cards…Where are the rest who don’t play face card games, because the prophet said so? Have they obediently acquiesced? Let the record show that I am one of them. My parents never had face cards in our home growing up; consequently, I never learned any of the “gambling” types of games. I remember being cajoled into playing a face card game once as a teenager, and quite frankly I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I grew up just fine without it and have lots of wonderful memories of fun times in my childhood. It wasn’t until the 80’s that I learned the reason why we didn’t play face cards in our home. There was an article in the Ensign about it where it stated that there are markings of Satan on the face cards. The article explained it in detail. I was grateful that my parent’s example prevailed and that we didn’t play face card games. My husband grew up in a family that played card games with face cards every chance they got. I told him I wasn’t comfortable with that and why and referenced the “Ensign” article and President Joseph F. Smith’s words. We have raised our children to not play games with face cards. I don’t think they have missed out on anything. My husband told my daughter once that he wouldn’t put Solitaire on his computer, because he knew he’d never be able to stop playing it. That told me a lot…I think life is hard enough without adding that to the pile of things that we as parents have to combat in raising our children. I don’t think any prophet’s words are archaic. Regarding the Coke comments here, I was also raised to not drink caffeinated drinks, and I am very grateful for that too. There have been many demonstrations about what happens when you pour coke on raw meat and what happens when you pour milk in it. Even non-LDS have come to realize that it is bad for you, and then there’s the advent of HFCS, and the dangers and risk of it’s consumption, which is in almost all soft drinks now. Now, if you want to presume that Joseph F. Smith is outdated in his thinking, is President Hinckley also. You can watch him state his opinion on Larry King Live on you tube here: It’s a wonderful interview, and he states his posture on caffeine at 31:41, 32:13; and 32:30 and again in an interview with Mike Wallace here: where Pres. Hinckley says right and isn’t it wonderful?! Hope this clears up some of the confusion…

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  17. New Iconoclast on May 14, 2014 at 7:08 AM

    There was an article in the Ensign about it where it stated that there are markings of Satan on the face cards. The article explained it in detail.

    No, actually, there never was. You will not find it in the archives of the magazine, because no such article ever existed – unless, of course, cooler heads have prevailed and it’s disappeared down the memory hole.

    There is nothing magical or Satanic about playing cards. They, like shotguns, chain saws, automobiles, or anything else, can be used for good or evil, but they are only objects. I will go so far as to say, clearly and without equivocation, that even if there were a picture of Satan himself on the ace of spades in a deck of cards, touching it would have no magic power to turn you away from God, and it is the cheapest, most primitive kind of superstitious hogwash to believe that to be the case.

    If you choose to refrain from using playing cards for any purpose because the prophets counsel us not to use them to gamble, that’s your choice. But let’s avoid the medieval superstition.

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  18. handlewithcare on May 15, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    I’ve never played cards as I was brought up in the church not to, but I regret the good times we could have had playing cards together, my kids play as I’ve never stopped them and it’s a great way to teach kids maths and strategy, as well as good natured competition. Whilst I know there’s other ways, nothing is easier than carrying a pack of cards.
    I can see that in the last century this could have been problematic, but as has been observed, most people’s computer game habits make card playing look positively social these days. I’ll be encouraging my kids to play cards with their own children.

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