Card games have been around for centuries. The first mention of card games we’re aware of dates back to the 12th century, and the oldest deck of playing cards we’ve recovered is from the 15th. And throughout all this history, the games have provided us with numerous benefits.
Simple games allow us to relax and have some fun; more complex ones help to stimulate us and exercise our brains. And of course, virtually any kind of card game can help to strengthen our bonds with others.
Here are some of these benefits and the games that provide them:
Card games help us to take a step back
As you’ve likely heard in the form of one argument or another, we work too much these days – and it’s making us miserable. On a large scale, this really means that we ought to be having more conversations about how to alter our priorities and adjust modern lifestyles. On a day-to-day basis though, it just means that people have to find ways to ‘step back’ and relax with activities that don’t involve work.
A game of cards is an excellent solution. Whether it’s a few rounds of hearts on a mobile app during a break, or a full-fledged poker night at the end of a long work day, these games help us to detach our minds from daily stress factors. Card games demand focus, but are still leisurely – making them perfect at taking us away from our everyday surroundings without then giving us too much to bother with.
They help develop problem-solving skills
A lot of card games basically revolve around chess, or at least very simple strategies. When you play the game of war for instance, you’re basically just hoping to have stronger cards than your opponent. When you play blackjack, you’re basically making an either/or decision on each hand (with some slightly more complex outcomes possible in certain situations). In other cases though, you do a little bit more problem-solving that can function as good training for real life.
In this respect, solitaire may actually be the best example. Though there are usually ‘correct’ moves to make in this game, it is ultimately up to you to move cards about however you can within the rules of the game in order to progress through a deck. It’s a bit more like solving a puzzle than playing most card games, and it can certainly train your mind to think through problems more strategically.
They can sharpen recall
Aside from helping us to ‘step back’ and relax, card games can also provide us with more pointed cognitive benefits; such as, most notably, boosted recall. Some card games, in fact, are more or less designed for this purpose. Games like bridge and kemps, for instance, revolve at least in part around players’ memories of cards and sequences.
Poker, however, may be most helpful in this regard, as it ultimately boils down to a series of exercises in quick recall. Players must remember the rankings of poker hands immediately upon seeing them, so that they know whose hand is strongest. More experienced players build up memories over the course of a game to recognize patterns and tendencies amongst opponents. Particularly skilled players even have extensive catalogues of odds logged in their minds, so that they know probabilities associated with different circumstances. All of this makes for what is effectively recall exercise over the course of a game.
They improve focus
We mentioned above that card games demand focus, despite being leisurely. This does indeed tend to be the case, and it makes the games function as simple but effective tools for teaching us to be more engaged with things.
Consider again the game of hearts as an example. Particularly if you’re playing on your computer or through an app, this is a game that consists of a fairly quick, never-ending cycle of turns. You are constantly choosing cards from your hand to play, and when you’re all out the next hand is immediately dealt. If you lose focus just for a moment though, and play a card without looking or thinking, you can set yourself back for an entire game. Thus, it’s fair to say that as you improve at hearts, you’re almost certainly training yourself to have more complete focus on tasks before you as well. This is another particularly nice benefit, because as you may have heard (or just sensed for yourself), many of us struggle to focus these days.
They help us build and maintain relationships
Last but not least, card games also help us from a social perspective. While it’s true that we have plenty of ways of playing cards solo these days, there are also a lot of games that are best with other people. Whether that means a game of hearts or oh, hell at home with some friends, or hopping into an online poker room to chat with some new people, there are a lot of ways to keep these games social.
These days, with so much work, so much isolation, and seemingly so little time for real social connections, this might just be the most valuable benefit of all.
Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in mental health and well-being.