I intend to here provide comparative reviews of as many major brands of playing cards as possible. I'm becoming a bit fed up with all the "which cards" topics, which seem to be generally rather misleading and lacking in comparison by quality. I'm starting with four, but hope to add more brands as I go along. I've got wrapped on my shelf now some League backs, Arrcos and Squeezers. I'm only using poker size cards, though the size isn't really being looked at, and I consider myself free to make disparaging remarks about other brands' finishes even if they are only available in bridge size.
For information about the history and back designs, this site
is rather fabulous, though it doesn't seriously discuss finishes.
Bicycle Rider back
Wow. I remember opening my first pack of bikes. You Americans are spoilt that you can take these things for granted. These, the absolute standard cards in the US, completely blew anything I'd ever used before away. Now, a good number of years later, I've gone further, but these cards, the international standard for magicians, have a lot going for them.
They really are very slippery out of the box, these seem to have the least friction when brand new of any card I've used so far. This is mostly due to their textured 'air cushion' finish. They fan and spread very easily when new, though this fanning feels less 'even' than with some others. If anything they are too slippery when new. After they have been broken in, they are just right. After heavy use they become sticky. Unlike some finishes, bikes never seem to properly recover once they have become worn and sticky. However, they are cheap if you can get them from the right places, so many pros are happy to just buy lots of decks of bikes. If you're going to give the deck away at the end of your show, or sign/destroy some then keep the rest for spares, you proabably aren't that interested in the long-term life. They also become rather soft, which would screw up your hop spread and springing if it weren't for the fact that they are now too sticky anyway. Worn bikes therefore do not hold a crimp very well. New bikes crimp acceptably.
Bikes do unfortunately have rather poor quality control, and the rider backs are often cut badly. As well as being off-centre they often have rough edges which quickly smooth down with use. I have been assured that the league backs have better quality control, and there are theories that the bikes with unusual coloured backs have better control as well, though I can't confirm this. I do rather like using a deck of rider backs in green or black, however, as it means I am using standard cards with a fun twist which isn't too distracting. Also, for 'colour stunner', my red deck turns BLACK, as though the red ink was burnt. That is rather stunning.
bicycle league back
Well, would you look at that, an excellently cut deck with an attractive back design and an identical finish to bikes. No surprises here. When bikes are good they are very good, so if it's true that the quality control is better on league backs then they are a very compelling option. However, they still have bicycle durability and consistancy, so I still prefer Tally Hos.
Bees are of course the casino standard card. The borderless back design is great for false dealing and pull-through shuffles, but not so good for reversed cards as in triumph routines or the famous biddle stealing routine. If you want bees with borders, as far as I am aware you need to work for a casino or order a few hundred thousand from the USPCC. I'd love to get my hands on some "stingers", the anti-cheating bees, but it doesn't look likely.
Fresh out of the box, bees are less slippery than bikes. They have a textured 'cambric finish'. They don't seem to have rough edges so often. They fan and spread reasonably easily, but the real strength is in their 'snap'. Bees have a fantastic springiness, making a wonderful 'snap' sound when dealt, and are great for riffle shuffling and springing between the hands. These are my absolute favourite cards for playing games with. Like bikes, they get sticky after a while and never properly recover. It could just be my luck, but my bees always seem to pick up dirt very easily, which makes them rather unprofessional for magic unless new. Then again, that could be a side-effect of my fondess for playing with them.
I've noticed that the Bulldog Squeezers I've yet to open also have a 'cambric finish', but a one-way bordered back, so they will make an interesting comparison. Most decks of bees are one-way as a result of slightly off-centre cutting. However, it's a pretty subtle and difficult one-way to use.
Tallys are my current favourite, and the favourite of many magicians 'in the know'. They are available in two beautiful back designs, with no difference in quality between the two.
They are slightly less slippery out of the box than bikes, but they then stay this good for a long time. They give very even fans and spreads. There is a wonderful feeling of controlled smoothness about Tallys. The LePaul Automatic Jog control is pure poetry. They usually have slightly rough edges, which soon smooth down. Tallys have stiff cardboard which hold crimps well. There is no sleight or technique I know that I would consider Tallys less than outstanding for. After some use, Tallys begin to get sticky. They don't pick up dirt as easily as bees or bikes, or so it seems. However, if sticky Tallys are left in their box for a few days, they make an almost full recovery. It is rare for me to finish with a deck of Tallys because they have become to work or sticky (they do lose their 'snap' after time). I usually finish with a deck of Tallys because I started having cards signed, at which point I may as well start performing Card Warp, Ultimate Rip-off, etc.
Who's already heard of these? They seem to be rather overlooked, presumably because they are almost unavailable in the US. They are available from cards4magic.co.uk. The finish is not named. Aladdin 1002
s have gilded edges, and apparently handle terribly. 1001
s on the other hand are rather special...
A deck of Aladdin 1001s includes 2 funky jokers of a bunny emerging from egg shell, a guarantee card (for your Unshuffling Rebecca routine) and a calender. The guarantee card says "MAY BE USED AS AN EXTRA JOKER", in case the possibility had not occurred to you.
Out of the box: They are slightly less smooth than tallys, slightly less slippery than bikes. They fan and spread well. More impressively, they do this without a textured 'air cushion'. These are completely flat, plastic-coated cards. They are definitely the first deck of flat plastic-coated cards I've used that didn't suck. They have a slightly waxy finish, which appears to repel dirt. The result is that after a week of this being the only deck I use (though no gigs in this week), they still look like new. And they are WHITE. Clean, slightly waxy shiny finish, and no shadowed 'pits' make these cards look whiter than white. Very slick-looking.
These are very stiff, solid cards. They hold crimps well, and recover from crimps well. They are slightly
thicker than Tallys, a deck of Aladdin 1001s is about a card thicker than a deck of Tallys. You can feel the difference though. They faro very well. Another interesting property of the flat waxy finish is that while they glide against each other, they'll happily cling to your skin. This makes it very easy to palm one card, and a bit tricky to palm several. The slightly rough edges help, these smooth down, but not completely.
They stay stiff! There were no sign of softening after a few days of use. This is great for DLs, pull-through shuffles and counts. However it does make buckling more than one card nearly impossible. Also, moves like the marlo simple shift become a lot less self-working with this kind of solid smooth finish. After a week of use, they are beginning to soften. Multiple buckling is now feasible. They also stay remarkably flat, recovering perfectly from riffles and crimps.
These cards are a very interesting alternative. I don't think I'll switch to them full-time, because their spreading is not particularly even, though acceptable. I really like them however, they look great and are very good for palming, as well as long-lasting. They seem to have similar properties to those of the Jerry's and Golden Nuggets that people rave about, and are a lot more affordable.
They won't be for everyone, but they look great, seem to repel dirt, and are very durable. I'm glad to have some around. After heavy use or a few games of cards, they do pick up dirt and lose all their smoothness. This does apply to virtually all other cards, but when they wear out, they really do wear out.
It says "Cambric finish" on the box, so it's inevitable that these are going to be being compared with bees. They have the same textured finish. However, the design couldn't be much more different. Bees have their pro design of simple pattern and no borders: these squeezers have a ridiculous design with a couple of dogs and a quote at the bottom. I wonder if this design might be too distracting for magic, but that's another debate. I'm concerned here with card quality. It is worth mentioning however that the one-way back is actually a real nuisance, as it limits in all sorts of ways, e.g. a vernon replacement won't fly.
Open them up: Bees. First thing that comes into my mind. These do feel similar to bees. I open up a pack of bees to compare them with. In blind testing, mixing them up before handling them, I had a tricky time telling them apart, but the Bees just feel better. Hard to define, but they are just slightly more luxurious in feel. That said, these squeezers are definitely closer to bees than to Tallys, Bikes or these crazy Aladdins. They spread and fan pretty evenly, but with this feel I can't help but hop spread them- which they do very well. They have very rough edges, so they don't faro that happily out of the box- but neither do bees. But who in their right mind would faro these? Like Bees, they cry out to be riffle shuffled, snapped and sprung, and in a less elegant, more playful way. These are fun cards.
Lacking the class of Bees or Tallys, or the invincibility of thick plastic-coated cards, I suppose the real competitor here is Bikes. They are less outrageously slippery than Bikes, but have the snappy playfulness of bees. If you really like the feel of Bees, and want a more casual-feeling deck with a border, these could be good.
Quality? Well, these have been cut absolutely dead centre, but the top-right hand corner has been cut slightly unevenly. The stock is springy and not very stiff, I wouldn't trust these with a crimp. They all get bent out of shape fairly quickly.
After more heavy use, they soften until they handle very like bikes after heavy use. They haven't got much to recommend them over bikes. If you are a serious Bee fan, you may prefer these to bikes. Otherwise, they are just more difficult to get and have an awkward one-way back.
They recover well though, and here's the weird bit: they recover like Tallys
. My used and recovered deck of squeezers feels very similar to my used and recovered deck of tallys, a smooth, consistant feel.
The verdict? Low quality fun bees, with a nice lifespan. I wouldn't recommend these for serious work, and the back design drives me crazy, but they are kinda fun.
Arrco U.S. Regulation
My preconceptions: As I understand it, Arrcos were an independent, well-thought-of brand that were bought out by the USPCC (please correct me if I'm wrong). I've read that they were considered very good before the USPCC made them, but haven't seen any post USPCC reviews, or even mentions. As it is, these could be amazing, or they could have been abandoned because they are worthless.
Out of the box: Well, these are quality cards. Similar to the Squeezers, there's no instant 'wow', but they are smooth, spread evenly, seem to have a decent finish. The box doesn't give anything away; "PLASTIC COATED PLAYING CARDS" . They feel stiff and durable, nowhere near the Aladdins, but similar to Tally Hos. They are cut excellently; after spreading and fanning them I immediately did eight perfect faros in a row with only a couple of false starts, due more to my technique than the cards. If you like faro techniques and new decks, try these.
The faces are different from the standard USPCC cards: the diamonds are more squat, and the court cards are a different design- recognisably the same characters, but wearing different clothes. The lines are thinner, making them look a little more refined and old-fashioned. The highly ornate back design supports this. They are good-looking, and something a little different. The jokers also feel 'traditional', the head of a laughing court jester.
After some use, I am increasingly impressed. They have a reliability about them which reminds me of Tallys. Crimping is reasonable, similar to bikes, or maybe slightly better.
Verdict? I'm impressed, I'll be likely to order more of these. They lack the 'wow' factor of Tallys or Bees, but make an excellent substitute for the Tally Ho user who wants something that looks a little different but feels comfortable. I think faro masters should look into these, as should anyone who performs in a DJ and top-hat for a late 19th Century feel.
Made by Waddingtons, a UK toy company.
Everything about these cards says that they think they are great quality. The box promising 'superior quality' 'linen finish' comes in a plastic wrap, the sticker goes across the whole top, the cards are sealed in plastic inside
the box as well. Then you see the butt-ugly joker and you know it's all going downhill from here...
The back design is really not very attractive, look here
. Also note the indices in all four corners, a feature I personally find unatractive, and, worst of all in my book, bridge size
. These are not aimed at magicians pretty clearly, bridge size makes palming more awkward because they are slightly longer but you get less surface area to stick to, and the faces less clear with smaller pips.
The finish? Blegh! I pride myself on being able to execute a smooth ribbon spread and turnover on a very smooth surface, but I can't get a smooth spread with these on a fricken' carpet
. You know, I actually forgot they were this bad. It could be that I am holding a substandard deck, but they claim to have great quality control, so I'm going to assume they are actually this bad. Fan? You pressure fan nuts may be ok, but I can't get a smooth fan with these whatever I try.
Not much chance at a faro as the corners are cut unevenly. The cards are a little thick as well. Even new, they haven't a lot of snap to them. Apparently these are the best-selling cards in England. This is because they are fairly cheap and are sold everywhere, not because they are actually any good. I'm not going to use these until they wear out because I've suffered enough, but I used to use these occasionally before I discovered proper cards existed, and they didn't last all that long.
Is there in fact anything I can say positive about these cards? Well, as they handle as if they have all been roughed on one side, it's easy to pull off relatively gutsy DL stuff, as the cards stick together in alignment.
In summary? There's a reason British magic shops import bikes. English cards are terrible. If you live in the UK, can't order cards online and can't afford the magic shop mark-up, you still should not use these. There is a European bridge-size brand called 'Stratus' by Carta Mundi. They suck as well, but they can actually spread, so they beat these.
Hoyle, maroon shell back
Well, they don't say USPCC anywhere, and have a "Made in USA Hoyle Products" sticker. But they are made in Cincinnati and the style of the box is very similar to USPCCs, hold'em starbust and all so... If anyone knows more about the relationship between USPCC and Hoyle products do let us know. I understand that Hoyles were once more popular among magicians, and some gimmicks are available in Hoyle.
Texas Hold'em instructions included... Grrr... They are the same design as those included with bikes. They always have text in black on one side, and matching the back design on the other, with text in dark red in this case.
The edges look awful, and sure enough are pretty rough. Bad for faros. Textured finish, nice and smooth. The spring and snap is pretty average. Arrcos and Bikes are smoother. The finish is described as"plastic coated" - They aren't giving anything away.
The appearance however is lovely, with an elegant dark red on the back and pips, and an unusual court card design. One of the Jokers looks great, the other is just the "According to Hoyle" logo.
Pros- look nice and a bit different, old gimmicks available
Cons- bad edges, finish is nothing special
Steamboats are now pretty much my favourite cards after Tally Ho.
They have a flat finish, no air-cushion. They spread nicely, although not quite as well as air-cusioned cards, and don't feel as 'waxy' as some flat cards. They are reasonably stiff, less so than the Aladdins. Steamboats are a very durable card that is serviceable for a relatively long time. I have not yet experimented with using fanning powder to extend their life further, but that should be possible. Again, the stiffness makes them excellent for faro shuffles, pull-through shuffles etc. The 'snap' is satisfactory but not as playful as Bee cards.
The faces are the standard USPCC design, the same as Bicycle but with a slightly different Ace of Spades. Not very flashy, but simple and clear. The back design however is devastating: a border-less repeating flower pattern. The result is that it is pretty much impossible to tell where one card starts and the next ends, they just blend into one seamless whole. This somewhat compensates for the slightly less even spreading. You thought bottom deals were easier with Bees? Steamboats will make an average false deal invisible. Packet switches, false counts etc. get very difficult to follow. However, this works both ways and your audience may find the cards more difficult to follow generally, suspecting a switch where there is none.
More subjectively, Steamboats feel nice
. Just as "Number 1"s and Hoyles feel cheap, Steamboats are clearly quality cards. Overall I feel they have all the advantages and few of the disadvantages of border-less cards with a smooth finish.