Not all playing cards are created equal.
There’s two main types — plastic and paper. And although most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, there are, in fact, a few key differences.
While plastic cards are more durable, and can even be cleaned, paper cards are significantly cheaper. Plastic cards are ideal for poker and most card games; paper cards are great for magic as well as card flourishes, such as fans.
I have been using different kinds of playing cards, both for my job and as a hobby, and in this article I’ll do my best to help you decide whether to choose plastic or paper cards, depending on what you need them for.
Both plastic and paper have pros and cons, let’s have a look at them.
Plastic cards are more durable
You’re not going to buy a deck of cards and only use it once a year, are you?
There’s something special about playing cards. Even if you don’t play card games regularly, you’ll find yourself shuffling them and fiddling with them.
And if you’re reading this article, it probably means you really like playing cards, and you probably find them fascinating (I do).
It can be frustrating to buy a new deck, use it a few times, and realize you need to buy another one soon just because the cards are sticking together or are ruined.
This is where 100 percent plastic cards… come into play (no pun intended).
In terms of longevity, plastic cards are superior.
It doesn’t mean they are indestructible. It doesn’t mean a deck will last you twenty years.
But compared to paper cards, plastic decks are quite durable, and there will be less wear and tear.
When possible, you should try to wash your hands before using playing cards, and avoid placing them on dusty or dirty surfaces.
But hey, what if you invite your friends over for a game and you all end up playing and eating at the same time, and grease gets on the cards?
Most people would just replace the deck with a new one, but for the record, with plastic cards you do have the option to clean and wash them.
Conversely, if it happens with paper cards — good luck with that.
Plastic cards are great for poker
When dealing and playing poker in actual casinos and card rooms, I have never seen paper cards.
And I’d be very surprised if I ever saw a casino using paper cards (that is, for poker games — blackjack is a different story).
Obviously, you can use any kind of playing cards if you’re playing poker with friends. But there’s a few reasons poker should always be played with plastic cards…
Easier to bend
Unless you’re playing heads-up, you can’t just lift your hole cards casually — other players may see them.
When poker players look at their cards, they pretty much have to bend them. Do that with paper cards and you’ll instantly ruin them.
Plastic cards, on the other hand, can be bent quite heavily, multiple times, without being damaged. That’s a big difference.
Easier to slide
Some dealers like to literally slide the cards over the felt during the deal, while most dealers use the standard pitch.
In either case, the goal is to keep the cards as low as possible and make them slide on the table, rather than make them land directly in front of the chip stacks.
With plastic cards, especially brand new ones, this is relatively easy to do.
And yes, the quality of the felt helps too. But to pitch the cards properly, and make them slide, you want to make sure you’re using plastic cards.
I’ve already mentioned that 100 percent plastic cards are very durable, and luckily this applies to the edges as well.
Why is that important?
Because if the dealer accidentally throws a card against a chip stack, or a card protector, or the dealer button with too much force, that can easily damage the edge of the card, and you’d have to replace the deck.
But proper plastic cards have stiff edges, so you won’t have to worry about that.
Paper cards are cheaper
Unless you’re buying an extremely rare, limited edition deck coated in gold, you won’t have to spend a lot of money on playing cards.
All standard decks are quite cheap and won’t break the bank, even if you need to buy a lot of them (in which case you’ll probably get a discount anyway).
That being said, paper cards tend to be significantly cheaper than plastic ones, regardless of the quality.
More common, too
Besides paper being cheaper than plastic (in this case, at least), paper cards are much more common, which means there is more demand for them and they’re sold more frequently.
In turn, this usually means you can find cheaper prices and discounts when you buy paper cards — not so much if you’re trying to buy plastic cards.
Paper cards are great for magic
If you’re into card flourishes or card magic, then paper cards (such as Bicycle and Tally-Ho) will be the better option 99 percent of the time.
Some tricks can be performed with both plastic and paper cards, but if you’re not sure, always go with paper. Here’s a few reasons why…
Smooth fans and spreads
Whether you are trying to fan the deck, or do a ribbon spread (which is what poker dealers are supposed to do, for instance, at the beginning of the game), use paper cards.
With the right technique, ribbons spreads will work well with plastic cards, too. But card fans may look awful no matter how many times you practice. This may applies to brand new decks as well.
Not as stiff
For more spectacular flourishes such as the card spring or the one-handed shuffle, you want the cards to be soft enough to be bent.
Although, as mentioned earlier, paper cards can be damaged if bent too often, for some tricks and flourishes you simply need to bend them, and if you’re using plastic cards, that’s going to be very hard to do.
Not as heavy
Another reason standard playing cards are better for magic tricks and manipulation is that, in general, they weigh a bit less.
Not a huge difference, but when you hold or shuffle the deck for long periods of time, or perform complex flourishes, it does help.
I find that the Faro shuffle (one in which two packets are pushed together and interwoven perfectly) is a little bit easier when performed with plastic cards, both new and used, probably because the edges are harder and more rigid.
And there may be some magic tricks where plastic cards are more suitable. So feel free to experiment and see for yourself. Just keep in mind that, in general, magic is performed with paper cards.
Best cards for building card houses
According to professional cardstacker (yes, you read that right) Brian Berg, the structure of the card house is more important than the actual brand of playing cards you use.
The traditional triangle structure isn’t very stable, so it’s much better to arrange the cards so they form squares, or cells, by laying them horizontally.
It’s equally important to build the card house on a surface that is stable and not too smooth or slippery.
As for the cards, plastic isn’t ideal as it would be too slippery. A deck (or a few dozen decks, if your project’s ambitious) of paper cards is your best bet, and the thicker, the better.
In this case, you’d probably want to avoid brand new decks because, again, they would be too slippery and make it harder to arrange the cards.
Plastic vs paper cards: summary
- Setting up a poker game? Definitely go with plastic cards.
- Want a deck that’s durable and doesn’t wear out so fast? Again, plastic cards are the winner.
- If you’re looking for cheaper playing cards, then paper is best.
- If you’re getting started with magic and flourishing, definitely choose paper cards such as Bicycle.
- And to become a professional cardstacker, you’ll probably want to use paper cards as well, ideally thicker ones.
Either way, I still encourage you to try different brands and types, and see which ones you like the most.
When I first started dealing poker, I thought plastic cards looked “fake” and felt weird, then grew to love them.
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