Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Orphaned Cards

By Pauly
Los Angeles, CA

When I lived in New York City, I occasionally came across an orphaned playing card on the ground just laying there on the sidewalk. I don't know the exact percentages, but it seemed as though the innocuous cards were always found face up. I attributed that to our brain's pre-programmed recognition of playing cards, that spin faster than the gears for online slots. The backs of traditional decks are ordained with a standard red or blue pattern that I can only describe as the traditional "playing card pattern." For whatever reason, I'm struggling to describe what backs of a playing card look like, but you know what I'm talking about. So with regard to orphaned playing cards, while wandering down a semi-crowded street, engrossed in thought, and processing thousands of different images at once, our eyes often overlook the backs of playing cards and recognize face up cards more frequently, especially poker players, because we're used to a specific pattern recognition -- either actively or subconsciously -- of distinct playing cards. Spades. Hearts. Diamonds. Clubs.

A couple of years ago when I first started this blog, I conjured up an idea that incorporated found objects, which is an arsty fartsy term for "turning trash into art." At the time, I lived in New York City and spent many hours roaming the streets aimlessly to kill time as an unemployed wanna-be screenwriter who couldn't hack it on Wall Street. During those navel-gazing excursions, I wandered upon orphaned cards lying on the street.

My idea was simple: I wanted to amass an entire deck of orphaned cards, all 52 cards and a pair of Jokers (if I could find them).

Like most of my grandiose ideas, I probably discussed them with friends over beers or a spliff, but never actually followed through on the project for a number of reasons. Orphaned playing cards is still trash. Even if you take the "three second rule" in account, the cards are tainted. As much as I was inspired to create an art from discarded playing cards found on the streets of Manhattan, the risk of germs was too significant. Besides, did I really want to spend my free time wandering around the city and pick up playing cards that might have traces of urine and fecal matter? Also, a tinge of laziness crept into the mix and reality set in -- this found-art project could take years or perhaps even a decade to complete.

Great minds think alike. An American artist named Kerstin von Gabain was living in Beijing and noticed an inordinate amount of discarded playing cards in the street. Von Gabain collected the orphaned cards and incorporated them into an art project titled Stuggling for Points. Unfortunately, Von Gabain was unable to collect a full deck for the project.

Von Gabain had many theories on the orphaned cards. The most relevant one suggested that Chinese gamblers used the cards to play Zheng Fen, a popular game in which players accumulated points. After running up debts during a bad streak, titled gamblers tossed aside unlucky cards, which Von Gabain eventually stumbled across on the streets of Beijing.

Some losing gamblers loving passing the blame onto others. They blame the dealer, or they cite the poker room as the reason they lost. Online poker players often claim that "online poker is rigged" when they run into a horrendous string of bad luck. Meanwhile, Zheng Fen players exorcised their gambling run bad by discarding unlucky cards.

Those damn cards!

If that practice happened in Las Vegas during the WSOP, the entire parking lot at the Rio would be flooded with a sea of unlucky cards. Billions of them.

So why did I come across unlucky cards in New York City? Why did they get thrown out? I really don't know. I have a few theories, but none of them seem legit. One minor theory was that New Yorkers read more books than the average American and some of them used playing cards as bookmarks, and the bookmarks were lost by accident or tossed aside after someone finished a book. The other minor theory was that a bunch of street hustlers were trying to fleece tourists in an impromptu game of Three Card Monte, but they broke up the game when the heat closed in. They scattered along with the cards (evidence).

It had been a while since an orphaned playing card crossed my path. When I moved to Las Vegas a few years ago, I never saw any orphaned playing card randomly on the ground, something that surprised me considering how much time I spent in casinos and in poker rooms. On the Strip, I saw a plethora of business cards for hookers and escorts that the porn slappers handed out at random spots on Las Vegas Blvd. During the WSOP, the carpeted floor of the Rio's convention center became a refuge for unwanted fliers and coupons that the Sapphire Girls handed out to tourists. The ground was strewn with images promising the allure of sexual deviancy, yet not a single orphaned playing card.

I moved to Los Angeles, a city that has very few pedestrians because everyone drives everywhere, and I might be one of the few people in the City of Angels who takes long walks. After a couple of years of not seeing anything peculiar on the ground, I came across a steady flow of orphaned playing cards this year. Irony? The first two cards I came across? Jacks. I found a pair of Jacks while wandering around the slums of Beverly Hills.
I noticed the first Jack off of Robertson Blvd., shortly after I returned from the Bahamas...

I noticed the second Jack on Pico Blvd. at the end of February...

I came across this one the other day just off Olympic Blvd...

I've embraced the digital era to assist me with a new art project, so now I don't have to collect dirty, nasty orphaned cards off the ground and store them inside my office. Instead, all I have to do is whip out my CrackBerry and snap away.

My ultimate project goal is to take cellphone photos of various orphaned cards that I encountered while walking around domestic and international cities. At this pace, I'm hoping to photograph a full deck by 2015-16. I already have a pair of Jacks and two diamonds...


  1. In the old days kids would clothespin playing cards to the spokes of their bikes so they made a noise when pedaling. Probably some kids still do.

  2. In NYC at least, I go with the 3 card monty guys. Don't see them as much anymore (maybe I just don't hang around the same areas, or maybe I just don't notice/care). I used to see them jettison their whole cardboard box and card setup when the lookouts whistled. No idea in LA, none of those seem to be folded in the center as the monty cards would be...
    Geo tag your photos, and see if any relationships pop up.