Hearts in Popular Culture: From Saloons to Screens

By Neal Taparia - 10/5/2023

The popular card game of hearts might seem simple in design, but has nonetheless made a significant mark on popular culture. Its roots date back centuries, and over time the game has evolved and adapted, finding its way from old salons to the screens of modern computers. This amazing journey perfectly shows the timelessness of hearts, but also reveals its ability to resonate with audiences regardless of age and background. 

Hearts’ Historical Origins

The game of hearts is believed to have its origins in the Spanish game of Reversis, which was popular during the 16th century, but theories place it in France or Italy as well. Over time – as common with many card games – it underwent numerous changes and transformations, with each culture adding its own tweaks to the mechanics. By the 18th century, it had found its way to England, where it began to resemble the game we recognize today.

The game’s design is fundamentally about avoidance – players must avoid certain cards that carry penalty points. The player with the lowest score at the end of the game wins. Hearts have quickly become a popular pastime in England, and soon moved on to other parts of the world as well.

The Saloon Era of Hearts

As hearts moved from Europe to America, it found a home in many of the famous saloons of the Wild West. Visitors of saloons looked for refuge from their demanding and often risky lifestyles, and hearts provided a perfect opportunity for recreation. The game was simple and easy for newcomers to learn, but had a deep strategic core that made sure it wasn’t just a game of chance. 

In these dimly lit, smoky interiors of saloons, many disputes were settled over a game of hearts. How well you played hearts slowly became a measure of one’s intelligence and character among the patrons – winning a game could earn you respect, but playing poorly could just as easily lead to ridicule.

Many new varieties of hearts began in these saloons, with players trying to add more intricate rules to add more depth to the gameplay. It was still far from the hearts we know today, and the next step in hearts’ presence in popular culture began with the advent of cinema.

Hollywood’s Take on Hearts

While more popular card games like poker or blackjack often took the center stage within the film industry, hearts has also found a niche with its subtlety. It often appeared in the background of saloon scenes or was referenced briefly in movies – and while it was rarely central to the plot, it was definitely acknowledged as a popular pastime.

When portrayed, the game was often a pretext for characters to engage in witty dialogue and showcase their intellect and cunning. Given the nature of the game is as much about understanding your opponents as it is about the cards in your hand, it was a perfect opportunity to show such character traits.

Regional Touches in Hearts: Popular Variations

As hearts become more widespread in popular culture, more and more people around the world adopted the game and redefined the rules. Pinpointing the exact origins, however, can be tricky, but some still have traceable origins. Some of the most popular regional variations of hearts include:

  • Black Maria - Most probably originating in the United Kingdom, Black Maria is similar to the Black Lady variation found in the United States, but with an additional twist: the King of Spades also has a penalty, just like the Queen.
  • Reversis - An old Spanish game from the 16th century that is considered by many to be the ancestor of modern hearts. In Reversis, the aim was to avoid taking certain cards, but the rules and card values varied between regions.
  • Rickety Kate - Common in Australia and New Zealand, this one is also very similar to the Black Lady, with the Queen of Spades named Kate and additional rules applying.
  • Polignac - Also known as Jeux des Valets, is an 18th century card game that is also often listed as the inspiration for hearts. In Polignac, the aim is to avoid taking any Jacks, with the Jack of Spades carrying the highest penalty. 
  • Bassadewitz - A German variation, particularly popular in the 19th century, where the Ace and 10 cards have the highest penalties. 

Hearts in the Digital Age

Perhaps the most significant change for hearts came with the popularization of digital technology like computers, the internet, and, later, smartphones. The game found a new life, no longer requiring a physical deck of cards to play, but almost any device with access to the internet nowadays. Even before the internet was easily accessible in most places, Microsoft Windows – the most popular operating system for PCs – included a digital version of hearts, introducing the game to millions who had never played it before.

Nowadays, players from all around the world can play against each other in online multiplayer – you can even play on our main page right now, with no registration required. Simply enter your name and enjoy a quick game of hearts in your free time.

Online communities have made it easy for both beginners and professionals to share stories, discuss strategies, and meet other hearts enthusiasts. If you’re looking for people to play with, laugh with, or maybe compete against, try out one of the many online hearts forums. The Board Game Geek, for example, is a popular board and card game forum which features a page for hearts fans with forums and a community wiki.

From its humble beginnings to a global reach using digital platforms, the game of hearts has shown an incredible capacity to evolve and adapt through centuries. This journey through popular culture reflects its timeless appeal, and there’s no telling where the game might go next in the future. Given its rich history and continued popularity, wherever it goes, it’ll definitely still be a strong presence in the world of card games.