The term “Suicide King” refers to the king of hearts in a standard 52-card deck of playing cards. The Suicide King gets its name from the appearance that the king displayed on the card is stabbing himself in the head with his own dagger.
While the Suicide King nickname is a staple in poker, the story behind the modern-day king of hearts goes back for centuries. There’s a lot more going on with the Suicide King than you might think.
Let’s take a look at how the king of hearts ended up as the Suicide King.
What is the Suicide King in Card Games?
Before we take a deeper dive into the history of the Suicide King, here’s a look at how the kings of all four suits look in a modern deck of cards:
All four kings hold a sharp weapon of some kind. When you see the Suicide King next to his three different-suited counterparts, he arguably looks less like he’s stabbing himself in the head, and more like he has his dagger drawn and ready to strike.
Going back through the lineage of playing cards, it appears that the original intent for the king of hearts was to depict a king with weapon at hand and ready to go to battle. The standard face cards, suits, and hand rankings we see at the poker table in the 21st century derive from 18th-century French playing cards depicting the “Paris Pattern.”
The Paris Pattern incorporates the 52-card deck seen at modern-day poker tables, with the familiar four suits, face cards (kings, queens, and jacks), and the ace counting as both the highest and lowest card. A 32-card version of the Paris Pattern deck (with twos through sixes removed) is still the most popular playing card deck sold in France.
A competing French playing card pattern, known as the Rouen pattern, originated in the 15th century. This pattern was imported by England and became the standard for English playing cards.
The kings and queens of all four suits from the Rouen Pattern looked like this:
Between the 15th and 17th centuries, English reproductions of Rouen Pattern playing cards became more common. Without the technology to make exact reprints of the original templates, the face cards that circulated around England by the end of the 17th century appeared quite different than what the Rouen Pattern (designed by Pierre Marechal of Rouen) originally depicted.
The Rouen Pattern presents the king of hearts with an axe, but modern-day paying cards seem to show the suicide king stabbing himself in the head with a dagger. Historians don’t seem to have an answer as to why the king of hearts went from appearing ready to go to battle with an axe, to turning into the suicidal-looking face card that we know today.
Simon White, author on the World of Playing Cards site, presents this evolution of the king of hearts from 15th-century French cards through late 19th-century English playing cards:
According to White, the cards on the top row of this image show a progression (left to right) from 15th to 17th-18th-century French playing cards. The bottom row depicts 17th to 19th-century English playing cards.
It appears the English reprints of the Rouen pattern are responsible for the modern era Suicide King. White offers the following insight as to why:
“By around 1800 the battle axe seems to have been replaced by a sword which disappears behind the King’s head,” White writes. “Curiously, in the double-ended version, the King of Hearts becomes the only four-handed court card.”
“A similar late medieval derivation can be shown for the remaining court cards in the English pack. Many of the attributes, or symbols of office, have changed or become unrecognisable over the years, but the basic features are still there. The question of whether they were facing left, right or straight forwards seems to be simply a matter of chance.”
Astute poker players may notice that the king of hearts is also the only one of the four kings without a mustache. That discrepancy is also thought to derive from inaccurate reprints of the Rouen pattern over the decades.
The suicide king is here to stay, however, as modern-day playing cards appear committed to preserving the quirks and signature looks of the face cards in which today’s poker players are well familiar.