Which Waddingtons?

An article about the most popular playing cards in the UK. Did you know that they were printed in two factories?

As you might expect, I buy a lot of playing cards. Most magicians, especially professional ones, use Bicycle Rider Back Playing Cards, printed by the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC). While it is possible to buy Bikes—as they're affectionately known—in the UK from some speciality magic shops, you'll struggle to find them in most high street shops and supermarkets. Instead, you're more likely to see a pack of Waddingtons Number 1 Playing Cards on the shelf. Waddingtons have been the UK's most common pack of playing cards ever since I can remember. My favourite magician, Alex Elmsley, was also very fond of the brand.

For this reason, I have a great affection for Waddingtons playing cards and use them as much as Bikes. In fact, I'd go as far as to describe them as the UK equivalent of Bicycle Rider Backs because they're easily obtainable and of similar quality and price. The big difference, of course, is that Waddingtons, like most playing cards in Europe, are smaller (bridge-sized) compared to USPCC cards, which are usually Poker-sized (although some are available in smaller sizes). Waddingtons also produce a pack designed for Texas Hold'em players in standard poker size.

In fact, there's a good argument that magicians in the UK should use Waddingtons and not American cards because they're more common and, therefore, more innocent in the eyes of our audiences. When I perform with Bicycles cards, I often encounter people who believe they're trick cards. Now, I'm not sure I agree with this sentiment, but it is an interesting thought to consider.

Anyway, the other day I bought a pack of Waddingtons from my local supermarket. When I got them home, I noticed that the cards didn't spread, fan and shuffle as well as usual. Upon closer inspection and comparing the cards with another pack I had lying around, I noticed that the finish on them was different. This was odd because the packaging for both packs stated that the cards were "Linen Finish". 

Confusingly, when playing card manufacturers refer to a finish, they're often referring to the texture of the cards, not the coating or varnish used on them. This inconsistent use of terminology is due to changes in the way modern playing cards are produced. (The marketing departments of playing card companies, who play fast and loose with technical terms, should also take some blame for this confusion.)

Traditionally, the texture was added to playing cards at the end of the production process when the coating was applied to the cards using large, cloth-covered rollers. These days, textured metal rollers are used instead because this results in a more predictable and consistent finish. The parent sheet (a large sheet of paper) is fed through the metal rollers, which apply a large amount of pressure to the paper, imprinting the linen marks.

It was becoming clear that my new cards had been manufactured in a factory using metal rollers with a dimpled texture. My other cards had an authentic linen finish that simulated a cheesecloth texture. This difference explained why the new cards didn't handle as well as my older ones. Basically, the cloth-like texture did a better job of reducing the friction between the cards. Unfortunately, the varnish used on the newly-bought cards also appeared to be different and made the cards more difficult to spread and fan.

At first, I thought that my new pack of cards might be counterfeit, but the tuck case featured the usual security seal and hologram found on genuine packs of Waddingtons Number 1 Playing Cards. The security features on a pack of Waddingtons are more difficult to copy than other brands. The cards are security sealed with a sticker that covers the length of the tuck flap. Printed on the seal in tiny text is a security guarantee, which states the historical reason for the seal: 

These playing cards have been manufactured according to a comprehensive specification and have been produced to ensure perfect cutting and dealing. For many years, this type of playing card was manufactured by John Waddington Ltd under Government Licence and each pack was wrapped in a bonded duty wrapper. Although the duty has been removed, the same security measures prevail. The cards inside this box are cellophane wrapped, which safeguards them from any interference.

Sure enough, the cards were wrapped in cellophane. All of these small details made it very unlikely, in my mind, that the cards were fake. However, on further inspection, I noticed one slight difference in the packaging: the new pack had "Made in China" printed on the back of the box, while the older packs I had were labelled "Made in Austria". I also noticed a batch number, 565SUN-190-2021 007146, which indicated that the year of production was two thousand and twenty-one. After a quick sort through my playing card collection, I discovered that all of my other packs of Waddington Number 1s were printed in Austria, and some were printed in two thousand and twenty.

A pack of blue and red Waddingtons Number 1 Playing Cards. Photo Credit: Winning Moves.

All of this led me to conclude that some Waddingtons Number 1 Playing Cards must be printed in Austria, while others are manufactured in China. This was later confirmed for me when I emailed Winning Moves, the company responsible for the distribution of Waddingtons Playing Cards. Rachel, a Service Support Administrator, was very accommodating and told me that Waddingtons Number 1s are indeed produced in a couple of factories, one in Austria and another in China. Rachel also offered to send me a replacement pack of cards printed in Austria as a gesture of goodwill—I'm very impressed with the customer service provided by Winning Moves.

Why are these differences significant? Well, if you're buying cards for general gaming purposes, then they're not; the cards printed in China will do just fine. However, if you want to perform sleight of hand with them, you'll have great difficulty because the cards will clump together when you spread and fan them. For this reason, the cards manufactured in Austria are far superior if you want to perform sleight-of-hand card magic. So, next time you buy yourself a pack of Waddingtons Number 1 Playing Cards, it is a good idea to check the box's back (or bottom) to see where they were printed.

However, I did discover one exception. If you want to create handmade gaffs by splitting cards, the packs printed in China are far easier to split. In fact, I've never found cards that split as well as these ones do. This must be because the glue used in the middle layer of the cards is weaker than the glue used in the Austrian factory. As a result, I was able to split a single card into its three component layers without ripping any of the layers (something that is very difficult to do with most higher-quality playing cards).

A pack of DC-licenced playing cards from Waddingtons. Photo Credit: Winning Moves.

If you'd like to buy some Waddingtons Number 1 Playing Cards, you can order them online from Winning Moves in the UK. They also sell many fun licenced products, like DC Comics Retro Waddington Number 1 Playing Cards and the classic card game Top Trumps, which I used to play a lot as a kid (I now play the game with my daughters). Unfortunately, if you live in the US, Waddingtons Number 1s Playing Cards are more difficult to find. However, many of their products are available to purchase via the Top Trumps USA Store on Amazon.

Look out for more blog posts about Waddingtons playing cards in the future.