The chemistry for marking playing cards plays a very important role. Without the right recipe one cannot put-on the work correctly. In addition to the chemistry it is as important to know how to use the dyes: how to apply them, how to mix the substances and in what proportions. And let's not forget good old experience. Marking cards is a skill and like any other skill one can only perfect it through experience.
However, one must also keep-up with the times and changes. Ask any doctor, if you use too much penicillin the bacteria eventually develops resistance and then you have to develop new medications. As we're about to see, a similar thing must have happened to playing cards when the manufacturers found out that card cheats were marking their playing cards with alcohol-based dyes. In fact, the choice of solvent is possibly the biggest issue due to some latest changes in manufacturing of playing cards. So, if you discover an old secret manuscript on how to mark cards you can probably use it to wrap fish in it (unless you can sell it to a collector along with the blueprint for the steam engine) because it most likely won't work with most of the playing cards that are currently sold.
Many old books will tell you that you need to dilute a dye in alcohol to make up the solution for painting cards. One reasoning for the use of alcohol is to avoid using water-based dyes, because water takes longer to evaporate and while it is drying it also gets absorbed by the paper. This longer drying process often produces buckles and/or dimples on the cards, which is definitely an undesired side effect. Such dimples are easily visible if light hits the card under the right angle. Old paper player were aware of this problem and they solved it by using highly concentrated alcohol, which is what many old books advise us to use.
Anyone trying to follow these instructions nowadays will soon discover that any alcohol dye produces what looks like a white frosty residue on most types of playing cards. This spot is produced by the alcohol itself, and, technically speaking, it is actually not a residue. If you rub some alcohol on a clean piece of glass you will see that it does not leave any residue after it evaporates. The frosty spot on the card is actually an alcohol burn. In effect, alcohol damages the finish of the card. So, why did the old books advise to use alcohol? Were they wrong? I discovered the answer totally by chance.
Throughout many years I have been experimenting with different solutions for juice and other types of marked cards. I had once purchased several cases of Bee cards in bulk, and those were the cards that I have been using for my tests. I used alcohol, and never had any problems with it. I never thought anything of it, actually.
Then one day I started sharing ideas with a new friend who lived across the country. The two of us were at first just swapping recipes and comparing results over emails. Early on, he started complaining about some kind of alcohol residue on the cards. I was puzzled by his comments and had no idea what he was talking about. At the same time, he was also puzzled by my lack of concern about this alcohol residue.
One day everything became clear. I have the habit of removing the Jokers from all of my decks and then using them as bookmarks. One day I wanted to test a new mix, but instead of reaching into my supply of test cards I just took a Tally-Ho Joker that I was currently using as a bookmark, because I wanted to test the mix on a specific area of the Tally-Ho design. I immediately discovered that the card had just been ruined because the alcohol produced a white frosted spot.
I was at first puzzled, but to cut a story short, I soon realized that I had been doing all my earlier experimenting with an old supply of Bee cards. The only logical conclusion was that the US Playing Card Company [USPCC] changed the finish on their cards, and that the old finish used to be alcohol resistant. But the current finish was evidently not. There was still the chance that the USPCC was using a different finish on Bees than on their Tally-Ho brand. So I bought a new deck of Bee cards and tested the mix, and... same thing happened. Alcohol produced a frosted spot.
I later ran several alcohol tests on my old supply of cards, testing different grades and kinds of alcohol. I ran parallel tests on new Bees and have safely concluded that the USPCC must have, in fact, changed the finish on their cards. This is not the best news for paper players because alcohol used to work really well on the old playing cards.
There were still some unanswered questions. Had the USPCC changed the finish on their cards for security reasons, or had they changed the finish for some other reason, and ended up hitting a lucky (or unlucky) result? I called the manufacturer directly, spoke with several people, but none of the people I spoke with were even aware of any recent changes in the chemistry of their finish, let alone of the problem that paper players were facing. That's typically what happens in big companies. No one ever seems to know what someone else is doing and no one ever seems to know whom to ask. And no one there seems to care (at least not any of the people that you can get on the phone).
Nevertheless, I did notice that the old cards had been packed in a different box, which in turn made me realize that it may be possible to identify older cards by examining the boxes. That got me started on the "box quest" and I soon realized that the USPCC has a habit of packing their playing cards in different kinds of boxes. But why?
I didn't know where to start looking for answers but I soon found out not to waste my time looking for answers by calling the USPCC. No one over there seems to have any clue what I am talking about. I soon quit my short-lived career as a full-time card-box researcher and went back to my previous line of work that had been known to generate some actual income (which I typically use to pay my bills) (oh... and my taxes).
Since it seems to be impossible to get any information directly from the actual manufacturer I was only able to draw my own conclusions. The older boxes seem to all be sealed-off at both sides (left and right) of the box. Later, it would seem, the USPCC introduced boxes that are sealed-off at the bottom and on one of the sides - sometimes the left side and sometimes the right side. However, the USPCC still uses boxes that are sealed-off at both sides, but those boxes are not exactly the same as the old ones. The picture shows one box from the late 1990s (left) and two boxes purchased in 2003. None of the cards that were packed in those boxes were alcohol-resistant.
The old-style side-sealed boxes have gone through many variations. The blue box on the left is from 1989 (I was able to pinpoint the year thanks to one of the advertising cards). The cards in the blue box were alcohol-resistant, but only if rubber lightly. Repeated heavy-handed rubbing proved to take away the gloss somewhat, but not nearly as severely as on new playing cards. The box in the middle is from the late 1990s and this is the actual box from the top picture (left). The box on the right is from 2002 (the copyright date is printed on the flap) and although it is an old-style box with a one-piece folded rear end, it has been produced in or after 2002. Nowadays this style box is less common than the style that can be disassembled at the bottom and has a short tuck-in flap on top.
None of the cards from the red boxes were alcohol-resistant, despite the fact that they were packed inside old-style boxes. A light touch of alcohol immediately kills the gloss and puts a white frosted film on the cards. Those boxes are all from Bicycle 808 "Rider Back" decks - the most popular cards in the US. However, I was able to find a deck of Bicycle 808 "Racer Backs" from the late 1980s and discovered that they were 100% alcohol-resistant.
As I mentioned above, I stumbled upon the alcohol issue by chance while experimenting with Bee cards. I have not been able to pinpoint the date when my old (alcohol resistant) Bee cards were made, but I remember buying them in the late 80s or early 90s. But who knows how long they'd been sitting in storage prior to my purchase?
Old Bee boxes are a lot easier to identify than Bicycle. First of all, the old box (left) has a monochromatic print of the entire design. The only exception is the bar code on the red box. The bar code is always blue, regardless if the box is red or blue. New Bee boxes have a two-color print plus some details in gold. Again the bar code is always blue, but the red box has some lettering in blue and the blue box bears the opposite color combination.
In addition to the color differences there have also been some significant graphic design changes that are easy to spot when boxes are compared side by side. Furthermore, the cellophane wrapper on the old box is heat sealed and difficult (sometimes impossible) to open without tearing, while the wrapper on the new box is glued together and usually easy to open. The security seal on the new box has a waxy appearance and is easy to peal off without tearing because the paper is durable and the glue is soft. However, the seal on the old box is made out of flimsier paper and is firmly glued in place. Good luck pealing that one off.
Please note that this description only pertains to Bee cards distributed in the US. If you purchase Bee cards in Canada, Europe or Asia, you will notice that the boxes bear totally different designs.
Once again, Bee cards from the late 80s are totally alcohol-resistant. You can spill 95% ethanol over the card, wipe it off, let it dry and the card will look like new. However, a small amount of alcohol will ruin the finish on the new Bees. The obvious test would be to dilute the alcohol by adding water, but even 40% alcohol (such as vodka) will ruin the finish. The more water you add the more you are dealing with water damage, which is what painters are trying to avoid in the first place.
I have not yet been able to pinpoint the exact year when the USPCC changed the finish on their cards, but I believe it must have been sometime between 1990 and 1999. At the time of this writing (2003/04) I am still able to find some old decks, even sealed ones. However, with each passing year it become more and more difficult to find and old supply of USPCC cards.
It should also be noted that the USPCC is currently still producing Bee cards that come packed in the old-style boxes. However, those are usually sold only on the Asian market (unless some decks find their way into the hands od US distributors, which has been known to happen). The cards that are currently packed inside the old-style boxes are not alcohol resistant, though. To positively identify an old box, one should also look at the factory seal. The old seals did not have a glossy appearance and are usually easily identifiable (as can be seen in the picture above).
So, are alcohol-resistant USPCC playing cards a thing of the past? Oddly enough I discovered that the new Stinger™ Bee cards are 100% alcohol resistant, just like the old cards used to be. Bees have been around since 1892 and Stingers have been introduced in 2001. Ironically, Stingers have been designed specifically to prevent card cheating, and especially as a countermeasure against marked cards. The USPCC introduced white borders with a faded edge to make it "impossible to spot" misalignments and make up a sorted deck, which is of course nonsense. The idea behind the use of white borders in the first place was to make it more difficult to deal seconds, which is just more nonsense.
Once again, this shows that the team that develops security measures must know very little about card cheating. I am sure that they changed the chemical composition of the finish on the Stingers without being aware of any of the alcohol issues. This fact combined with the fact that no one at the USPCC seems to know anything about the change of finish on their own playing cards leads me to believe that they changed their finish for reasons totally unrelated to gaming security, and that they ended up making it more difficult for cheats totally by chance. I would not be the least surprised if one day the USPCC changes their finish once again, and if the new finish proves to be alcohol-resistant again. That would actually not be such a bad thing at all and if that day ever comes you'll curse me for advising you to use that old juice recipe to wrap a fish in.
I have actually been sworn to secrecy not to divulge the secret of a still-functional juice solvent. Knowing the secret to the solvent is also not enough because the application technique is as important.
There is also another type of solvent that can be used on any cards and seems to have some highly desirable characteristics. This solvent is very potent but does not damage the cards in any way, not even slightly. In fact, you can soak any paper playing card in this solvent for days, then pull the card out and it will be like new after it dries off. There will be absolutely no trace that the card had ever been soaked in liquid. However, the problem with this solvent is that it is not capable of diluting many types of dyes.
Although I have made a promise not to reveal the secret of the solvents described above (better say, not described above) I have not made any promises to another friend who let me in on an old secret for restoring the finish on playing cards. Actually, this other friend gave me full permission to disclose his secret recipe, so I decided to write it up before he changes his mind.
It is possible to restore the finish of a playing card by rubbing powdered soap stone over the corroded area. Soap stone can be obtained from welding supply stores and aside from card cheating it is used by welders to write on metal (which may explain its presence at welding supply stores). A welder will use it to mark off a piece of metal to be cut with a cutting torch, but a card shark will use it to restore a damaged area of a card after a cut-out job.
The soap stone trick will not work on large areas. In other words one can not hope to restore the finish on large areas, but there is another technique that can be used to restore the finish over the entire back of the card, if needed. But that secret is not something I am willing to share.
The best inks that one could hope to use for block-out work or line work would naturally be the actual ink used by the manufacturer of specific cards one would hope to mark. But unless you can get a temporary job at the playing card factory and walk away with a few containers of their inks in your lunchbox, you will have to come up with another solution.
The image shows two vials filled with red and blue ink. These vials are now in my private collection and contain the actual ink that came from the USPCC production plant. When the ink is in its original form it looks more like a paste, but the ink inside these vials had been diluted. The reason why the vials are sealed-off with black adhesive tape is because the ink contains a small amount of carbolic acid, which is extremely toxic (as previously discussed). These two particular vials came from an old gambling collection. Since the time when this ink was obtained the USPCC had changed their inks, but I am unclear about the reason why carbolic acid is contained inside this ink. Was it part of the original composition of the ink, or was it added by the person who originally diluted the ink?
The average person will be under the impression that it must be very easy to mark playing cards if one has access to the original ink. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, original inks may not even be the best solution for block-out work or line work. The problem is not apparent until one attempts to paint on the back of a playing card. After a few trials it will seem impossible to make the ink match. The problem is not matching the color (obviously) but rather matching the density. Block-out work is actually one of the most difficult works to produce. If one overlaps the painted area with a factory-printed area, it will produce an obvious dark spot. If one paints too thick it will look darker and stand out like a sore thumb. If one paints too thin, it will, once again, stand out because it will look too light. It would seem impossible to produce a hand-painted area that looks like it had been printed at the factory. The reason for this challenge lies in the fact that the printed ares on the backs of playing cards are actually not 100% opaque. The printed areas are in fact very thin and allow a certain percentage of light to shine through the thin film of paint. Any attempt to paint will produce obvious brush strokes and streaks of lighter and darker areas.
The old books teach us how to make make dyes by grinding oyster shells and going through elaborate time-consuming procedures just to make up a dye. But the era when the painters had to collect their pigments from nature is long gone; today an artist only needs to go to an art supply store and purchase whatever paint in a tube. But artists are not the only customers at art supply stores. There also comes the occasional card shark looking for the perfect dye for a tint job or whatever scam may be on the menu.
Experienced card sharks hardly have to look around the store to find what they came to buy because they already know what does the job. There is one particular maker that makes one particular brand of dyes that has been used by paper players for a long time. And that dye can be purchased at many art supply stores. So, even if I do not give away the secret formula, I still tell you where to start looking before you start grinding oyster shells. Most should agree that even such a s small clue will save you a lot of legwork.
Outside of art supply stores, that particular dye is also available from other specialized stores that sell a totally different line of merchandise. However, I can not tell you what kind of stores, or what kind of merchandise they sell, because it would end up being too much of a clue. If you take the time to look in art supply stores you will see how much time and effort it takes to develop a marking solution. Then you will also understand why people don't just want to "give away the store" once they find out what works. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to develop a good marking solution - and most of it ends up being wasted on unsuccessful experiments.
A paper player is by no means limited to the particular dye just described. There are several other substances that can be used with great results (if not better) than the most widely-known dyes. Furthermore, different types of work will require different solutions - especially the specialized work, such as video juice or white-on-white work.
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