As-Nas: The Ancient Card Game of the Middle East
While gambling is frowned upon and legally banned on religious grounds in many Middle-East countries, including Dubai, historians believe that Persia or modern-day Iran has connections to the game of Poker. Some believe that this popular card game originated in ancient China in the tenth century BC. It traversed the world via the Silk Route and through traveling merchants. However, a set of experts believe that the latest version of Poker came from As-Nas, a Persian card game. We are going to trace the origin and evolvement of As-Nas and what makes it similar to the modern-day Poker game.
The history of As-Nas
It is widely believed that As-Nas existed simultaneously with Ganjifa in Egypt. The origin of this ancient Persian card game can be traced to the seventeenth century. The card game was widely famous in the Middle East for at least two centuries – from the 17th till 19th century before being gradually replaced by the European version.
By the 20th century, even though Iran had a monopoly on playing cards due to the Foreign Trade Monopoly Act, 1931, the manufactured cards primarily used Western symbols – hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs. By 1945, As-Nas almost reached its end, even in the Middle East, excluding in some rural areas. Finally, by 1979 when the Ismalic Revolution happened in the region, As-Nas was whipped out entirely as most nations banned gambling.
Components of As-Nas
Interestingly, the card designs are traditional and mainly were hand-painted on cardboard. The designs were simple. The pack consists of five distinct designs, with each design repeated about four to five times. Thus, the total pack consisted of either twenty or twenty-five cards.
Other characteristic features of the As-Nas cards are:
- Single-headed designs as compared to double-headed designs in modern cards.
- The card dimensions were usually about 4cm x 6cm. The cards bear a rectangular frame over which there was an oval decorative border on which the designs would be made.
- The cards had no titles or indexes.
- The cards have five different sets of background colors that help players recognize the cards.
- The background colors are – black background is black; Shah has green; yellow is the background color of the queen; gold or orange is for the soldier and red for the dancer.
The details of As-Nas cards are:
- ‘As’ or the Ace card. The design would usually be of an animal. The most common was a lion surrounded by the sun or the moon in the background. Sometimes, the design would be of different animals, either biting each other or bearing the picture of a hunter riding on a horse, being attacked by a wild animal, etc.
- Shah or the king – This court card would feature the king sitting on a horse or a throne.
- Bibi or the Queen or the Lady – The design would have the lady sitting with a child.
- Serbaz- Means Soldier in Persian.
- Couli or Lakat – Shows a dancing woman or dancers or musicians. This card is considered the lowest category amongst all court cards.
What does the name As-Nas mean?
The configuration of the As-Nas card pack denotes Ace and different classes of people. As mentioned above, As is the Ace card, and the other four sets denote people belonging to different strata of the society. The As was the highest card and the Couli the lowest one.
The method of playing As-Nas
The method of playing this ancient card game is the same as modern-day Poker. However, the game had no sequence or flushes.
Four players sit together to play the game. One of the players is the dealer who handles the stakes. The dealer first distributes two covered cards to each player. He starts from the player sitting on his left. As the game initiates, the first player views his cards. He needs to say ‘I have seen’ or ‘didam’ in Persian. He then needs to either cover or raise the stake. He also can withdraw or throw his cards or say ‘Nadidam’ or ‘I have not seen. The player has the option not to see the card and continue. The turn passes onto the next player, who also chooses to see the card and cover the stakes or raise it. He can go without seeing or throwing his cards. Similarly, the third and the fourth player have the same options.
The dealer deals out the second round of two more cards each to all the players still in the game. Again the series of stakes and bets take place. Finally, the players still in the game are given the fifth card, followed by another round of stakes.
Only when the stakes of all the players playing the game are the same, and no one is willing to raise the stake, the players need to show their cards. The player with the best cards wins the stake money.
One of the main aspects of As-Nas was bluffing. It is also a common aspect of modern-day Poker, where players force other players to give up or raise their bets.
The possible combinations include:
- Having cards from each type – 1 card of Ace, Shah, Bibi, Serbaz, and Couli.
- Five identical cards
- Five cards from one type.
- Three identical cards plus a couple.
- A couple.
- Three identical subjects.
- Three belong to the same type and a couple
The valuation of the cards is different too between As-Nas and Poker. In As-Nas,
- A full is a three and a pair, also called She va, just in the local language.
- Threes, kings, aces called Sehta.
- One pair in which Aces is the highest called Just.
- Do Just in which there are two pairs, pair of aces being the highest.
When two or more players have the same cards or pairs, the winner is decided based on the accompanying cards.
Difference between As-Nas and Poker
- Compared to Poker, which is played with fifty-two cards, As-Nas consisted of only twenty or twenty-five cards.
- As-Nas has no sequence or flushes, whereas Poker has these two components.
Museums where one can see traditional As-Nas cards
Some of the places where one can see these ancient cards are the Brooklyn Museum in New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, German Playing Card Museum in Germany, British Museum, Moghadam Museum in Iran, National Museum van Wereldculturen in the Netherlands, and more.
Though As-Nas is no longer played even in its country of origin, it reflects and throws light on ways of entertainment for Persian people during the bygone era. Also, its contribution toward the evolution of the modern-day Poker game is established – thereby, its legacy continues.