Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards
Almost every hobby that involves collecting has a holy grail which every collector dreams of finding and owning in their personal collection. For some playing card collectors, the grail of collecting would be a sealed deck of original Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards in pristine condition. If you’ve spent some time in the world of playing cards, you’ll almost certainly have heard of this famous deck, because name-dropping the famous “Jerry’s Nuggets” often happens in discussion forums about cards. Owning an original deck of these is often mentioned as a badge of honour that cements your credentials as a serious collector. If you have one, it’s likely a prized item in your collection, because it is one of the most iconic and valuable decks of cards there is from the latter half of the 20th century.
These playing cards were first created in 1970 in order to be used at Jerry’s Nugget Casino, which is located in Las Vegas, Nevada. The casino was founded by Jerry Lodge and Jerry Stamis in 1964, hence the name “Jerry”. It’s still owned and operated by the Stamis family today.
But after being manufactured, the Jerry’s Nugget playing cards were put into storage for around 20 years, and were never used on the casino’s gaming tables. Why? Even the folks at the casino don’t remember the reasons why. Was it because they wanted to keep in step with the other casinos in town that were using borderless Bee-backed cards at the time? Was it because the back design was too detailed or too simple, and could be marked too easily by card cheats? Who knows.
At any rate, they were sometimes offered as complimentary gifts to guests who stayed at the casino, while the rest were eventually sold individually at the casino’s gift store for as little as one or two dollars each. They finally sold out around 1999, and according to rumour the final case was purchased by an overseas buyer.. But with magician and playing card expert Lee Asher singing their praises and selling them on his website, and with cardists Dan and Dave Buck also getting on the bandwagon, using them in some of their cardistry videos, and vouching for them, demand only continued to grow.
What made these playing cards special is that they were produced with a top-of-the-line grade of USPCC card-stock that was only produced for a limited period of time. It is thinner than most contemporary playing cards, and is simply not available today. What’s more, modern printing methods simply can’t replicate the original process used to produce these playing cards. This involved a cotton roller that would paint the embossing pattern on one side of the card, followed by a varnished finish that was applied by a dip coat technique. Environmental restrictions also mean that the chemical finish used for this has been abandoned. In short, technology has made these manufacturing methods completely obsolete, and this all means that it’s just not possible for there to be anything quite like these decks ever again.
That in itself wouldn’t make them the stuff of legend. But Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards began to develop a legendary reputation for amazing handling qualities. Demand began to increase, and over time, they have become highly sought after by playing card collectors and by those with an interest in card flourishing. As demand increased, the price went up, and their growing scarcity means that today you can expect to pay up to $500 for a deck on the secondary market.
As often happens in such cases, the story of Jerry’s Nuggets Playing Cards began to attract some interesting side stories. There are reports about a large remaining haul of these playing cards being bought up from the gift shop, and held back by an unknown stranger who is sitting on what is now a valuable commodity. They also attracted the attention of counterfeiters, since the increasing price-tag suddenly made it viable to sell forgeries. Lee Asher has an extensive guide that contains information to help you identify illegal fakes, after sophisticated counterfeiters began flooding the market with them just over a decade ago.
But all this has only served to add to the legend that is Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards. Today most playing card collectors and magicians have all heard of Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards, and consider them to be the stuff of legend: a unique product with legendary handling, that is hard to find, and impossible to reproduce. As the old adage puts it, it’s something often imitated but never duplicated. And as the number of playing card collectors continues to grow, the appeal, scarcity, and value of a deck of authentic Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards only continues to increase.
A Recreation of the Original
But this doesn’t end the story of the famous Jerry’s Nugget playing cards. Given how much in demand these legendary decks were, it was only a matter of time before someone saw a business opportunity here. What about a reprint, to cater to the desire of modern collectors to own their own copy of Jerry’s Nuggets? The idea was not a new one, and it appears that there have been other Jerry’s Nugget decks produced besides the ones that have become the stuff of legend, including a small printing by USPCC around 2010.
But in 2019 the market was ripe for producing something that would serve as a tribute and homage to the famous Jerry’s Nuggets, while retaining as much of the original as possible. So a crowdfunding project was launched to produce an authentic recreation of the original Jerry’s Nugget playing cards. Obviously such a deck could never be an exact replica, not only because printing methods made this impossible, but also because look-alike decks might only be abused by people seeking to make a quick buck by passing them off as a genuine vintage copy.
The recreation project happened with the blessing of Jerry’s Nugget Casino, and with the cooperation of the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), and the Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC). The amount of support this Kickstarter received is in itself a testimony to the popularity of these iconic decks. It raised almost half a million dollars, with the support of over 4,000 backers.
Two main versions of the deck were produced. The Modern Feel deck was produced by USPCC, with their popular thin-crushed stock preferred by many cardists. This means that its quality, feel, and handling performance is very similar to any other thin-crushed cardistry deck printed in their factories. But unlike most custom decks, the high volume of decks produced meant that USPCC could print these reproductions on the larger web press which they also use for big print runs of their Bicycle decks.
The Vintage Feel deck was produced by EPCC, and was manufactured in China with what is known as their “JN Finish”. This is a firmer and more snappy card stock than what USPCC uses, while also being somewhat thin, smooth, and yet very durable. In EPCC’s estimation, these match the look and feel of the originals as close as anyone has been able to achieve. In reality, many have reported that they don’t quite live up to this claim, and suggest that the cards tend to clump more quickly then a USPCC deck, and that intense shuffling of the red deck can cause some bleeding of the colour onto the card faces. My own experience with the Vintage Feel decks has been fairly positive, and I appreciate the thin card-stock, smooth feel, and snappy handling. It performs more similar to a typical USPCC deck than the Master finish decks from EPCC deck do, but with heavy use the coating will wear, making spreads and fan inconsistent, although the fact that the cards tend to cling together slightly under pressure makes it ideal for packet cuts and sleights like the double lift.
So how do these decks compare with the original Jerry’s Nugget decks from the 1970s in terms of looks? In the case of both decks, colour matching was used to recreate the iconic red and blue colours as closely as possible. The back design, court cards, and Jokers are all the same as the originals, as is the Ace of Spades (aside from some tiny numbers). There’s also an off-center seal and a red tear strip on the plastic, all of which were distinctive features of the original deck as well. Both the Modern Feel and Vintage Deal decks also have a traditional cut.
A difference that the Modern Feel decks have from the original Jerry’s Nuggets is that they come with an extra two cards (a double backer and a blank card), since USPCC now prints decks with 56 cards instead of 54. The new deck is also clearly distinguished from the original deck since the bottom of the tuck box states “Modern Feel 1st Edition – 2019”.
The Vintage Feel deck shares one extra similarity with the original deck that the Modern Feel deck does not, namely the style of the long-tongue flap. This is a distinctive feature of the original tuck box, but couldn’t be replicated with the Modern Feel decks due to the fact that USPCC has long discontinued this style of tuck design. And of course the unique and snappy stock of the Vintage Feel decks makes them look and feel different than a traditional USPCC printed deck, much like the original Jerry’s Nuggets also had a unique touch about them.
Due to the high level of crowdfunding, many extras were produced as part of the campaign for the recreated decks. The Modern Feel deck was produced in two additional colours, Teal and Coral, as well as a blue luxury foil deck, a stripper deck, and a gaff deck. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards, the year 2020 has seen the release of yet more colours for the Vintage Feel decks, making them available in Steel Grey, Black, Yellow. A Modern Feel deck in rose (pink) was also recently released as part of a collaboration with Riffle Shuffle Playing Card Company, while a purple deck is being released in conjunction with Penguin Magic.
Suddenly, the market is full of Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards once again. But unlike the originals, they are now very affordable and readily available, which was one of the aims of this project. Now anyone can own their own deck of Jerry’s Nuggets, without breaking the bank, with a recreation that is faithful to the striking and iconic design of the originals, and yet has the qualities and performance that the modern collector wants and expects.
Chicken Nugget Playing Cards
At this point you might think there is little more to say about the famous Jerry’s Nuggets. Not so, because there is one more important chapter to tell in this saga. This one, however, is a miniature comedy, and will especially appeal to those with a good sense of humour.
Already back in 2016, and well before the concept of the recreated Jerry’s Nugget decks appeared, Taiwanese magician and cardist Hanson Chien decided to create something very similar to the original Jerry’s Nuggets, as somewhat of a joke: the Chicken Nugget Playing Cards.
Hanson has extensive experience as a magician and a cardist, and magicians know a thing or two about achieving the impossible. As a result, the fact these classic decks could not be replicated was not about to stop him. He set about to recreate them in the form of a parody deck, that would serve as a tribute to the original and iconic Jerry’s Nuggets, but at the same time serving as a witty satire that would poke fun at our love for fast food. Not surprisingly, especially because this was prior to the announcement of the official replicas in 2019, these were tremendously popular, due to the Jerry’s Nugget look, as well as the amusing artwork.
To produce the decks, Hanson set up his own playing card company, Hanson Chien Production Company (HCPC). He also used the exact colour specifications from the familiar red and blue originals, and he employed creative artist Limin for the artwork.
It was important to retain as many of the distinctive features of the original decks as possible, so the Chicken Nuggets carefully replicate details such as the off-center tax stamp, the red tear-strip on the plastic wrapper, and the historical 1970 date inside the tuck box flap. Paper of the same weight and texture of the old tax stamp was used, with a similar design and shape. The card backs feature the familiar “oil derrick” design of the originals, but with an important difference: these now read “Chicken Nugget”.
But perhaps the biggest unique contribution that this parody deck makes is with the court cards. At first sight, everything seems very standard, until you look more closely at them.
Upon close observation, you’ll see all kinds of details that parody our love for fast food. The royal characters that inhabit the court cards are consuming all kinds of junk food, including sweet things like ice-cream, chocolate, and donuts, snacks like potato chips and popcorn, plus American favourites like hamburgers, hot dogs, and french fries. Even noodles come in for punishment, as our court card friends are literally stuffing themselves with all kinds of unhealthy eats and drinks! The artwork will prove amusing even for people unfamiliar with the original Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards that these pay homage to. The court cards in particular are quite hilarious and well-drawn, and reflect a good sense of humor.
Of course anyone who is familiar with the iconic Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards will especially appreciate the clever spoof that this deck is, while being a wonderful tribute to a classic and famous deck. In parodying the original, great attention has been paid to detail in all elements of the design, faithfully copying the exact specifications of the original wherever possible.
The Joker gives us some indication about a serious message that underlies the amusing artwork, with this warning message: “Quit Junk Food. Make Life Good.” As the creator wrote elsewhere during the crowdfunding campaign: “So while you’re performing amazing magic, don’t forget to rub your bellies and remind yourself to quit junk food.” I appreciate this warning about the dangers of eating too much fast food and junk food – a message that today’s culture needs to hear.
The decks were printed in Taiwan, which is also where industry leaders like Legends Playing Card Company (LPCC) and Expert Playing Card Company (EPCC) produce their cards. The quality of the cards closely corresponds to the Diamond and Master finish used by these manufacturers, and given that the same factory in Taiwan is used for the printing, the look and feel of these cards is almost identical. They have a very firm spring, and are extremely durable. While they don’t spread and fan as smoothly as a USPCC deck, they do have a quality embossed finish, and are particularly good for packet cuts, since the cards hold together well.
It’s not hard to see that a deck like this would be popular, and have a lot of cross-over appeal as a novelty item. It especially appeals to people who are already familiar with the iconic status of the Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards, and who can appreciate how this parody replicates the original. But anyone with a sense of humor can enjoy the amusing court cards and the fast-food spoof that is key to what this deck is about, giving it a broad appeal to card collectors and gamers too.
Due to the success of the original project, Hanson Chien was able to produce several special decks and unique packaging options, my favourite being the fast-food style brick box. Since the original campaign, the popularity of the deck has enabled it to be published in a number of other sizes and colours, including a deck with jumbo-sized cards, a limited edition black deck, a limited edition white deck, and a host of Chicken Nuggets themed novelty items.
Another Jerry’s Nugget
Surprisingly, the story of Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards has one final twist. Just like prospecting for gold, in the world of playing cards and collecting, you never know when you’re going to find another nugget. In this case, our “prospector” is Hanson Chien, creator of the Chicken Nugget decks, and the unexpected “nugget” that he acquired was a deck of Jerry’s Nugget Playing Cards that hails roughly from a similar time as the original decks.
The precise date when it was produced hasn’t been established with any certainty, but it was produced by the Arrco Playing Card Company in Chicago. More significantly, the artwork has a different look. The artwork and design corresponds to the chips and merchandise used by the Jerry’s Nugget Casino at the time when it opened in 1964. The findings were reported by Lee Asher in a 2018 article in Card Culture, the official periodical of 52 Plus Joker The American Playing Card Collectors Club.
So is it possible that this is in fact the original Jerry’s Nugget deck, and that what we’ve been describing all along as the “original” deck may in fact have been part of a second wave?
Who knows. At any rate, where there’s a nugget, perhaps there’s a seam of gold to be found in those hills. Hanson saw another opportunity here, and towards the end of 2019, he launched a project to make another version of his Chicken Nugget deck, intended as a homage to this new find. It is a vintage styled version of his Chicken Nugget deck, in the alternative design and colours of the vintage Arrco Playing Card Company Jerry’s Nugget deck. Hanson Chien describes it as a remastered version of the Arrco deck, and has marketed it under the label “New Vintage Chicken Nugget”. Much like the recreated Vintage Feel Jerry’s Nugget decks printed by EPCC, these will have a thinner and firmer card stock.
But sometimes the twist in a tale comes back to bite you. Unfortunately for us, at this stage we don’t know whether this latest twist will turn out to be a comedy or a tragedy. While the new decks are still being advertised on the Hanson Chien website, albeit with some production delays as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, the Kickstarter project behind the new decks seems to have run into trouble. A few months ago it was reported that this campaign has become the subject of an intellectual property dispute, and the rumour is that it was issued by Jerry’s Nugget Casino. This isn’t likely to stop the new decks being produced, mind you, given that Hanson runs his own printing company, and he has since successfully run an independent campaign to get them published.
Comedy or tragedy? We don’t know the final outcome of this latest twist just yet. But certainly the Jerry’s Nuggets have provided us with a lot of entertainment along the way, and we can only be glad to see them getting revived interest and attention, and some spiffy new editions that give every collector the chance to add a recreation of this famous deck into their collection at a very affordable cost.