As distractions go, playing cards have plenty to recommend them. A deck of cards is inexpensive, easily available, portable, and doesn’t need charging. And as the photos in this gallery show, the many games that people play with cards have the power to mesmerize folks from all walks of life.
LIFE’s photos of card players include a number of celebrities. Joe DiMaggio passes the time on a road trip playing casino with his teammates. Sophia Loren uses cards to pass a slow moment on a movie set. Actor Yves Montand gets in a few hands while his actress wife, Simone Signoret, gets made up for the Academy Awards.
But star shots aside, card games—whose history traces back to 9th-century China—are a truly democratic entertainment. Young boys play on the streets of Brooklyn, as do older gentlemen on the sidewalks of Paris. College girls play in a Connecticut dorm room, as do adults at an Illinois social club.
The games that they play vary: poker, bridge, gin rummy, hearts, pinochle, solitaire. Perhaps most striking is the variety of situations in which the cards come in handy. For the soldiers on the eve of battle in Luzon, the games may be a relief from stress, or boredom, or both. In a photo from a bridge club in Mapletown, N.J., a woman appears to be waging a battle against existential boredom—and losing.
That woman is an unhappy exception to the rule, though. In most photos, the players are utterly absorbed by their cards, their attention devoted to assessing what they have in their hands and figuring out what their next play should be.
For such a humble thing as a deck of cards, the depth of distraction they can achieve is really quite an accomplishment.
Actress Sophia Loren played cards with photographer Pierluigi in her trailer while fans waited outside during location filming of “Madame Sans Gene” in 1961.
Kenneth Trout and actress Ella Raines played gin rummy at the deck of a Nevada hotel; the couple were high school sweethearts who had married before his deployment as a bomber pilot during World War II, and LIFE chronicled their first real vacation together in its July 30, 1945 issue. The couple divorced in December of that year.
Actor Yves Montand (second from the right) played cards while his wife, actress Simone Signoret, had her hair done in a Beverly Hills Hotel room hours before the 32nd Annual Academy Awards in 1960; she would win Best Actress.
James Jones (right), author of From Here to Eternity, played cards with a group that included, from left to right, his wife Gloria, Bernie Frizzell and Addie Herder played poker during a party at his Paris residence, 1967.