Stephen Winick Interviews Stuart Kaplan

This is a never-before-published article by Dr. Stephen Winick, a folklorist, writer and editor for the Library of Congress, based on an interview he conducted in 2008 with U.S. Games founder Stuart Kaplan.

Stu Cropped“I liken myself to The Fool in the Tarot deck,” Stuart Kaplan told me.  “Every day is a new adventure for me between researching, managing U.S. Games Systems and the Creative Whack Company, collecting, and traveling.”  As the long-established president of an important Tarot and playing card company, the manufacturer of the most popular Tarot decks in the world, and the creator of the voluminous reference work The Encyclopedia of Tarot, Kaplan has long since proved his wisdom in Tarot matters.  Yet the Fool remains a particularly apt card for Kaplan, for many reasons, not least of which is his birthday: April Fools Day. 

The Fool stands for new beginnings, for blank slates, for innocence.  It’s also the card of taking a chance, seizing an opportunity.  As the first of the sequence of the Major Arcana (at least according to the most popular theory), it stands for the first step of a great journey.  All of these apply to Kaplan, who as a young man took two steps that would help revitalize Tarot, first in the U.S. and then around the world: first, he began importing Tarot cards to the United States.  Then, he began publishing them through his own company. 

Usg logoThis was a new beginning in more ways than one. For Kaplan, it would eventually lead to a career change and a lifetime as a publisher, collector and author of Tarot and playing card decks, games and books.  For the U.S., it marked the beginning of a Tarot renaissance; the explosion of interest in Tarot that began in the late 60s was fueled by, and in turn fueled, an increased availability of decks, many of which were supplied by Kaplan.  Although there were Tarot decks made and sold in the U.S. prior to Kaplan’s involvement (such as the de Laurence and Albano re-workings of the Rider-Waite deck), it was Kaplan who provided mass-produced, affordable decks to U.S. customers through mainstream bookstores. 

Kaplan was always interested in games, and in 1965 created a board game called Student Survival, in which players attempted to graduate college without running out of money. However, when he discovered Tarot, Kaplan was living a life far removed from games and from the exotic pictures on Tarot cards.  His background was in marketing and finance, and he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, America’s oldest and most prestigious business school.  As he tells it, in February 1968, he was working on Wall Street, “responsible for overseeing several coal mining operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, and a juvenile furniture plant in Tennessee, along with evaluating potential investment acquisitions.”  On a visit to Germany, he visited the Nuremberg Toy Fair, partly to seek gifts for his five children, and partly to satisfy his own curiosity about games.  He also remembers another motive:  “As a total departure from my job,” he said, “I thought it would be interesting to explore the possibilities of importing gift and game items.”

Tarot encOn the last day of the fair, Kaplan came across a small exhibition booth belonging to AG