Two contestants, one of which was typically the returning champion, were assigned an oversized deck of 52 playing cards and were dealt the first five cards for their row. The champion (or champion-designate if there were two new contestants) played the red cards on top while the challenger played the blue cards on the bottom. Each contestant's row of cards had a bracket atop it with their name on it, which was used to mark their "base cards." In the NBC version, the brackets moved electronically, while the CBS and syndicated versions had a dealer or even the host move the brackets manually.
Contestants alternated responding to questions starting with the champion to gain control of the cards. Survey questions were posed to groups of 100 people, all of whom were typically in a common demographic group (e.g., of the same profession, all male, all over the age of 50, etc.). Contestants were asked to predict how many of those 100 people responded in a specific manner. Their opponent was then asked whether he or she thought the actual number was higher or lower than the previous contestant's response. The actual number was then revealed, and if the opponent was correct, they played their cards first; otherwise, the contestant to whom the question was posed played first. In the 1980–1981 season, a $500 bonus was awarded to any contestant who provided the exact number of people responding to a specific question.
The CBS and syndicated versions from 1986 to 1989 featured two new varieties of questions in addition to the traditional survey questions: Beginning in July 1986, the audience poll was a question asked of a group of studio audience members (usually 10 members) selected for a shared characteristic such as gender or occupation. If a contestant guessed the exact number of audience members who made a certain response to one of these questions, he or she won a $100 bonus and the poll group was given $100 to share. The same poll group was used for a week's worth of episodes. Introduced in October 1986, the educated guess questions were general knowledge trivia questions which had numerical answers. Exact guesses won a $500 bonus for the contestant. Guesses and responses were originally registered on the displays; this later changed to the guesses and responses superimposed on the displays, as they could be more than 99, which was the highest number the displays could register.
The contestant in control was shown the first card in the row of five, the so-called "base card," and could either keep it or replace it with the next card off the top of the deck, which he or she was then required to play. The contestant then guessed whether the next card in the row was higher or lower, and continued to do so as long as he or she guessed correctly. If two duplicate cards appeared (e.g., two consecutive Aces) or the contestant made an incorrect guess, that contestant lost control and whatever cards they had played were discarded and replaced. The opposing contestant then had a chance to play from his or her base card, but without the opportunity to exchange first. Either contestant could also elect to "freeze" their position if they were unsure of the next card; this would both prevent the opponent from playing and reset the contestant's base card to the frozen card and whatever cards that were turned in that instance were not discarded. In the final few months of the NBC Card Sharks, if a contestant was able to complete their row without freezing, he or she won a $500 bonus. None of the revivals kept this bonus.
If neither contestant had guessed all the cards in his or her row correctly, or if one had frozen his or her position, play continued with another toss-up question. The first two rounds consisted of a maximum of four questions each (changed from four questions to three briefly in the Rafferty run), and the third tie-breaker round contained a maximum of three questions (briefly changed to two on the Rafferty version). If the contestants still had not cleared their row of cards prior to the last question of the round, that question was played as "sudden death." The winner of the sudden death question could either play their cards and change their base card if they desired or pass to their opponent, who had to play without changing. If either contestant guessed incorrectly, their opponent automatically won the game.
The 1970s and 1980s Card Sharks matches were best two-out-of-three, with the third match being played with three cards per contestant and three high-low questions until 1988, when it was replaced with a tiebreaker round which consisted of a single sudden death question. The controlling contestant was shown both base cards before being given the option to play the cards and change their base card if desired or pass to the opponent, who had to play without changing. As before, if either contestant guessed incorrectly, their opponent automatically won the match.
On the 1970s and 1980s network editions of Card Sharks, and for the first four weeks of the 1986 syndicated series, each game win was worth $100 for the contestants, with the first player to win two games winning the match and playing the Money Cards bonus round. Beginning on September 29, 1986, and continuing for the remainder of the syndicated series, a series of cards with prizes and cash amounts on them were shuffled into each player's deck. Once one of these cards was revealed, the prize would be placed in a holding area at the end of the game board and the player in control played the next card off the top of the deck. The player who won the match received all the prizes on his or her side of the board, if there were any, and advanced to play the Money Cards. However, game wins no longer paid money.
In 2001, both contestants played the same row of seven cards. Each incorrect call gave the other contestant control of the remaining cards. A contestant won the game and $500 by guessing the last card correctly or by an opponent calling the last card incorrectly. The first contestant to win two games competed against the winner of the second match. Both contestants kept their winnings if they won a game. If both contestants were tied with one game each, a three-card tiebreaker round was played to determine the winner. At the beginning of each match, players were given two "Clip Chips", which when used would see them try to predict the results of a video clip with the right to change the card in play if correct. Clip Chips could not be used in the tiebreaker round, however.
The championship match consisted of one game with seven cards, played as before. The winner of the championship match won $1,100 and played the Money Cards and the losing contestant won a trip to Las Vegas in addition to their prior winnings. Players who lost in the preliminary rounds won an Argus digital camera in addition to their prior winnings.
The winner of the main game played the Money Cards bonus game for a chance to win additional money. The Money Cards board consisted of a series of eight cards (seven in 2001) on three levels. On the 1970s Card Sharks, a contestant was able to change the base card on each of the three levels (originally only the base card at the beginning of the game). The 1980s series gave the contestant a choice of three pre-dealt cards to use for changes. Contestants were originally allowed to change cards at will (even three times on one card), but the rules were changed to one card per line in early 1986. The 2001 series used the same rules from the 1970s series.
Each contestant playing the Money Cards was staked with money before the round began and would use that money to wager with as they attempted to correctly call their cards. A minimum bet of $50 ($100 for the 2001 series) was required for the cards on the first two rows. When the contestant managed to finish the first row, the last card was moved up to the next row and more money was added to his/her bank. On the original series, the stake was $200 to start and another $200 was given for advancing to the second row. The 1980s series staked the contestant $200 to start and added $400 for advancing to the second row. In the 2001 series, the $2,100 the winning player earned in the main game was used as the stake money for the Money Cards and divided by three; this meant that he/she was staked $700 to start and that amount was added to his/her stake for each row including the top row.
If the contestant cleared both rows, the last card was moved to the top line for the Big Bet ("Major Wager" in 2001) and he/she had to bet at least half of the remaining bank on a final call.
Correct calls added the value of the wager to the contestant's bank and incorrect calls deducted from it. If the contestant "busted" on the first row (lost the whole bank), the card he/she lost on was immediately moved to the second row with the additional money given to the contestant so he/she could continue. Busting again ended the game (except in 2001, when the contestant still had more money to be staked on the top line) and the contestant won nothing.
From the debut of the original series until October 20, 1980, the Money Cards were played the same way as the regular game, meaning that duplicate cards were treated as losses. From that day forward on the original series, all of the 1980s series, and some of the 2001 series, a duplicate was regarded as a "push" and the contestant did not lose his/her wager. Before the 2001 series was cancelled, the original series rules had been put back in place.
A secondary bonus game was introduced on both 1980s Card Sharks series which gave a winning contestant a chance to win a new car. Two different car games were played, one involving jokers from a deck of cards and the other an audience poll group.
Beginning September 29, 1986 in syndication and October 27, 1986 on CBS, a winning contestant received one Joker for winning the match. Three more were added to the Money Cards deck, and if a contestant uncovered them they received an additional chance to win the car. After the Money Cards round was over, a row of seven numbered cards was wheeled out and the contestant placed whatever Jokers they'd earned over the cards in the hopes that behind one of them was the word "CAR". During the special weeks when children played, the top prize was a trip to Hawaii (with either "WIN" or "HAWAII" displayed on one of the cards) and the children were given two Jokers to start. On the last episode of the 1986 syndicated version, all four Jokers were given to the final champion at the outset. This bonus round was played until July 1, 1988.
Beginning July 4, 1988, the winning contestant had to correctly predict one final audience poll question. To record their guess, the contestant used a special prop with a dial and the numbers 0 through 10 on it. The contestant moved the dial to the number they thought was correct, and if it was they won the car. Missing by one in either direction won the contestant $500 as a consolation prize, while any other incorrect guess won nothing. On the final episode, however, if the contestant was even one off, they still won the car.
On the original series, contestants could return until they either lost a game or won seven consecutive matches. On the CBS version, contestants played until they either won five consecutive matches or reached the network's winnings limit, which was originally $50,000 when the series debuted and extended to $75,000 in the fall of 1986. An unspecified winnings limit existed on the 1986 syndicated series, as well as a rule that limited the number of cars a champion could win. For the first few weeks, the car game was played for a luxury automobile/sports car and if a player won it, he/she automatically retired. Beginning in October 1986 mid-priced sports cars were used and the limit became three cars. By January 1987, some of the same base-model cars that were used on the CBS network Card Sharks began to be used on the syndicated series, and the limit was reduced to two. The change in car type also coincided with a change in supplier. From the debut of the car game on the syndicated series, General Motors' Chevrolet, Pontiac, and (early on, including the first week of the car game) Cadillac divisions provided cars. After the change to base-model cars, American Motors became the supplier with its Renault Alliance and Jeep Wrangler lines featured most frequently.
The 2001 version was self-contained, with no returning champions.
The original Card Sharks aired on NBC from April 24, 1978 to October 23, 1981, hosted by Jim Perry. From its debut until June 20, 1980, Card Sharks aired at 10:00 AM (ET)/9:00 AM (CT/MT/PT). The series was one of the few respectable daytime performers on NBC under Fred Silverman's tenure as network president, which at the time was struggling to gain ratings in both daytime and primetime. After a scheduling shuffle necessitated by the debut of The David Letterman Show on June 23, 1980, Card Sharks moved to Noon/11:00 AM, a timeslot where it faced the top-rated game show in daytime, Family Feud on ABC; the first half of The Young and the Restless in certain markets on CBS; and pre-emptions on local affiliates due to many stations electing to air local newscasts, talk shows, or other syndicated programming in the Noon hour. Card Sharks remained in the Noon/11:00 slot until its cancellation.
The CBS revival of Card Sharks debuted at 10:30/9:30 AM January 6, 1986 as a replacement for Body Language, and stayed in that timeslot for its entire run; Press Your Luck relocated to the latter show's old 4:00/3:00PM slot to make room for Card Sharks. Until January 1987, Card Sharks faced off against its original host Jim Perry's game show Sale of the Century on NBC in the time slot; Sale of the Century was moved to 10:00AM that year. Blockbusters (with the then-host of the syndicated Card Sharks, Bill Rafferty) and then Alex Trebek's Classic Concentration followed as competition for Card Sharks. The revival ended its run on March 31, 1989, and was replaced by a short-lived revival of Now You See It. The new host of the revival show was Bob Eubanks; the host of the British adaptation, Bruce Forsyth, was at one point being considered for the job as well, after having a short-lived game show in the US on ABC, Bruce Forsyth's Hot Streak. Patrick Wayne was also considered for the job.
The 1986 Bill Rafferty-hosted syndicated series debuted on September 8, 1986. For the first half of the season this syndicated Card Sharks series had fairly decent clearances, but this changed due to the show's ratings struggles in an overcrowded syndicated game show market. At the midseason point, the syndicated Card Sharks disappeared from quite a few of its markets, while many stations that continued to air it moved it to very undesirable late-night and early morning timeslots. The series continued to air until June 5, 1987, in the markets that kept it, with reruns airing until September 11 of that year.
The most recent regular Card Sharks series, the Pat Bullard-hosted 2001 series, debuted on September 17, 2001 (though as it launched the week after the September 11 attacks, was subject to pre-emption by several stations for news coverage) and aired new episodes until December 14, 2001. Four weeks of reruns aired following that, and the series was cancelled altogether on January 11, 2002. In most of its markets the 2001 Card Sharks was either paired with or aired on the same station as one or both of the Pearson Television-produced shows that were airing at the time, To Tell the Truth or Family Feud.
On June 15, 2006 the series was the fifth of seven game shows used in the CBS series Gameshow Marathon hosted by Ricki Lake. The set was modeled after the Perry version and also used its theme, opening sequence and logo; the use of "audience poll" questions and the car game were taken from the Eubanks/Rafferty versions.
Gene Wood was the primary announcer on both the original and 1980s Card Sharks versions, with Charlie O'Donnell and Bob Hilton serving as substitutes on both versions; Jack Narz, Jay Stewart, and Johnny Olson also served as substitutes on the NBC version (with Olson announcing the pilots) and Johnny Gilbert and Rod Roddy also served as substitutes on the CBS version. Gary Kroeger was the announcer for the 2001 version, and Rich Fields was the announcer of the Gameshow Marathon version.
The theme for the NBC version was previously used on the Goodson-Todman series Double Dare with host Alex Trebek that aired in 1976 on CBS. Edd Kalehoff wrote that theme through Score Productions, and the theme for the 1980s version of Card Sharks through his own production company. Alan Ett and Scott Liggett composed the 2001 series theme.
Ann Pennington, Janice Baker, Lois Areno, Kristin Bjorklund, Melinda Hunter, and Markie Post all served as models on the NBC version. Lacey Pemberton and Suzanna Williams were the models on the concurrent CBS and syndication runs in the 1980s, and Tami Roman was the model on the 2001 version.
The NBC version was taped at NBC Studios in Burbank, California in the same studio which housed Perry's next game, Sale of the Century. Both 1980s versions were taped at Studio 33 at CBS Television City in Hollywood, California. The 2001 version was taped at Tribune Studios, now known as the Sunset Bronson Studios, which are part of KTLA. The Gameshow Marathon version of Card Sharks was also taped at CBS Television City in Studio 46.The first Card Sharks home game was a computer-based video game released by Sharedata, Inc. and Softie, Inc. in 1988 for the Apple II and Commodore 64 units and all IBM compatible computers. Although the host was based on Jim Perry, the game's logo and gameplay were based on the Eubanks/Rafferty versions of the 1980s Card Sharks series, using the single sudden-death question tiebreaker in the main game. If a contestant got an exact guess on a question in the main game, he or she won a $100 bonus, instead of the $500 bonus on the show. Also, unlike the show, the game did not use the educated guess or audience poll questions.
In celebration of the show's 25th anniversary, Endless Games released a board game adaptation in 2002. Again, a mixing of elements from different versions occurred, as the game logo/fonts from the 2001 version was used on the majority of the game elements but employed the Perry-era front-end gameplay (awarding $500 for a main game win) and the Eubanks/Rafferty-era "Money Cards" format.
A version for mobile phones was released on June 1, 2005 by Telescope Inc., which also used the logo from 2001 to 2002; its theme music was a remix of the 1978–81 version, the rules and gameplay were based from a variety of the 70s and 80s variants. More survey questions were also available for download.
A single-player online version was once released by the now defunct website uproar.com. The logo and set were similar to its 2001–02 counterpart while its gameplay (minus the poll questions) was very similar to the 70s and 80s counterparts.
The now defunct website Gameshow24.com had their online version of Card Sharks in 2004. Its logo and set were based on the original 1978–81 version, and the main theme song had a unique mixture of both the '78 and '01 versions, and like its Uproar.com counterpart it had no poll questions either, but its gameplay was very similar to that of The Price Is Right where players have to guess grocery items that were 'higher' or 'lower' than the ones that precede them.
The most significant difference to many foreign versions of Card Sharks was the use of married couples instead of individual contestants (except the U.S., Brazilian, Greek, and Portuguese versions, which only use an "individual contestants" format instead). All global versions of Card Sharks (except the U.S., Brazil and Greece) were mostly produced by Reg Grundy.
Reruns of the American Perry and Eubanks/Rafferty versions have aired on Game Show Network since its inception. The Perry and Eubanks can also be seen on Buzzr. The Eubanks version also reran on Sky One in the UK during the 1990s. The 1994–1999 and 2002–2003 versions of Bruce Forsyth's Play Your Cards Right have rerun on Challenge in the UK.