Gamblers, Cheats and Fatalists

There’s no punishing or shaming
Certain people out of gaming;
’Tis among the plagues that ravage
Countries civilized and savage,
In its blind, impartial rage
Sparing neither sex nor age.
Henry Luttrell, 1827
Crockford House (Cantos II)

Gambling is the wagering of a stake on a competitive event with the intent of winning money. Typically, the outcome of a bet is known within a short period. Chinese culture has been the home of gambling, but games like craps, baccarat, roulette and black jack all originated in Europe. In addition to these games betting took place on a variety of spectator sports such as dog-fighting, bear-baiting, cock-fighting, boxing, and even cricket.

Speculation is often associated with gambling although there is a significant difference. Gambling is investing money in a short term game of chance with a high probability of losing the stake. Speculators take a longer term view based upon on an assessment of risk. However, there have been numerous occasions in economic history when speculative ventures turned out to be little more than mindless gambling. The story of the tulip has been told many times. Complementing the craze for curiosities, tulips were displayed in Wunderkammers. Each rare flower was exhibited like a work of art. The tulip became an object of wild speculation until the market crashed in late 1637. That collapse did not spell an end to the flower mania.

In the early eighteenth century another craze manifested itself, this time for hyacinths. They, too, reached astronomical prices on the open market. In 1720 Het groote tafereel der dwaasheid (The Great Scene of Folly) was published in Amsterdam. This folio volume is a collection of seventy-six engraved satirical prints and literary pieces which all concern the so-called South-Sea Bubble, the boom and subsequent crash of the stock market in that year, hitting France, England (Isaac Newton lost £20,000 in the crash), and the Netherlands. Each particular issue of Het groote tafereel is unique, cobbled together on demand by an unknown Amsterdam printer. It is astonishing that this publication was compiled and released in the few months following the financial collapse in September. Interestingly, the collection also includes a deck of playing cards. In England in particular there had been a tradition of publishing packs of specially illustrated cards to commemorate the reign of monarchs or specific events and sceneries.

In 1672, London mapmaker Robert Morden created a pack of playing cards with an image of the fifty-two counties (the exact number of cards in a pack) of England and Wales. The earliest politically motivated pack was produced in 1679 to commemorate the (fictitious) Popish Plot. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution was celebrated in a deck of cards containing reminders of James’s cruel reign, such as the murder of the Earl of Essex and the hanging of Protestant rebels. The tradition of issuing topical cards is maintained to this very day.

After being introduced into Europe by Arabs, playing cards have been around since the 1370s. The anonymous Master of the Playing Cards was active as an artist in the Rhineland from the 1430s to the 1450s. He is the first recognizable personality in the history of engraving. Over a hundred of his works have been recorded. They include a set of playing cards in five suits, copper-engraved and uncoloured, from which he takes his name. They were most likely intended as models for use in workshops. Playing cards such as these served as repositories for design motifs to be used by other artists. Craftsmen throughout the medieval period worked from sketch-book models which were copied time after time, so that images spread from master to pupil. The designs were inspired by written texts. Plants from the herbal, beasts from the bestiary, birds and insects from the Books of Hours, created a semiotic language based upon the everyday world of popular belief and proverbial wisdom. The same figures recur into the border decorations and miniature illustrations of manuscripts or printed books from the same period.

Spades, hearts, clubs and diamonds were taken from French decks of cards and did not emerge until later. They represented the four perceived classes in society, i.e. nobility, clergy, merchants, and peasants. Cards were used for games and gambling. They also provided a new way of telling fortunes. Prohibitions of card playing and denunciations by preachers demonstrate that the passion for the game was widespread. It was a pastime that attracted card sharps and gamblers. Cheating at cards has been delightfully depicted in paintings by Caravaccio, Gerard van Honthorst, Hendrick ter Brugghen, Georges de La Tour, and others. In our own time, several films have been inspired by the same subject.

The game of cards and its players has been a recurrent theme in the history of painting. From the works attributed (with reservations) to Lucas van Leyden in the sixteenth, to that of Rombouts, Teniers, Terborch or Jan Steen in the seventeenth, to Dumesnier and Chardin in the eighteenth, to Meissonier and Millais in the nineteenth, to Cézanne’s series of card playing Provence peasants of the early 1890s, to paintings by Theo van Doesburg and Ferdinand Léger in the twentieth century (to mention but a few masters of their art), they were all intrigued by the same topic. From the outset, artists have been fascinated by gaming, gambling and cheating.

In the course of the sixteenth century English inns had begun to serve one meal a day at a common table at a fixed time and price. The meal was called the ordinary and the eating places generally began to be named ordinaries. During the seventeenth century many of these ordinaries were turned into fashionable clubs and gambling resorts. Of Locket’s ordinary at Spring Gardens, Westminster, no representation has been preserved. Adam Locket, the founder of the house, lived until about 1688, and was succeeded by his son Edward who was at the head of affairs until 1702. During that period, Locket’s was the resort of the ‘smart set’.

One of the regulars in Locket’s was wealthy dramatist and diplomat George Etherege. In 1660, young George composed his comedy The Comical Revenge or Love in a Tub. The success of this play was enormous. After a long silence, he wrote the 1676 play The Man of Mode or Sir Fopling Flutter, arguably the most sophisticated comedy of manners written in English. The play had the additional attraction of satirizing known London characters. Fopling Flutter was a portrait of Beau Hewit, in Dorimant the public recognized the Earl of Rochester, and in Medley the author drew an image of himself (or maybe fellow playwright Charles Sedley). Etherege remained a regular customer at Locket’s. His passion for gambling was well known. In his ‘Song on Basset’ he celebrated a card game that had been introduced to England in 1677. Apparently the game (bassetta) had been invented by a noble Venetian, who was punished with exile for the contrivance. In France, the game was prohibited by Louis XIV in 1691. It continued being played in England where in a relatively short period of time it impoverished many families. Having learned basset at the London house of Hortense Mancini, Duchesse Mazarin, French mistress of Charles II, Etherege became one of its victims. Gambling deprived him of his fortune. He stopped writing and went in search of a rich widow.

Various forms of gambling were a feature of eighteenth century London life. Gambling gained wider popularity during the last two decades of the century, especially with the arrival of French émigrés fleeing the Revolution. It was given additional impetus with the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1815. The heart of London’s gambling was St James’s Street in the West End. By the late 1820s the street was the site of four leading gentlemen’s clubs, White’s, Brooks’s, Boodle’s and Crockford’s, where gambling was pursued in varying degrees. William Crockford was the son of an East End fishmonger. By the mid-1820s, he obtained the lease to a building on the west side of the street, where he set up a so-called gambling ‘hell’. After acquiring the leases to three adjacent buildings, he razed all four and set about building a palatial gentlemen’s club devoted to gambling. It was dubbed ‘Pandemonium’, the name invented by John Milton at the end of the first book of Paradise Lost (1667) for the capital of Hell that was built by the fallen angels at the suggestion of Mammon.

Crockford’s opened in January 1828. Architect Benjamin Wyatt had modeled the club’s neoclassical design on the palace of Versailles. The cost of construction and furnishings was phenomenal. Membership to the club was limited. Among its members were the Duke of Wellington, the acknowledged leader of English society, as well as a host of other aristocrats such as Lord Alvanley, Bentinck, and Chesterfield. There were distinguished foreigners like the Count d’Orsay, Prince Paul Esterhazy, Prince Lieven, Louis Napoleon and Talleyrand; and fashionable authors such as Edward Bulwer, Benjamin Disraeli, and Theodore Hook. Vast sums of money followed the fall of the dice or the facing of a card. The house was in name operated by a management committee, but in reality the show was run by Crockford alone. With his Cockney accent and corpulent appearance, he presented himself as a humble servant to his privileged clientele. He retired in 1840, an extremely rich man.

During the Georgian, Regency and Victorian periods, gambling was endemic among the English upper classes. Beau Brummel and the Count d’Orsay had to flee to France when their gambling debts got too high. Young Charles James Fox, the future politician, would stay up for days gambling, drinking coffee to stay awake. At one point Fox’s father, Lord Holland, paid off almost £140,000 in gambling debts which freed Fox to go off and make new ones. Lord Byron’s daughter Ada, Countess of Lovelace, tried to use her mathematical talent to devise a system that would enable her to beat the odds at horseracing. She piled up large debts.

Members of the Royal family were also involved in gambling. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, got caught in a gambling brawl known as the Royal Baccarat Scandal. On 8 September 1890, the Prince spent the evening at Tranby Croft, the county estate of shipbuilder Sir Arthur Wilson. The guests played baccarat, an illegal gambling game which was a favourite of Edward. Present at the table was Scottish landowner and soldier Sir William Gordon-Cumming, who was accused of cheating. Attempts to keep the affair a secret failed. Sir William sued his accusers in civil court for defamation. The Prince of Wales was called as a witness and had to acknowledge his participation in an illegal game. William lost the case, was dismissed from the army, and withdrew from high society. Edward changed his behaviour, abandoned baccarat, and played whist instead.

In the early days, members of Venetian high society met to gamble in so-called ‘casini’ (small dwellings). These houses attracted other activities, from dodgy business dealings and political intrigue to prostitution. The word casino became synonymous with crime and vice. Forced to act, the authorities produced the shrewd idea that gambling could provide additional income to the state. The first known gambling house was the Ridotto, established in 1638 in order to allow controlled gambling during the carnival season in Venice.

Blaise Pascal created a perpetual motion machine in 1655. The spinning wheel entered European history. In its present form, the game of roulette (‘small wheel’) was played in Paris since 1796 in the Palais Royal. In his 1801 novel La Roulette, ou le Jour (1801) Jacques Lablée provided a description of the wheel. Napoleon legalized casinos in 1806 after which the game spread widely. Casinos were patronized by the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie. Traditionally, there has been a close connection between spa towns and gambling. In fact, the Spa casino in Belgium (La Redoute Spa) dates from as early as 1762. In England, spa cities such as Bath and Tunbridge Wells were places where the rich went for treatment, entertainment and gambling. In 1824, Friedrich Weinbrenner designed his neo-classical Kurhaus in Baden-Baden. By the mid-nineteenth century this city, situated on the foothills of the Black Forest, enjoyed the reputation of being Europe’s gambling capital. In 1837, public gambling was prohibited in France and casinos were declared illegal. Then a great idea was put forward in Monaco. The principality was in serious financial difficulty when François Blanc suggested the building of a casino. It proved a masterstroke. Monte Carlo became a Mecca for the Europe’s big spending elite.

Many authors were addicted to gambling. Writing was a means to settle debts and play again. Oliver Goldsmith was addicted to the game and perennially in debt. As a hack writer for London publishers he produced a massive output to keep himself afloat. William Makepeace Thackeray was educated at Trinity College. However, he became hooked on gambling and left Cambridge in 1830 without a degree and heavily in debt. Novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries gave ample space to the figure of the gambler, but there is a clear difference in approach. The romance of gambling, a celebration of the ‘lucky break’, is a central topic in the novels of Richardson, Smollett, Fielding, Edgeworth, or Austen. Nineteenth century European fiction, as illustrated by Marcel Emants’s novella Monaco (1878), emphasized the curse of Monte Carlo, and highlighted the ruinous effects of gambling. The novelist was interested in the psychology of addiction and the pathological behaviour of the gambler.

If an element of light-hearted romance remained, then it was associated with crime and fraud. The most notable example is that of Charles Deville Wells, son of the poet Charles Jeremiah Wells, a man to whom John Keats had addressed a sonnet in June 1816. Charles was a fraudster and gambler. In July 1891 he travelled to Monte Carlo with £4,000 that was stolen from investors in a bogus invention. In an eleven-hour session Wells ‘broke the bank’, winning a million francs. In April 1892, Fred Gilbert wrote the song ‘The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo’ which was made popular by music hall star Charles Coborn. This pleasant song was a favourite of James Joyce’s and is mentioned in Ulysses. Significantly, Edvard Munch created his first roulette painting in that same year 1892 (followed by another painting on the same theme in 1903).

George Moore’s Esther Waters (1894) was one of the more controversial novels of its day for its depiction of a single mother struggling to survive prejudice. Stylistically in the tradition of French Naturalism, the author supplies a vivid, at times polemical, image of Victorian sub-culture. The novel is set against a background of horse racing and the frenetic atmosphere of gambling and drinking that surrounds it. Moore exposes the hypocrisy of those who condemn the poor for their vices and profit from their addictions. Moore knew racing well. His father had a stable of race horses in Ireland and in his teenage years young George was a keen gambler who studied the racing-calendar, the stud-books, the latest betting, etc. In spite of Moore’s detailed knowledge of the game and its technically correct representation, his novel was received as a vitriolic attack on gambling. The Russian novel of the nineteenth century also portrays countless gamblers and losers. In his younger days, Leo Tolstoy was addicted to gambling. At sixteen he had entered Kazan University to study Oriental languages and later took up law. He dropped out before completing his courses and spent his time in Moscow and St Petersburg where he got caught up in high society, enjoying nights in ballrooms and at gambling tables. In 1851, after clocking up enormous gambling debts that would take him years to pay off, Tolstoy accompanied his elder brother to the Caucasus. He joined the army and spent almost three years in a Cossack village where he began writing in preparation of his first short novel Childhood. Fyodor Dostoevsky was another notorious player. His novella The Gambler is the most famous and influential gambling story in literary history. It reflects the author’s personal addiction to roulette. He completed the novella under a strict deadline to pay off gambling debts. In it, Dostoevsky analyzes the psychological make-up of the gambler and suggests that his countrymen have a particular affinity for gambling.

The association between Russia and gambling was reinforced by the emergence of Russian roulette. The earliest use of the term appears in ‘Russian Roulette’, a short story by Swiss author Georges Arthur Surdez that was published in the January 1937 issue of Collier’s Magazine. Was there a historical precedent for this story? Did soldiers play Russian roulette? Czarist officers were notorious for their dissolute behaviour. They drank heavily, fought duels, gambled, and shirked their duties. But there is no evidence that they engaged in this sinister game. The only reference to anything like Russian roulette can be found in the 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. After an evening of playing cards, officers debate whether fate is preordained. A gambling-addicted Serbian lieutenant challenges his companions to a bet. Pointing a pistol to his head he pulls the trigger. Nothing happens. He then points the weapon into the air and pulls the trigger again. It fires. He collects his winnings. Later that evening the same lieutenant is murdered by a drunken Cossack. Had it not been for its rolling alliteration, Russian roulette may well have gone into history as Lermontov’s roulette.