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Poker & Pop Culture: If I Gamble, Will I Go to Hell?

Poker & Pop Culture


  • When poker emerges in early 19th-century US, there already exists a long legacy re: gambling & cards.

  • Poker & Pop Culture: Is gambling/playing cards bad for you? Poets, playwrights & novelists weigh in.

As last week's first hand of "Poker & Pop Culture" indicated, the focus in this series will primarily be on poker and American pop culture. That is to say, most of the films, paintings, songs, radio and television shows, stories, novels, letters, memoirs, biographies, articles, guide books, and other examples of cultural products and influence we'll be exploring (in a roughly chronologically fashion) will have come from the United States.

It's worth noting here near the beginning, however, that even if America wins the right to claim itself the birthplace of poker, the game — like most of the country's population — was "parented" elsewhere, having descended from other, earlier games originating in other countries. A French game called poque (which we'll touch on briefly next week) is the most likely candidate for the title of poker's most immediate ancestor, although other games contributed as well (some of which are mentioned below).

See the first chapters of David G. Schwartz's great history of gambling, Roll the Bones, as well as the start of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus for the full backstory on how betting on cards became common to numerous cultures all over the globe, and then to America as well. Both writers explain how evidence of humans' urge to gamble can be found in the earliest historical record. Both also trace the introduction and development of various gambling games, the invention of playing cards, and how early card games of the late medieval and early modern periods eventually evolved into those first variants of poker in the early 1800s.

We will, however, step back a bit before picking up poker's story in America next week. We're not going all of the way back to the Garden of Eden, mind you, and a certain gamble once taken there involving forbidden fruit and the resulting loss of paradise.

No, instead we're starting out by going to hell.

Poker: A Bad Reputation Before the First Hand Is Dealt

It's in the seventh circle of hell that Dante Alighieri places gamblers (or "wanton spendthrifts") in the Inferno, the first part of his early 14th-century epic The Divine Comedy. He situates them in a region designated for individuals guilty of "violence against oneself." One of the damned is a Florentine nobleman who held high offices, Giovanni di Buiamonte. Of this "sovereign cavalier," Dante saw his gambling (and loan sharking) as representative of a larger moral decline, and therefore deserving of harsh punishment in the afterlife.

Dante sets the tone for subsequent literary reflections on gambling and card playing. Such activities may not leave you sitting in hot sand with fire raining down on you as happens to Buiamonte in Dante's poem. But you might still get burned.

There is no card playing in The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio's great collection of 100 tales told by seven women and men seeking to escape the Black Death during the mid-14th century. Nor is there any in Geoffery Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in which pilgrims similarly conduct a kind of storytelling contest to help pass the time as they travel to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. In Chaucer's collection, the Pardoner in his tale does rail against gambling, though, highlighting "hasardrye" — referring both to gambling in general and Hazard, a popular dice game — as especially harmful and the "mooder of lesynges" (the mother of lies).

If such works had been written a couple of hundred years later, we could have expected tales about gambling on cards to have appeared among the compilations, given that the stories in Boccaccio and Chaucer provide a comprehensive overview of life in the 14th century. Move a little further down the chronological road and card playing might well have been preferred over storytelling as a means to pass the time.

That's not to say people weren't gambling on cards even then. In fact, during the last quarter-century of the 1300s there would come a number of ordinances and prohibitions outlawing several different card games in Italy, France, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. The legal proscriptions against cards would keep on appearing in the following century and after, attesting both to the continued popularity of the games and the view of those in power that their spread was like another sort of plague.

By the time Francois Rabelais wrote his great 16th-century satire Gargantua and Pantagruel, the manufacture of cards and development of still more games had expanded significantly. The book includes a chapter describing the giant Gargantua finishing a large meal, then having a green cloth laid out over a table and cards, dice, and game-boards set upon it. Then he's said to play some 200-plus different games, about a third of which appear to be card games. Later translators would expand the list further, so if you pick up the book today you'll find a mix of actual games played in Italy during the 1500s, games fancifully invented by Rabelais, and later ones thrown in as well, depending on the preferences of translators and/or editors.

Rabelais' catalogue is historically significant, as it includes in some cases the very first references to several real card games. In fact, a few among them are listed as early precursors to poker. One is primero, a vying game using a 40-card deck that involved players building hands and comparing them, with opportunities to bet and bluff along the way. Some of these hands resemble poker hands, including a flush (or fluxus) and four of a kind (a chorus).

The game of "one-and-thirty" is also mentioned, another vying game in which players build hands worth 31 points. That's an element found in other European card games often thought of as having contributed to poker as well, including the Spanish game of "mus" and the German game of "poch" (or "pochspiel" or "pochen"). "Post and pair" shows up in the list, too, a three-card game resembling English "brag."

Rabelais doesn't really offer an opinion on whether gambling games are good or bad, making him different from most other cultural commentators who bring up the subject. His contemporary Thomas More, for instance, described the inhabitants of his Utopia shunning gambling as a bad pleasure and the source of social ill. Erasmus in The Praise of Folly also censures gamblers as foolish, addicted, given to cheating, and their games "often turning into a frivolous quarrel."

Like most Elizabethan playwrights, William Shakepeare mentions card playing frequently, with the Italian primero usually the game. His great, recurring character Falstaff, the friend of Prince Hal who appears in the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V, stars in the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor where he tries to court two wealthy (and married) women at once. It's a scheme to make money, a need that resulting in part, it seems, from his having stopped gambling at cards. "I never prospered since I forswore myself at primero," Falstaff explains.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Shakespeare's contemporary and author of Don Quixote, was himself a gambler. In his short story "Rinconete y Cortadillo" published early in the 17th century, later described by a translator as "the best sketch of Spanish low-life that has come down to us," characters cheat at "veintiuna" (or "twenty-one"), thought to be the earliest reference in literature to the game now known as blackjack. Meanwhile near the end of Part Two of Don Quixote, a maid angrily bids the knight-errant goodbye wishing him bad luck at cards in the future, stating if he ever plays "los cientos" (a.k.a. "piquet") or "primera," she hopes he only gets dealt bad hands.

Alexander Pope particularly targets the game of "ombre" (a bridge-like trick-taking game) in his early 18th-century mock-heroic The Rape of the Lock, describing a game played among the upper-class as an epic battle (with added sexual connotations). Like Dante, Pope casts playing cards as an embarrassing, self-harming vice. And even though Pope's friend and fellow satirist Jonathan Swift often played and gambled on cards, he agreed with such a view, apparently regretting the time he wasted upon such games.

Other of their contemporaries also associated card games with idle foolishness and even evidence of a certain moral decay among the wealthy. As Samuel Johnson once wrote in a Rambler essay, he greatly valued visiting and meeting new people, but when those meetings occurred "at card tables, however brilliant, I have always thought my visit lost." The games, explained the dictionary-writer, were "too trifling for me when I was grave, and too dull when I was cheerful."

Pros and Cons of Cards, Per Cardano

You're sensing a theme here, I hope, amid this rapid survey of world literature and references by some of Europe's most popular authors to playing cards. Whether the games involve gambling or not, they're generally regarded as the source of trouble, producing conflict between players, and planting seeds of more significant social strife. Those who play are at best wasting their time, at worst losing their fortunes (and maybe their souls, too).

In 1564, an Italian named Girolamo Cardano penned an interesting short treatise titled Liber de Lude Aleae (Book on Games of Chance) concerning a topic with which he had some experience. Even though he was an accomplished scholar thought to be one of the best mathematicians of his era, Cardano was himself a gambler, and in fact spent some time in a debtors' prison due to losses he'd accrued.

In a way, Cardano's book neatly summarizes cultural attitudes toward gambling (including gambling on cards) expressed by writers discussed above. Like many of them, Cardano maintains

  • Gambling produces destructive and unhealthy effects, and should only be pursued in moderation.
  • It is never good to gamble simply to relieve boredom; other activities, like reading or painting, are better for you, and won't lead you to "present a bad example... to one's children and servants."
  • Gambling is so popular, "it would seem a natural evil," and "for that reason it ought to be discussed by a medical doctor like one of the incurable diseases."
  • Gambling provides a context for people to wrong each other by cheating. ("Have your own cards," suggests Cardano, and "let no one examine cards in private.")
  • Betting on cards and dice can make some of us irrational to the point of madness. "There are some who with many words drive both themselves and others from their proper senses," he notes. "Certain people are so contentious that they provoke others to such anger that they forget everything." (In other words, tilt happens.)

But it isn't all bad, says Cardano. Noting Aristotle's objection to gambling as "disgraceful," Cardano defends games in which the playing field is balanced, and the participants all responsible and well-informed. "Gain [via gambling] from those who are both willing and aware is best," he maintains.

And card games — like the poker-precursor primero — might be even better than dice, he says, rewarding those with good memories and offering more opportunities for the skillful to gain an edge.

"In play with dice... everything depends entirely on pure chance, if the die is honest" writes Cardano. "But in cards, apart from the recognition of cards from the back [i.e., marked cards] there are a thousand other natural and worthy ways of recognizing them which are at the disposal of the prudent man." Thus, he concludes, "it is more fitting for the wise man to play at cards than at dice."

Understand, then, that by the time those first hands of poker come to be dealt in the early 19th century, most of the negatives making it seem a game fit for sinners, outlaws, and cheats have already been well considered. And defenses that card playing and gambling might not doom you to eternal damnation had been presented before, too.

How will writers and artists and the culture as a whole respond to such a game in America? Stay tuned.

From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America’s Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.

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