We take a lot of gambles in life. Falling in love . . . getting married . . . writing a book. There’s an element of risk in making yourself vulnerable. So many decisions requires a leap of faith, a clench of courage. Some of us are cautious by nature, while other thrive on dancing along the razored edge of risk. For them, danger can be like a drug, bubbling through the blood, tantalizing and tempting a be-damned-to-the-devil recklessness.
Risk and reward. How badly do you want something?
The Regency was gambling-mad. The bucks of the ton would bet on anything, from the races at Newmarket to drunken dashes to Bath in their curricles, from marriage matches to which raindrop would be the first to wiggle its way down a pane of glass. The betting book at White’s is an iconic element of the era. I imagine the pages range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
And then there was cards, of course. The flutter of a few pieces of painted pasteboard and poof! Lady Luck could be a friend or a fiend.
Wheeling and Dealing
Now, the first written record of a card game comes from China during Tang Dynasty where it is said that Princess Tongchang played the "leaf game" in 868 AD with members of her husband’s family. (Leave it to the women to know where the action is!) The Chinese printed playing cards—as well as books—around this time, but it took a number of centuries for them to spread to the West.
It’s speculated that the first sets came into Europe from Mamluk, Egypt in the late 14th century. The Mameluke deck was made up of 52 cards, and four "suits"—polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. Each suit contained ten cards with “pips,” or numbers, and three "face" cards named King, Viceroy and Under-Deputy, though as is traditional in Islamic art, no depiction of a person was shown.
The earliest European cards were painted by hand—there is a record from 1392 of Charles VI of France paying for “the painting of three sets of cards.” Like devotional cards, and other early ephemera, playing card decks were soon printed from woodcut blocks, with the colors often added by stencils, which allowed a “mass” distribution. Engraving, a much more expensive technique, was also occasionally used. Hearts, Bells, Leaves and Acorns became popular for the four suits (there were sometimes five suits in early play) The four suits now used most commonly throughout the world—spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs— originated in France in the late 15th century. (The tarot deck is thought to have originated in Italy sometime during the 1400s, but that is a whole other story.)
Most of England’s early playing cards came from France, but in 1628, Charles I granted a charter to the “Company of the Mistery of Makers of Playing Cards of the City of London” and all future importation of playing cards was forbidden . . . which brings us back to the Regency and its games of hazard, faro and vint-et-un.
Going for Broke
Playing at cards was an immensely popular pastime, not just in the many gaming hells that abounded in London, but also in the mansions of Mayfair. Many of the evening entertainments offered a card room, and as it was respectable for a lady to play in such an environment, it offered one of the few places where she could “take a risk.” Most play was for small stakes, but there were many females who found the heady rush of gambling as addictive as the men did.
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire is perhaps the most famous example, (though a few years before the Regency.) She played for very high stakes and was constantly in debt (a fact she tried to hide from her husband and the Spencers.) With few funds of her own, she borrowed heavily from friends and acquaintances—and brokered her influence for money. It’s said she got funds from Thomas Coutts of Coutts bank for the promise of introducing his daughter into Society. On her death, she left debts totally nearly 20 thousand pounds. When told, the Duke supposed said, “Is that all?”
Taking A Gamble
My new book, TOO WICKED TO WED, which released this week, is all about taking a gamble. The hero, a penniless earl who decides to recoup the family fortunes by working for a living, owns a gaming hell . . . the heroine, a practical country miss who has a head for numbers, wins a half of it in a high stakes card game while masquerading as a man . . . now how, you may ask, is this going to play out? Well, you can read an excerpt here!
Okay, since we’re talking about risk, what about you? Are you a risk taker? Or do you err on the side of caution? And I’m also curious—do you enjoy cards? Bridge? Poker? “21”? (I confess, I’ve been to a few casinos in my travels and found “21” fun . . . but as I’m very conservative, I set aside a certain sum as “play” money, figuring it is like paying for an evening of entertainment. And that is it! When it's gone, I get up and leave. I’d make a very boring duchess.)