Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli


Gaming appears to be an universal passion. Some have attempted to deny its universality; they have imagined that it is chiefly prevalent in cold climates, where such a passion becomes most capable of agitating and gratifying the torpid minds of their inhabitants.

The fatal propensity of gaming is to be discovered, as well amongst the inhabitants of the frigid and torrid zones, as amongst those of the milder climates. The savage and the civilized, the illiterate and the learned, are alike captivated by the hope of accumulating wealth without the labours of industry.

Barbeyrac has written an elaborate treatise on gaming, and we have two quarto volumes, by C. Moore, on suicide, gaming, and duelling, which may be placed by the side of Barbeyrac. All these works are excellent sermons; but a sermon to a gambler, a duellist, or a suicide! A dice-box, a sword, and pistol, are the only things that seem to have any power over these unhappy men, for ever lost in a labyrinth of their own construction.

I am much pleased with the following thought. “The ancients,” says the author of Amusemens Sérieux et Comiques, “assembled to see their gladiators kill one another; they classed this among their games! What barbarity! But are we less barbarous, we who call a game an assembly — who meet at the faro table, where the actors themselves confess they only meet to destroy one another?” In both these cases the philosopher may perhaps discover their origin in the listless state of ennui requiring an immediate impulse of the passions, and very inconsiderate as to the fatal means which procure the desired agitation.

The most ancient treatise by a modern on this subject, is said to be by a French physician, one Eckeloo, who published in 1569, De Aleâ, sive de curandâ Ludendi in Pecuniam cupiditate, that is, “On games of chance, or a cure for gaming.” The treatise itself is only worth notice from the circumstance of the author being himself one of the most inveterate gamblers; he wrote this work to convince himself of this folly. But in spite of all his solemn vows, the prayers of his friends, and his own book perpetually quoted before his face, he was a great gamester to his last hour! The same circumstance happened to Sir John Denham, who also published a tract against gaming, and to the last remained a gamester. They had not the good sense of old Montaigne, who gives the reason why he gave over gaming. “I used to like formerly games of chance with cards and dice; but of that folly I have long been cured; merely because I found that whatever good countenance I put on when I lost, I did not feel my vexation the less.” Goldsmith fell a victim to this madness. To play any game well requires serious study, time, and experience. If a literary man plays deeply, he will be duped even by shallow fellows, as well as by professed gamblers.

Dice, and that little pugnacious animal the cock, are the chief instruments employed by the numerous nations of the East, to agitate their minds and ruin their fortunes; to which the Chinese, who are desperate gamesters, add the use of cards. When all other property is played away, the Asiatic gambler scruples not to stake his wife or his child, on the cast of a die, or the courage and strength of a martial bird. If still unsuccessful, the last venture he stakes is himself.

In the Island of Ceylon, cock-fighting is carried to a great height. The Sumatrans are addicted to the use of dice. A strong spirit of play characterises a Malayan. After having resigned everything to the good fortune of the winner, he is reduced to a horrid state of desperation; he then loosens a certain lock of hair, which indicates war and destruction to all whom the raving gamester meets. He intoxicates himself with opium; and working himself into a fit of frenzy, he bites or kills every one who comes in his way. But as soon as this lock is seen flowing, it is lawful to fire at the person and to destroy him as fast as possible. This custom is what is called “To run a muck.” Thus Dryden writes —

“Frontless and satire-proof, he scours the streets,

And runs an Indian muck at all he meets.”

Thus also Pope —

“Satire’s my weapon, but I’m too discreet

To run a muck, and tilt at all I meet.”

Johnson could not discover the derivation of the word muck. To “run a muck” is an old phrase for attacking madly and indiscriminately; and has since been ascertained to be a Malay word.

To discharge their gambling debts, the Siamese sell their possessions, their families, and at length themselves. The Chinese play night and day, till they have lost all they are worth; and then they usually go and hang themselves. Such is the propensity of the Javanese for high play, that they were compelled to make a law, that “Whoever ventures his money at play shall be put to death.” In the newly-discovered islands of the Pacific Ocean, they venture even their hatchets, which they hold as invaluable acquisitions, on running-matches. —“We saw a man,” says Cook, “beating his breast and tearing his hair in the violence of rage, for having lost three hatchets at one of these races, and which he had purchased with nearly half his property.”

The ancient nations were not less addicted to gaming: Persians, Grecians, and Romans; the Goths, and Germans. To notice the modern ones were a melancholy task: there is hardly a family in Europe which cannot record, from their own domestic annals, the dreadful prevalence of this passion.

Gamester and cheater were synonymous terms in the time of Shakspeare and Jonson: they have hardly lost much of their double signification in the present day.

The following is a curious picture of a gambling-house, from a contemporary account, and appears to be an establishment more systematic even than the “Hells” of the present day.

“A list of the officers established in the most notorious gaming-houses,” from the Daily Journal, Jan. 9th, 1731.

1st. A Commissioner, always a proprietor, who looks in of a night; and the week’s account is audited by him and two other proprietors.

2nd. A Director, who superintends the room.

3rd. An Operator, who deals the cards at a cheating game, called Faro.

4th. Two Crowpees, who watch the cards, and gather the money for the hank.

5th. Two Puffs, who have money given them to decoy others to play.

6th. A Clerk, who is a check upon the PUFFS, to see that they sink none of the money given them to play with.

7th. A Squib is a puff of lower rank, who serves at half-pay salary while he is learning to deal.

8th. A Flasher, to swear how often the bank has been stript.

9th. A Dunner, who goes about to recover money lost at play.

10th. A Waiter, to fill out wine, snuff candles, and attend the gaming-room.

11th. An Attorney, a Newgate solicitor.

12th. A Captain, who is to fight any gentleman who is peevish for losing his money.

13th. An Usher, who lights gentlemen up and down stairs, and gives the word to the porter.

14th. A Porter, who is generally a soldier of the Foot Guards.

15th. An Orderly Man, who walks up and down the outside of the door, to give notice to the porter, and alarm the house at the approach of the constable.

16th. A Runner, who is to get intelligence of the justices’ meeting.

17th. Link-boys, Coachmen, Chairmen, or others who bring intelligence of the justices’ meetings, or of the constables being out, at half-a-guinea reward.

18th. Common-bail, Affidavit-men, Ruffians, Bravoes, Assassins, cum multis aliis.

The “Memoirs of the most famous Gamesters from the reign of Charles II. to Queen Anne, by T. Lucas, Esq., 1714,” appears to be a bookseller’s job; but probably a few traditional stories are preserved.1

1 This curious little volume deserves more attention than the slight mention above would occasion. It is diffuse in style, and hence looks a little like a “bookseller’s job,” of which the most was to be made; but the same fault has characterised many works whose authors possess a bad style. Many of the tales narrated of well-known London characters of the “merry days” of Charles the Second are very characteristic, and are not to be met with elsewhere.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53