“They play away and play it all away.” So wrote the great Virginia planter Landon Carter of his son’s penchant to win and lose fortunes at cards.
Today we can tune into ESPN and watch the ancient spectacle, reborn as the World Series of Poker: competitors waging a battle of wit, concentration and not a little luck to win the crown as the top card player.
It’s a spectacle because we love to watch. To admire the skill of the winner? That’s part of it. It’s the personalities, the strategies of deception and risk, and perhaps most of all, the thrill of witnessing the train wreck.
It wasn’t so different in the 18th century. Card games were a favorite diversion for many Americans, something to while away an evening with family or over drinks with friends at the tavern.
Taverns always equipped with billiards tables and a ready supply of cards and dice. Poker was not yet played, but Virginians played familiar games like cribbage and backgammon as well as lesser known games like faro, loo and piquet.
“Put” was another popular game that was an early version of modern poker. Bluffing was a key element of the game, which may be part of the reason that the gentry sometimes scoffed at it as a lower-class entertainment.
But in colonial Virginia the indispensable element of gaming was the wager. Fortunes large and small were gambled on card games. Hence Landon Carter’s sighing reference to playing it all away.
George Washington recorded losing five shillings at loo in 1749. The Virginia Gazette breathlessly reported that a London woman lost the considerable sum of 1,000 guineas at the same game in 1768.
A French traveler staying at Jane Vobe’s tavern in Williamsburg in 1765 described a common scene:
“They are all professed gamesters, especially Colonel Byrd, who is never happy but when he has the box and dices in hand. This gentleman from a man of the greatest property of any in America has reduced himself to that degree by gaming, that few or nobody will credit him for ever so small a sum of money.”
Despite his aversion to what was happening, the Frenchman was finally persuaded to join a game of whist with the men there.
Gambling was an essential expression of masculinity for Virginia’s planters. It was a way to display their status and jostle for influence. The ability to lose a great sum of money, after all, was a clear indication of one’s wealth.
Colonial Virginia was, in the words of the historian Rhys Isaac, “a world where personal prowess was of great consequence.”
Ordinary people tried to claim their own prowess. In 1752, Virginia’s governor wrote that gaming “has been pretty general in this country, and is now much practiced among the lower class of our people: I mean tradesmen and inferior planters who … follow the example of their superiors.”
Virginians gambled on much more than card games. They loved horse races, cockfights and lotteries. Any contest was worth a bet.
But for every winner there is a loser, and that was the concern of many observers. At least that’s how it appears, since many shared it with teenage family members.
By 1783 George Washington was advising his 20-year-old nephew Bushrod to avoid all gambling, calling it “the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity and father of mischief.”
Thomas Jefferson was equally critical. In 1787 he wrote to his 14-year-old daughter Patsy that “it is our own fault if we ever know what ennui is, or if we are ever driven to the miserable resource of gaming, which corrupts our dispositions, and teaches us a habit of hostility against all mankind.”
But it wasn’t easy to be a part of society while disdaining a central aspect of the culture. Abigail Adams wrote to 18-year-old son John Quincy Adams:
“I long attempted to plead ignorance of cards, or of any game, and in every company but this I have kept to my resolution of not playing, but I found it singular, and if the Company was small the Lady of the House thought herself obliged to set still to keep me company, so this eve I engaged in Commerce.
“You must get into parties and, where you are all strangers, they must substitute cards for amusement. They do not oblige you to play high, though everyone must play something, half a crown a game is the usual sum, at some houses half a guinea. But young Ladies play Commerce, which is totally a game of chance and a most insipid one too.”
Finally, consider this excerpt from a piece which appeared in the Virginia Gazette in 1773. Does it better describe them, or today’s contestants in the World Series of Poker?
“I met with a very strange set of men, who often sit round a table the whole night, and even till the morning is well advanced; but there is no cloth laid for them, nor is there anything to gratify the appetite.
“The thunder might rattle over their heads, two armies might engage beside them, heaven itself might threaten an instant chaos, without making them stir, or in the least disturbing them; for they are both deaf and dumb.
“At times, indeed, they are heard to utter inarticulate sounds.
“Sounds which have no connection with each other, and very little meaning; yet will they roll their eyes at each other in the oddest manner imaginable ….
“Sometimes they appear furious, as Bedlamites; sometimes serious and gloomy, as the infernal judges, and sometimes gasping with all the anguish of a criminal, as he is led to the place of execution.
“What can be the object of these unhappy wretches? …
“What in the name of wonder can employ them?