As an adventurer, Casanova’s most notable exploit was his swashbuckling escape from a Venice prison after he had been arrested as a spy.  But the high point of his career as a gambler was his role in organizing a government swedish state lottery in Paris in the 1760s.  A French nobleman wanted 20,000,000 francs from the king for a military school.  The king favored the idea of the school, but wanted to avoid either emptying the treasury or increasing taxes.  Casanova heard about the need, and presented an idea for a lottery.  (The idea was not original with him; he had taken it from an acquaintance, who became his partner.)

At first the authorities doubted whether such a scheme would work.  But Casanova insisted that, not only would the people gamble heavily on such a lottery, but the king would be sure to make a profit.  (The lottery had to be the king’s rather than privately owned, to forestall any possible doubt of its honesty.) The idea was finally accepted, and Casanova and his associates were hired as officers of the crown to organize the lottery.  Several ticket-selling offices were set up, and Casanova ran one of these himself.

“With the idea of drawing custom to my office, I gave notice that all winning tickets bearing my signature would be paid at my office in twenty-four hours after the drawing.  This drew crowds to my office and considerably increased my profits … A number of the clerks in the other offices were foolish enough to complain to Calsabigi [his partner] that I had spoilt their gains, but he sent them about their business telling them that to get the better of me they had only to do as I did – if they had the money.

 

A portrait of the 18th century Italian adventurer, gambler, and author Casanova de Seingalt, which appeared after his death on the cover of new editions of his novel Edoardo ed Elizabetta.  Far right, a contemporary caricature of Casanova (entitled “Casanova the card player”), from the 11th volume of his famous Memoirs.

An engraving of George “beau” brummell, the 19th century British society dandy and gambler.

“My first taking amounted to forty thousand francs.  An hour after the drawing my clerk brought me the numbers, and showed me that we had from seventeen to eighteen thousand francs to pay, for which I gave him the necessary funds. 

“The total receipts [from the first day, throughout France] amounted to two millions, and the administration made a profit of six hundred thousand francs, of which Paris alone had contributed a hundred thousand francs.  This was well enough for a first attempt.”

Since Casanova’s time, his name has become (like Don Juan’s) a synonym for a successful seducer of women.  In the 19th century, Britain produced a man who might have rivaled Casanova both as a social lion and as a gambler in las vegas , and whose name has also become invariably associated with a particular field of interest –not women this time, but clothing.  His name was Beau Brummell.
George Bryan Brummell was the son of a rich man who had been private secretary to a British peer.  He had a top-grade education at Eton and Oxfod and later went into the army, in which he befriended the Prince Regent.  With his lively wit and fine taste in clothes, and the private fortune he inherited from his father, he soon established himself as an important figure in early 19th century high society.  Among other things, he was the one man permitted to treat the Prince Regent with disdain and rudeness in public.

Brummell belonged to White’s and Brooks’s Clubs and regularly gambled there for high stakes, careless of whether he won or lost so long as the company was good and he could enjoy the conversation – which meant, for the most part, his own.  But there were occasions when his companions got in the last word.  One evening, for instance, when he was playing hazard at Brooks’s Club, his opponent was a brewer named Alderman Combe, a great gambler who was said to make as much money at gambling as he did at brewing.  Brummell was casting the dice and said to Combe: “Come, Mash-tub, what do you set?”

“I’ll have a pony,” Combe said.  (A “pony” in the gambling slang of the time was 25 guineas – the equivalent of $ 70.)

The crowded gaming room of Brook’s Club, London, where Brummell gambled regularly (depicted in a satirical cartoon by his contemporary, the artist George Cruikshank).

“I’ll drive your ponies home twenty-five times running,” Brummell said.  And, according to the story, he proceeded to make 25 consecutive winning throws of the dice.  When he pocketed his winnings he bowed low to Combe and said, “Thank you, Alderman.  For the future I shall never drink any porter but yours.”

“I wish,” Combe replied, “that every blackguard in London would tell me the same.”

At White’s Club was a member named Bligh, who was believed to be mad; he had periods of suicidal depression alternating with states of euphoria.  But he was an excellent gambler and very good company in his happier moments (though a somewhat disturbing companion in his black moods).  Burmmell, playing games at the same table as blight one night, lost 1000 guineas and, pretending to be tragically affected, called to the waiter: “Waiter, bring me a flat candlestick  and a pistol.  I’ll light my way to death.”  Whereupon Bligh, who was sitting opposite to him, calmly produced two loaded pistols from his coat pocket and laid them on the table.

“Mr. Brummell,” he said, “if you are really desirous to put a period to your existence, I am happy to offer you the means without troubling the waiter.”

Brummell’s popularity as a socialite at one time seemed inexhaustible.  But the gambling that helped to keep him in the public eye ruined him financially.  He was at last completely beggared, though for some time he managed to hold on with the help of funds raised  on the mutual security of himself and his friends.  Some of them were in no more flourishing condition than he was; but their names and expectations helped them to raise loans-at exorbitant interest.  Brummell quarreled with the Prince Regent (no one has yet established the cause of the row); and finally he was forced to leave England because of other quarrels connected with the repayment of the interest on the loans he and his friends had raised.  He went to France, where for a time he was British Consul in Caen, was imprisoned for debt for a short term in 1835, and lingered pitifully on till 1840 when he died in a madhouse at the age of 62.

            During his spell in prison, when one of the few friends to take the trouble to visit him asked how he had come to such a state, Brummell gave a true gambler’s answer.  He referred to a “lucky charm” that he had once had – a coin with a hole in it, which he had been given as a schoolboy at Eton.  “An old woman for whom I performed some trifling service gave it to me with the injunction to take good care of it, for as long as I did good fortune would attend me.  Good game of fortune did in fact attend me, until the evil hour when I gave the coin in error to a hackney-coachman; after that – a complete reverse.”            

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