18th century English M.P. Sir John Moreshead (second from left ) oversees the felling of  his trees to pay gaming debts (in a painting by Thomas Rowlandson).  Many estates were lost in the gambling frenzy of the period.

 

A detail from another Rowlandson painting, depicts “high society”gambling at dice in the home of an 18th century duchess.

In Virginia, the non-Puritans among the colonists who had settled there (on the proceeds of England’s 1612 lottery) were spicing up the natives’ natural gaming tendencies.  The Iroquois, Narragansett, and Onondaga Indians had been eager gamblers for centuries; but they had always played with primitive roulette wheels or dice made of peach and plum, stones, and their guessing and numbers games involved simple sticks and rushes.  The colonists supplied cards, square dice bearbaiting, cockfighting, gander pulling , and horse racing.  And the Indians gambled their money and families away with reckless abandon.

In Europe at about the same time, a peripatetic Lutheran preacher called Pieter de Brinkheusen said that wherever he went in Holland, Germany, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, he came upon “thousands of workmen, servants, clerks and apprentices stealing their masters’ time in the pursuit of state lottery and gaming and thousands of masters and mistresses likewise wasting the hours in earning and losing the money to pay the servants who rob them in order to become gambling adventurers; all of whom see none of tragedy that ensueth, nor the commerce in lust that in the very street corners is enacted in discharge of game debt, nor the money lenders’ shops filled with the clothes and furniture of the benighted who have starved and diseased themselves for the adventures of dice and lot.”

You will have noticed by now that much of the evidence for the existence of gambling in the past occurs in the form of strictures against it.  After the 18th century more and more people (like Brinkheusen) began to associate gambling with all kinds of sin and depravity, and to turn the full force of their righteousness toward halting its spread.

Most modern opponents of gambling, of course, base their attacks on religious or moral grounds.  But this was not always true.  The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, for instance, made laws against gambling chiefly because their social structures were based on privilege.  Gambling is a sensual pleasure; it was therefore felt that the lower orders ought not to have too much of it.  Otherwise, the upper orders would have had to suffer the consequences of a general undermining of moral standards.  Ethics did not enter into the matter at all-not as they did in, say, Jewish or Moslem law.
The Sanhedrin (the Jewish court of justice) excluded gamblers from both the magistracy and witness box, on the theory that the avarice motivating the gambler might make him accept bribes and twist the courts of justice. (If the lawyers were thinking of professional and cheating gamblers, they may have been right.  But avarice, as I have shown, is only one several possible motives, and an unlikely one at that.)  Furthermore, the law stated that all gambling winnings were rapine and theft, which must be punished by double restitution of the money won.  However, winnings became rapine and theft, which must  be punished  by double restitution of the money won.  However, winnings became rapine and theft only when they were won from another Jew.  If a Jew won from a Gentile, he faced only the comparatively minor charge of having used his mind for a useless end.

The Koran bleakly forbids Moslems to play any games at all except chess, again on the principle that games are time-wasting. “ Satan seeketh to sow dissension and hatred among you by means of wine and lots,” says Chapter V, “and to divert you from remembering God and prayer …therefore abstain from them.”

All the great religions, in fact, have denounced gambling.  But societies have sometimes enacted laws prohibiting it for practical as well as ethical purposes.  Medieval England, for example, clamped down on dicing for a simple economic reason: It was becoming more popular than archery and other games, and the fletches, bowyers, and arrow makers were grumbling about loss of business.

In free societies, laws designed to control gambling for ethical reasons are usually based on the principle that legislation should repress vices that tend to produce poverty, inefficiency, and misery.  In other words, the chief harm we can do our neighbors by gambling  is by winning money from them and leaving them the poorer.

But, though nearly all gambling is done for money or commodities of intrinsic value, not quite all is.  What about the Chinese gambler who staked his ears? Or the Teutons who staked their liberty? Or the man who won St. Paul’s church bells from King Henry VIII?  Or the Chester le Street card players who played for a child? It remains true that, whatever the purpose of anti-gambling laws, men who love to gamble do not depend on money for their adventures.

One might hold forth interminably on all the slings and arrows that have been hurled –by churchmen and laymen alike-at gambling in recent years.  And not only for ethical reasons; gambling (like alcohol) has always included among its enemies a number of wild-eyed, unreasoning fanatics.  The Ascot zealot I mentioned in Chapter 1 was a mild example compared with someone like a certain Russian madman called Ivan Kuzmitchov.

           

Kuzmitchov operated in and around his home town, Kamyshin, about the time of the Russo-Japanese was of 1904.  There he ranted and raved through the waterfront taverns, trying to turn the Volga sailors’ minds away from faro and crown-and-anchor.  His father had lost a fortune gambling , and under-standably this had soured Ivan’s mind.  But his prophecies of doom and disaster had little effect on the sailors, whom he merely annoyed.            

One night he entered an inn from which he had been barred earlier in the same week.  According to one report, the innkeeper produced a belaying pin with which he threatened to knock Ivan senseless if he didn’t get out.  “Everyone’s had more than enough of you,” he said.  “I’m going to apply to the mayor to have you arrested as a dangerous nuisance.”

Seemingly, this had the desired effect.  Ivan went off (“with his wild hair flying,” the report says) and didn’t come back.  Two days later, he was found dead in his bed with his wrists slashed and, and as a final accusation, “Gambling kills” written on the wall in his own blood.  Nearby were the mug he had drained his arteries into, and the toothbrush he had emblazoned the words with player.