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Gambling Through the Ages

Posted Dec 28 2009 2:09pm

A brief history of playing cards.

In a recent email exchange with NIDA director Nora Volkow, I asked about gambling as a clinical addiction. “It is almost by necessity that we’ll find significant overlaps in the circuits that mediate various forms of compulsive behaviors,” she responded. “We have yet to work out the details and the all important differences, but it stands to reason that there will be many manifestations of what we can call diseases of addiction.”

This got me thinking about the history of addictive drugs, which I researched for my book, The Chemical Carousel.  The litany features long and ultimately unsuccessful histories of campaigns against heroin, against tobacco, against alcohol.

But does fairness demand that we add gambling to the historical list, given the suspicion with which playing cards have been held throughout the ages?

The origin of playing cards is suitable murky, but  they are generally thought to have been invented in China or India in the 10th Century AD, and subsequently refined and redesigned in the Muslim world. By the 1300s, hand-painted playing cards had made it to Europe, mostly affordable only by the nobility. When the advent of woodblock printing brought playing cards to the masses, gambling with cards took on an altogether different reputation. Gambling with cards was banned in Florence, Italy in 1376, followed by Lille, France, then Valencia, Spain, and Ulm, Germany.

The bans proliferated in the 15th Century: In 1404, a bishop in France had to crack down on card gambling among the priesthood. In 1423, St. Bernard of Sienna railed against paying cards so successfully, according to The Standard Hoyle,  that “cards, dice and games of hazard” were gathered up by the townspeople and committed to the bonfire. In 1476, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella banned gambling with playing cards. None of these prohibitions were even remotely successful, and by the 1600’s the standard “French pack” of 52 cards and four colored suits emerged. They have been the standard in the world’s casinos ever since.

By the 17th Century, card playing was well established in America, despite attempts by the Pilgrims to prevent it. And ministers quickly found that the Indians were deep into dozens of gambling games of their own. Little known fact: The American Stamp Act of 1765,  the very act that got the early patriots so riled up, included taxes on newspapers, legal documents—and playing cards.
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