It is probable that the fall of Greece was due to the license that prevailed as to gaming, and consequently to all other and lesser forms of dissipation and corruption. Philip of Macedon was planning the battle of Cheronea at the very time when dicing had reached its most shameful height in Athens. Public associations existed, not for the purpose of defending Greece against her foes, but for the encouragement of the basest passions that surge in the human breast. Both Philip and Alexander knew the value to despotism of vice among the people. Alexander put a fine on those of his courtiers who did not play, for he had a jealous fear of subjects who were engaged in more serious pursuits.
But dice alone did not furnish the implements of gambling. The ancient Greeks had the equivalent of Cross and Pile, and gambled at cocking mains. The Athenian orator, Callistratus, notes the desperation of these practices when he says that the games in which the losers go on doubling their stakes “resemble ever-recurring wars, which terminate only with the extinction of the combatants.”
It was a practice of the ancients to put the invention of vicious acts or games upon foreign nations. Thus we have Plutarch’s indignant answers to Herodotus; but no Grecian ever resented the story that dice was first made by Palamedes, at the siege of Troy. Dice were called alsae by the Romans, and there were two kinds, the tali, or four-sided knucklebones, and the tesserarae or six-sided bones. The tali has four sides long-wise, the two ends were not regarded. Up one side there was an ace, or canis; on the opposite side six; on the other two sides four and three. On the tesserarae the numbers were from one to six. But on both sides of alsae or dice the numbers on the upper and lower side would make seven, as now-a-days on dice.
The game was played with three tesserarae and four tali. They were put into a box made into the form of a tower, with a straight neck—wider below than above, called fritillas turris, turricula, orca, etc. This box was shaken, and the dice was thrown upon the gaming board, forus, alvenus, tabulalus oriae. The highest or most fortunate throw was called Venus, or jactus venereus, or basilicas (the King’s throw.) It consisted of three sixes on the tesserarae, and differing numbers, as two alike, on the 88tali. The worst throw, the dog throw, was called in Latin jactus pessimus, or jactus canes. In this throw, the three tesserarae must be aces, and the tali all the same number. The other throws were valued according to the numbers. Cocked dice nullified the throw, as now-a-days. While throwing the dice it was customary to name the desires of the player, and this practice still holds with negroes in their game of craps. Old men were specially fond of the game. Jacta alsa, esto! Let the die be cast! was Cæsar’s cry at the Rubicon when he betrayed the Roman republic. The law prohibited dice-playing, except in the month of December, during the Saturnalia, and the character of gamesters was then as infamous as now, although there was much gambling. The works of Horace, Cicero, Suetonius, Juvenal, Tacitus, Plautus, Varro, Ovid, Pliny, and Paulus, show by direct reference and by metaphor, the familiarity of dice in the public mind, and the evils they involved. Persius, in his satires, speaks of the practice of cogging the dice, and cheating the unwary.
Augustus, the first Roman emperor, was an habitual gambler, and, notwithstanding the laws prohibiting the practice, gambling was prevalent at Rome in all ranks of society. Although the emperor was a passionate gambler—as devoted to the vice, at least, as his cold and deliberate nature would permit—yet he was nothing if not a politician, and in frequenting the gaming table, he had motives other than cupidity. For example, he wrote Tiberius: “If I had exacted my winnings during the festival of Minerva; if I had not lavished my money on all sides, instead of losing twenty thousand sestercii (about $5,000) I should have gained 150,000 sestercii (about $37,000). I prefer it thus, however, for my bounty should win me immense ‘glory.’”
If Horace may be credited, they could “cog” a die in the Augustan age, if they could not “secure” it, as in this.
The emperor, Caligula, converted his palace into a gambling house, and while indulging his passion for play, this human monster conceived his most fiendish deeds, and resorted to falsehood and perjury in his efforts to escape the tide of ill-luck that set against him. When frenzied by losses, this wretch would vent his cruel spleen upon those about him, and to make good what he had lost he did not hesitate at murder most foul and confiscation most wanton. On one occasion, it is related, after having condemned to death several Gauls of great opulence and confiscated their wealth, he rejoined his gambling companions and exclaimed, “I pity you when I see you lose a few sestercii, whilst, with the stroke of a pen I have just won six hundred millions” (about $150,000,000). Although the author of a treatise on gambling, yet the emperor Claudius played like an imbecile. In gaming, as in all else, Nero was a veritable madman, and would stake hundreds of thousands on a single cast of the dice. In ghastly 89humor the imbecile, Claudius would play against the estates of his murdered victims. In his caustic description of the hypotheosis of Claudius, the great Seneca brings the emperor finally to hell, and represents him as there condemned to play at dice forever with a bottomless box, always in hope, but ever balked.
“For whenso’er he shook the box to cast,
The rattling dice delude his eager haste;
And when he tried again, the waggish bone
Insensibly was through his fingers gone;
Still he was throwing, yet he ne’er had thrown.”
Cicero is authority for the statement that Cato, the censor, was an inveterate gambler. If so, how inappropriate the appellation which has brought to his memory an ill-deserved fame? With what consistency could a man addicted to gambling censure the conduct of his fellow man? Domitian was blamed for gaming from morning till night and without cessation even on the festival days of the Roman calendar. But this is scarcely notable in a man who was brutal in every instinct, base in every passion. In his satires Juvenal exhibits children playing dice in imitation of their fathers, and in his third satire they are represented cheating in their games. The fighting quails of the Romans are mentioned by Plutarch, and to him we are also indebted for the lament of Marc Antony, that even the very quails of Octavius Caesar were superior to his own. Was this a foreboding of the fate of Cleopatra’s lover at the battle of Actium? Returning to Juvenal we find this graphic picture: “When was the madness of games of chance more furious? Nowadays, not content with carrying his purse to the gaming table, the gamester conveys his iron chest to the play room. It is there that, as soon as the gaming instruments are distributed, you witness the most terrible contests. Is it not mere madness to lose one hundred thousand sestercii, and refuse a garment to a slave perishing with cold?” This inexorable and terrible satirist was the contemporary of eleven Roman Emperors, including Domitian.
Gibbon, quoting from Ammianus Marcellinus, thus describes the situation at Rome at the end of the fourth century: “Another method of introduction into the houses and society of the ‘great’ is derived from the profession of gaming, or, as it is more politely styled, of play. The confederates are united by a strict and indissoluble bond of friendship, or rather of conspiracy. A superior degree of skill in the “tessarian” art is a sure road to wealth and reputation. A master of that sublime science who, in a supper or assembly, is placed below a magistrate, displays in his countenance the surprise and indignation which Cato might be supposed 90to feel when he was refused the prætorship by the votes of a capricious ‘people.’”
All authorities who mention the subject agree that gambling made fearful havoc in society and government under the Emperors, and the conclusion is irresistible, that the “decline and fall” was due in a large measure to the prevalence of this infatuating and demoralizing vice. It is asserted, on good authority, that at the epoch when Constantine abandoned Rome, never to return, every inhabitant of that city, down to the populace, were addicted to gambling.
The Greeks are to-day famous for the number of sharpers that ply their trade, both with dice and cards, but especially with cards. To cheat in this way the Greek relies on shifting the cut, which is done in many ways:
1. As the Greek lays down the pack to be cut, he is ready to seize that part of the deck which his opponent leaves on the table, and lay it on the other so that the upper part projects over the lower and toward him. This offers a niche for the insertion of the little finger of the hand which raises the pack. It is possible for a player having his little finger thus in a pack, to twirl the two parts and restore them to their original or uncut position. All that can be seen is a whirring movement, and even this cannot be seen if the hand falls for an instant beneath the table.
2. To pass the cut, the sharper replaces the top part of the deck himself, but so quickly that it is impossible to see that he puts the top part almost half way back off the deck. With the right hand he raises the misshapen pack to the palm of his left hand. As the back of his left hand obscures the vision, he clutches the forward or lower half of the pack and brings it to the top, the appearance being that he is straightening the pack, in order to deal. He now has the cards as he stocked them in the first place. This trick is called the straddle and other names.
3. A wider card is introduced from another pack, and placed exactly over the stocked portion of the deck. As this card is about half-way down, and as it offers a salient edge for the fingers, the victim usually makes the cut precisely where the sharper designed it.
4. The bridge is formed by bending half the deck convexly and the other concavely. Thus, if the other half be convex at the face of the card, it is difficult for the victim to lift any of the lower half, and he will make the cut in precisely the same place as if there were a wider card to aid him.
91In dealing, the sharper can at any time retain on the top of the pack a card which he does not wish to deliver, and it is impossible to detect the cheat until after a long study of the motions of the player. When gamesters play with each other, they are constantly on the lookout for this trick, which is aided by the crimping or denting of important cards. A gambler examines his aces closely to see if his opponent has crimped them. If not, he crimps them. If two gamblers confront each other in a game where “producers” are present, the two gamblers “take the office” and cheat together, dividing stakes after the play.
The palming of cards is practiced where two of the sharpers sit together in a large game. The dealer holds a “hand” in the palm of his right hand, dealing to himself a hand at his extreme left. As he lays down the deck he lowers his left arm upon his fair “hand” and pushes it along, meanwhile pretending to pick up the “hand” which has been in the palm. The confederate stays out of the play and with his right arm receives the fair “hand” and throws it in the rejected cards along with his own hand.
The roof is a large number of cards which the sharper holds from a deck of thick cards. The decks are changed by consent from very thin faro-cards to very thick cards. At the first deal of the victim the roof is placed on in the act of cutting, and the victim cannot detect the difference in thickness because of the change of decks. Thus the victim deals himself four kings and his dishonest foe four aces. Counting the cards, he finds the deck complete. Vain in the belief of his acuteness, he bets and loses.
The cold deck is a pre-arranged pack, introduced under the tray of a waiter at the call for liquor, or carried in rear pockets called finetles. Pockets called costieres are in front. To mark the cards, the Greek will buy the stock of a tradesman and exchange the goods on some excuse, often preparing and sealing the decks. Then, at some future time, he has the satisfaction of being asked to play with cards bought by his victim, every one of which carries a mark known only to the rogue.
The Greek carries a tin-box under the fore-arm, in his coat sleeve. This is called the bag in English. Projecting from the sleeve is a pair of pincers which will seize and withdraw any card that may be desired.
Basiled cards, or strippers, were one of the most effective methods of cheating in the eighteenth century, when the secret was known only to sharpers. Strippers are made by cutting the cards so that they are wider at one end than at the other. Now, if one of the cards be turned, it will present, at the narrower end of the deck, the feeling of a wide card, and can be stripped out of the deck in a twinkling. In the hands of an expert, the basil may be scarcely perceptible to the touch, and the further advantage of a variety of basils may be obtained. Thus, with a convex 92basil or ax-like edge, the gambler may feel for a court card, while with a convex basil, or razor-like edge, he may detect a low card. Thus he may cut high or low with only a few cards turned, and those by accident in the hands of his victim. Basiled cards cannot be detected without a delicate touch and close scrutiny, implying suspicion and inviting a quarrel if the rogue be vicious, as none is so jealous of his honor as a thief.
The chapelet is an arrangement or stock of cards by the order of certain words. One of the oldest chapelets is found in Latin, and each word means a certain card of the pack of fifty-two.
The poverty, squalor and filth among the Turks and the Greeks is due, in a considerable degree, to gambling. Men gamble away their money, their merchandise, their household, their clothes, and not infrequently they hazard themselves, on the chance of a die.
“One of my sudri, or carriers,” writes a gentleman to us, “when I was going from Jenidscheh up into the Rhodope mountains, had lost himself in this way and had become the property of a wealthy ‘Broussa’ merchant, but on the death of the latter he again became free and resumed his precarious gambling life. That is only one instance out of hundreds to be found in the Turkish Peninsula, of men becoming so degraded by this mad passion for gaming.
“I remember once stopping at a street corner in Zante, the capital of the Island of Currants, the Zacynthus of the ancients, and watching a party of ragged idlers, who had chosen a shady corner of a colonnade as they played ‘comboloio.’ The ‘comboloio’ is a rosary, or bead string, and the game is played with the loose beads and a ‘Kanate’ or earthen jar, with a long, narrow neck, generally used for water. I didn’t understand the rationale of the game, but it seemed to consist of betting on which of the colored beads would come out successively, after being shaken up in the ‘Kanate.’ Presently one of the party went off to fetch some wine and I strolled away down to the harbor. I had occasion to pass the same spot in the evening, about dusk, or rather the short twilight that answers to dusk in those latitudes, and the group was still there, rolling the colored beads out of the water vessel, and passing little copper coins to and fro. They were always good humored and merry. Indeed, amongst the lower classes in Greece, and particularly amongst these loafers of the street, one rarely meets with any strong display of feeling over losses or gains at play. They have become largely imbued with the spirit of the Turk, and take everything that comes with a dull resignation to fate. There are few large gambling houses in Greece, as far as I know, but every town has plenty of little ‘dens’ and ‘joints’ where gaming is openly practiced and allowed.
93“The spirit of hazard is inherent in the Greek, and everywhere one finds the dice box, the wheel, the ‘Koulai,’ or card tables. Cheating is regarded, I will not say as legitimate, but at least as justifiable. If a man is fool enough to allow himself to be cheated, he must suffer the consequences, and his acceptance of these consequences is always graceful and blended with a sort of admiration for the cheater. Speaking of this, I remember seeing in the museum at Athens (I think it was) a number of the Kanatii mentioned above, with false bottoms carefully fitted to them. They are a standing puzzle to the ceramist. If they were used simply as vessels for holding water or wine, the use of these false bottoms seems inexplicable, but I believe this was only a device used by the gamblers in the game of ‘comboloio.’
“The American gentleman, traveling in Greece, had better beware of sitting down at the card table with delicate handed Greeks. He is sure to be invited wherever he goes, and unless he knows his company well, he is sure to lose his money, no matter how skilled he may be in the tricks common to the fraternity in his native land in the west; and if he should take a hand and find that he is being plucked, the only way is to ignore it, and withdraw from the game at an opportune moment. It would never do to treat the Greek in the manner that certain parties once treated Ah Sin when playing ‘The game he did not understand.’ Everywhere, through the Grecian Islands, one will find these dens kept by Levantines and Greeks, and fitted up with all the modern paraphernalia of gambling.