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Art History of Cheating

 

Swindles are quite possibly older than straight games. What came first, the chicken or the egg? Some people may say that cheating came after the invention of the first straight game because you had to have a game first before you could begin to cheat at it. Others may say that those who think so are suckers who still think that cards were invented "for entertainment purposes, only" (which, by the way, is still the favorite phrase used by distributors of crooked gambling supplies).

We can argue about which came first but one fact remains: cards have always been closely associated with cheating; hence the expression, "Never play cards with strangers!"

In this chapter we'll explore how crooked gambling was documented through artist's brushstrokes, throughout history. Those paintings and drawings are often the only historic records of crooked gambling. For those interested in history of card games we recommend that you visit the History of Card Games and Playing Cards page on our sister site.

Michelangelo Caravaggio: The Card SharpersThroughout centuries numerous artists have captured various cheating themes in their paintings. The most influential painting with a cheating theme is Caravaggio's The Cardsharps (see image). A quarter of a century later, French painter Georges de La Tour produced two paintings influenced by The Cardsharps, i.e the famous Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds and The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs. Although his paintings were unquestionably influenced by Caravaggio's masterpiece, La Tour added a few new elements into his composition. The theme of his composition is still a game of cards, however, on a deeper artistic level La Tour's motif represents the three main temptations of the 17th Century: women, gambling and wine.

Those paintings and others alike unquestionably show that cards and cheating were very popular in the past centuries. Of course, they didn't have TV then and they couldn't afford to do to the opera every night, so a deck of cards that could last you for several months, or even years, would provided a relatively cheap form of entertainment. Relatively! Of course only if you didn't play for money, because if you did then a card game may have proven to be quite an expensive form of entertainment; unless of course you were in the card-sharping business, or if you were lucky enough to sit in a game with suckers.

But what about the cheats? How good were they back then? Since those cheats are no longer available for comment (unless we employ the services of a psychic) we can only speculate and conclude from whatever historical records we have available. I personally believe some of the ancient cheats were pretty sharp. Back then you didn't have any credit card frauds, or Internet crackers, or telephone marketing scams... etc. From this we may conclude that the con artists of the era were a lot more involved with card-sharping than they may be today. Of course all this is just speculation on my part, but due to the lack of statistical records no one can really prove me wrong. If the 17th Century musicians were able to play elaborate compositions on all kinds of instruments, I believe that we should not underestimate the skills of the 17th Century cardsharpers. In fact I think that the skills of the ancient card sharpers were only limited to the fact that playing cards of the era were not of the same quality as those produced today. However, as far as cheating strategies were concerned I have no reason to believe that they were less advanced than those of the time we live in. Sure, some new scams were invented since then, but who is to say how many were forgotten, or how many of the new ones are mere re inventions of the forgotten ones.

Today, a few centuries later, we can only look at historical records and what better records could we wish for than to look at paintings by the grand masters. A picture, after all, still paints a thousand words. For better clarity I divided paintings into two categories: paintings with a cheating theme and paintings with a gaming theme.

 


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