Gambling was something of a craze in the eighteenth century, especially cards. All levels of society played, particularly the aristocracy. Huge sums were regularly won and lost. Casanova was himself a devotee. He was also intensely competitive. On one occasion he challenged a fellow gambler to play until the first man dropped. They played for over 40 hours non-stop until his opponent finally collapsed. Here’s his account:
One of the ladies, Madame Saxe, was intended by nature to win the devotion of a man of feeling; and if she had not had a jealous officer in her train who never let her go out of his sight, and seemed to threaten anyone who aspired to please, she would probably have had plenty of admirers. This officer was fond of piquet, but the lady was always obliged to sit close beside him, which she seemed to do with pleasure.
In the afternoon I played with him, and continued doing so for five or six days. After that I could stand it no longer, as when he had won ten or twelve louis he invariably rose and left me to myself. His name was d’Entragues; he was a fine-looking man, though somewhat thin, and had a good share of wit and knowledge of the world.
We had not played together for two days, when one afternoon he asked if I would like to take my revenge.
“No, I think not,” said I, “for we don’t play on the same principle. I play for amusement’s sake and you play to win money.”
“What do you mean? Your words are offensive.”
“I didn’t mean them to be offensive, but as a matter of fact, each time we have played you have risen after a quarter of an hour.”
“You ought to be obliged to me, as otherwise you would have lost heavily.”
“Possibly; but I don’t think so.”
“I can prove it to you.”
“I accept the offer, but the first to leave the table must forfeit fifty Louis.”
“I agree; but money down.”
“I never play on credit.”
I ordered a waiter to bring cards, and I went to fetch four or five rolls of a hundred Louis each. We began playing for five Louis the game, each player putting down the fifty Louis wagered.
We began to play at three, and at nine o’clock d’Entragues said we might take some supper.
“I am not hungry,” I replied, “but you can go if you want me to put the hundred Louis in my pocket.”
He laughed at this and went on playing, but this lacy fair scowled at me, though I did not care in the least for that. All the guests went to supper, and returned to keep us company till midnight, but at that hour we found ourselves alone. D’Entragues saw what kind of man he had got hold of and said never a word, while I only opened my lips to score; we played with the utmost coolness.
At six o’clock the ladies and gentlemen who were taking the waters began to assemble. We were applauded for our determination, in spite of our grim look. The Louis were on the table; I had lost a hundred, and yet the game was going in my favour.
At nine the fair Madame Saxe put in an appearance, and shortly after Madame d’Urfe came in with M. de Schaumburg. Both ladies advised us to take a cup of chocolate. D’Entragues was the first to consent, and thinking that I was almost done he said,—
“Let us agree that the first man who asks for food, who absents himself for more than a quarter of an hour, or who falls asleep in his chair, loses the bet.”
“I will take you at your word,” I replied, “and I adhere to all your conditions.”
The chocolate came, we took it, and proceeded with our play. At noon we were summoned to dinner, but we both replied that we were not hungry. At four o’clock we allowed ourselves to be persuaded into taking some soup. When supper-time came and we were still playing, people began to think that the affair was getting serious, and Madame Saxe urged us to divide the wager. D’Entragues, who had won a hundred louis, would have gladly consented, but I would not give in, and M. de Schaumburg pronounced me within my rights. My adversary might have abandoned the stake and still found himself with a balance to the good, but avarice rather than pride prevented his doing so. I felt the loss myself, but what I cared chiefly about was the point of honour. I still looked fresh, while he resembled a disinterred corpse. As Madame Saxe urged me strongly to give way, I answered that I felt deeply grieved at not being able to satisfy such a charming woman, but that there was a question of honour in the case; and I was determined not to yield to my antagonist if I sat there till I fell dead to the ground.
I had two objects in speaking thus: I wanted to frighten him and to make him jealous of me. I felt certain that a man in a passion of jealousy would be quite confused, and I hoped his play would suffer accordingly, and that I should not have the mortification of losing a hundred louis to his superior play, though I won the fifty louis of the wager.
The fair Madame Saxe gave me a glance of contempt and left us, but Madame d’Urfe, who believed I was infallible, avenged me by saying to d’Entragues, in a tone of the profoundest conviction,—
“O Lord! I pity you, sir.”
The company did not return after supper, and we were left alone to our play. We played on all the night, and I observed my antagonist’s face as closely as the cards. He began to lose his composure, and made mistakes, his cards got mixed up, and his scoring was wild. I was hardly less done up than he; I felt myself growing weaker, and I hoped to see him fall to the ground every moment, as I began to be afraid of being beaten in spite of the superior strength of my constitution. I had won back my money by day-break, and I cavilled with him for being away for more than a quarter of an hour. This quarrel about nothing irritated him, and roused me up; the difference of our natures produced these different results, and my stratagem succeeded because it was impromptu, and could not have been foreseen. In the same way in war, sudden stratagems succeed.
At nine o’clock Madame Saxe came in, her lover was losing.
“Now, sir,” she said to me, “you may fairly yield.”
“Madam,” said I, “in hope of pleasing you, I will gladly divide the stakes and rise from the table.”
The tone of exaggerated gallantry with which I pronounced these words, put d’Entragues into a rage, and he answered sharply that he would not desist till one of us was dead.
With a glance at the lady which was meant to be lovelorn, but which must have been extremely languid in my exhausted state, I said,—
“You see, Madam, that I am not the more obstinate of the two.”
A dish of soup was served to us, but d’Entragues, who was in the last stage of exhaustion, had no sooner swallowed the soup than he fell from his chair in a dead faint. He was soon taken up, and after I had given six louis to the marker who had been watching for forty-eight hours, I pocketed the gold, and went to the apothecary’s where I took a mild emetic. Afterwards I went to bed and slept for a few hours, and at three o’clock I made an excellent dinner.
Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is freely available here.
27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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