Playing Cards at Balls and Gaming Hells During the Regency

Many books dealing with the Regency Era mention card playing going in designated rooms at balls, but what type of cards were the gentlemen (and a few ladies) playing? Would they be gambling and playing games for money like 21 (apparently one of the most popular games of the day, even among families, what we would nowadays call “Blackjack”) or would they stick to games such as Whist, which can also be played for stakes, but could be played for an evening’s entertainment. At balls, would there be a person who would play the bank, as there was at the various clubs or hells? Who might we discover as reputable citizens, but deeply in debt?

Charles James Fox, for example, was a Whip MP and leader of the Opposition to William Pitt, the Younger’s Tory Party. He was a great friend of the Prince Regent, later George IV, and of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. Author Rachel Knowles on her Regency History website tells us: “Fox had a reputation for dissolute behaviour. He was a member of White’s and Brooks’ and of the Dilettanti Society. He drank too much and was an inveterate gambler, winning and losing huge amounts of money, betting on horse races and at the gaming tables. His father paid out more than £120,000 for his son’s gambling habit, but his debts continued to amass. After his father’s death, he was twice declared bankrupt between 1781 and 1784.”

Reportedly, Fox and his brother lost even at supposedly staid places like Almack’s, but we must be careful in thinking Almack’s where young ladies and gentlemen were under the watchful eyes of the Patronesses, who were known to present unsuspecting guests who had been presented a voucher a thumbs up or a thumbs down. 

However, more likely the reports of Fox gambling at Almack’s were referring to the gentlemen’s club Brooks’s, not the Almack’s found in many of a Regency romance.  Brooks’s was called Almack’s, in the late 18th century.  (Yes, I know, hopelessly confusing!)  So the place Fox lost masses of money was the gentlemen’s club. However, I will say our assembly room Almack’s was not as staid as Georgette Heyer and most Regency romances made out:  it was not just a “marriage mart” (I think that was more the Victorian view of the place), but rather a club where the wheelers and dealers of Parliament wheeled their deals (and dealt their wheels?), and where you would meet everyone of importance on a Wednesday night.  So I expect there was some significant money lost and won at our Almack’s, too, on occasion.

Almacks’ was a gambling house that rented  out rooms for private events and the assembly.

The Games They Played

Vingt-un – similar to blackjack, where players attempt to obtain a hand totalling close to but no more than twenty-one. Vingt-un is a “round game” (with unlimited number of players) and is a favorite of Bingley.

Commerce – players trade cards in an attempt to score the best hand of three – ideally, three of a kind.  Commerce is also a “round game”.

Quadrille – a common gambling game restricted to four players at a time.

Loo – a “round game” that can be played with hands of three or five cards.

Cassino – players gamble on cards in hopes of scoring with a ten of diamongs or a two of spades.

Whist – similar to bridge, four players pair up in teams of two and gamble in a complex circuit of ‘trumps’.

Additional Terms:

fish – gambling chips

In Georgette Heyer’s Faro’s Daughter, the family has a gambling house where Faro was played. It was a game with a bank that people played against the house. They had a bouncer and usually had people by word of mouth because it was illegal to have a Faro bank.

The caricaturists of the day had a field day with a couple of high class women who were arrested for running a gambling house playing Faro. The news prints show them being whipped at the back side of a cart, which, obviously, did not happened, but the authors and artists advocated it.

The clubs and gambling hells had games with dealers and held the bank. People bet against the  house, which won more than 50% of the time. Private games were between two or more people. and they set their own terms and limits. In clubs one had to buy cards. In private parties cards were provided.

If you’re interested in a quick overview of games in Jane Austen, with quotes from her works, plus the rules of casino translated for modern players (that is, the rules are period, but rewritten to be clearer), you can find one on my very-out-of-date website at:  http://caraking.com/Gaming.html

Jane Austen Summer Program provides a great overview of the card games played during the Regency, as mentioned by Miss Austen in her tales. You can find that information HERE.

Other Resources: 

JANE AUSTEN WORLD https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2008/11/30/gambling-an-accepted-regency-pastime/

HARLEQUIN BLOG https://harlequinblog.com/2011/02/gambling-in-regency-england/

ENGLISH HISTORY AUTHORS https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2012/09/a-profitable-vice-gambling-in-regency.html

CHERY BOLEN https://www.cherylbolen.com/gambling.htm

WHS HBL JANE AUSTEN https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2008/11/30/gambling-an-accepted-regency-pastime/

ALL ABOUT ROMANCE https://allaboutromance.com/gambling-in-historic-england/

THE HISTORIC INTERPRETER https://historicinterpreter.wordpress.com/2014/11/11/entertainment-in-the-georgian-era/

RISKY REGENCIES http://www.riskyregencies.com/2012/05/21/regency-gaming-hells/

REGINA JEFFERS’S BLOG https://reginajeffers.blog/2019/08/23/playing-cards-in-jane-austens-england-pleasant-pastime-as-well-as-gambling/

JUDE KNIGHT https://judeknightauthor.com/tag/card-games-in-the-regency/

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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