Gambling in Regency England

by Diane Gaston, author of Chivalrous Captain, Rebel Mistress (Harlequin Historical September 2010)

Romances set in Regency England often depict the characters gambling, whether it be in gaming hells, at White’s, or even the hallowed halls of Almack’s. Regency people wagered on everything, card games, horse races, cock fights, and feats of daring. One story had the patrons at White’s taking bets  on whether a man who collapsed on the doorstep was alive or dead. Entire fortunes were lost at the gaming tables, ruining families, and leading the gentleman involved to “put a period to his existence.”

During the Regency card playing was a very popular pastime, not only for serious gamesters, but also for home entertainment and society parties. Every gentleman’s club had a card room; every ball and party, as well. At such high class places, players could depend upon an honest game, but there were also less reputable places to play. Gaming “hells” were places where the innocent might be easily fleeced and the “Captain Sharps” win huge fortunes.

Whist, the precursor of today’s Contract Bridge, was one of the period’s most popular card games. The game requires four players, playing in partners. A trump suit is chosen and tricks are won. In Whist, strategy improves the player’s ability to win, so a poor player is a great frustration to a more skilled partner.

Piquet is another popular Regency card game (My hero and heroine played a game of strip piquet in The Wagering Widow). It is played by two players and has a complicated scoring system and possibilities of huge bonus points. Skill, strategy, and memory for cards are all very important for success in Piquet.

Loo is another card game often mentioned in Regency romances. In its five card version, a permanent high trump is selected, called “Pam.” Like whist, the players play for tricks, but at the beginning of the hand, they may choose to play, fold, or pick up and play an extra hand dealt, called a “miss.” A player who wins no tricks  is “looed.”

Vingt-et-un from the Regency period is essentially today’s game of Twenty-One. Each player tries to beat the dealer by earning twenty-one points or reaching a higher number of points without exceeding twenty-one.

Faro is not really a card game but a game of chance using cards. It is played at a green baize table displaying pictures of playing cards. The player bets on whether a certain card will be dealt from a special wooden box. In the late 1700s fashionable ladies set up Faro banks in their homes, but this practice fell out of favor by the Regency.

Hazard, another game often mentioned, is not a card game at all but a dice game. The player must roll a certain number on the dice. There is some strategy involved in which numbers the player selects to roll, but Hazard is essentially a game of chance.

Great fortunes were lost at the gaming tables during this time period. Beau Brummell is perhaps the most famous example of a man who plummeted from the heights of society to the depths of poverty. This arbiter of fashion died in squalor, exiled to France because of his gambling debts. The fact that he offended the Prince Regent by calling him fat did not help Brummell’s cause.

One of Lord Byron’s close friends also fell victim to a gambling addiction. Scrope Berdmore Davies was a dandy who lived a fast life and would have been almost entirely forgotten had not a trunk been discovered in 1976 at Barclays Bank, having been deposited by Scrope Davies for safe-keeping when he was forced to flee the country in 1816 because of gambling debts. Included in the contents of the trunk were Davies’ bills, including a summons listing  a £7000 debt.

A gentleman’s gambling debts were “debts of honor” to be paid before debts to shopkeepers or tailors and such. Cheating at cards was a seriously dishonorable act. Gentlemen accused of cheating often challenged their accusers to duels to preserve their good names.

In his early career, the Duke of Wellington fell victim to the gambling fever and almost sold his commission to pay his gambling debts. He was rescued by Lord Camden who paid Wellington’s debts and arranged for the young Captain to further his military studies at Angers, where he could learn how the French waged war.  Imagine how history might have changed in India, in Spain, at Waterloo, had not those debts been paid.

Wellington never gambled again.

Do you like Regency romances that show gambling? What Harlequin Historical is your favorite?

Diane Gaston’s Three Soldiers trilogy reaches its dramatic conclusion in second half of 2011.

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Comments ( 11 )
  1. Tweets that mention Gambling in Regency England | Harlequin Blog -- Topsy.com
    February 14, 2011 at 12:13 pm
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    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Harlequin Books and Kwana Jackson, Katherine Garbera. Katherine Garbera said: RT @HarlequinBooks: Brush up on your whist skills with @DianeGaston today on the Harlequin Blog. http://bit.ly/hdTp5u […]

  2. Kaelee
    February 14, 2011 at 6:34 pm
    Reply

    Gambling was such a great part of that era. I really think it would be hard to not include a mention of it in a book about that time. I always hated it when some poor soul from the country loses everything in a gaming hell.

  3. Deb Marlowe
    February 15, 2011 at 9:00 am
    Reply

    Wow! I didn’t know that about Wellington! Lord Camden saved the world! 🙂

    Great article, Diane! I think it’s difficult for us to understand how much of a social activity gambling was then. An everyday thing for a lot of people. Part of being a gentleman.

    There were people who disapproved, too. Gambling was one of the things that the Evangelicals tried to stamp out.

  4. Diane Gaston
    February 15, 2011 at 9:59 am
    Reply

    Kaelee, I think the prevalence of gambling adds to the drama of the period. How many of us have had our heroines or heroes impoverished by gambling debts?

    Deb, I am delighted that I knew something about the Regency that you didn’t!!! But, of course, Wellington holds a special place in my heart.

  5. Margaret Fisk
    February 15, 2011 at 2:44 pm
    Reply

    That’s a fascinating note about Wellington. Thank you.

    And in more general terms, I wanted to say how much I’m enjoying these glimpses into the different historical periods.

  6. Suzi
    February 23, 2011 at 4:25 am
    Reply

    Diane,
    Great to learn so much about gambling in the Regency,
    This subject fascinates me, and I love hearing more true facts about what really happened,
    Suzi

  7. Emily Gained
    May 7, 2012 at 10:50 am
    Reply

    Interesting article, thank you – one correction, the term is “gambling-hell” not gaming hell – see the OED entry–AND sadly it wasn’t coined until 1877…

  8. My Buddy » Risky Regencies
    February 9, 2013 at 1:24 pm
    Reply

    […] This is a gaming hell story, a gaming hell being a private and illegal establishment for the purpose of card-playing and other games of chance such as Hazard, a dice game, and Faro, a game of chance which does use cards. You can read more about gambling in Regency England here. […]

  9. Gambling in Regency England | Harlequin Blog « Suzi Love's Weblog
    February 17, 2013 at 8:37 pm
    Reply

    […] Gambling in Regency England by Diane Gaston […]

  10. Beth Adamson
    December 28, 2013 at 2:24 am
    Reply

    Diane, I just finished your latest book, ‘A Marriage of Notoriety.’ Absolutely loved it! I fell in love with Xavier!

  11. Donna Hatch Romance Author
    April 24, 2014 at 6:12 pm
    Reply

    Do you know if there was a particular game that the Regent preferred?

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