Friday, May 24, 2013

Love, Gambling, and Casanova

The Venetian adventurer and libertine Giacomo Giralamo Casanova’s legacy was such that to this day the mere mention of his name instantly evokes the art of making love. While Casanova lived and died just prior the advent of poker, his predilection for gambling also demonstrates the various seductions of card games, thereby suggesting more than a few connections between love and poker.

Born in Venice to actors in 1725, young Giacomo was destined to endure a childhood marked by abandonment. His father died when he was but eight, and he was sent away from his mother and siblings a year later to stay at a boarding house. Soon he became a gifted student, studying numerous subjects and earning a degree in law by age 17.

He was introduced early on to sex and romance, losing his virginity while still an adolescent. And he started gambling early, too, managing to accrue significant debts even as a teenager.

As a young adult, Casanova would begin a clerical law career and even for a short while was admitted as an abbé before scandals -- including debts that earned him a short stay in prison -- spelled the end of his association with the Catholic church.

He then tried a military career, although again his gambling helped curtail that pursuit after he lost most of his initial earnings at the faro tables. A failed try at being a musician followed before Casanova finally found himself a patron, thereby allowing him the freedom to engage with less restraint in his two favorite pursuits -- women and gambling.

Casanova’s adult years were marked by various escapades and travels throughout Europe, with numerous affairs -- some scandalous -- punctuating his days in Paris, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna. A return to Venice followed where he found himself mired in more scandal and another prison stay before embarking on another romance-filled romp throughout Europe.

As the 18th century came to an end and Casanova’s life was coming to a close he found himself alone and poor, working as a librarian in Bohemia. In his old age the longtime lover had an urge to chronicle his illustrious life, and so would spend his final years writing the 12-volume Histoire de ma vie where much of his amazing story has been preserved.

It is amid those 3,800-plus pages we learn of his prodigious sexual conquests, often cast as adventures with the author as hero while also serving as a kind of tutelage by Casanova to his reader in the art of seduction. All told Casanova recounts himself having affairs with more than 120 women, including one nun (who, he explains, propositioned him). He almost always conducted multiple liaisons at once, at apparently at one time had 20 different Parisian apartments with lovers residing in each.

And no, he never married.

His memoirs additionally relate the many different gambling games he and other Europeans of the day favored, foremost among them faro, but also including various card games like whist, quinze, basset, biribi, and primero, the latter often described as one of poker's precursors. As would be the case in the 19th century when poker came to America, cheating was prevalent in these games, and Casanova relates stories in which he, too, occasionally engages in dishonesty while gambling at cards.

In fact, the practice of deceit might be highlighted as a trait or element of Casanova’s unique “philosophy” that connects his sexual exploits and his repeated dalliances with Lady Luck.

When explaining the art of seduction to his readers, Casanova freely admits that while not all of his many brief relationships were based on lies, many at least began on false pretenses. “I have more than once deceived without the slightest qualm of conscience, both knaves and fools” he wrote, alluding to the various cons he ran throughout his life. “As to the deceit perpetrated upon woman,” he asks his reader to “let it pass, for, when love is in the way, men and women as a general rule dupe each other.”

While Casanova clearly loved women -- and at times speaks of them with a kind of reverence that reveals his having considered them equals during an era when it went against the grain to do so -- he nonetheless recognizes how oftentimes his “victories” over them hinged upon his having outwitted them in some fashion. His interactions with men, including those against whom he gambled, in many cases went similarly.

However, while he insists deceit is simply part of the “game” of love and thus shouldn’t be considered especially noteworthy, he gladly accepts whatever judgment might be delivered upon him for his triumphs over men. When speaking of men he’s successfully duped, Casanova many times sounds like he could be writing a poker strategy text in which he’s advising readers about the benefits of targeting less-skilled opponents.

“I always feel the greatest bliss when I recollect those I have caught in my snares,” he writes, “for they generally are insolent, and so self-conceited that they challenge wit. We avenge intellect when we dupe a fool... in fact, to gull a fool seems to be an exploit worthy of a witty man.”

Of course, it should be noted that on the whole Casanova was not necessarily the most successful of gamblers, his career marked by wild swings both positive and negative, with his “tilting” at the tables sometimes proceeding as far as engaging opponents in duels with pistols. And like many poker players he was susceptible to chasing losses and becoming reckless when running well. “I had neither prudence enough to leave off when fortune was adverse,” he explains, “nor sufficient control over myself when I won.”

Casanova wasn’t uniformly victorious with the ladies, either, with a few failures occasionally damaging his status as a “player.” Most notable among these tales is his lengthy, unhappy pursuit of Marianne de Charpillon, a prostitute from France he encountered in London. In the end he’d squander many hours and significant sums over her without success, and like a successful poker player who suddenly meets with an unfortunate run of cards, his confidence was said to be shaken thereafter.

It would be around the middle of the 19th century -- well after Casanova’s death when poker had begun to emerge as a favorite card game -- that the Italian’s name would start to appear as a synonym for a well-skilled lover, as it still is today.

But Casanova’s life was more complicated than such usage might suggest. And in fact, his fascinating story provided numerous object lessons for lovers and gamblers alike.

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