Medieval gambling, the favourite pastime
There’s no doubt that gambling – on all sorts of games – was in the heart of a great many medieval lives. Even if you weren’t playing yourself, most of the people you knew were. Medieval gambling games, like dice, cards, and even board games, were the folly of many. Luck and fortune made no distinction between poor or rich, worker or king, and it was the undoing of many. Having said that, in a world without television, internet, readily available music, and expensive books, you had to entertain yourself somehow. Medieval gambling games were, if nothing else, a way to pass the time.
In this article, I’ll be going through medieval gambling games of dice, and also gambling games played on the street. This series will continue in a subsequent article to explore card and board games. I hope this will give fellow world builders, storytellers and writers some ideas to expand their universe and add some spice to their games.
3 six-sided dice are rolled: 10 and above wins double the stake, below loses the stake; after each roll the bank passes to the next player.
Probably one of the most, if not the most, ancient dice game in history. Passe-dix was specified by Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 27:35) as the game the Roman guards played under the site of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Passe-dix is played with three dice. There’s always a banker, and the number of players is unlimited. The first gamer rolls: every time he throws UNDER ten he (and all the other players in the game) lose the specified stake, which goes to the banker. Every time he rolls ABOVE ten (or PASSES TEN–whence the name of the game), the banker must return double the stake to all the players in the game. After three losses of the roller (no matter how many wins), the roller position is passed to another gamer in the circle. The banker changes after each roll.
E.g. if there are four people in the game (remember one is the Banker, and one is rolling for everyone else) and the stake is £5, then a loss will result in the banker taking £5 from each other player, but a win will involve the banker giving £10 to each player.
Hazard az-zahr (الزهر)
2 six-sided dice: roller specifies a number from 5 to 9 inclusive – this number is called the main – then rolls. Depending on the main, a roller nicks(wins) or outs(loses). After 3 outs, the roller changes. Multiple players/betters but only one rolls each time.
This game (meaning literally dice in Arabic) and its far-Asian counterpart Sic Bo (high-low) was one of the most played games in 13th century Europe. Hazard is the predecessor of the modern game craps, which is a simplified version of this rather convoluted medieval gambling game.
“This game was properly so called; for it made a man or undid him in the twinkling of an eye.”
– The apprentice in Chaucer’s The Cook’s Tale
The players assemble round a circular table, with one space being reserved for the “groom-porter,” who occupies a somewhat elevated position of overseer, calls the odds on the selected ‘main’, and generally sees that the game is played correctly. Whoever takes the box and dice places his money in the centre of the table – this is at once covered with an equal amount either by some individual speculator, or by the contributions of several. The player (technically called the “caster”) then proceeds to call a “main.” There are five mains on the dice, namely, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9; of these he mentally selects that one (based either chance or superstition), calls it aloud, shakes the box, and delivers the dice. If he throws the exact number he called, he “nicks” it and wins; if he throws any other number (with a few exceptions, which will be mentioned), he neither wins nor loses.
The number, however, which he thus throws becomes his “chance,” and if he can succeed in repeating the “chance” again before then throwing his “main”, he wins; if not, he loses. For example, suppose the caster “sets”–that is, places on the table–a stake of 10 silver; it is covered by an equal amount, and he then calls 7 as his main. The caster, however, throws 5; the groom-porter at once calls aloud, “5 to 7”– that means, 5 is the number to win and 7 the number to lose: remember, having missed his “main” the first time he must now repeat his “chance”. The player now continues throwing until the event is determined by the turning up of either the main or the chance. During this time, however, a most important feature in the game comes into operation–the laying and taking of the odds caused by the relative proportions of the main and the chance. These, as has been said, are calculated with mathematical exactness, are proclaimed by the groom-porter, and are never varied. In the above instance, as the caster stands to win with 5 and to lose with 7, the odds are declared to be 3 to 2 against him, inasmuch as there are three ways of throwing 7, and only two of throwing 5. As soon as the odds are declared, the caster may increase his stake by any sum he wishes, and the other players may cover it by putting down (in this instance) two-thirds of the amount, the masse, or entire sum, to await the turning up of either main or chance. If a player “throws out” (throws neither the “main” nor the “chance”) three times in succession, the box passes to the next person on his left, who at once takes up the play. He may, however, “throw in” without interruption, and if he can do so some half-dozen times and back his luck, the gains will be enormous.
2 six-sided dice, 2 players: each roll both dice and the highest sum wins.
This medieval gambling game of Highest Points was simple and straightforward – maybe too simple, since a game of chance should not be a game of boredom. People tended to play Highest Points less often than either Hazard or Passe-dix.
There is a funny medieval French story in which a minstrel is brought to hell by a demon and gets left in charge of all the souls there, while the devils go out looking for more souls. St Peter turns up in their absence and plays Highest Points with the minstrel until he wins all the souls the minstrel was supposed to be guarding, and promptly leads them away and up to heaven. When the devils return to find the place empty, the minstrel is in dire trouble, but they decide he’s a rotten servant and throw him out. He runs all the way to heaven and St. Peter lets him in… and that, explains the tale, is why minstrels (amongst other rogues and gamblers) are refused entry to hell when they die! Who said that medieval gambling cannot have its benefits…
Cross and Pile (a.k.a heads or tails, night and day)
1 coin/sea shell, 2 players, each chooses one of the two sides. Top side after flipping the coin in the air wins
Cross and Pile was so called because English coins were stamped on one side with a cross. In 1833 in their publication: “The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England”, Strutt and Hone noted that it:
“is a silly pastime well enough known among the lowest and most vulgar classes of the community, and to whom it is at present very properly confined; formerly, however, it held a higher rank, and was introduced at court. Edward II was partial to this and other such likewise frivolous diversions, and spent much of his time in the pursuit of them. In one of his wardrobe ‘rolls,’ or accounts, we find the following entries–
- ‘Item, paid to Henry, the king’s barber, for money which he lent to the king to play at Cross and Pile, five shillings.
- Item, paid to Pires Bernard, usher of the king’s chamber, money which he lent the king, and which he lost at Cross and Pile; to Monsieur Robert Wartewille, eight- pence.’
The game is first encountered by historians in ancient Greece as “nyx & imera” (night and day). It was played by kids in the street using black and white sea shells.
Thimble-rig (a.k.a cups and balls)
Three peas, 1 peppercorn, 1 flat surface, a quick hand and a rattling tongue: 1 dealer, 1 player, 1 egger, 1 bonnet
Thimble-rig was the apogee of medieval gambling, and a game for all of those with more money than wit. Thimble-rig was more of a scam than a real game, but it was indeed played quite often in the streets of medieval cities and towns. “Gangs” which organised thimble-rig games could make quite a pretty living. This game was also alive and well in the 19th century, and is described by John Wright in “More Mornings at Bowstreet” pub. 1827:
A quick hand, a rattling tongue, a deal board, three thimbles, and a pepper-corn. The game they played with these three curious articles is a sort of Lilliputian game at cups and balls; and the beauty of it lies in dexterously seeming to place the pepper-corn under one particular thimble, getting a green to bet that it was there, and then winning his money by showing that it is not. Every operator at this game was attended by certain of his friends called eggers and bonnetters–the eggers to ‘egg’ on the green ones to bet, by betting themselves; and the bonnetters to ‘bonnet’ any green one who might happen to win– that is to say, to knock his hat over his eyes, whilst the operator and the others bolted with the stakes.
A “green one” is the unsuspecting player, convinced into play after watching the ‘egger’ win money on the game. In a variation of this “game”, a third party will simply pickpocket all the bystanders as they paid attention to the dexterous movements of the operator.
Coming up next
If you liked this article and want to learn more about medieval gambling, stay tuned and subscribe to our newsletter just below! I’m in the process of writing the second part of it, in which I’ll be going through the amazing oddities of board and cards games from medieval times.
The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims, Vol. II
Nicholas Harris Nicolas, ed., Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York. London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1972 (reprint of 1830 edition).
Book of Games (Alfonso X, 1283)
Libro Delos Dados (Book of Dice)