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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Clinamen and a flush

Kant mentions, in his Anthropology, one of the favorite card games of the eighteenth century, pharaon. In Thomas Kavanagh’s essay, Libertine’s Bluff: Cards and Culture in Eighteenth-Century France, Kavanagh contrasts pharaon with the century’s other favorite card game, brelan. Pharaon was, it appears, even banned in France for a time in the 18th century, but brelan was not. In his article on brelan in the Encyclopedie, Diderot wrote: "it is most enjoyable, that is, most ruinous when there are three or five players." In fact, the amounts won or lost by brelan were legendary. Kavanagh, however, wants to get past the anecdotal and point to the central social symbolism of card games for the French – and, in general, the ancien regime’s – aristocracy, and he wants to draw a contrast between pharaon, which was a game of chance, and brelan, which was a game of strategies that became part of the pool of metaphors that informed the libertine vocabulary of seduction. Is it right, in fact, to call these metaphors? The connection between brelan and seduction as a game was, on Kavanagh's account, pretty tight.

First, though, I will quote his description of brelan:

“The best three-card hand a player can hold is the "brelan" in the other sense of that word which French retains today: triplets, or three cards of the same value, such as three aces or three kings. If, as was most frequently the case, no player held a brelan, the winner was the player who, at the end of the hand, held the highest aggregate point count in a single suit. In making that count, aces were worth eleven points, all picture cards ten, and the other cards their face value. The most important feature of the game and the guarantee of real risk for all players was the fact that this count was made only after all players remaining in the game after the betting and raising had placed their cards face up on the table. At that point, those holding the highest card in each suit removed from their opponents' hands and added to their own all the lower cards in that same suit. Once this capture by the highest card in each suit was completed, some players held more than their original three cards and some fewer. The one additional feature of the game was that, after the betting and exposing of the three-card hands, one additional card, la retourne, was then turned face up by the dealer. That card could then be claimed either by the player holding three cards, a brelan, of the same value or, if there was no such three of a kind, by the player holding within her original three cards the highest card in that suit.10 In sum, brelan could be described as a simplified form of modern poker, a variant where only triplets and flushes count.”

La retourne. The dealer’s card, the author’s card, the philosopher’s card.

Here, by contrast, is pharaon:

“In pharaon, players have only one decision to make: the amount they will bet. Whether they win or lose has nothing to do with the cards held by the other players at the table or with the bets those others make. In pharaon each player receives a livret of thirteen cards and uses one or more of them to bet on the values from ace to king with suits being irrelevant. Once the bets are made, the banker staking the game begins to turn over one by one the cards from the shuffled deck he holds in his hand. The banker wins all bets made on cards matching the first card he turns and all other odd-numbered turns. The players win when they have bet on cards matching the second card the dealer turns up and all other even-numbered turns.”

Perhaps Kant’s description of the rational man at cards is so stripped of any strategy, and so fixed on the ‘turn’ of the cards, because it excludes the bluff and deception that, as Kavanagh points out, made brelan a school in lucretian strategy. Kavanagh connects the card game to the general philosophical atmosphere of libertinism:

“The libertine and the gambler share a fundamentally Epicurean vision of the world. The same Democritian atomism presides over their convictions as to the con- stant possibilities and unanticipated encounters provided by life in society and by the dealing of a deck of cards. This Epicureanism implied not only a privileging of plea- sure in all its forms, but the conviction that events, what took place and the way things turned out, were guided only by chance. Imagining life as following the model of atoms falling through space until their course is deflected by the random collisions of the Lucretian clinamen, the gambler and the libertine saw the same chance at work in the movement of cards being dealt from a deck and of men and women intersecting within the whirl of social life. Life and desire become a succession of random encoun- ters following one another with no more coherence and no more significance than dealing a jack after a queen from a well shuffled deck of cards.”

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