It is somewhat singular that Brand should have confined his notes to the growth of the various card games in England, omitting entirely all reference to the superstitions which cloud the atmosphere of the gambler, and even the card player who does not play for money, or, if he does, for very small stakes. In games of chance and skill combined, we find just that sort of uncertain feeling which provokes all kinds of theories as to what is right and wrong; the right and wrong in this association meaning no more than success or failure. A search for such superstitious theories is speedily rewarded; the joint authors of The Encyclopædia of Superstitions have collected quite a little crowd of them; some old, some new; some whimsical and without reason; others indicative of observation, and having a basis in common-sense. I propose first to enumerate a few of them, and afterwards to make an attempt at the discovery of their origin.
1. To play cards on the table without a table-cloth is unlucky.
2. He who lends money at play will lose; he who borrows money at play will win.
3. In playing cards, walk straight from the table and make a round turn, if playing for money.
4. There is a superstition at Monto Carlo that immediately after a suicide all those playing against the bank will win. There is therefore a perfect rush for the tables when the lugubrious news is known.
5. If you wish a person to win at cards, stick a pin in his coat.
6. To drop a card on the floor when playing is a bad omen.
7. To sing while playing cards is a sign that your side will lose.
8. Don't play at a table with a cross-eyed man whether he is your partner or opponent; you will lose.
9. If you get into a passion when playing cards you will have more bad luck; for the demon of bad luck always follows a passionate player,
It is truly difficult to imagine how the first item could have originated; there is absolutely no sense in a connection between skill in a game and the covering of the table on which it is played; if the objection had arisen out of the difference between a mahogany table and a steel table, one might have fancied electric forces, or mesmeric forces, had something to do with the origin of this vain notion. It has been suggested that the table-cloth gives an opportunity of "manipulating" cards which a bare table does not. Perhaps. And yet all superstitions cannot have arisen in the minds of cheats and dubious people.
No. 2 is contrary to experience, at anyrate the second half is. The plunger who will lose all his own money and borrows to continue playing, generally loses.
No. 3 has a touch of humour in it--grim humour, no doubt. It seems to come from the heart of a wily but skilful player, who knows the fascination of the game to the novice with keenly awakened desires; and when age and experience speak they counsel a walk away from the table, "a round turn " and--well, that is just it; it is a chance afforded the player to think. "Shall I play or shall I not--for it is for money?" This is about as sensible a bit of superstition as could be invented.
NO. 4 is a specimen of the modern mind at work. And how like the old mind! It is as if the players said, "The God of Chance has had a big success; he has won thousands and thousands; and he has driven his victim to suicide and death. He can't be the same god for a day or two; we must give him time to get over the dreadful event. So we will play whilst he is sorrowing." This logic would hardly do credit to a Comanche Indian, but there it is all the same. A Monto Carlo player commits suicide, and there follows a rush for the tables. Why? Because the players believe in luck, and for some reason they fancy a sufferer's death must inevitably turn the tide in favour of themselves.
The crooked pin referred to in No. 5 is an idea borrowed from other sources. Brand has a note to the effect that:--"About a mile to the west of Jarrow (near Newcastle-upon-Tyne) there is a well, still called Bede's Well, to which as late as the year 1740 it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday to be dipped in this well, at which also, on Midsummer Eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, etc."
No. 6 is a bad omen, because it suggests careless handling of the cards on account of lack of interest, and not watching the progress of the game; and No. 7 is even stronger in this respect. No. 9 belongs to the same category, only in this case the player is giving an excited attention to the game, and loses his head. No. 8 is apparently a joke pure and simple.
Every card player has his own or her own private superstitions: a certain hand always presages good luck or ill-luck; the winning of the first game means winning the third; to play before 6 p.m. on Fridays is never fortunate, and so on. But the whole batch of card superstitions has its source in an attempt to formulate laws for the one thing that seems to have no law--chance.