The Expert at the Table: The History and Culture Behind Card Shark

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The Expert at the Table: The History and Culture Behind Card Shark

Card Shark immediately charmed me when I played its demo at LudoNarraCon, and finishing it revealed what will likely be one of my favorite games of the year. Asking players to perform real-world card tricks with a controller, it’s a whirlwind tour of fictionalized card tables in 18th century France. It’s funny and tragic, tricky to learn and rewarding to master, and shows off a light, deft hand towards its more literary aspirations.

That feeling only deepened as I interviewed Professor Michael Call, a specialist in Early Modern French Humanities. Dr. Call has primarily written about French playwright Molière, but also has taught classes about videogames and studied the cultural role of card games in historical France. I thought he would be a perfect person to ask about Card Shark’s depiction of gambling and social drama. We had a fascinating conversation, which I’ve summarized, quoted, and put into context below.

Full disclosure: Dr. Call and I are friends. I took several classes from him and also TAed for him in undergrad. I’ve also edited Dr. Call’s quotes for brevity and clarity.

Spoilers for the entirety of Card Shark follow.

One of the first things that struck me about Card Shark was how it depicted card playing as something almost everyone in every class of society does. Protagonist Eugene (though his chosen name can be different) and the real-life figure Comte de Saint Germain take a tour throughout France and play cards with kings, sea captains, pirates, peasants and thieves. The structure of the game is a kind of social maneuvering. As Comte attempts to get to the bottom of a scandal known as 12 Bottles of Milk, he chains his social connections together to eventually reach King Louis XV.

It is undeniably exaggerated, but the whirlwind story is based on some social truth. Gambling really did act as a bridge between classes. “It shows a good grasp of the period, because that’s what folks at the time were saying,” Dr. Call said. Gambling, then, acted as one of the few real means of upward mobility, with both real consequences and hard limits. With class divisions stratified by birth, it was difficult to find any other ways to mingle with those of higher or lower station. This was true throughout the 18th century, the game’s setting, but gambling’s social role showed up in the literature of the late 16th and early 17th centuries as well. Dr. Call brought up the landmark play The Gamester by Edward Moore, first performed in 1757, which explicitly calls attention to gambling’s class-bridging dynamic.

However, social mobility and class encounters happened on more than just the stage and page. “Card play allowed for strange careers,” Dr. Call remarked, “People, often coming from the lower nobility, catapulted themselves into social situations they never could have found themselves in otherwise.” The largest examples of this were in the king’s court. Louis XIV solidified gambling as an official pastime at Versailles and it had both obvious and strange political dimensions. Dr. Call shared one instance where “one of Louis XIV’s ministers got his position because he was a good card player” and another where a minor scandal occurred because of one nobleman’s constant playing with his valets.

Cheating itself was not uncommon, and even quietly encouraged. Dr. Call said, “It was seen as a way of getting your edge. If you could get away with it, it justified you doing it.” This is not to say that there was no moral dimension to cheating or that no consequences would occur if you were caught. Card playing itself was still stigmatized by church and clergy, and with money on the line, it’s hard for stakes not to rise. However, there may have been a good chance that you were playing against a cheat, even in the highest echelons of society.

Card Shark nods to, but explicitly leaves out, the era’s easiest tell. As Dr. Call advised, “Watch your opponent and see if they rotated any of the cards they were dealt. Because face cards in the 18th century decks were not printed double-sided.” If you look at most decks of cards now, there is no right direction to turn the cards, and the face card figures are printed on both ends. As truthfully depicted in Card Shark, there was a correct way to flip face cards, leading to potential disaster if a player was thoughtless. In Card Shark, the cards always appear in the right direction, begging the question of whether Eugene is flipping them… or if it’s just a contrivance to make the game more readable.

Card Shark also takes place during a period now understood as “the Enlightenment,” when Western philosophy began to foreground scientific knowledge and human reason, often to the exclusion of more mystic ideas. Sociologist Max Weber called this process “the disenchanting of the world.” Dr. Call described it thusly: “Things that were previously viewed as in the realm of fate or chance or providence, these things become disenchanted.” This gets shown off by the mathematicians who were inventing probability math, rendering a previously mythical process mundane. As Dr. Call put it, “God does not have to interfere with the dice to reveal the outcome. It’s just physics… This is a historical moment where we say accidents can just happen.”

This exploration of the physical truths of the world still introduces ideological friction, even from those people who are leading it. For example, Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert, a famous French mathematician who appears in Card Shark, resisted the new wisdom of probability. In Dr. Call’s abbreviation: “If you flipped a coin 50 times and it was tails every time, these probability mathematicians will tell you that there’s still a 50% chance it’ll be tails the next time. Both you and I know that’s not true.” In a cheeky nod to this passage, Card Shark teaches you a coin flipping trick during a conversation with d’Alembert. It’s a representation of “the classic gambler’s fallacy on the part of a very smart mathematician,” according to Dr. Call.

Some elements of the Enlightenment get personified through the Comte de Saint Germain, who brings education and reason to the previously uneducated Eugene. In fact, in their first encounter, Comte brings up that those unable to speak, like Eugene, have been thought to have prophetic powers… before dismissing that as hogwash. The game builds some of its richest and most complex material out of their tense friendship. The real world figure had no such protégée, but is just as mysterious as his depiction in the game. His real identity is still unknown, but the Comte remains a figure in fiction and occult literature.

In Card Shark, the Comte is portrayed as a cheat and a crook, in contrast with much of the literary tradition. Dr. Call said that, “because of his social polish and the obvious skills he had, he must have been a member of the minor nobility. He fabricated an entire other persona for himself as an alchemist and master of the occult.” His relationship with the supernatural is most often foregrounded in literary depictions written after his life. For example, in the novel The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin, Comte appears before one of the minor characters, telling her three magic cards to bet on after she loses all her money. She bets on the three cards, wins all her money back, only to find that the Comte has disappeared. “He’s treated entirely as a supernatural figure,” Dr. Call said. Card Shark turns that depiction deliberately on its head, making the Comte into a figure who can seem magical because of how proficient he is at cheating the rules.

Many of the figures you will encounter in Card Shark are famous crooks and cheats from world history, though key figures like Louis XV and Casanova are obviously from the period. Dr. Call in particular pointed out Soapy Smith, an old west card cheat who “ran faro tables in Denver and eventually went up to Alaska during the gold rush there.” The most significant though is S.W. Erdnase. The name is a pseudonym used for the book The Expert at the Card Table, which has been in publication since 1902… well after the events of the game.

The actual author of The Expert at the Card Table is also unknown. Who actually wrote the book continues to prompt speculation. Nevertheless, Erdnase is a major character, likely in part because his historical likeness is such an enigma. His presence may also be a holdover from the game’s initial pitch, which would have set it in Vegas. “You have the rigorous exploration of 18th century France and then this looser one of inviting you to think about this long, but hidden, history of people bilking other people out of their money,” Dr. Call summarized.

There’s also a desire to foreground figures who have been forgotten or marginalized in Card Shark. An example of this is the French-African nobleman Joseph Bologne, known as Chevalier de Saint-Georges. He was an accomplished composer and had a reputation for being “the finest swordsman in all of Europe.” In Card Shark, he briefly assists Comte and teaches Eugene how to fence. In addition, the Romani also are explicitly oppressed and sympathetically portrayed, something you are unlikely to find in the literature of the 19th century. Eugene himself cannot speak and opens the game destitute. Though many people around him, including Comte, condescend to him, the game never does, giving him ample room for expression and humanity.

The 12 Bottles of Milk, the hidden scandal that drives Card Shark’s plot, is “not based on any one precise historical moment,” according to Call. However, many of the general details are sort of plausible. As a reminder, Eugene is revealed to be the possible illegitimate child of Louis XV, the product of a hidden marriage. When his mother died in childbirth, Eugene was snuck away and planted with the owner of a tavern. As the game continues, doubt is cast across this account and Eugene’s actual status as a bastard child of royalty. In reality, Louis XV had many illegitimate children. He was not known to have had a secret marriage and, as Dr. Call put it, “that wasn’t his style.” However, Louis XIV did actually have a secret marriage to his long term mistress, Madame de Maintenon. Smartly, Card Shark draws some elements of historical fact, while lending them its own strange twists. Dr. Call added, “Much of the rest of it seems inspired by Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers.”

The French Revolution hangs over the game. One of the Comte’s final promises to Eugene is that Louis XV will be taken down by people like him. However, as Dr. Call put it, “it’s interesting that the focus is on Louis XV rather than Louis XVI, who’s the one who ends up getting his head chopped off!” But the setting is still decades before the French Revolution, and while its undercurrents are beginning to rise, this is likely a deliberate move. As Dr. Call said, “There’s a common way of talking about the French Revolution, that it is actually the excesses of Louis XV that lead to it. There’s an apocryphal phrase attributed to Louis XV: ‘After us, the flood.’” There’s no verifiable source that Louis XV actually said this, but the intent is clear: This stratified world was not built to last.

The game also foregrounds a more modern ideal of revolution, skipping over some of the French Revolution’s historical complexities. The game casts the Romani and other suppressed classes as leaders of the revolution. “That’s how it’s portrayed in the popular imagination, almost as a peasant revolution,” said Dr Call. However, the reality was different. “Kind of like the American revolution, it was a middle class, a bourgeois revolution.” It was led by the well-educated, relatively well off who were frustrated at the lack of access to power. In fact, Dr. Call said, “many of the people who were guillotined were counter-revolutionary peasants loyal to the king.” The game even highlights some more modern ideas of revolutionary action, as Eugene and Comte contribute to a mutual aid fund, essentially, led and distributed by the Romani.

This overview is ultimately only the beginning of a possible tour of Card Shark’s relationship to history. One could, for example, survey all of its historical figures, its elegant depiction of crossdressing and queerness, or make direct comparisons to its various literary influences. That would all be interesting work and it would likely prompt even more interesting work. Card Shark is the rare game that makes me curious, that has me digging around in a historical, cultural context in ways that feel more than superficial. Now to see if I can actually learn some card tricks.

Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.

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