Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Two card games and a dice game: basset, lansquenet, and passe-dix

16th Century German Playing Cards
I like to include period games in my setting. In The Three Musketeers Dumas mentions Porthos as playing three games: basset, passe-dix, and lansquenet

     To come as a cousin and take his place every day at a good table, to smooth out the wrinkles on the old solicitor's creased and yellow brow, to pluck the young clerks a little by teaching them “basset,” “passe-dix,” and “lansquenet,” in their finest points, and by winning from theme, by way of fee, for the lesson he would give them in an hour, their savings of a month,—all this was an enormously delightful outlook for Porthos.

basset, passe-dix, and lansquenet: Basset and lansquenet are card games. The latter, from the German word landsknecht, a mercenary foot soldier, came to France only at the end of the seventeenth century. Passe-dix is a dice game.

From the notes for The Three Musketeers: (Penguin ClassicsDeluxe Edition) by Alexandre Dumas.

Taking a look at these three games one notices several things. First, Dumas didn't worry too much about minor anachronisms in his writing. Thus Porthos plays basset in the mid 1620s despite it not being introduced to France until 1674. Second, since Porthos presumably was the banker when teaching the clerks basset, Porthos is happy to take away the poor clerks' monthly savings in what is a more or less rigged game. Again we see that Dumas clearly shows his "heroes" to be rogues not paladins.


Basset (French bassette, from the Italian bassetta), also known as barbacole and hocca, is a gambling card game that was considered one of the most polite. It was intended for persons of the highest rank because of the great losses or gains that might be accrued by players. According to the (Dizionario etimologico della lingua italiana, the word Basetta is first recorded in the first half of the 15th century. The game Basset is described by a few authors as having been invented in 1593 by a noble Venetian named Pietro Cellini. Basset is played by Porthos in the Alexandre Dumas novel The Three Musketeers.

Basset was first introduced into France by Signior Justiniani, ambassador of Venice, in 1674. The game was very popular at the court of King Charles II, and even after 15 January 1691 when Louis XIV issued an order from the privy council, by which he expressly forbade not only the officers belonging to his array, but likewise all other persons of whatever sex or denomination to play at Hoca, Pharaoh, Barbacole and Basset. The sums of money lost in France at this game were so considerable that the nobility were in danger of being undone after many persons of distinction were ruined.

In Basset, large advantages were secured to the tailleur (the dealer / keeper of the bank) and so vast were their gains, that the privilege of keeping a bank at Basset, where the stakes were unlimited, was granted only to cadets or other members of great families. It was basically certain that a considerable fortune could be realised by the tailleur in a short time. The advantages of the dealer arise in many ways, but mainly from the temptations for adventurous players to increase their stakes on certain desperate chances, which rarely turn up, and which in the long run told largely in favour of the bank. Where licenses were otherwise conceded for keeping a public Basset table in France, the stakes were strictly limited to twelve pence.

The play in Basset resulted in, basically, a lottery. A player might occasionally win, but the big winner was the dealer (banker). The dealer had a number of privileges under the rules, including having the sole disposal of the first and last card; this gave him or her a significant edge. This was a truth so acknowledged in France that the king ordered, by public edict, that the privilege of a tallière (banker) should be allowed only to the chief cadets (sons of noblemen). His assumption was that whoever kept the bank must, in a very short time, acquire a considerable fortune.

Game play

The players sat round a table, the talliere (banker/dealer) in the midst of them, with the bank of gold before him, and the players each having a book of 13 cards. Each laid down one, two, three, or more, as they pleased, with money upon them, as stakes. The talliere took the remaining pack in his hand and turned them up, with the bottom card appearing being called the fasse; he then paid half the value of the stakes laid down by the players upon any card of that rank.

After the fasse was turned up, and the talliere and croupiere (bet collector, similar to a stickman) had looked round the cards on the table, and taken advantage of the money laid on them, the former proceeded with his deal; and the next card appearing, whether the king, queen, ace, or whatever it might be, won for the player (1-1 payout), the latter might receive it, or making paroli (parlay their bet), as before said, go on to sept-et-le-va (7-1 payout). The card after that won for the talliere, who took money from each player's card of that sort, and brought it into his bank, an obvious and prodigious advantage over the players.

The talliere, if the winning card was a king, and the next after it was a ten, said (showing the cards all round): 'King wins, ten loses,' paying the money to such cards and taking the money from those who lost, adding it to his bank. This done, he went on with the deal: 'Ace wins, five loses; 'Knave (Jack) wins, seven loses;' and so on, every other card alternately winning and losing, till all the pack was dealt but the last card. According to the rules of the game, the last card turned up was for the advantage of the talliere; although a player might have one of the same sort, still it was allowed to him as one of the dues of his office, he paid nothing on it.

The bold player who was lucky and adventurous, and could push on his couch with a considerable stake to sept-et-le-va (7-1 payout), quinze-et-le-va (15-1 payout), trente-et-le-va (30-1 payout), etc., must in a wonderful manner have multiplied his couch, or first stake; but this was seldom done; and the loss of the players, by the very nature of the game, invariably exceeded that of the bank; in fact, this game was altogether in favour of the bank; and yet it is evident that, in spite of this obvious conviction, the game must have been one of the most tempting and fascinating that was ever invented.

Basset has been the object of mathematical calculations. Abraham de Moivre estimated the loss of the player under any circumstance of cards remaining in the stock when he lays his stake, and of any number of times that his card is repeated in the stock. De Moivre created a table showing the several losses of the player in whatsoever circumstances he may happen to be.


Lansquenet (derived from the French spelling of German Landsknecht ('servant of the land or country'), applied to a mercenary soldier) is a card game. Lansquenet also refers to 15th- and 16th-century German foot soldiers; the lansquenet drum is a type of field drum used by these soldiers.
Lansquenet is played by Porthos in the Alexandre Dumas novel The Three Musketeers and by D'Artagnan in Twenty Years After.

Game play

The dealer or banker stakes a certain sum, and this must be met by the nearest to the dealer first, and so on. When the stake is met, the dealer turns up one card and lays it to his right, for the table or the players, and another card in front of himself for the bank. He then keeps on turning up cards (while keeping the first two cards visible), until a card turns up with a value matching either of the first two cards. For instance, if the five of diamonds has been laid down for the bank, then any other five, regardless of suit, constitutes a win for the banker. If the table's card is mached first, he loses, and the next player on the left becomes banker and proceeds in the same way.

When the dealer's card turns up, he may take the stake and pass the bank; or he may allow the stake to remain, whereupon it becomes doubled if met. He can continue thus as long as the cards turn up in his favour – having the option at any moment of giving up the bank and retiring for that time. If he does that, the player to whom he passes the bank has the option of continuing it at the same amount at which it was left. The pool may be made up by contributions of all the players in certain proportions. The terms used respecting the standing of the stake are "I'll see" (à moi le tout) and Je tiens. When jumelle (twins), or the turning up of similar cards on both sides, occurs, then the dealer takes half the stake.

And for those PCs with the Gambler career, Robert-Houdin explained a mechanism by which a card sharp could cheat at lansquenet, by palming and then placing atop the deck a packet of cards in prepared order.


Passe-dix, also called passage in English, is a game of chance using dice. It was described by Charles Cotton in The Compleat Gamester (1674) thus:
"Passage is a Game at dice to be played at but by two, and it is performed with three Dice. The Caster throws continually until he hath thrown Dubblets under ten, and then he is out and loseth; or Dubblets above ten, and then he passeth and wins."
Andrew Steinmetz, in The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims, described it at greater length but somewhat confusingly (the results of rolling a 10 are unclear, depending on whether it wins for the bank or is a push, there is house advantage is at best 0, and at worst negative, and the suggestion that it was played at the crucifixion is of course sheer speculation):
"Passe-dix is one of the, possibly the, most ancient of all games of chance, is said to have actually been made use of by the executioners at the crucifixion of our Saviour, when they parted his garments, casting lots, Matt. xxvii. 35.
"It is played with three dice. There is always a banker, and the number of players is unlimited. Each gamester holds the box by turns, and the other players follow his chance; every time he throws a point under ten he, as well as the other players, loses the entire stakes, which go to the banker. Every time he throws a point above ten (or passes ten -- whence the name of the game), the banker must double the player's stakes and the stakes of all those who have risked their money on the same chance. When the game is played by many together, each gamester is banker in his turn."

Also see the Compleat Gamester.

No comments:

Post a Comment