Rustic pleasures

The movies have misled people into associating card-playing with well-lit saloons and green baize, femmes fatales and blase men, or dim figures in backrooms hazy with smoke and alcohol fumes. In fact, good card games are played in the cool, clean air of the countryside, which has an admirable and frankly unrivaled record in other pursuits that are considered sinful – and some damnable. Indeed, whole regions, even professions, specialize by tradition in a particular card game. For example, Messinia and Elis go in for poker, while cobblers and printers roll dice. In the good old newspaper days on Christmas Eve, the printers’ wives – complete with small children – would turn up at the accounts office and plead despairingly to be given the Christmas bonus, at least, so that they could have something to eat at Christmas. Skill was not confined to complex combinations, the ability to psyche out your opponent or a practical familiarity with the laws of chance, but included how to slip in or abstract a card, or give the dice an invisible nudge, or make head gestures and facial grimaces informing your partner what cards were held. The countryside plays cards all days of the year. During the holidays, villagers descend on Athens in pairs, turning up at aristocratic card-playing saloons – with money to show – where their peasant accents and manners persuade the Athenians they are easy prey. As they make more money from this than from their fields, they thus have no reason to till them.

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