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An Exhibition On Ancient Gambling In Paris

By: Joe Valentino, Saturday January 12th 2013
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Players who gamble at land casinos or online only need to know the rules of the games and the strategies. The origin and history of the gambling games is of no consequence in winning or losing. But the gourmet player enjoys learning about the evolution of gambling. And for such players who reside in Paris, or even Europe, there is a fantastic exhibition running at the Musee de Cluny in Paris. Titled The Art of Games and Games of the Art, from Babylon to Medieval Europe, the exhibition displays 250 gambling artifacts spanning four millennia and many countries. It will run till March 4, 2013. There is another interesting tidbit about the exhibition. The wing of the museum in which it is located used to be the frigidarium, or cold pool, of a Roman bath when Paris was still Lutetia.

Legal issues plagued gambling then, as they do now. In ancient Rome dice games were banned. However, they remained popular not only with the common people but the aristocracy as well. Gambling is innate to human nature. If it is prohibited it will find illegal outlets. One of the most famous quotes from the most famous personality of ancient Rome, Julius Caesar, is “The die is cast.” He said this when he crossed the Rubicon with his troops. One of his successors Emperor Claudius wrote a book on dice games. Another display from ancient Rome is a 12 line game that appears to be a precursor to backgammon.

Gambling is much older than ancient Rome. An item on display from earlier times is the palm tree game from a tomb ancient Egypt. This unique game was played with 10 ivory pieces, five with the head of a dog and five with the head of a jackal. The pieces were moved across a small table with animal legs and 58 holes. In ancient times kings were buried with their most prized possessions and many gambling artifacts have been discovered in tombs. Predating the Egyptian display is a board game that was excavated from a burial site at Ur Kasdim, Mesopotamia, which is the place where Abraham is believed to have come from.

Chess, though not strictly a gambling game, is included in the exhibition because of its prominence in the ancient world. The exhibition shows that it arrived in Europe around 1000 A.D. It was invented in India three centuries earlier. In its journey to Europe through Arabia changes were made in the game. The most notable of these was that the Indian Vizier became the European Queen. An illuminated manuscript from 15th-century France tells of a reference to chess in the story of Tristan and Isolde, made famous by opera. The manuscript shows Tristan sipping the love potion while playing chess with Isolde.

Card games are easily the most popular form of gambling today. They originated in China and arrived in Europe even after chess. The exhibition displays some beautifully hand-painted cards. Card games became popular after the invention of the printing press. Unfortunately that period is beyond the domain of this exhibition. But there is a museum in Paris dedicated to playing cards. It is the French Museum of Playing Cards in the chateau of Issy-les-Moulineaux, a suburb of Paris.

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