The Art of the Card Sharp

Did you know one of the world’s most famous works of gambling art is a Michelangelo? No, not that Michelangelo. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. His Italian compatriot Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni is one of the most celebrated artists ever, and known simply today by his first name. Renowned for his sculptures of Pieta and David, he is also hailed for two influential murals; the scenes from Genesis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and The Last Judgement on its altar wall. While he didn’t quite reach those heights, Caravaggio did achieve some mainstream success of his own. And, the odds are, you’ll love his work.

Caravaggio portraitMichelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

“Caravaggio was one of the pivotal figures in the history of Western art,” reads his biography at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, where one of his most beloved pieces hangs.

Dating back to the 16th century, circa 1595, with dimensions of 37 1/16 x 51 9/16 inches (94.2 x 130.9 centimeters), The Cardsharps is displayed prominently in the museum’s South Gallery, the Kahn Building, and visitors travel from far and wide just to see it. The oil on canvas masterpiece depicts three players around a card table, gambling, but as you analyze it further a more sinister theme emerges — cheating.

“In his short lifetime, he created a theatrical style that was as shocking to some as it was new, inspiring others to probe their subject matter for the drama of psychological relationships,” says kimbellart.org.

Sharps & Sharks

It’s an older term, card sharp, and not thrown around very much anymore. Nowadays, if you’re a skilled poker player you’re more likely to be called a ‘shark’, as in there’s blood in the water, and the sharks are circling. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a card sharp is a “skilled card player” or “a person who makes money by cheating at card games.”

The CardsharpsThe Cardsharps

In The Cardsharps, three players are engaged in a game of primero, a forerunner of poker. Here’s how it’s described in the museum’s collection guide:

“Engrossed in his cards at left is the dupe, unaware that the older cardsharp signals his accomplice with a raised, gloved hand (the fingertips exposed, better to feel marked cards). At right, the young cheat looks expectantly toward the boy and reaches behind his back to pull a hidden card from his breeches. Caravaggio has treated this subject not as a caricature of vice but in a novelistic way, in which the interaction of gesture and glance evokes the drama of deception and lost innocence in the most human of terms.”

What is Primero?

Thought to be the ‘noblest of all card games’ in the 16th century, the earliest reference of primero dates back to 1526. Like poker, the object of the game is to attain the highest possible hand, or at least bluff your competitors out of betting against you. There are no existing written rules, only descriptions, but the game has been reconstructed a few times, based primarily on books describing playing strategy and references in period literature. We do know it’s played with a 40-card deck, and works best with four to six players.

There are English, Spanish and Italian versions of the game, each with special decks, but they all essentially play the same. Whoever holds the prime, a sequence of the best cards and a good trump, is almost guaranteed to win –- hence the game’s name.

Primero PaintingFour Gentlemen of High Rank Playing Primero

Primero is featured in a couple of lesser known works of art. In Four Gentlemen of High Rank Playing Primero, as the title would suggest, four members of society’s elite are enjoying themselves on card night. Dating back to the 1560s, the painting is attributed to the Master of the Countess of Warwick, or his inner circle. In Lucas van Leyden’s The Card Players (1508-1510), primero is at the heart of a mixed game involving men and women in fancy dress. The women seem to be winning.

Leyden's Card PlayersThe Players

The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs?

While cheaters never prosper, they do sometimes get painted. With The Cardsharps, Caravaggio inspired artists throughout Europe to create countless renditions’ on related themes. Georges de La Tour was one of them. His The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs (1630-1634) is one of the greatest masterpieces of seventeenth-century French art, and it too hangs in the Kimbell Art Museum’s South Gallery.

The Cheat PaintingThe Cheat with the Ace of Clubs

What happens in France, stays in France? Perhaps. The subject of the painting is the danger of indulgence in wine, women, and gambling.

“La Tour’s dazzling colors and elaborate costumes create a brilliant tableau,” the museum’s write-up says.

“His characters enact a psychological drama that unfolds through the cues of their sidelong gazes and the measured gestures that signal their next moves. The cheat tips his cards toward the viewer, who thereby becomes complicit in the scheme, knowing that in the next moment, the conniving trio of cheat, maidservant, and courtesan (identified by her low-cut bodice) will prevail.”

There is another signature version of this subject, Cheat with the Ace of Diamonds(Musée du Louvre, Paris), which features a few variations in details of colour, clothing, and accessories.

Editor’s Note:

The Cardsharps was stamped on the back with the seal of Cardinal del Monte and inventoried among his possessions after his death in 1627. Its location had been unknown for some ninety years when it was rediscovered in 1987 in a European private collection, before being transferred to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver

Derrick Oliver Dewan is the founder of High Roller Radio, and has interviewed a number of the world’s top poker players including Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Barbara Enright. A former, long-time radio and television broadcaster, Derrick has always had a passion for all things gambling (and darts too). He has even played at the World Series of Poker and other cash games all around the world.

To see more of Derrick is up to on a day-to-day basis, go follow him on Twitter @HighRollerRadio

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