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Basset - card game

Thomas Rowlandson, painted his version of a gaming den in "The Hazard Room". On the walls is a bouquet of gambler’s delights: boxing, horse racing, the odds of the day, and the patron saint of card games, Edmond Hoyle.
Origin Italian
Type card game
Players Np.
Skills required Counting
Cards 52
Deck Anglo-American
Play Clockwise
Playing time 10-15 min.
Random chance Medium
Related games
Baccarat

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.

Basset in Italy

According to DELI (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, who was punished with exile in Corsica for his contrivance. It may have probably been devised out of the game of Hocca, Hoca or even Hoc, considered the precursor and an outlawed form of Italian roulette at which people lost considerable sums of money and also an early iteration of Biribi, which was brought into fashion by Cardinal Mazarin.

Basset in France

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. Later the law against gambling was tightened eluding which they disguised Basset under the name of "pour and contre", that is, "for and against".

By the constitution of Basset, large advantages were secured to the tailleur, that is, literally, the dealer, or keeper of the bank, and so vast were his 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 being certain that a considerable fortune must be realised by the tailleur in a short time. The advantages of the dealer arise in many ways, but mainly from the temptations held out by the rules of the game to induce 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.

Basset in England

Basset migrated to England in about 1677, introduced by a croupier called Morin, but never caught on outside Court circles on account of its costliness and the heavy risks it entailed on the players. Its heyday seems to have been in the early 18th century. It has no place in Cotton's 1674 The Complete Gamester, but rates a lengthy entry in the 1721 edition where the fierceness of the gambling is stressed. It is there described as a "French Game", presumably because it was imported from France. The game's high stakes, along with its devastations, is the subject of Susanna Centlivre's 1705 comedy The Basset Table.

The English made basset quite different from what it was in France. There, by royal edict, the public at large were not allowed to play at more than a franc or ten-penny bank, - and the losses or gains could not bring desolation to a family. In England the punters (gamblers) could do as they liked, staking from one guinea to one hundred guineas and more, upon a card. After three or four years, many players had impoverished their families to such an extent that Parliament enacted a prohibition with severe penalties against both games.

When the couch was alpieued, or parolied, to sept-et-le-va, quinze-et-le-va, trente-et-le-va, etc., the punter's gains were prodigious. If a player brought his stake to soissante-et-le-va, he was very likely to break the bank, by gaining a sum which no tallière could pay. But this rarely happened. The general advantage was with the bank, besides the standing rule that no two cards turning up that were the same could win for the players; the second won for the bank. In addition to this, other "privileges" operated greatly in favour of the banker.

However, it was "of so bewitching a nature," says our old writer, "by reason of the several multiplications and advantages which it seemingly offered to the unwary punter, that a great many like it so well that they would play at small game rather than give out; and rather than not play at all would punt at six-penny, three-penny, nay, a two-penny bank, - so much did the hope of winning the quinze-et-le-va and the trente-et-le-va intoxicate them."

The Edge

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 in the midst of them, with the bank of gold before him, and the punters or 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 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 punters upon any card of that sort.

After the fasse was turned up, and the talliere and croupiere 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, the latter might receive it, or making paroli, as before said, go on to sept-et-le-va. 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 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, quinze-et-le-va, trente-et-le-va, 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.

Frauds

Of course there were frauds practiced at Basset by the talliere, or banker, in addition to his prescriptive advantages. The cards might be dealt so as not to allow the punter any winning throughout the pack; and it was in the power of the dealer to let the punter have as many winnings as he thought convenient.

Glossary

By 1870 the game as described in England used a mixture of French and English words and spellings:

Mathematical calculations

Basset has been the object of mathematical calculations. Abraham de Moivre estimated the loss of the punter 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 punter in whatsoever circumstances he may happen to be. From this table it appears:

  1. That the fewer the cards are in the stock, the greater is the loss of the punter.
  2. That the least loss of the punter, under the same circumstances of cards remaining in the stock, is when the card is but twice in it; the next greater when but three times; still greater when four times; and the greatest when but once. The gain of the banker upon all the money adventured at Basset is 15s 3d. per cent.

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Sources

Steinmetz, Andrew (1870) "Chapter X: Piquet, Basset, Faro, Hazard, Passe-dix, Put, Cross and Pile, Thimble-rig" The Gaming Table: Its Votaries and Victims: In all times and countries, especially in England and in France Vol. II, Tinsley Brothers, London, OCLC 5963855; online at Project Gutenberg

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