Poker & Downton Abbey: An Unlikely Journey into Poker Culture

Poker & Downton Abbey: An Unlikely Journey into Poker Culture 0001

Here at Learn.PokerNews, we ain’t afraid of a little culture. And today we have culture (brace yourself for the pun) in spades — high culture (the great Italian painter Caravaggio), middlebrow culture (the less great TV series Downton Abbey), low culture (a card-playing pig!), and, of course, poker culture. Trust me, it all connects.

The subject for today is the term “card sharp.”

I heard it the other night while indulging in a guilty pleasure: watching Downton Abbey, the “Masterpiece Theater” drama currently airing Sunday nights on the American public television network PBS. This British import is set in a massive and magnificent English country house in the years just after World War I, presided over by Lord and Lady Grantham and managed by a small army of servants.

The show is ridiculous on every level. In truth, it barely qualifies as middlebrow culture, and aside from its high production values, it is really just a soap opera. But during this current fourth season, the second episode had a poker-themed subplot.

The occasion was a weekend-long house party, with tons of posh people showing up for riding, drinking, dining in formal wear, gossiping, and being waited on by butlers, underbutlers, footmen, groomsmen, ladies’ maids, maids, and so on. In other words, the usual for the show. But my eyes and ears perked up when the men retire to a separate room to play some poker.

There’s no talk of stakes. It’s not obvious what form of poker is being played, but it looks a lot like five-card draw. The scene opens with a very genial fellow tabling quad nines as he mentions just how very lucky he has been.

In fact, he ends up taking a painfully large sum of money from everyone in the game and at night’s end has a pocket full of markers. Was he good? Was he lucky? Or was he (and I’m sure I’ve tipped my hand here)... cheating?

Of course, he was a cheat: a “card sharp,” as one of his opponents puts it. In fact, the one player savvy enough to realize the man was a card sharp decides to extract revenge in a most ungentlemanly way — by cheating the cheater.

“I have won against a card sharp,” the hero says. “There is pleasure in that.”

There is also pleasure in looking up an old-fashioned poker term like “card sharp.” So I turned to one of my favorite references, The Poker Encyclopedia by Elkan Allan and Hannah Mackay. (For a review of the excellent 2007 publication — cleverly bound in green felt — click here.) There one finds a definition stating that a card sharp is “a cheater, with an implication of manual dexterity.”

This late 16th-century painting by Caravaggio was later titled "The Cardsharps." Note the player in the middle looking at the woman's hand while the player in the foreground holds a couple of cards behind his back. A rough game!
This late 16th-century painting by Caravaggio was later titled "The Cardsharps." Note the player in the middle looking at the woman's hand while the player in the foreground holds a couple of cards behind his back. A rough game!

“The term has been in use since the nineteenth century,” continue Allan and Mackay, “and there is in fact a Caravaggio painting, dating from 1594 entitled The Cardsharps, although [the painting] did not of course get its name until much later.... The term… was first seen in the US in an 1872 edition of The Hagerstown Mail, in a rather surreal article about a card-playing pig.”

Part of the reason that card sharp caught my ear is that the term shark or card shark is, I think, more prevalent today. “Shark” is even more evocative than “sharp,” suggesting a predator without compare in an ocean of fish and whales. And, according to Wikipedia, “sharp developed in the 17th century from this meaning of shark… but the phrase card sharp predates the variant card shark. The original connotation was negative, meaning swindler or cheat.” (And “shark” isn’t as negatively loaded today as it apparently once was.)

Downton Abbey is set a roughly a century ago, when poker was more synonymous with cheating, but it’s still somewhat distressing to see the game I love portrayed in such a way. Nonetheless, I found a small object lesson in the subplot.

The card sharp in Downton Abbey is in no way portrayed in a positive light. You might say that in the world of the show he commits the greatest faux pas of all by behaving dishonorably. In other words, he’s clearly not a true gentleman, despite his apparent ability to move in the society of the Granthams.

But he does display one behavior that modern players might adopt — graciousness in winning. He isn’t arrogant. In fact, he goes out of his way to deflect compliments on his skill, to attribute his winnings to good luck, and to point out that luck is fickle and can shift at any moment. (For more on the topic of winning with grace, see “Compete With Class at the Poker Table” from earlier this week.)

That the card sharp behaves in this way is not surprising. He wants to be well-liked, trusted, and welcomed to the game. But you don’t have to be a card sharp to see how such a demeanor could be valuable — a way to keep your opponents happy, and eager to keep playing.

Winning players should strive to underplay their skill and even praise their opponents’ play (and should never berate or belittle anyone for making a bad play). Charm, modesty, and humility (within reason) can go a long way to soothe other players’ ruffled feathers — and keep them at the table.

Obviously, I don’t believe Downton Abbey has too much more to teach the aspiring poker player. But if you’re at all like me, you’re probably already noticing poker when it pops up in the mainstream culture. And even a few minutes of poker on a fancy soap opera on PBS can make you think about the game and how to play it.

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