by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Cardsharps is the most influential painting with a gambling
theme in the entire history of art. Not only is The Cardsharps a
masterpiece, from a purely artistic point of view, but Caravaggio
also captured some important details that offer a glimpse into the
ancient scene of card cheats and crooked gamblers.
The composition is very simple and straightforward. An innocent-looking
dupe has been lured into a crooked card game, possibly by the older
guy standing next to him, to be cheated by a young card mechanic.
The card mechanic is switching cards in and out of play as his bug-eyed
co-conspirator is secretly signaling the value of the sucker's hand.
From a gambling point of view, the most interesting detail is around the center of the image; it is the gloved hand of the older card cheat,
as he is signaling the dupe's hand. It is very noticeable that the glove appears well-worn and full of holes. It is very likely that those
holes are not just a visual pleaser, but serve a purpose in the actual act of card cheating, which is very much the predominant theme of this
One of the oldest methods of marking playing cards is what we nowadays
call "pegging" or "puncture marking," which
is explained in the marking by dot
and puncture and cards marked
whilst in play chapters. In short, this involves marking the
cards by punching miniature bumps into the surface of the cards.
The card cheat can read these marks by feel, when dealing the cards
before a round. This method of marking playing cards was quite well
known in ancient times, especially due to the fact that the first
playing cards didn't have any back designs whatsoever -- so attempts
of marking cards were more limited than today. The first written
mention of marking playing cards by puncture appears in a pamphlet
entitled A Manifest Detection of Diceplay, published in
1552, by Gilbert Walker, where the author reveals a method of "dealing
upon the prick," which we now call "the punch-deal."
If we believe that Caravaggio wanted to capture this detail in a painting about card cheating (which would be quite a logical conclusion)
he would have had to come up with an artistic solution to convey this message. One solution would undoubtedly be fitting one of the card cheats
with worn-out gloves, that strongly suggest that the cheat is using his fingers to feel the marks on the cards.