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From bridge to blackjack: Philly's love for card games has deep roots | Philly History

The opposing sides in the gambling debate are perfectly embodied in one 19th century Philadelphia resident named Jonathan H. Green.

J. H. Green portrait, print (circa 1847), from Gambling Unmasked! Or the Personal Experience of J. H. Green, the Reformed Gambler/
J. H. Green portrait, print (circa 1847), from Gambling Unmasked! Or the Personal Experience of J. H. Green, the Reformed Gambler/Read moreHistorical Society of Pennsylvania

Card games and the culture surrounding them have a rich and vibrant history in Philadelphia. City residents have enjoyed both the innocent leisure of parlor games and the more contentious pastime of gambling for centuries.

Bridge emerged in Philadelphia during the middle of the 19th century. A game called whist — a precursor to modern-day bridge — attracted players from the city's upper classes. These players assembled clubs that ran social events and competitions. A handful of these clubs merged in 1887 to form the Hamilton Whist Club of Philadelphia. In a sign of the economic and social standing of its members, the club purchased a plot of land at 41st and Irving Streets, commissioning premier Philadelphia architects Samuel Huckel Jr. and Edward P. Hazlehurst to design a clubhouse to host the group's events.

Completed in 1893, the clubhouse served as the site for the Fourth American Whist Congress — a major event that hosted enthusiasts from around the country and marked the adoption of a unifying whist constitution. Over the following decades, scores of highly significant national tournaments took place at the clubhouse, which still stands today (albeit as an apartment building).

The less salubrious world of gambling also extends far back into Philadelphia's past. Though outlawed and heavily regulated throughout U.S. history, gambling nonetheless flourished in taverns and saloons throughout the 1800s. The deleterious social impacts of gambling resulted in political movements against it.

The opposing sides in the gambling debate are perfectly embodied in one 19th-century Philadelphia resident named Jonathan H. Green. By the time Green settled permanently in Philadelphia in 1876, he had spent decades leading anti-gambling campaigns around the country. His own history of card-playing made him particularly well suited for such activism. According to an 1884 article in the New York Times, Green was "one of the most accomplished gamblers in the United States" in his youth. He traveled across the United States, dominating the riverboat casino scene in the South and inviting awe at his gaming skills and ire for his winnings. In one particularly high-risk evening in the early 1830s, he purportedly won $23,000 — nearly half a million dollars in today's currency—from playing cards with an unlucky group of competitors.

Green eventually soured on his lifestyle, feeling remorse over the financial ruin he left in his wake. He quit gambling in 1842 and used his renown to spearhead anti-gambling initiatives in a number of states, notably helming the New York Association for the Suppression of Gambling. Green appeared at anti-gambling events alongside the likes of New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley and published many books on the subject.

In Gambling, Unmasked! Green endeavors to show "that the lures to gaming are numerous; that in all its forms it is a scheme to defraud; that it is never an innocent amusement, for even in its incipient stages it is associated with or leads to guilt, and if persisted in tends to irretrievable ruin."

Having lived out his final years at his home at 316 S. Third Street, Green passed away in 1887, the same year the Hamilton Whist Club of Philadelphia emerged as a major national influencer in the world of whist.

Gambling and leisure: These two currents of card-playing have carried on into the modern era, evident locally with the American Contract Bridge League (which boasts an annual budget of more than $16 million) bringing its highly competitive tournament to Philadelphia this week, and Pennsylvania rising to second in the nation for commercial casino profits.

As proponents and opponents trade barbs over the city's second casino, expected to open this year, the debate over the social impacts of gambling has proven just as enduring as card games themselves.

Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.