Transcript of our podcast from 27 February 2010

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A brief description of Mozart as a gamer

by Moritz Eggert

A while ago I was already talking about the musical dice games of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. Since then I have done some additional research into the life and times of the great 18th century composer and would like to share some of these discoveries.

The 18th century was actually called "the playful" century in Europe - it must have been the one time in the history of mankind where playing games of all kind was most widespread among all classes, actually even more so than today. The 18th century saw the beginning of the more sophisticated board, word, card and even party games that we play today, and a true gentleman or gentlewoman was expected to know at least 30-40 different games at all times to be accepted in society. Compare that to today, where the average person knows only 2-3 games in all his life, mostly Candyland, Monopoly and the Game of Life.

At that time most public life had women and men strictly separated, for example in church. The only time one could get to know each other was by meeting at home or at some public gathering like a concert - this was a time before the internet, TV and dating services, so in the afternoon and evening after a day of work people were actually longing for social entertainment, and this came in form of playful, relaxed gatherings, either parties or more commonly game soirées. These regular events shouldn't be underestimated as serving solely marriage market purposes, no, they also were politically important. Even today, when the rich and influential people of Austria meet at the Viennese Opera Ball, a lot of business and political scheming is going on behind the facade of dancing and playing roulette.

Mozart was a pop star of his time, and actually much more well off, even at the time of his death, than people think nowadays. It is interesting to note that the most valuable piece of his estate was his gaming room, though, including his billiard table. Billiard was already very popular as a "sport" in the 18th century, but owning your own table was regarded as being quite high-brow for anybody not being royalty. Mozart loved billiard, and when not composing enjoyed a daily game or two with his wife, who was also an avid game player.

In Vienna, Mozart and his family lived directly in the same house as a popular game casino, and one can only guess that a lot of Mozart's hard earned money was left there, even though it could never be completely proven that Mozart lost huge amounts of money in games of chance, because there are no written documents about it, it is quite obvious that a gamer addicted to these games doesn't have detailed records about his losses. He tries to forget them, of course!

So what were the games Mozart played?

In his youth Mozart was known to be a fanatic "Boelzlschiesser", a term that has to be explained. The "Boelzel"-gun was a predecessor to today's air-gun, and the Boelzelschiessen was a kind of playful contest where men and women came together to compete in shooting at targets. These meetings had very elaborate rules - one of the most important being that each shooting had to a have a "sponsor", a "best" giver, somebody who would commission the painted target, which usually depicted joke paintings of the people involved in the shooting-club.

"Boelzelschiessen" was a quite serious and regular pastime for Mozart - these meetings where also of political importance, as high-ranking city officials would attend, and one can be quite sure that his father used these meetings to introduce his talented family - Mozart's sister was also a child-prodigy - to important people. Even when abroad Mozart would continuously inquire about who won which "Boelzelschiessen" keeping up-to-date with the results as a sports-fan from today would keep records of results.

The Boelzelschiessen was usually only the prologue to an extended session of card playing, and this is where things really got serious. Mozart's favourite card game was "Tarock", a predecessor of most European trick-taking card games, and actually quite an intellectually challenging game with relatively little luck. In typical Mozart fashion he called the game in his diary "Herecloth" instead of "Tarock", which can be explained if you know that "Ta" can be understood as "there", and "rock" as "frock" in German, as Mozart liked to communicate in reversed sentences and riddles.

There is a diary sequence which proves that Mozart played Tarock EVERY DAY for at least three weeks, and this wasn't a gaming spree or a celebration, but a totally normal work period for Mozart. He just loved having friends over, and when they came it was absolutely normal to play cards, sometimes until late in the evening. Even hardcore boardgamegeekers would pale at the games that Mozart would have logged if there had been a boardgamegeek at the time! Next episode I am going to talk about Mozart's word games and riddles, and how he nearly, but only just met Casanova during his time in Munich.

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