There have been gamblers as long as there have been two men with something to wager on and something to wager with. In 18th c. London, however, gaming was a ruinous epidemic. Gentlemen from the highest levels of English society played with a ruinous, reckless fury that shocked foreigners.
Even Horace Walpole (not exactly a wild rake) knew of young gentlemen who thought nothing of losing fifteen thousand pounds at the tables of private clubs; at Brooks's, he wrote in 1774,"a thousand meadows and cornfields are staked at every throw, and as many villages lost as in the earthquake that overwhelmed Herculaneum and Pompeii." Typical of the excess was young Charles James Fox, grandson of the Duke of Richmond and great-great grandson of Charles II, who had amassed gaming debts of over £140,000 before his twenty-fourth birthday – and this was in a time when an English family of the middling sort could live comfortably on £50 a year!
Here's a droll description of fashionable London gamesters from a 1773 Virginian newspaper, written as an anthropological observation by a "Gentleman who has travelled through different Parts of the Globe":
"I met with a very strange Set of Men, who often sat round a Table the whole Night, and even till the Morning is well advanced; but there is no Cloth laid for them, nor is there any Thing to gratify the Appetite. The Thunder might rattle over their Heads, two Armies might engage beside them, Heaven itself might threaten an instant Chaos, without making them stir, or in the least disturbing them; for they are deaf and dumb. At Times, indeed, they are heard to utter inarticulate Sounds, which have no Connexion with each other, and very little Meaning; yet will they roll their Eyes at each other in the oddest Manner imaginable. Often have I looked at them with wonder....Sometimes they appear furious, as Bedlamites; sometimes serious and gloomy, as the infernal Judges; and sometimes gasping with all the Anguish of a Criminal, as he is led to the Place of Execution."
"Heavens (exclaimed the Friends of our Traveller) what can be the Object of these unhappy Wretches? Are they Servants of the Publick?"
"No," the Traveller said.
"Then they are in Search of the Philosopher's Stone?"
"Oh! Now we have it; they are sent thither in Order to repent of, and to atone for, their Crimes."
"No, you are much deceived, my Friends, as ever."
"Good God! then they must be Madmen. Deaf, dumb, and insensible! What in the Name of Wonder can employ them?"
"Why, only one thing," the Traveller said. "It is GAMING."
Above: A Rake's Progress: The Gaming House (detail) by William Hogarth, 1732-35, Sir John Soane's Museum