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Author and text.

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) describes the Primero game he used to play within his Latin written work Liber de Ludo aleae. Cardano probably wrote it in his younger years, not after 1530. The manuscript was published posthumously within an Opera Omnia Lyon 1663, Vol. I, pag 263, which I am referring to. I have translated in Italian and analysed the passages related to Primero, Trappola and Flusso in different articles.  These are abstracts in my English of the article about Primero.

Cardano's Lombard-Venetian Primero is the game I find described in 1526 -1528 by contemporary Tuscan-Roman Francesco Berni's version (see English abstracts). Interesting Cardano’s variants were :

1. In most cases, half of the pot was proportionally divided between the final two players before a conclusive challenger's card change.

2. The final duel assigned the remaining half of the pot.

3. Certain mean value combinations won all other similar combination when possessed by the player at the right of the dealer .

4. Highest valued primeros beat the flush.

A caudate Primero

Girolamo Cardano

Primero is a Renaissance game similar to today's poker. It was played on four cards. Cardano played it with a reduced deck. Eights, Nines and Tens were deducted. I believe that this 40-card deck allowed from two to four players. It proceeded anti-clockwise. 

Card value was as usually in Primero. Sevens were each valued 21, Sixes 18, Aces 16, Fives 15, Fours 14, Threes 13, Deuces 12, figures 10.
Valid card combinations were, in descending order: four-of-a-kind, flush (four cards of the same suit), 55 (Seven Six Ace of the same suit), primero (four cards of different suits) and point (two or three cards of the same suit). Primero 79 (three Sevens and an Ace of different suits), probably also primero 81 (three Sevens and a Six of different suits) won flush, the same way as the best point, 55, won primero. If two equal combinations of the same value confronted, victory was given to the player closer to the right of the dealer. There was a conventional mean value, 39 for the point, 62 for primero and 61 for flush. When the player closer to the right of the dealer held a mean value, his hand beat all others of the same kind. For example, his 39 beat any other point, or his primero 62 beat all other primeros. It is not stated if these privileges passed to the next player in case of folding of the player sitting closer to the right of the dealer.

The regular game developed from card changes to biddings to the final show-down, to see a winner taking the pot. Card changes were possibly accompanied by biddings, called invitations. When somebody declared a point, card change was over. Raises were admmitted, maximum stake was the "resto", all-in.

This Milanese variant added a peculiar "tail" that applied to three specific cases only. In those three cases, the winner of the regular game could be challenged by somebody who held a lower point. The challlenger had to pay the winner’s bet to access to a last card change. An insurance was provided : challenger and dominant shared beforehand half of the pot. Both received a portion roughly comparable to their chances of victory - lesser chances, smaller portion. The dominant player did not get a new card change, but watched passively.
Cardano begins his discussion about the game from the peculiar end of it. He describes at lenght each of the three cases. He enjoys discussing actual and conventional chances.

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Cardan's Primero outline.

Forty card deck. The game between two to five players developed anticlockwise as it follows.

1. First two cards:
    1a Everybody passed. The hand was over.
    1b Somebody invited. Invitation was of a one or two counters. It was possible two double it only.
    The invitation did not force the other players to pay the counter to stay in the game.
        1b1 If everybody passed on the invitation, the last player in turn had to put one counter.
        1b2 The invitation could be raised to the double. In case of a raise, nobody
        else had to put anything in the pot to stay in  the game.
At the end of the invitation rite, everybody had to discard. To keep both card you had to have invited or paid or doubled the invitation.

2. Second two cards.
Players with two to four cards each.
    2.1 Everybody passed. Everybody discarded one or two cards and phase 2 was repeated
    with all the players holding up to five cards each.
    2.2 Somebody declared a primero or a flush.
        2.2.a If everybody passed, he showed his cards and won the pot.
        2.2.b If somebody else closed a primero or a flush, the two players proceeded
        to phase 3.2 and contend the pot.
    2.3. A player declared a point and bet a vay. Bluffing points other than primero and
    flush was admitted. Underdeclaring was forbidden. The vay obliged in or out.
        2.3.a Other players could pay the vay and stay alive or fold.
        2.3.b Other players could declare their point and raise the vay. The vay was
        raisable up to all-in. Raises could be accepted, passed and raised.
    2.4 Players who accepted the vay and the raises went to phase 3.

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3. After the vay.
A new two card distribution was given.
    3.1 Everybody passed. They discarded to remain with three cards and repeated phase 3.
    3.2 Somebody declared a point and bet. Stakes were unlimited, up to the all-in.
        3.2.a Somebody accepted the bet and cards were shown.
            3.2.a.1 In case of a bluff, the pot was given to the challenger.
            3.2.a.2 In case of a honest declaration,
                3.2.a.2.a The player with a better hand won.
                3.2.a.2.b In certain cases, the two players went to phase 4.
        3.2.b  Somebody raised up to the all-in. If the raise was met, the two
        contenders went to phase 3.2.a
        3.2.c Everybody passed. The declarer won the pot. He had to show enough cards to make sure that he did not underdeclare.

4. The final duel.
It occurred in the following cases :
4.1 A challenger's lesser point against a dominant's better point.
4.2 A challanging three-card primero attempt against a dominant's point.
4.3 A challenging three card flush attempt against a dominant's primero or 55.

Cards were discovered. The dominant and the challanger divided half of the pot proportionally. The challenger discarded and received one ot two cards. The right or wrong card decided the winner of the remainig half of the pot.

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Invitation and card change

Dealer extracted the cards from the bottom of the deck and dealt anti-clockwise two cards at a time to everyone. Deck was reduced to forty cards. Eights, Nones and Tens were deducted.

First two cards. If everybody passed, the hand was over. To keep the hand alive somebody had to invite, that is to put a pre-established counter into the pot. Invitations were not compulsory: who did not pay them stayed in the game. The invitation could be doubled. General rule was that players who did non pay the counter had to discard  one or two cards. Consequently, who did not wish to discard, say that he carried a Seven and a Six on two cards, had to invite or to pay a previous invitation. If everybody passed after an invitation, the bet had to be met by the last player in turn after the bidder. In case that the bidder put forward two counters and everybody passed, it is stated that the last player in turn had to pay the conventional invitation counter only. If somebody doubled somebody's else invitation, nobody had to put anything more. The stake raised after the last player payment disd not force anybody to put anything more. Under any condition, if you wanted to keep both cards you had to pay the total stakes of the invitation and the possible raises.
After the invitation, they proceeded to discard and a second two card distribution followed.

New distributions.

Discarded cards lay face up on the table.

Second two-cards. Players who kept one card held three cards. Players who kept both cards held four cards. If somebody closed a four card combination, i.e. primero or flush or a four-of-a-kind, he had to declare it to win directly the pot. If everybody passed, the hand continued toward a new card exchange. Possible bets were not compulsory. Stakes could be put in the pot after you discarded enough cards to hold no more than three of them. It was admitted to discard whatever valid point, as it was probably the case of a low 20 or 23 or so.

Then, new distribution of two new cards was given to everyone, even when holding three cards. It is not stated how many times the discard and change phase could be repeated. Cardano makes an example of the end of a game whith ten cards left in the deck out of forty. So, ten card left, thirty distributed. Let's imagine a four player game. In three distribution twentyfour cards were dealt, while fourteen were left in the deck. Add a new change after the vie to two or three players, and we are roughly there. With three players, after three distrution eighteen cards were dealt, after four distribution twentyfour. My impression is that there was no limit the the change session, but usually the discard and change session completed with three or four distributions. After four distribution, a player held five cards out of eight cards. It was most probable that one of them had a point good enough to declare it and bet for the pot.

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The vie.

Whatever declaration of a point ended the discard phase and opened the central phase. Declaration was accompanied by a bid. That bid was compulsory, it was the ‘vada’ or vie, the opening bid. After a vie, everyone could abandon his cards face up on the table or pay it together with previous uncovered invitations and raises. After the vie, an undeclared possession of a primero or a flush caused the loss of the pot when a bet was also placed, or was forced to discard if no bet was placed. 

If everybody passed after a declaration, the winner had to show enough cards to prove that he did not undedeclare.
We know little about the sequence of the bidding. It seems that openers, followers and raisers had to state their combination. I believe they did not state other details like suit and value. It was forbidden to state anything lesser than the actual hand value. Only exceptions, 55 and four of a kind. 55 could be declared as a Primero and four-of-a-kind as a Primero or a Flush. If everybody passed after a bidding, winners were asked to show enough cards to make sure that they did not underdeclare.

A 55 was not allowed to wager beyond the basic vie, but it could be declared and treated as a primero if somebody declared primero before it. Four-of-a-kind was not allowed either to bid over the vie, but could be declared and treated as a primero or a flush after a similar declaration was stated by somebody else. Consequently, it looks like 55 and four-of-a-kind had no freedom to raise.

Wages and bluff.

After the vie, surviving players received the last change, discarded and proceeded to declare what they had and bid, raise, fold and follow.

Players declaring points, primeros and flushes could bet any sum, to the 'resto'. The ‘resto’, the all-in wage, was the only money limit. It was the money a player had on the table or with him. It was final for the wagerer, but did not prevent opponents to bet more money and gamble a separate game.

When everybody passed after a bidding or a raising, the bidder won the pot. When one or more players paid the bidding or the raise, the natural conclusion was players showing cards and the best point won the pot.

Among two equal combinations of the same value, the player closer to the right of the dealer won. The outcome of the engagement among different or equal four card combinations (primero, flush, four of a kind) was decided here.  Decision was postponed in case of two points, a three-card attempt to make primero against a point, or a three card attemp to make flush. See the the final duel.

The only mention to bluffing is the case of an opening bid on a vaunted primero: if nobody followed, declarer had to show the primero or lose the pot. It seems therefore that other bluffs were admitted. Again, it was forbidden to declare less than the true. In the vie declaration, bluffs were limited to point, 55 and flush, while raisings could have been admitted on whatever kind of bluffed combination, primero included. The half of the pot sharing provided to the challenger for the added final duel might have lured more people to pay and see opponent’s cards : bluffing in XVI century Milan had less chances to succeed than in modern poker.

Final duel

Peculiarity of this Primero was the final duel. It developed in three cases only : when a two card point challanged a three cardpoint; when a three card attempo to primero faced a point, when a three card attempt to flush opposed whatever combination inferior to flush.  Let's see an example: somebody declared a major point, for instance a 42, and bet. Somebody else held three cards of different suits. Discards showed good chances to make primero with a card change. The second player declared his primero attempt  and met the bet. Everybody passed. The two finalists showed their cards. Cardano accurately describes the followin proceedings.

The finalists shared beforehand half of the pot. Portions were conventional or agreed upon before starting the game. Cardano suggests to negotiate different portions when better or worst chances are showed by the discards. I can not see how to cut special deals on special circumstances to give somebody less than he conventionally expects, unless your sword was good enough to convince him.

Out of the half of the pot, the challenger received beforehand a portion roughly  to his chances of victory. Card change was provided to the challenger only. The dominant was passively watching. Cards were extracted as usual from the bottom of the deck. The final winner collected the remaining half of the pot.

1. When two points confronted, both finalists received half of the subtracted half of the pot, or a quarter of the entire pot. Two cards were dealt to the challanger. Bottom line was ¾ of the entire pot to the duel winner, ¼ to the loser.
2. When a primero expectation opposed a point, the first one received 1/3 of half of the pot, while the point holder collected 2/3 of it. One card was distributed to the primero expectation. The victorious challenger collected 2/3 of the total stake, while the victorious dominant got 5/6 of the entire pot.
3. When a flush expectation confronted anything from a high point to primero and 55, beforehand portions were 1/8 and 3/8 of the total stake. Two cards were dealt to the flush expectation. The victorious challenger won 5/8 of the full pot, while the victorious dominant received 7/8 of it.

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Girolamo Cardano

Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) was a versatile Renaissance genius. Born illegittimate to an affluent notary public, he inherited his father's passion for mathematics. After brilliantly graduating in Medicine, he spent few years in a village near Padua. There he married a local woman and gambled professionally to make a living.

After a disastrous outcome of a gamble, he escaped to Milan. For several years his illegittimate birth and his gambling reputation prevented him to practise the medical profession. His successes as a medical consultant took him away from poverty. Soon he was called to a local institute as professor in Mathematics.

He wrote many books about different subjects. His reputation is built on his publishing the solution of the cubic and the quartic equations and for his intuition of hygiene in medecine, together with the invention of che cardanic  shaft, the combination lock, and other devices.

His book De ludo aleae (Game of dice) was probably written not after 1530 and published posthumous in 1663 within his Opera Omnia. It contains the first systematic treatment of probability.
All reported information about his Primero game are taken from the De ludo aleae.

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Fully revised on october 2011

by Girolamo Zorli.

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