It’s summer 2016 and Pokémon GO is taking Europe by storm. But a love of games is not a 21st century phenomenon. Gaming was a big part of life at court in the early modern period. Whether billiards, pinball, cards or lotteries, the aristocracy were experts in the art of amusement. In many cases, they didn’t just play for honour, but for large sums of money. Take the Viennese court in the days of Maria Theresa, for example. The Austrian sovereign was a passionate player of games – and even allowed her subjects a lottery.

The aristocrats present couldn’t believe their eyes: Archduchess Maria Theresa had issued 4,500 lottery tickets at 12 ducats each. She only bought six herself – far less than many of her fellow players. But as the winning tickets were drawn, the servant responsible fished out the name of Maria Theresa from the porcelain vase. Game after game, the dukes came to the conclusion that the First Lady of Europe simply had amazing good fortune. But was everything really above board? At least in this instance, she generously gave the newly won house to her Chief Steward.


Although only officially the consort of the Habsburg Emperor Franz I, Maria Theresa managed the business of government in Austria more or less single-handedly in the mid 18th century. The Archduchess was not only reputed to be intelligent and assertive, but also temperamental and full of life. During her reign, the Viennese court was an exciting place to be. Alongside regular balls, festivals, concerts and theatrical performances, games evenings were also part and parcel of life at court.

The court’s magnificent salons were home to elegant tables in precious woods, which were used for pinball, billiards and cannon games. Once the players had amused themselves for a while, a highly select group of aristocrats were permitted to enter the inner sanctum of the court – where they would play hour after hour for vast sums of money. Maria Theresa herself was not one to hold back. It is said that, on one occasion, she lost 100,000 ducats at faro – a card game that was officially banned in Austria at the time. The sovereign, however, feared neither prohibitions nor defeats. In any case, she would usually win again the next evening. And if not, another advantage would work in her favour. Unlike her rivals, she possessed simply immeasurable amounts of money. [Anm.: Trotz Recherche nicht gefunden. Diese Stelle daher unklar. Bitte intern prüfen.]

The gambling that took place at the Habsburg court left many dukes destitute. Even very wealthy players were forced to capitulate in light of the huge stakes. The lucky monarch, however, mostly did very well indeed and decided to let her subjects share in her indulgence. In 1751, she introduced a public lottery under the name ‘Lotto di Genova’ (the Genevese invented the game in the 15th century), with the first draw held in the centre of Vienna in the following year.


Although the lottery got off to a sluggish start in the first few years, Maria Theresa’s decision proved to be yet another stroke of good fortune. When her son Joseph II considered banning the lottery some 25 years after its inception, his advisers were firmly against the idea, pointing out that the lottery provided the state with a rich and indispensable source of income.

Joseph II, who did not share his mother’s passion in the slightest, backed down and allowed his people to carry on playing. At his court, however, he soon put a stop to all the gambling. Where once a distinguished company frittered away their last ducats late into the night, all was now quiet. The new emperor had little time for games evenings anyway. Under the cover of darkness, Joseph would conduct dalliances all over Vienna.