The Rules of Drinking

The long history of drinking games – and how to win them.

Michael Fontaine | Published 03 July 2020

The Triumph of Bacchus (Dionysus), c.1628,  by Diego Velázquez © Photo Josse/Bridgeman Images.

In England and parts of Germany, extreme drinking at universities often looks much the same as in the US. But in countries where wine is more popular than beer, such as Italy, France, Spain and Greece, bingeing and drinking games are rarer and generally frowned on. 

Yet it cannot be just a question of wine being harder to stomach in greater quantities than beer, since the case of Greece shows us that drinking games have a long history. A favourite game played in ancient Greece was kottabos, where the goal was to fling the lees or residue from the bottom of your terracotta wine glass and hit a disk balancing on a little pole. Another popular drinking ‘game’ consisted of competitive improvised speechmaking on a theme. We see this played in Plato’s Symposium, where the participants are each required while drinking wine to offer a speech in praise of love. Dionysus, the god of wine, is allegedly the judge. 

But there is a crucial difference with today’s games. Those are ‘competitive’ drinking games, but they are not ‘competitive drinking’ games as are played in and around universities today – in which the winner, loser, or both can get exceptionally drunk. 

These, evidence suggests, emerged in southern Germany around the time of the Reformation, in the early 1530s, when the medieval way of life began to falter, but young men were still training to become knights. The Crusades were long over and, with military tactics changing, so was the economy. With no obvious job prospects or particular purpose to their lives, there was no clear outlet for their energies. It seems they turned to wine to fill the void. And with Germany’s vineyards four times larger then than they are today – and per capita consumption six times higher – the pressure to indulge was ample.

Of course, excess drinking is not new. Medieval poetry, such as the Carmina Burana, is full of student drinking songs about the pleasures of overimbibing. The most famous example, In the Tavern When We’re Drinking, suggests it is a universal pastime. Another of the work’s poems is a sparkling gem shot through with delightful wordplay:

O sophisticated drinkers – 
you unthirsty thyrsus-linkers
down your rounds, ignore the blinkers, 
bent on being wineglass-clinkers! ...
If you can’t brook a libation,
get out of our celebration!
Out! Begone! Why in tarnation 
Stay? We don’t host moderation.

The best evidence of a change in culture, though, is a Latin poem published in 1536, which claims that excess drinking is taking over professional life. The author, Vincent Obsopoeus, the rector of an elite school in Ansbach, wrote the first two books of his three-part poem, The Art of Drinking, ostensibly in an effort to halt this poisonous new culture. In part three, however, the mask slips and Obsopoeus instead tells us how to win drinking games, citing extensive personal experience – and the games he describes in it are the first to look recognisably familiar. Games in which, for example, the objective was to take drinks in alternation until the other person passes out. The last one standing is the winner.

The remainder of book three details strategies to win. When in a competition, Obsopoeus says, and the following signs appear, use full bottles to put the pressure on:

When your opponent is: already getting sick of it; saying the wine’s making his stomach turn and an intense flush is breaking out on his face; shouting abuse at the waiters nearby for giving him bigger drinks than others; slurring his speech and leaving words unfinished; sick and repeatedly asking the barmaids for help; constantly slurping his drink; spitting the wine out; dribbling alcohol from his wet mouth, and cleverly dumping his wine out (secretly or openly): those are the signs of a drinker on the ropes. The flame is out; his earlier gung-ho attitude has lost its steam. Give him alcohol, pressure him! 

The secret to winning these games is simple. There is no magic that will increase your tolerance or stretch your stomach. Rather, says Obsopoeus:

The trick to the art of drinking, its supreme virtue, is this: making sure your opponent matches you drink-for-drink each and every time.

Obsopoeus was the first person to write a guide to drinking. As he wrote in his preface:

If an Art of Drinking was ever taught by anyone at any point, I haven’t found it … Because I realised this, and because I pitied the human race for being left helpless in this one exclusive domain, I quietly made notes of certain observations I’d stumbled upon through frequent experimentation. 

His candour is disarming and refreshing. In his book on drinking games, he cites his extensive personal experience, including the times he staggered away, passed out and spent the night sleeping in a pigsty.

Predictably enough, Obsopoeus got into trouble for writing this book. A few years later he translated an ancient Greek epigram about drinking games, adding a little note in the commentary to his translation:

I wrote a lot about that topic in The Art of Drinking, and I hear a lot of people are trashing me behind my back for publishing it. They say I went too far. Whatever. Obsopoeus doesn’t care. They can go on hating and criticising me until they explode.

It is a sobering reminder of the hazards facing anyone who ventures to write about drinking games.

 

Michael Fontaine is Professor of Classics at Cornell University and author of How To Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing (Princeton, 2020).

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