Edinburgh’s “Poker Club” began meeting in 1762. Each week, fifty or so gentlemen would congregate in a tavern for a long afternoon followed by dinner and argue events of the day ranging from politics to morals and culture – matters like national characters, standards of taste, what makes for a good theatrical tragedy, whether all Scots should be taught orthodox English, and so on. Many of the topics were taken from essays Hume had published. The membership was a gallery of stars from the Scottish Enlightenment – including Adam Smith, Lord Kames, Lord Monboddo, Adam Ferguson, Allan Ramsay, and William Robertson.
The club never played the card game known as “poker.” The name of the group reflected the group’s central purpose, which was to “stir up” discussion of Scotland being able to raise up its own militia in the face of England’s order never to do so. As a club, it had various officers and functionaries. One office was the “Assassin,” whose job it was to levy fines on anyone who was supposed to lead discussion on a particular topic, but failed to show up, and failed to present a legitimate excuse. The club’s Assassin was Andrew Crosby, who was put in the delicate position of weighing excuses and issuing verdicts without spoiling the general bonhomie of the society. So David Hume, roundly known for his “uniform good nature and easy manners,” was permanently slotted for the position of “Assassin’s Assessor,” and he counseled the Assassin in his judgments. The thought was that if you were guilty in Davy’s eyes, then, by God, you were guilty, and there could be no further court of appeal.
It seemed to work pretty well. The group swelled to 130 members at one point, but by 1783 the club cut back to monthly meetings, as attendance was trailing off, and it closed forever in 1784.