Golden Gambling Between Montezuma And Cortes


To the delight of Hernan Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors, Montezuma II of the Aztec Empire was an extremely generous gift-giver. He handed over treasures to the Spaniards nearly every time they interacted, be it delivered by messenger or bestowed in person. Whenever Montezuma, himself, hosted a meeting with the Spaniards, multiple golden or gilded objects almost always were handed over to the conquistadors at one point or another. Yet, sometimes Montezuma II made the Spaniards work harder than usual for their gilt gifts.

Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors entered Montezuma’s capital city of Tenochtitlan in late 1519 and stayed there for the opening months of 1520. During their stay in the Aztec capital, the Spaniards came to feel increasingly paranoid that Montezuma’s hospitality would one day cease and that he would have them arrested and executed. In order to save their skins from this potential danger, and to apply more leverage against the Aztec Empire, the Spaniards captured Montezuma and detained him in their Spanish quarters in Tenochtitlan. At first, they held the Aztec emperor on a short leash, but they eventually loosened their grip, letting Montezuma hold court and visit temples—all, however, under Spanish surveillance.

Early on in his captivity, Montezuma and Cortes were forced to live in the same compound together, and Montezuma apparently decided to kill time by playing games with Cortes and the Spaniards. Montezuma’s game of choice was variously called totoloque or totoloc, and in Montezuma’s typical fashion, the Aztec leader’s personal equipment set for this game was golden or gilded. It seemed to have been a gambling game, where the participants made bets and then each player had a certain number of turns to throw a ball or pellet at a designated target. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of Hernan Cortes’ conquistadors, described the game: “it is played with small round glossy balls, which here were made of gold, and are pitched at a certain mark, also of the same metal: five throws finished the game, and the stakes were for valuable gold trinkets and jewels” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 97). Even if the Aztec leader won the game, Montezuma—either because of his generosity (or his being under arrest)—was said to have always given away his gambling winnings to the Spaniards. Despite this, Bernal Díaz claimed that Hernan Cortes’ score-keeper tried to pad Cortes’ stats, and Montezuma eventually called the man out for cheating.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Sketch of Cortes and Montezuma in the Historia de la Conquista de Méjico, c. 1851, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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