The History of Gambling

No one can tell you exactly how old gambling is.

These days, the word “gambling” is so intertwined with the casino, lottery, and sportsbook industries that we have to take a step back when we talk about it in a historical context. What do we mean when we use the word?

I define this word as the act of staking anything of value on an uncertain outcome in hopes of increasing your holdings.

To most of us, it means traveling to Las Vegas or Atlantic City and spending a weekend in a room with no windows or clocks sipping watery cocktails and playing Jacks or Better. For the purposes of this article, we’re using the broader definition above.

By that definition, we know that gambling has taken place since at least the beginning of recorded human history. What’s more, it usually took place in a form we would call “unorganized,” in that it didn’t happen in a legitimate gaming establishment.

Let’s look at historical references to the activity, the origins of it as an institutional and state-sanctioned practice, and the history of our favorite casino games.

Early Historical References to Gambling

I like to picture the first gamblers as proto-humans, barely upright, just descended from the trees to claim the Earth. They huddle around a fire, gathering tiny sticks into bunches, marking some of the sticks with crushed berries and animal blood. One of them gathers the sticks in his hands, mutters a grunt or two, and tosses the sticks into the air. The rest of the night is spent interpreting the positions and colors of these sticks – attempts to tell the future or curry the favors of the gods.

Of course, I have no proof that this little fantasy of mine ever happened. But it’s likely that gaming has its roots in pre-history, and we simply have no way of zeroing in on its precise origins. Still, it isn’t hard to imagine a shaman’s random casting of bones or sticks or stones becoming something worth wagering on, is it? The historical “casting of lots” may not have been gambling by our modern definition, but through its connection to both games of chance and a sense of higher order, it acts as a unique bridge between the spiritual and the secular.

As evidence of gambling’s built-in connection to the spiritual, look at the word the ancient Greeks used to mean “justice.” Their word “dike” referred to the natural order of justice, but it also referred to the act of throwing a pair of dice. Modern Greeks would recognize this word, too, by the way – it means “court of law.” Interesting, right?

The Greeks and Romans both gave evidence of their gods’ betting habits. Famously, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon played a game called “throw the dice” in order to split up the universe into three equal territories they could share. Were the Greeks uniquely gaming-obsessed?

Not at all. Recorded evidence of gaming in ancient China proves that a game similar to keno has been played there for more than four thousand years. Provincial governors had the option of allowing businesses whose business it was to provide games like “white pigeon ticket” to the people. As far as I can tell, these were the first crude casinos in world history.

Betting in the Bible

When I hear the phrase “casting of lots,” I immediately think of the Bible.

The holy book of Christianity contains multiple references to casting lots for the purpose of fairly dividing property.

The best-known example is the casting of lots for the clothes of Jesus Christ by the Roman guards who had just crucified him. One of the few common features of the story told across all four Gospels, the story has even been suggested as a warning by God against gaming, though that’s a belief held by a few select extremists.

The Holy Land was a gambler’s paradise during the time of Christ, and we know that thanks to the tools of the trade (and receipts from play) found in tombs and storage houses over the years. The Jewish Talmud heavily regulates many forms of gambling. In Egypt during this time, excessive play or cheating could result in years of forced labor. Any time a punishment exists, the crime must exist, too.

The Origins of Organized Gambling

Apart from forerunners in Asian and ancient Rome and Greece, organized sanctioned sports betting dates back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

One could consider the legitimate use of lot-casting as a legal tool as a sort of organized gambling – and this happened more often than you may think. The King of Sweden won a big piece of territory from the King of Norway in the year 1803 by rolling double-sixes in back to back throws. This is just one well-known example of the use of the randomness of gaming in the courts and by religious authorities.

The first organized games of chance and skill were lotteries. These were sanctioned by governments for all the obvious reasons. Evidence of the use of lotteries in Europe goes back to the 15th century. But again, China takes the historical cake, since their early keno games from 2,300 BC also benefitted local governments financially.

European gaming history begins with French lotteries designed to support the war effort in present-day Italy. The first we have record of took place in 1539. Across the Channel, Queen Elizabeth followed suit three decades later, raising funds to “rebuild the realm” after a long period of active war.

It was a lottery, of course, that funded most of the Virginia Company of London’s Jamestown settlement, which was the first permanent English presence in what is now the United States of America. In that sense, gaming is responsible for all of US history.

From then on, Europe’s history is a patchwork of illegal and legal betting. You could get a decent migraine reading all the various laws, edicts, and theses condemning and declaring gambling illegal. The fact that so much noise was made about the hobby is the best evidence of its overall popularity.

The History of Sports Betting

For as long as sports have been around, there have been people willing to gamble on them. Some people speculate that gambling can be dated back to Biblical times but the earliest form of gambling that we can confirm with certainty was on the first Olympic Games.

No matter how you look at it, the act of betting on sports has stood the test of time and is now a cultural norm that millions of people enjoy. In modern day sports betting, however, we face a plethora of legality issues regarding the subject, which may cause some confusion to those who are just starting out.

If you’re interested in finding out about the history of sports betting compared to modern day sports betting, please be sure to read through our extensive overview of the subject.

The World’s First Casinos

A crazy thing happened in 1638. The government of Venice established what they called a “gambling house.” The intent was to control unorganized gambling during the town’s carnival season. A flood of these houses soon dotted the landscape. One such house – the Winter Casino – is still in operation.

The origin of casino betting came at a funny time in history – it was the middle of a sort of golden age of philosophy, mathematics, and science. That meant that brilliant minds, like Blaise Pascal, were exposed to games of chance and skill. Many of them took a serious interest in the science and math behind the games offered at the local betting shop. Pascal, for example, would go on to invent roulette. But more important than any one game was the development of what we know now as “probability theory.” Without it, we bettors wouldn’t have blackjack strategy, card-counting tactics, or most of the games we’re familiar with.

Maybe as important as scientific interest in gaming was the development of new attitudes about the hobby. A long and very gradual shift toward widespread acceptance of betting as entertainment began with the casinos of Venice. What was once a deadly sin was soon seen as just another vice.

These days, many people around the world see it as a totally harmless distraction, no different from video games or golf. Betting, whether in the form of a game of poker, a lottery ticket, or a bet on a horse race, is legal and regulated in the vast majority of countries around the world.

The History of Modern Casino Games

Slot machines are the most popular casino games in the world, and they have a relatively-recent origin story. The same goes for other electronic games. But besides those two contests, every game on the casino floor has roots in a much older form of entertainment. The origin stories of these games make for fascinating reading, and they give us some insight into the minds of the people who invented them hundreds of years ago.

Blackjack

This game’s origins are fairly mysterious, considering that most other games of chance and skill we play in the casino have a well-known genesis story. We know that a French game called vingt-et-un (“twenty-one”) is the immediate precursor to our modern game, but we’re not sure what the roots of that game are. Similar games, involving point totals based on a card hierarchy, existed in other parts of Western Europe, like the Spanish game “treinta y uno,” or “thirty-one.” Whatever its deep history, it’s clear that our modern game came to us from the French, probably as a British bastardization known as Pontoon. That game is still available in modern casinos, by the way. Read more about blackjack’s murky past here.

Roulette

Roulette means “little wheel” in French, so it makes sense that the game comes to us from France. Boy, those French sure loved their gambling, didn’t they? Opinion is divided as to the exact beginnings of this game, though the consensus seems to be that Blaise Pascal invented the game as a mathematical conceit and it later caught on among bettors. Another popular theory holds that a group of Dominican monks invented the game in imitation of an ancient Chinese contest. Neither answer has much in the way of solid evidence, though we know Pascal was deeply involved in game theory centuries before it became mainstream, so that theory makes the most sense.

Craps

Another game of chance, another story with a French influence. Lots of people know that the French had something to do with craps, but they don’t realize the game is actually English in origin. The British dice game Hazard would eventually become the game modern players know as craps, but only after it was absorbed by the French, re-named (after the dice throw with the lowest possible value, crabs), and had its rules adjusted a bit. When French Acadians were forced out of present-day Canada, they brought their culture (and their games of chance) with them to Louisiana. Craps in America spread northward from New Orleans, and the rest is history.

For a complete history on the game of craps visit this article.

Slot Machines

The humble slot machine should be thought of as the great American game. Slots are by far the most popular and most profitable game of chance in any casino, and they were invented right here on US soil. In 1895, a struggling mechanic and engineer named Charles Fey invented what he called the Liberty Bell machine. The game used three mechanical spinning reels of symbols to determine player winnings. The top prize at that time: fifty cents. For the next four decades, Fey’s game (and a multitude of knockoffs) were de rigeur at saloons and other adult meeting places. As slots grew more complex, requiring electricity and eventually computer chips, their appeal grew all the more. These days, casinos are reviewed in part by the number of slots and other machine games they host. Such is the power of these simple and addictive games of chance.

Read our article on the History of Slot Machines for more information.

Video Poker

Even though video poker doesn't have the aged history as some of the other popular casino games, it still has an important story to tell. This game started around the time when it was feesable to combine a video monitor with a central processing unit. So as you can probably guess, video poker started becoming popular around the same time that the early personal computers were being produced in the 1970s. There is plenty more behind this games development and popularity in our complete history of video poker.

Poker

Some smart folks whose opinions I trust say that a Persian game called As Nas was the world’s first poker game. Others say that’s an exaggeration, and that a better origin story for our modern game are two French and German games, called poque and pochen respectively. Whether you believe poker is really a thousand-year-old game handed down by the Minoan civilization or a modern contest inspired by the usual suspects in Europe, it’s clear that the game has a lot to offer people interested in gaming history. Though the flood of interest in Texas holdem and other forms of poker in the late 1990s and early 2000s has already died down a bit, the game is still one of the most-played in the world, and a global online poker industry means that this old contest is readily available in the modern era.

Any time you’re dealing with a really old human behavior, writing a precise history is a difficult task. Could you write a history of prayer, for example? The problem in identifying the exact origins of gambling is sheer lack of evidence. Humans have likely been betting since long before they learned to write and record their history. The spiritual roots implied in this article are just an inference, but one that makes sense when you consider the huge impact this hobby has had on the human timeline.

Bingo

Bingo is a popular pastime, being almost as well-loved today as it was when it first came out. Bingo is very similar to the game of keno but it also shares similarities to the lottery. Therefore, the origin of these three games is somewhat intertwined. It’s speculated that the birthplace of bingo was Italy, derived from a system they had for choosing leaders at random with assigned numbers due to their corruption of previous leaders.

Legend has it that when this game was first introduced to America in the 1900s that it was originally called “beano” by the Native Americans. There are many different factors that contribute to how Bingo received its name and what its true origins are. If you are interested in finding out more information on the subject, then please feel free to check out our History of Bingo page to learn more.

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