Gambling through the ages is a fascinating glimpse into the stories of cultures and civilisations. Bringing fortune to ordinary folk while disrespecting kings, it is the fickle nature of chance and the hope of a favourable spin that has hooked us for millennia. We look back at the history of betting.
Gambling has been around throughout recorded history. It’s also one of the world’s favourite pastimes. It is a great influencer of popular culture (think Casino Royale, Ocean’s Eleven, The Color of Money, and so many others), and is itself constantly changed by time. Join us as we take a fascinating ride through the history of gambling.
6000 BCE: Africa & the Middle East
It is impossible to know exactly when the first human being wagered something on the outcome of a chance occurrence. Boards of two or three parallel rows of holes found in the near East date back to the Neolithic era (10,000 – 4,500 BCE) but we can’t say for sure if these really were board games or not.
So we will start our History of Gambling with what we do know. Archaeologists in Egypt have found what we’d today consider to be dice that date back to around 3000 BCE. Scenes painted on tomb walls and ancient papyrus scrolls show players on opposite sides of a board enjoying recreational games like Mehen, Senet, Twenty Squares, and Hounds and Jackals. It seems these games spread through Egypt and the Near East through trading of goods and military campaigns. In fact, these four popular ancient games are represented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City if you’re ever in the neighbourhood.
To give you an idea of what these were about, we’ll use the Mehen game as an example. Played in the Egyptian Predynastic Period and the Old Kingdom (that’s 2649 – 2130 BCE), the board shows a coiled snake divided into squares. The snake represented a deity that wrapped itself around the sun god Re to protect him during his journey through the night. We know this because the game is painted in the tomb of Hesre at Saqqara (2700 BCE) along with the gaming pieces to be used with the Mehen board (three lions, three lionesses, and six sets of six marbles). We also have a good idea of how the game was played thanks to religious documents called Pyramid Texts. These suggest that the afterlife was achievable if you were able to successfully pass through the Mehen game board and reach the centre of the spiral, symbolically joining Re.
Apart from Mehen, there are dozens of games of chance that were played in the ancient world. Senet is the most famous and was especially popular around 664 – 332 BCE. Another is Mancala which, amazingly, is still played today throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. In fact, there are many variants of this two-player game of strategy aimed at capturing all or some of your opponent’s pieces.
Play starts with placement of a certain number of seeds, prescribed for a particular game, in each of the pits on the board. The player takes a turn by removing all seeds from a pit, “sowing” the seeds (placing one in each of the following pits in sequence) and capturing based on the state of the board. The object is to plant the most seeds in the bank. If playing in capture mode, once a player ends a turn in an empty pit on his own side, he captures the opponent’s pieces directly across. Once captured, the player gets to put the seeds in his own bank. After capturing, the opponent forfeits a turn.
There are more than 800 recorded names of traditional mancala games. Certain aspects of the game remind us of agricultural activities and players do not need any specialised equipment to take part. Evidence of Mancala has been found in so many ancient civilisations, from 6th century Aksumite areas in Eritrea and Ethiopia, to 10th century Muslim Spain and an excavated Roman bathhouse in the Israeli city of Gedera, and evidence found in Jordan that dates to around 6000 BCE. This has led some historians to suggest that the game could be the oldest in the world, dating back to the beginnings of civilisation itself.
2000 BCE: India
India has a long history of betting games. One game, Mahabharata, is at the centre of an epic myth in Hindu texts that could date as far back as 2000 BCE. In the story, the game of dice causes the Pandavas brothers to lose their kingdom. They’re sent into exile while their wives are mistreated by their winning opponents. This angers the God Krishna who rescues the wives and the story ends with an epic battle in which the Pandavas brothers are victorious. This is a particularly satisfying conclusion when the reader discovers that the brothers were conned into playing the gambling game that was rigged so the brothers were always destined to lose – until Krishna stepped in. There is evidence that gambling was sometimes used in India to settle disputes between adversaries.
2300 BCE: China
Historians have found tiles that may have been used in a game of chance in Ancient China. We have some idea of what they were used for thanks to the Chinese ‘Book of Songs’ which records “the drawing of wood” – a type of ancient lottery, we think. Keno slips, not unlike those used in modern casinos today, are thought to have been used in a state lottery of some sort in 200 BCE, possibly to fund a large public project. Some have even suggested this may have been the construction of the Great Wall of China.
500 BCE: Ancient Greece & Rome
Dice are mentioned for the first time in Greek history by the poet, Sophocles, when he took poetic licence in his writings in 500 BCE and suggested that dice had been invented by a mythological hero during the siege of Troy. We also know that the ancient Greeks and Romans had a long history of betting on just about everything. In fact, things got so out of hand that strict laws were put in place to stop gambling within the city of Rome. Those caught had to pay a fine that was four times the amount being bet. It was this state of affairs that led to the invention of gambling chips. This way, if caught, players could claim to be using chips and not money.
200 BCE: Mesoamerica
One of the oldest games in the Americas, Patolli, is a game of strategy and luck with a commitment to gambling that would make your hair stand on end! Variants of the game were played across Mesoamerica (today this encompasses central Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and northern Costa Rica). There is evidence that patolli was played by the Teotihuacanos (around 200 BCE – 650 CE), the Toltecs (750 – 1000), the Aztecs (1168– 1521), and the Mayans (whose civilisation existed in one form or another from 2000 BCE until the Spanish conquest of South America in 1697 CE).
Patolli was a race or war game and anything could be gambled – blankets, precious stones and adornments, food, crops and even homes, family members and a gambler’s freedom! You can appreciate why a game of patolli was always taken seriously in a case of ‘winner takes all’ and players prepared themselves psychologically by invoking the god of games or gambling – Macuilxochitl.
Each player typically bet six items which tallied with the six markers each player used to complete a circuit around the board. Fail to do this and the player had to forfeit an item. How far the pieces were able to move was determined by throwing five black beans marked on one side with a hole. There were many pitfalls to overcome while moving the six markers around the board marked with 52 squares. For instance, if a marker landed on one of two dark triangular spaces near the end of each arm of the X, the player would have to give a treasure to the opponent.
After the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, Spanish priests banned pitolli and locals had their hands burned if they were caught playing.
We’re back in China for the invention of playing cards. Most historians agree that today’s modern deck of playing cards used in every land-based and online casino today, started life in China in the 9th century. The types of games these cards were used for have been lost, but some suggest they might have been used in games that were similar to the modern children’s game of trading cards or possibly a paper form of Chinese dominos.
1300: Italy & France
The two-player card game of Baccarat is the oldest game on earth that can still be enjoyed in gambling clubs today, although it is quite different to the game first played in Italy and France. We still have no idea how this game reached Europe. One theory is that it is based on the Chinese game of Pai Gow (played with tiles, not cards), which was brought to Italy by Marco Polo when he returned in the 1290s from his expeditions. It’s hard to say because the first written record of Baccarat was penned in the 1800s.
Some believe the modern game was derived from the then-popular game of Macao or invented using Tarot cards by an Italian – one Felix Falguiere – then introduced in France by soldiers returning from the Italian conflicts in the 1490s. Others link today’s Baccarat to Vingt-et-un games of French origin.
Either way, it belongs to the world now and remains a favourite game thanks largely to its ease of play and low house edge (and we haven’t forgotten how cool James Bond made it look!).
1600: Spain and Blackjack
As early as 1601, the Spanish author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes, mentioned the Spanish game of veintiuna in one of his books. It’s possible that ventiuna was an ancestor of modern blackjack, or he could have been referring to trente-un, the popular game in 1570. It might even have been the French game of quinze. It does seem that with paper in short supply, low levels of literacy and a complete absence of ballpoint pens, the geniuses who invented the earliest versions of the games we love, were rarely written into history.
So what do we know about blackjack? The game as we know it today was officially named by the Americans and linked to ‘get’em through the door’ promotions in Nevada in the 1930s – with 10:1 odds paid out if a player won with a black Jack of Clubs or Spades together with an Ace of Spades.
1638: Italy and the birth of a casino
Although gambling was a popular and widespread activity in Venice in the 1600s, it wasn’t until 1638 that city leaders turned a wing of Venice’s Palazzo Dandolo into a government-owned gambling house called Il Ridotto, which means “the private room”.
Il Ridotto was open to the public, but its high stakes and formal dress code excluded everyone other than the nobility. Games included biribi and basetta. In biribi, players would place bets on one of 70 possible outcomes. The “banker” was responsible for drawing out a number, and those who had bet on that number would win the game’s pot. The winning player would only collect 64 times his original bet, allowing the house to make a 10 percent fee on the game. This would later become the house edge.
The most popular game at Il Ridotto was basetta, which combined elements of what we’d recognise today as blackjack, poker and gin rummy. Winners could earn 60 times their bets in payout.
The club was eventually closed down in 1774 by the Venetian reformer, Giorgio Pisani, in order “to preserve piety, sound discipline and moderate behaviour”.
1796: Paris gaming houses
We have the betting houses of Paris to thank for roulette. The earliest version of the game seems to be a hybrid of a gaming wheel invented in the early 1700s and the popular Italian game of biribi. The game in its modern form was first mentioned in an 1801 French novel, La Roulette – Ou le Jour, and is thought to have been played in Paris for the first time in 1796.
Paris’s Little Wheel Casinos had a different color scheme back then. Red was used for the single zero and black for the double zero, but at some point in the 1800s, green was introduced to avoid any possible confusion.
Throughout the 1800s, the game grew in popularity and spread through Europe following the opening of the iconic Monte Carlo Casino. Although the single zero form of the game was played in Europe and most of the world, the Americans stuck to the original double zero wheels.
1829: Global growth of Poker
Here again, we have to speculate about the earliest origins of poker. Some scholars believe the game can be traced back 1,000 years to a type of domino card game that was played by an emperor in 10th century China. Another school of thought has poker originating from a 16th century Persian card game called “As Nas”.
What we do know is that a game called Poque grew in popularity in France in the 1600s at the same time as its German equivalent, pochen. Both gambling games were based on the 16th century Spanish game of primero – three cards were dealt to each player and bluffing was an important part of the game.
Poque was brought to North America by French colonists, and English-speaking settlers Anglicized Poque to poker. By 1834, many of the modern features of the game were in use, including five cards for each player and a 52-card deck.
Soon, the popularity of the game amongst crew members on the river boats that transported goods up and down the Mississippi River spread the game throughout the country. We know for a fact, that soldiers on both sides of the American Civil War played poker and it was also a firm favourite in the Wild West saloons in frontier settlements in the 1870s and 1880s.
It was the American Minister to Great Britain that introduced the game to Europe in 1871. Queen Victoria heard him explaining the game to members of her court and asked for the rules. It is generally accepted that the global phenomenon of poker really took off during World War I as American soldiers took the opportunity to play whenever they could.
Whether you enjoy a game of live poker or the more traditional table version, you’ll probably be most familiar with the 1970s Texas Hold’em variant, but there have been a number of different versions over the years.
1891: America’s One Armed Bandits
The massively popular slot machines of today began life as a humble gambling machine created by Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York in 1891. It used 50 of the 52 cards of a poker deck to challenge players to form a poker hand. The game cost a nickel to play and even though it grew in popularity, there was no way to standardise the payouts for all of the various win combinations – this meant the prize for winning varied from bar to bar.
Then, in 1895, a man called Charles Fey created a three-drum machine using five symbols. This made it much easier to standardise payouts on the number of combinations. It wasn’t until 1963 that the first electronic slot machine was born. Then in 1976, the video slot machine was invented with a 19-inch colour screen and Sony logic boards, which turned out to be more reliable than mechanical parts, cheaper to produce and less open to fraud. This of course paved the way for digital slots in land-based clubs and the online slots that are the backbone of most gambling operations these days.
1960s: UK sports betting
The United Kingdom has a long history of sports betting, but it wasn’t until the 1960 Act legalised off-course bookmakers that it grew to be the huge market it is today with more than 1,000 betting shops in London alone. No doubt the appeal is adding a person stake through betting in the outcome of one of our favourite, and often obsessive, pastimes – sport.
Today’s online sports betting market in the UK is valued at about £650 million with an online gambling population of 2.1 million customers and growing.
Betting on sports has been on record since the Greeks invented the Olympic Games thousands of years ago. No doubt the 1950s legalization of the hobby in Las Vegas and 1960s relaxation of laws in the UK led to an uptake of the pastime. But it wasn’t until the internet hit the mainstream that online betting soared to new heights. You can read more about the history of sports betting in the UK in this blog.
1994: Gambling in cyberspace
Just as we’ve moved so many of our activities online, it comes as no surprise that gambling in cyberspace has exploded since the Internet became available in our homes. In fact, within five years of going online, the betting industry was estimated to be worth £3.8 billion. Today, it is a multi-billion pound industry with more than a thousand online casinos around the world.
Now tablets and smartphones allow gamblers to play online games wherever they are, and whenever they like, and experts predict that this is only the start of an upward trend in mobile gambling. With this in mind, gambling sites continue to go to ever-increasing lengths to make the online experience as easy and authentic as possible for their customers.
With exciting, new technology in the offing in the areas of Virtual and Augmented Reality, it’s not hard to believe that before long, the online experience will offer all the realism of a gambling hall, without you ever having to leave the comfort of your home.
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