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The history of humanity is inextricably linked with the history of gambling, as it seems that no matter how far back in time you go there are signs that where groups of people gathered together gambling was sure to have been taking place. Now we are not going to attempt to track every single twist and turn in the evolution of gambling in this article, but what we are going to do is to pick out some of the most important dates to act as milestones on the road to today’s gambling experience.
The Earliest Evidence of Gambling
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While it is almost certain that some forms of betting have been taking place since the dawn of human history, the earliest concrete evidence comes from Ancient China where tiles were unearthed which appeared to have been used for a rudimentary game of chance. The Chinese ‘Book of Songs’ makes reference to “the drawing of wood” which suggests that the tiles may have formed part of a lottery type game. We have evidence in the form of keno slips which were used in about 200bc as some sort of lottery to fund state works – possibly including construction of the Great Wall of China. Lotteries continued to be used for civic purposes throughout history – Harvard and Yale were both established using lottery funds – and continue to do so until the present day.
Dicing with the Law on the Streets of Ancient Rome
The Greek poet Sophocles claimed that dice were invented by a mythological hero during the siege of Troy, and while this may have somewhat dubious basis in fact, his writings around 500bc were the first mention of dice in Greek history. We know that dice existed far earlier than this, since a pair had been uncovered from an Egyptian tomb from 3000bc, but what is certain is that the Ancient Greeks and Romans loved to gamble on all manner of things, seemingly at any given opportunity. In fact all forms of gambling – including dice games – were forbidden within the ancient city of Rome and a penalty imposed on those caught which was worth four times the stake being bet. As a result of this, ingenious Roman citizens invented the first gambling chips, so if they were nabbed by the guards they could claim to be playing only for chips and not for real money. (Note that this ruse will not work if attempted at a Vegas casino).
Playing your Cards Right in China
Most scholars agree that the first playing cards appeared in China in the 9th century, although the exact rules of the games they were used for have been lost to history. Some suggest that the cards were both the game and the stake, like trading card games played by children today, while other sources believe the first packs of cards to have been paper forms of Chinese domino. Certainly the cards used at this time bore very little relation to the standard 52 card decks we know today.
Baccarat in Italy and France
The earliest game still played in casinos today is the two player card game of Baccarat, a version of which was first mentioned as long ago as the 1400s when it migrated from Italy to France. Despite its early genesis, it took hundreds of years and various evolutions to arrive at the game we know today. Although different incarnations of the game have come and gone, the standard version played in casinos all over the world came from Cuba via Britain to the US, with a few alterations to the rules along the way. Although baccarat is effectively more of a spectator sport than a game, it is a feature of just about every casino due to its popularity with high rolling gamblers.
Blackjack through the Ages
Some suggest that the earliest forms of blackjack came from a Spanish game called ventiuna (21) as this game appeared in a book written by the author of Don Quixote in 1601. Or was it the game of trente-un (31) from 1570? Or even quinze (15) from France decades earlier? As with all of these origin stories, the inventors of games of chance were rarely noted in the historical annals. The French game of vingt-et-un in the seventeenth century is certainly a direct forefather of the modern game, and this is the game that arrived in the US along with early settlers from France. The name ‘blackjack’ was an American innovation, and linked to special promotions in Nevada casinos in the 1930s. To attract extra customers, 10 to 1 odds were paid out if the player won with a black Jack of Clubs or Spades together with an Ace of Spades. The special odds didn’t last long, but the name is still with us today.
First Casinos in Italy
The earliest gambling houses which could reasonably be compared to casinos started to appear in the early 17th century in Italy. For example, in 1638, the Ridotto was established in Venice to provide a controlled gambling environment amidst the chaos of the annual carnival season. Casinos started to spring up all over continental Europe during the 19th century, while at the same time in the US much more informal gambling houses were in vogue. In fact steam boats taking prosperous farmers and traders up and down the Mississippi provided the venue for a lot of informal gambling stateside. Now when we think of casinos we tend to picture the Las Vegas Strip, which grew out of the ashes of the Depression in America.
The Little Wheel in Paris
Roulette as we know it today originated in the gaming houses of Paris, where players would have been familiar with the wheel we now refer to (ironically enough) as the American Roulette wheel. It took another 50 years until the ‘European’ version came along with just one green zero, and generations of roulette players can be grateful for that. During the course of the 19th century roulette grew in popularity, and when the famous Monte Carlo casino adopted the single zero form of the game this spread throughout Europe and most of the world, although the Americans stuck to the original double zero wheels.
Poker: Bust to Boom
It’s hard to pin down the precise origin of poker – as with a lot of the games mentioned here, poker seems to have grown organically over decades and possibly centuries from various different card games. Some have poker’s antecedents coming from seventeenth century Persia, while others say that the game we know today was inspired by a French game called Poque. What we do know for sure is that an English actor by the name of Joseph Crowell reported that a recognizable form of the game was being played in New Orleans in 1829, so that is as good a date as any for the birth of poker. The growth of the game’s popularity was fairly sluggish up until world poker tournaments started being played in Vegas in the 1970s. However poker really exploded with the advent of online poker and televised events allowing spectators to see the players’ hands. When amateur player Chris Moneymaker qualified for and won the 2003 world poker championship after qualifying through online play, it allowed everyone to picture themselves as online poker millionaires.
One Armed Bandits Appear in New York
The first gambling machine which resembled the slots we know today was one developed by Messrs Sittman and Pitt in New York, which used the 52 cards on drum reels to make a sort of poker game. Around the same time the Liberty Bell machine was invented by a Charles Fey in San Francisco. This machine proved much more practical in the sense that winnings could be precisely regulated, and marked the beginning of the real slot game revolution. The fact that some new video slot games still feature bell symbols dates back to this early invention. While early machines spewed out cigars and gum instead of money, the money dispensing versions soon became a staple in bars and casinos around the globe, and when the first video slot was invented in 1976 this paved the way for the online video slots which were to follow.
Gambling in the US: Two Sides of the Same Coin
The United States has always had an up and down relationship with gambling, dating back to when the very first European settlers arrived. Whereas Puritan bands of settlers banned gambling outright in their new settlements, those emigrating from England had a more lenient view of gambling and were more than happy to tolerate it. This dichotomous relationship has continued until now, and in 1910 public pressure led to a nationwide prohibition on gambling. Just like the alcohol prohibition of the same era, this proved somewhat difficult to enforce and gambling continued on in an only slightly discreet manner. The Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression that this spawned in the early 1930s led to gambling being legalized again, as for many this was the only prospect of alleviating the grinding poverty which they suffered through. Although gambling is legal in a number of States today –most famously in Las Vegas, Nevada - online gambling is still something of a grey area in the United States. Right now, many international internet casinos are unable to accept American clients, although the signs are that this will change in the near future.
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The New Frontier for Gambling
Microgaming is one of the largest casino and slot game developers in the world today, and they are also considered to be pioneers of online gambling. The leap into the world of virtual casinos was taken all the way back in 1994, which in internet terms is kind of like 2300bc! Online gaming was worth over a billion dollars within 5 years, and today is a multibillion dollar industry with over a thousand online casinos and growing. The first live dealer casinos appeared in 2003 courtesy of Playtech, bringing us closer to a hybrid between brick and mortar casinos and the virtual world.
Gambling Has Gone Mobile
Since New Jersey legalized online gambling in 2011, there has been a boom in the interest people have in it. America has seen a move towards legalizing it state by state, as well as experiencing the rapid rise in mobile gambling. Across the globe, internet users are gradually veering away from their desktops and towards their handheld devices. This is true of online gamblers too, wanting to be able to enjoy their favorite games whilst on the go. The top gambling sites out there have recognized a market and have stepped up to deliver. With a wave of impressive mobile focused online gambling destinations taking the world by storm, it's safe to say that desktops are being left far behind in favour of more mobile alternatives.
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What Comes Next?
It is just about as difficult to predict the future for gambling as it is to uncover some of the origins of the gambling games we know so well today. Much of the focus at the moment is on the mobile gaming market, with online casinos scrambling to make more content compatible with the latest hand held devices. Virtual reality technology is just taking its first steps as a commercial proposition, and you can be sure that there will be gambling applications down the road. How would you like to sit around a virtual poker table with a bunch of your friends from all over the world, share a few laughs, try to tell if you can spot a tell-tale facial tick; and all this from the comfort of your home? VR Headsets can make it happen – maybe not today, but certainly just a few years down the track if technology continues to advance in bounds and leaps.
And after that? Well who knows, but when it comes to gambling all things are possible.
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- Dice: Game Pieces (Britannica.com)
- Baccarat (card game) (Wikipedia.org)
- Twenty-One (card game) (Wikipedia.org)
- How Casinos Work (HowStuffWorks.com)
- Where Did Poker Originate? (History.com)
- History Of Poker (Wopc.co.uk)
- Chris Moneymaker (Wikipedia.org)
- Historical Interlude (VideoGameHistorian.com)
- Charles Fey and San Francieco's Liberty Bell Slot Machine (California Historical Quarterly)
- Microgaming: About Us (Microgaming.co.uk)
- New Jersey Now Allows Gambling via Internet (NYTimes.com)