Mankind has shown a love of chance games as far back as recorded history. Writings from as far back as 500 B.C made reference to gambling. Yet, as far back as 500 years before the birth of Christ seems to us, evidence has been found even further back that mankind just couldn’t stay away from a good game of chance.
Back in Time
Let’s begin by going back over 4000 years. While anthropologists and historians agree that gambling probably took place even earlier, the first real evidence found was when a dig in China unearthed tiles which appear to be a game of chance from 2300 BC. Also in China, Keno slips were found, and evidence suggests that a rudimentary version of the lottery was used as a way to fund state works and even the Great Wall of China.
If we take a step forward in time and head over to Ancient Rome, dice was the most popular game of the time. Sophocles claimed in his writing that the game of dice was invented by the gods, and while anything is possible, his writings do at least confirm that it was a popular game as early as 500B.C. In fact, Romans had one more major contribution to make. Gambling, and dice specifically, was illegal in Rome, but it was defined as a game of chance specifically with the outcome of earning money. To circumnavigate this, Romans created tokens to replace real money so that if the authorities caught them, they could claim no real money was won. This brilliant invention is still used today in the form of poker chips!
Games We Know and Love
Moving forward in time, we head back to China to the first evidence of cards games in 1800. While the cards definitely don’t resemble our current 52-card deck, it’s suspected the original Chinese versions were more like modern dominos. In fact, some historians even suggest that perhaps the cards themselves were the stakes, and were traded in the same way that children traded collectable cards.
The next significant landmark in the history of gambling is the advent of Baccarat in the game rooms of Italy and France in the 1400’s. The game has changed a lot since then, and the version we play now is far removed from the original, but it is still very much a two player spectator sport for high rollers, much as it was in its beginnings with the wealthy in Venice or Rome.
There are few games more popular than Blackjack and it’s no surprise that it too has a long and illustrious European history. It’s thought to originate from a Spanish game called ventiuna (21), because it features in Don Quixote, a book written in 1601. It’s not really certain how the game changed or grew from there, but we do know that the game we play today is the direct descendant of the French game vingt-et-un (21), which found its way to American shores with settlers in the early 19th century. It only came to be called Blackjack in the 1930’s when casinos in Nevada offered 10 to 1 odds on a winning hand played using either the Jack of spades or the Jack of clubs, along with the ace of spades, hence the name Black Jack.
In the early 1600’s the first casinos began to pop up all over Europe. One famous example is the Ridotto, a gaming house set up as a controlled environment so that players could take part in peace during the carnival season. In a similar way, but many years later, steam boats on the Mississippi would carry passengers who wished to gamble up and down the Mississippi in style, cementing many games as gentlemen’s pursuits.
Another very popular casino game came into being a century or so later in France, in the gaming houses of Paris in the late 1700’s. This would be none other than Roulette. Literally meaning “little wheel”, Roulette has only grown in popularity since its creation, and once it hit the casino floor of the Monte Carlo casino, it quickly spread throughout Europe and into the United States. Ironically, today, the double zero wheel used in the American version of the game is actually more similar to the original Parisian version than the single zero wheel used in French or European Roulette.
Finally this brings us to the longest standing casino in the modern day. Casino de Monte Carlo officially opened its doors in 1863. This casino is still one of the top 5 in the world, and even though local residents are not permitted to play, it’s certainly a destination for tourists.
In the 1990’s casinos went online, and now they’ve gone mobile too. With more than 4000 years of history behind it, the casino industry is definitely sticking around!