Spinning the Giant Wheel of Gambling History

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December 18th, 2018
Back Spinning the Giant Wheel of Gambling History

As we travel through landscapes of our lives and the world we live in, it is impossible to bypass gambling - that intriguing, mesmerizing and controversial companion of humanity, since the earliest days of our recorded history.

What might have started as a simple mean to achieve a better life, or to solve acute problems, has been with us ever since. While we might argue whether such or similar motives drove us to play luck-based games for money, the fact remains:

We do gamble and make our choices on chance.

Moving through the centuries hand in hand with us, sometimes silently, other times violently, often prohibited yet frequent, occasionally involuntarily and seldom omnipresent, the gambling became an integral part of our global culture.

Whether we play for valuables, be it money, properties, belongings, even ownership, or to pleasure ourselves with exciting pastime, is an individual decision. Each one of us makes its own.

Upon spending ages in the company of gambling phenomena it only came naturally for us to arrange the voyage through its history. In this two-part editorial, we will:

  • Take you to the most important moments and events in the gambling history;
  • Wander through the past looking into surroundings that shaped our present time;
  • Take a glimpse into the future and try to see what might be in 21st-century store for us.

The first part covers the gambling history until the Internet era — an analog era — while the second ruminates on the digital age, iGaming and the road ahead.

During the journey, we’ll serve you with historical facts, interesting stories, paraphernalia, infographics, pictures and special features that will give you…

…the quality time, an interesting reading, and useful takeaway.

No promotions, no sponsorships, no reviews of devices, no presentations of platforms, no hidden catch — just you and your lucky charming buddy spinning on the giant wheel of gambling history.

Ready?

“Just a Moment! Who is…?”

You’re totally right. It’s a legit question for newcomers and readers outside our community. So, who is the lucky charming buddy?

A diamonds ace of a yellowish color, a gentleman wearing a bow tie, cylinder hat, and monocle. Recognizable by his perpetual smile, not a magician though he does produce magic, known by his moniker LCB, the lucky charming buddy will be your companion on this voyage.

As a true mate, he’ll be there for you whenever you have a question or want to learn more. He’s full of stories and information, not to mention surprises, and knows all there is to know about gambling.

More importantly, he pokes fun on anything and everything. You’ll get along just fine. This is not a promise but a fact.

How come? Well, because most importantly…

he’s not only charming but also lucky!

And luck, as we all know, is contagious. Ask any of his 111,000+ worldwide pals.

All right! Let’s go!

切都从这里开始

“Excuse me? Come again?” Oh yes, we forgot.

The lucky charming buddy speaks a number of languages and tends to switch between them extensively. What this subhead says is:

It all started here

As David Schwartz, Ph.D. — the Director of the Center for Gaming Research at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an internationally-known expert on casinos and gambling history — writes in his book Roll of Bones: The History of Gambling...

…the exact origins of money games are so unclear that even modern historians are not able to determine exactly when, where, and how gambling was born.

He further elaborates that according to ancient stories:

“Gambling was thought by either a cunning god or hero, which for that

reason came to our lives.”

According to Schwartz, gambling in ancient China could date back as early as the Shang Dynasty in 1700BC.

On the other hand, Desmond Lam, associate professor at the University of Macau and authority on gaming-related issues, puts the date as back as 3700BC by studying the manuscripts of ancient Chinese historians.

Wait! Does it mean that…?”

Exactly — if we take Lam’s data for the first ever recorded gambling game in human history, it would mean that we were doing it before the Great Pyramid of Giza was built.

The reason for gamble was not fun or profit, though, but to decide on fate on territories. People in China used tiles to do it, playing a rudimentary game of chance. By the time of Xia Dynasty, around 2070BC, the liù bó (game of six sticks) was the most popular game and gambling was so accepted that more games were progressively developed.

So how on Earth did the gambling arrived from China to Ancient Greece, our next stop?

Heavens and Dices

One thing is for sure — in those times, not by the boat, much less by foot. In fact, if it is up to Greek mythology, gambling came from…

…well, gods.

First, there was the game between Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. They decided to split parts of the Universe in a high stakes dice game. For real. With final wager in place, Zeus won the sky, lightning, and thunder, Poseidon got the sea, and Hades won the underworld, drawing the shortest draw.

As if it was not enough to Poseidon, he took part in another gamble with the Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strength. They played for patronage over the city-state Athens.

As you have already surmised, Athena won and got the city. Poseidon took it by heart and cursed the city never to have enough water from then on.

Be it from the waterless or hot Mediterranean summers or for any other reason — let’s just say that Helen of Troy might not have been responsible only for Trojan War if it is up to Homer — the gambling was widespread in Ancient Greece.

Played both by upper classes and the peasants and slaves, the popular games included odd or even numbers guessing, tossing two-colored shells while predicting the results and dice games. They even had special places designed for gambling.

Condemned by most Greek authors and philosophers, the government took measures to reduce it and banned it. Not that it meant a thing.

Gambling continued to be present in Greece ever since, finding its way into the Eternal City.

Inveterate Gamblers

If you thought that the Greeks were gambling stalwarts, you should see the Romans. They were all in, full bore:

The slaves, artisans, plebeians, patricians, legionnaires, centurions, tribunes, praetors, emperors.

Whether prohibited, as it was during the days of the republic or not, as it was in empire times, gambling was a daily routine to the Roman people and part of their folklore.

In order to lure clients, taverns held a sign outside:

“Good food and gambling within.”

Excavated tables point out to players’ messages carved in wood:

“Make room for better players.”

On the wall in Pompeii the writer, obviously proud or frustrated gambler, stated in the graffiti:

“I am skilled enough to win without cheating.”

The royalty? Augustus, Caligula, Nero, Domitian, to name a few. Claudius even wrote the book titled “De arte aleae” (On the Art of Dice) on how to play the game of dice.

Concerned, the Roman Senate passed at least three laws forbidding the gambling. Alas, to no avail. (After all, when you have an emperor writing the book on gambling, what is to be expected from his subjects?) The Roman people attraction to the games of chance remained undiminished, still is to this day.

Spreading in time across Europe through conquests and migrations, the dices ruled the mechanisms of the games until the palm-sized invention from the east arrived.

Four-suited Rectangular Seducers

You gotta hand it to Chinese. As if it was not enough to invent the gambling, they gave us the playing cards too.

First mentioned in records around 868AD that describes Princess Tong Cheng playing the card game with her husband’s family in form of traditional scrolls, the popularity of cards skyrocketed with the advent of paper sheet production in China, around 1005AD.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance and fundamental economic changes. The continent was in a web of trade routes, the bloodstream of commerce and exchange, shifting the center of gravity from the land to the cities. With the civilization’s advances in arts and sciences…

…came the money-making men displaying extravagant wealth.

The stage was set.

The only missing part was — requisite.

Reaching Italy in 1365, courtesy of Mamluk Sultanate from Egypt, the playing cards provided exactly that.

Spreading across the continent on the speed that would trouble even the Road Runner, we see them in ordinances and unofficial documents of numerous countries:

  • In 1367, already banned in Bern, Switzerland;
  • In 1371 in Catalonia, Spain;
  • In 1377, in Paris, so widespread that the city had to make rules to keep players under control;
  • In 1418, professional card makers begin mass-production of decks in Germany;
  • In 1463, the first recorded mention of playing cards in Britain is in form of the statute prohibiting their import; by the 1629 British card manufacturers had their own union (so much about business growth);
  • Between 1470 and 1480, the famous Flemish Hunting Deck — the oldest complete set of 52 playing cards in the world — is made in the Netherlands;
  • In 1480, France begins production of four-suited decks.

You get the picture. The playing cards delivered, and then some.

People were seduced by choices and chances. Hands were occupied. Minds engaged. Tricks devised. Some pockets full, others not. Some people laughed. Some cried. Some fought.

But they kept coming back to playing cards, again and again. Why?

Let the Irresistible Games Begin

Because they came in a range of different, enticing games that offered not only a pastime but pathways to a better life.

Leading the way was Baccarat. While origins of the game are disputed, it appears that Baccarat was introduced into France from Italy at the end of the 15th century by the soldiers returning from Franco-Italian War (1494-1559). Being the mishmash of a card game and spectator sport it instantly gained traction though it took hundreds of years for Baccarat to become the game it is today.

Then came the Blackjack courtesy of, believe it or not, Miguel de Cervantes. The famous writer of Don Quixote, and a gambler writes about ventuina (twenty-one in Spanish) in his short story Rinconete y Cortadillo, published in 1613. Further evolving in French casinos around 1700, where it was called Vingt-en-Un (twenty-one in French) — Napoleon’s favorite game — Blackjack spread to North America by colonists from France and gained popularity across the continent in the 20th century.

There were also a number of lottery-based games present, with biribi as an interesting one. Why?

Well, not so much because of the game itself. It was low stake game of chance similar to Lotto, played on board marked with numbers ranging from 1 to 70. The player would put its stake on any given number, the “banker” would call out the number by pulling one from the bag, and the winner would receive sixty-four times his stake becoming a hero of other players going to zero. Not surprisingly, biribi was banned in 1837.

“Why are we talking about it then?”

Because…

…by mixing the biribi and the gaming wheel came the roulette.

It’s all on Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and genius. In his search for a perpetual motion machine, he devised the spinning wheel and introduced the roulette in the 17th century. And we were wondering when the perpetuity and gambling did meet?

Played in its present form since 1796 in Paris’ Palais Royal, it evolved little through the years. In 1843, spa casino town of Bad Homburg introduced the single zero style roulette, and by the 19th century, it spread all over Europe and the United States. Roulette eventually became one of the most famous and popular casino games ever.

You might say that considering its ban, biribi had the last laugh after all.

On the side note, one might argue that Bad Homburg paved the way for Las Vegas. But before we jump across the ocean we have to visit one more place.

House of Pain and Gain

“House of Pain!? ‘Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin, I came to win, battle me, that's a sin?’ Jump Around!!

You’re spot on! (Besides, who said that editorial cannot have a soundtrack?)

Progression of games and production of requisites renewed the institution of specialized places to host the players — casinos. Not surprisingly, the first gambling house in the world was established in Venice in 1638.

Il Ridotto (“The Private Room”) was founded by city leaders to counter emerging illegal, private gambling clubs. Helpless to prevent the spontaneous rise of gambling and to stop citizens from wagering on dice and card games, the Great Council of Venice launched its own casino.

Il Ridotto was open to the public though only nobles could afford to play due to high stakes and formal dressing code. Players wore three-cornered hats and masks— go and read telltale signs behind those —enjoying themselves in biribi and basetta.

The latter is interesting in a sense of being probably the first hybrid game in the world — a cross between blackjack, poker, and gin rummy.

Was Il Ridotto popular? Let’s just say it was hosted in a four-story building.

Other cities followed the suit quickly. Not so hard considering the popularity of games on mainland Europe. Lavish places, and palaces, in Baden-Baden, Monte Carlo and Wiesbaden, including Bad Homburg we already mentioned, enabled people to gamble, socialize and enjoy in novelties of the 19th century.

Soon, they were to be joined by the powerhouse of immense proportions.

Western Fireworks

When people from Mayflower landed on Cape Cod they did it with the intention to build the new, bigger and better world. In doing so, they created a number of magnificent places for us to visit on this journey and gave us one of the most popular card games ever.

You’re right, we’re talking about poker and number of its variants.

Arriving in the United States with French colonists in form of poque, closest European predecessor with roots going all the way back to Persia and China (them Chinese, again!), poker initially enrooted itself in New Orleans. From there it spread up the Mississippi River throughout the states.

Both the North and South soldiers played it during the Civil War. With the Manifest Destiny in full swing, poker took the westward turn and followed the people to the frontier settlements. Deadwood, Dodge City, Denver, Kansas City were famous for their gambling houses. On Mississippi River, affluent ranchers and industrials embarked the steamboats and gambled during purpose made cruises.

In 1871, the game was introduced to Europe upon request of English Queen Victoria to be presented with the rules as she was listening to U.S. minister explaining the game to the members of her court. With the increasing American influence on the Old Continent — tragically due to World War I involvement — poker enjoyed wider European acceptance and kicked off into fame.

Back across the ocean, with so many people playing the games came the need for gambling regulations in U.S.

Either banning the gamble or targeting the gamblers, the laws made it difficult for people to play or to associate themselves with players. Those two — Americans’ desire to play and America’s intention to regulate it — remain intertwined until this very day.

The 20th century brought the rise of popularity and resurgence of gambling. With it came the need for places way, way bigger than saloons.

The Industrial Silver Spoons

There were, actually, four consecutive events that converged at this junction of gambling history. Each one complemented the other creating compatible conditions for what is today known to be the most advanced and regulated gambling market in the world.

  1. Charles Fey invented the Liberty Bell in 1896, first mechanical slot and pathfinder for other one-armed bandits and gambling machines;
  2. The second industrial revolution gained traction providing fertile grounds for gambling consumerism through electrification and widespread adoption of already existing technological systems;
  3. The Great Depression led to a tolerant atmosphere towards gambling legalization as a way to revive the national economy by using the money already floating in illegal circles that had reached monumental proportions by 1930s;
  4. The state of Nevada legalized gambling, making 1931 a pivotal year for the development of Las Vegas, soon to be known as The Entertainment Capital of the World.

Once those four merged into one, there was no looking back ever again. The juggernaut has been created. The first thing he did? He pushed…

…pedal to the metal.

The whole new, bigger and better world of gaming emerged.

Lavishly decorated hotels, gambling casinos and the entire industry of entertainment arose offering seemingly unlimited possibilities to the people who knew their games or were just lucky enough.

For the next half of the century or so we pursued our choices and chances in such a world. It made us elated or desperate. It gave us the opening to fulfill our dreams or to jump off the cliff. It provided for inspiration or decadence.

Ultimately it gave us the opportunity to answer a simple question. One we so often ask ourselves in our lives, careers, relationships, and in the introspective dialogues:

“Don’t you want to see it come soon, floating in a big white balloon or given

on your own silver spoon, don’t you want to see it come down there to throw

in your arms around and say ‘you’re not a moment too soon’?”

As we kept thinking that all technological marvels of the 20th century are a perfect gambling environment for our unison YES, I want” answer, little did we knew that…

…an instrumental breakthrough was about to happen.

Moving silently through our fingertips, it impacted for good our landscapes and the world we live in. It brought an end to one epoch, changing our lives and the way we gamble — forever.

[PART TWO]

“We do gamble and make our choices on chance.”

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