The history of gambling goes hand in hand with the history of humanity. Gambling games are found in almost every culture throughout history and wagering seems to be a natural human instinct.
Have you ever wondered how humanity got introduced to the joys of gambling, and how it has evolved over the years? Well, you’ve come to the right place! In this article, we take a look at the interesting history of gambling throughout the ages.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of gambling because it is so old it predates history. People have been gambling over thousands of years, if not tens of thousands. We might not know exactly how gambling was discovered or precisely when gambling started but there is still a fascinating history behind it.
Gambling is risking something of value on the outcome of an uncertain event with the aim of making a profit. That something of value doesn’t need to be money – you can gamble over who has to do the dishes, after all! This means gambling predates money.
There is also a long history of governments and moralists trying to stop people from gambling. These measures never work – they just force gamblers underground. Gambling is also responsible for important advances in mathematics that underpin modern science and technology. And in turn, advances in technology have changed the way we gamble.
Have you ever been curious about how your favorite gambling game came to be? Let’s take a look at the history of gambling.
Types of Gambling
Across all times, there were always different types of gambling available. The main distinction is between:
- social gambling where you play against other players, and
- commercial gambling where you compete against the house.
The simplest form of social gambling is wagering (betting). Essentially, when one person bets another that something will or won’t happen. The two parties agree on stakes, odds, and potential prizes, and it is up to the winner to enforce the result. People wager on anything, and sports have always been the favorite. Sports betting is now a massive worldwide commercial industry, but informal side-bets are still very common. No doubt people have been betting between themselves on sports as long as we have been playing them!
Dice games were the first kind of activity solely based on social gambling. At least, until the advent of modern playing cards. Card games became the dominant form of social gambling. Even today, poker is one of the most popular forms of social gambling.
Lotteries were likely the first form of commercial gambling. Table games, such as the forerunners of roulette and blackjack, appeared much later. More recently, games like bingo and keno have also been designed to entertain large crowds.
Advances in technology have always created new ways to gamble. Slot machines started out as mechanical “one-armed bandits” and evolved into video slots that can be played online in a completely digital form.
And the internet and mobile phones have heralded a new era of gambling (one that our ancient ancestors would not believe). Esports betting, which is essentially betting on confrontations of teams and players of specific video games, is a multi-billion dollar industry growing in the double digits every year.
Gambling History Timeline
Gambling has evolved alongside human civilization through the centuries. Let’s take a look at some of the key historic milestones in the very long history of gambling.
Prehistoric Era (up to 800 BC)
Gambling is older than history. Just like music, or dance, or farming, nobody can exactly pinpoint when it first appeared.
Humans have always been fascinated by chance, and ancient societies often used randomness as a means of predicting the future. The casting of lots (cleromancy) is well-documented in ancient texts worldwide. Often, animal bones would be used in particular the knucklebones of sheep in a similar way to how we use dice today.
Dice are believed to have been invented in Ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BC, based on these sheep bones. They became the most popular method of gambling for thousands of years. The ancient Indian Vedas from 1500 BC includes a hymn called The Gambler’s Lament, about a dice player who would have played with four-sided dice made from the nut of the Bahera tree.
In Ancient China, betting on animal fights was very popular. Gambling houses were common as early as 1000 BC, with the last ruler of the Zhang dynasty infamous for wasting public money on drinking and gambling. There’s even some evidence that a lottery-like game was played in China as early as 2000BC.
Classical Era (800 BC – 500 AD)
The ancient Greeks loved to gamble. The Homeric Epics mention gambling often, and there is archeological evidence that there was plenty of betting on the ancient Olympics.
Gambling was illegal in ancient Rome, except on certain holidays, but was still very popular throughout the year. Their game of choice was dice, although sports betting was popular too. Huge amounts were wagered on the outcome of gladiatorial contests at the Colosseum. Gamblers faced a fine of four times the stake so consequently, they started playing for tokens instead, a forerunner of casino chips.
Middle Ages (500 – 1,500)
Playing cards were invented in China in the 800s. They are thought to have been both the stake and the tools of the game. Much like trading card games work today. They spread throughout Asia and the Middle East, reaching Europe toward the end of the 1300s.
Before the widespread adoption of playing cards as the dominant gambling tool, dice games such as Hazard were very popular. It was thought to have been brought back to Europe by knights returning from the Crusades. Hazard eventually developed into the modern casino table game of Craps.
Gambling was seen as the preserve of the noble classes and a dangerous vice for the ordinary folk. Various laws were passed outlawing gambling but that didn’t stop people!
Native Americans also had many traditional gambling games before the arrival of the first European colonists. There is evidence they had gambling houses in the 1200s (a cave with ten thousand objects related to gambling).
The Aztecs too had a big culture of gambling. Hernan Cortes played the dice game Totoloque against the emperor Montezuma after imprisoning him – and, to add insult to injury, is said to have cheated!
Early Modern Era (1500 – 1750)
As the middle ages gave way to the modern era, gambling became more socially acceptable for all classes. The golden era of European gambling began in the 1600s and lasted two centuries.
Gambling also was the inspiration for great advances in human knowledge. Giacomo Cardano’s book 1564 Liber de Ludo Aleae (“Book on Games of Chance”) is considered to be the foundation of probability theory and was based on his experience with gambling with dice.
This was just the beginning of the link between gambling and our understanding of statistics and probability, which today form the basis of most scientific fields. Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat were the other forefathers of probability, and they too were inspired to solve gambling puzzles (in particular The Problem of the Points). Pascal is also said to have invented the prototype for the roulette wheel!
Venice, then an independent city-state, was the epicenter of the new gambling fever. The Ridotto, the first state-sanctioned public gambling house in European history, opened in 1638. It closed just over a hundred years later in 1744, but gambling did not go away and numerous private gambling dens known as “Casini” (from the Italian for “house”) sprung up to take its place. The term is the origin of our word “Casino”.
Although the casino was born in Italy, many casino games were created in France, including roulette, blackjack, and baccarat.
Each had its genesis in earlier games. Roulette, for example, was based on Biribi, where numbered tokens were drawn from a bag. This developed into the English game of Roly-Poly that used an unnumbered wheel, then into Even-Odd (EO), and finally, the modern roulette game as we know it.
Blackjack came from a similar game called Trente-et-Quarante, which you can still play in some European Casinos. It then became Vingt-et-Un (or Ventti), followed by the game of Twenty-One, and eventually, Blackjack.
In England, the new trend of Coffee Houses led to an explosion of gambling as well as the insurance industry. In many ways, insurance is very similar to gambling, only without the possibility of profit. Coffee Houses were also the birthplace of the London Stock Exchange. And when you get down to it, stock trading and gambling are pretty much indistinguishable!
Health spas resorts also became centers of gambling, in particular those in the Rhine region of Germany.
Modern Era (1750 – 1945)
In 1795, Harry Ogden became the first-ever bookmaker, laying odds and taking bets on the horse races at Newmarket, England. This was revolutionary as up until that point bets were limited to even-money bets between individuals (i.e. social betting) on the favorite against the rest of the field. Ogden worked out fixed-odds for each horse and acted as the bank when taking bets from punters. Tote (aka parimutuel) bookmakers came much later, in 1867.
In 1837, France decreed all gambling houses would close at the end of the year. They were profitable for the state but causing too many highly-connected people to lose fortunes obtained over generations. The last days of 1837 were chaos as gamblers rushed to get their last fix.
A French casino operator named Francois Blanc moved to Monaco, taking over the existing casino and renaming it Monte Carlo. Blanc was also the creator of the single-zero Roulette wheel, which he introduced in 1842. This gives better odds to the player and is now the European standard, while the American version is double-zero.
In 1849, the Portuguese legalized gambling in Macau, China. Today it is the gambling capital of the world with annual revenues seven times larger than Las Vegas.
The American frontier was a hotbed of gambling. Poker was created in the Mississippi region sometime between 1750 and 1800. Community card poker came later, with Texas Hold’em thought to be invented around 1900. The popularity of poker and inevitability of arguments led to saloon-keepers inventing the earliest casino chips.
In 1894, the first ever slot machine was created. It was based on poker hands but not automatically detect a win, with the punter having to go to the saloon keeper to get his payout. The 1899 Liberty Bell was the first with an automatic payout mechanism and it was an immediate success, spawning many copycats and an entire gambling industry.
Contemporary Era (1945 – Present)
Although Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, and Las Vegas granted its first gaming licence to the Northern Club on Fremont Street a few weeks later, it wasn’t until after the end of World War II that Vegas became the premier tourist destination it is today.
At first, organized crime was widely involved. The ending of the prohibition meant that mobs needed new revenue streams. Their influence waned over the years and was replaced by large corporations in the late 80s.
In 1979, the first Native American casino opened in Florida, following a Supreme Court decision that confirmed that states could not regulate activities on reservations.
The first video poker machine appeared in the 70s but it was only in the 80s that they became extremely popular.
In 1994, the first virtual casino appeared on the internet. Planet Poker offered the first real money online poker room in 1998. Mobile phone owners were able to gamble from the year 2000 but this was text-message based at first.
Today the worldwide gambling industry is worth almost half a trillion dollars. Commercial gambling, where players take on the house, is by far the biggest type of gambling by revenue, although the total amount wagered informally could well be much larger but does not get recorded.
Online and mobile are clearly the future of gambling, but it has been a bumpy ride so far. At the beginning of the 21st Century, a number of countries made online gambling illegal. In particular, the US cracked down hard culminating in 2011’s infamous Black Friday.
However today, some states have legalized online gambling for their residents. For most US citizens, online gambling remains a legal grey-area. There are a few operators still willing to cater to them, but they are unregulated and many require cryptocurrency to load up funds to play on crypto gambling platforms, like bitcoin casinos. Here’s hoping for legalization of online gambling at the federal level in the Land of the Free!
Gambling History: FAQ
Answers to the most common questions about the history of gambling.
What was the first form of gambling? How long has gambling been around?
Gambling is so old that it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when it started or what the first form of it was. It is far older than history and archeological evidence can be difficult to interpret. It seems likely that people have been making informal bets with each other on everyday events for as long as there has been language. It is just human nature to gamble!
Which country did the earliest evidence of gambling trace back to?
Ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) is thought to be the oldest human civilization, and there is evidence that six-sided dice were invented there around 3000 BC. It is very likely these were used to gamble with. There is also evidence of tiles dating to around 2300 BC that may have been used for gambling in Ancient China.
From where did “playing cards” originate from?
Playing cards are thought to have originated in China, although they were more like dice or dominoes than the playing cards we know today. It took many centuries of innovation in numerous countries before cards that we would recognize became popular.
The standard 52-card, four suit deck most of are familiar with today is the English pattern of the French deck, and it was created by Charles Goodall and Son in the 1830s.
When did Italy get its very first casino?
The Ridotto opened in 1638 in the San Moise palace in Venice, which is now part of Italy. It was the first state-sanctioned public gambling house in Europe, and considered to be the first casino.
When did gambling go mobile?
Mobile-phone-based real-money gambling became available at the start of the 21st Century, although play money apps were available before then. In the early days, it was very rudimentary, restricted to text-message lotteries, sports betting, and sweepstakes.
As mobile technology improved, mobile gambling has become more and more popular – growing from around $50million in 2003 to around $50billion in 2020.
The history of gambling is a fundamental part of human history. There seems to be a universal human instinct to gamble. Advances in technology have changed the way we gamble, but gambling has also played a big part in our understanding of how the world works. No matter how the powers-that-be try to stop us, people will always gamble. Gambling has been around forever and will be around forevermore!