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History of Gambling | From Ancient Origins to Online Gambling

Rough Guide to History of Gambling: From Ancient Origins to Online Casinos

It is safe to say that the history of humankind is closely linked to the history of gambling. No matter how far back in time you travel, you’ll find an endless list of evidence showing that, if people gathered together in groups, at least some sort of gambling activity was sure to happen.

With that in mind, we’ve decided to dig a little deeper and find out what it’s all about. Now buckle up, 'cause we’re about to take you on the road as we travel back in history.

Origin of Gambling - Deep Roots in Prehistoric Time

If gambling seems to you like a recent invention, well, all we can say is you’re dead wrong. Placing bets is a skill that’s even tens of thousands of years old. The dice, card games, and spinning wheels used in casinos these days are only descendants of the games played for goods, taking place thousands of years ago in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

From stones that were found in China (in 3000-2300 BC) over ivory dice discovered in Egypt (from 2000 BC), to gambling stuff used by the Bronze Age Greek soldiers, we can be pretty sure that gambling activity is as old as our humankind. But there are so many questions regarding this topic, so let’s try to answer them as we go through some of these doubts.

Who invented gambling?

It is impossible to say who invented gambling and no one knows for sure, however numerous proofs show that Chinese people were the ones inventing games of chance. Early forms of gambling were shown among many ancient peoples, like the Romans and Mesopotamians, who used animal bones to play with.

It is generally believed gambling grew out of an interest for good luck (in terms of possibility and random chance) and mysterious things happening that ancient peoples couldn’t explain. Back then, it was popular to throw objects like sticks and stones, as well as bones, in order to predict the future which eventually evolved to placing bets on the outcome of a throw. People’s understanding of gambling was related to their beliefs about everything that was supernatural. Ancient peoples were amazed with throwing bones, as they believed in supernatural power controlling the way the bones come to rest.

In particular – Astragali – talus bones of hoover animals (related to the period around 5000 B.C), were among the first forms and gambling tools evolving from ritual practices, used much more frequently than any other bones. Being very close to symmetric, 4-sided Knucklebones (also known as Astragalus) are an early example of the game of chance and are believed to be early precursors of the dice.

As for the card invention, it is believed that China is the cradle of playing and inventing cards. This ancient civilization discovered paper and everything that led them to coming up with the idea of paper money. 

When were dice invented?

According to numerous resources, gambling dates to the Paleolithic period, before any written history of gambling traces could have been made. The old gambling games date back to even 40,000 BC, when several dice-like objects have been found.

In Mesopotamia, for example, the earliest 6-sided dice date to around 3000 BC. As dice games have been a popular activity across almost all human societies, the fact that Greek soldiers used dice games to entertain themselves comes as no surprise, even though gambling was illegal in Ancient Greece.

Gambling in Ancient China and East Asia

As we’ve already mentioned, gambling is believed to have started as a form of entertainment in ancient China and, then, eventually spread out across the entire world. Games of chance with wagering started to exist during the times when Xia and Shang dynasties were thriving. Just like today, the definition of gambling is understood as a risk taken in exchange for something of a bigger value. Even though gambling has been banned for longer periods of time, or was sometimes under very strict regulatory controls, it has always been incredibly popular.

Games like lotto and dominoes were precursors of Pai Gow whose origins predate the Song Dynasty, and whose name interprets roughly to “make nine.” It is a very popular game played with 32 Chinese dominoes.

It is generally believed that the ancestor games of blackjack and poker have been invented in China.

Similarly, the ancestor games of blackjack and poker are also thought to have been invented in China. Likewise, popular games like Wei-Qi, Mahjong, Yue Har Hai and a domino game called Xuan He Pai all originate from China. Together with a card game Ma Diao Pai, Xuan He Pai became the basis for the Mahjong - the very widespread game that we know today.

Some early evidences of gambling were found in the form of Keno slips which were used in about 200BC as some sort of lottery. Possibly, these were used to fund state works, such as the construction of the Great Wall of China. Dating back thousands of years, Keno originates from the Chinese game “White Pigeon Ticket” (“baige piao”). The original name can be translated as “white pigeon ticket,” relating to the tickets used in a betting game involving homing pigeons.

Chinese people just loved to gamble, and the variety of games increased tremendously.

Gambling in Ancient Egypt, Middle East, Mesopotamia, and India

As soon as archaeologists began to dig up the land, they found many gambling artefacts on the territory of Ancient Egypt. To start off, a pair of dice (made using the tusks of elephants) had been uncovered from an Egyptian tomb from 3000 BC. Archaeologists also found a game resembling checkers. In Mesopotamia, however, the earliest 6-sided dice also appeared in around 3000 BC, but they were based on astragali dating back thousands of years earlier.

Another game that was discovered in Ancient Egypt is HUBEM-how, which involved throwing discs into a bowl in a certain order. The discs were created using a range of substances, increasing in complexity as players kept throwing. Apart from a widely used dice, Ancient Egyptians used knucklebones. At first dice and bones were used to communicate with the gods, as Ancient Egyptians believed that the result of a dice or bones throw could reveal the answer to specific questions.

While the Mesopotamians and Greeks were using astragali, Indians played with the nuts of the “vibhitaka” tree.

And while the Mesopotamians and Greeks were using astragali, Indians played with the nuts of the tree called “vibhitaka”. Eventually these nuts were swapped with astragali and cubical dice when other games emerged as well. But the appearance of the Indian Pachisi game initiated the use of shells and, later, board games too.

As some may say – it was a fascinating period in history, and it’s practically impossible to skip it when we go through the entire history of gambling. And, let’s not forget how strong the influence of Egyptian iconography and aesthetics is on modern slots and gambling, as Ancient Egypt seems to be among the most popular themes for casino games nowadays, together with Indian jewels and Chinese dragons.

Ancient Greek and Roman Gambling

Although widely criticized, gambling was also widely enjoyed, being always a hot topic in Ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks competed while playing various dice games, as well as many other games of chance. Just as an example - they had a term for throwing dice and getting two sixes and it was called the Throw of Aphrodite, a combination known to be unbeatable.

Likewise, in one ancient myth about Greek gods – Zeus Hades and Poseidon – threw a dice to decide how to spit up the universe. It is believed that, using this game of chance, they determined who would rule heaven, hell and the sea.

Romans played a game of chance called “Heads and Ships” which is quite similar to the Greek version called “The Shell Game” - both leading to the creation of “Heads and Tails” that people play nowadays.

In ancient Rome, on the other hand, there is evidence of playing a game of chance - tossing a coin - called “heads and ships” quite similar to “heads and tails” that people play nowadays. Likewise, they used coins and pebbles in the game called “Rota” (“the wheel”) like our “tic-tac-toe”. It was very straightforward; players used a board on which a wheel was drawn or scratched.

Ancient Romans were well-known for their religious routines and for being superstitions, which explains why they enjoyed games of chance so much, especially chariot racing. This activity was dangerous to both drivers and horses, who often suffered serious injuries and even death, but Roman people saw these dangers as all part of the excitement.

Medieval Gambling: Popular Games During Middle Ages

Starting with ancient dice games, over games with sticks and stones, all the way to the card games, gambling in Egypt began to grow in the medieval era. Although card games first appeared in Asia and Europe, these games found their way to Egypt.

The lotteries, for example, became popular in the 15th century. The game was widespread among ancient civilisations, although it turned out to be more successful in Europe and Asia. As for other medieval games and pastimes, chess was widely popular as well as Draughts (Checkers).

There were even Medieval Christmas games like "King of the Bean," with a small bean placed inside bread or cake, and the lucky finder would be crowned king of the holiday celebration. Such traditions can even be found in some parts of Europe today.

Modern Gambling and Gambling Games: From Renaissance to 20th Century

In Florence, Italy, through the 1530s, gambling as an activity was a popular way to raise money for public works. Cards were probably the most widespread game during the renaissance. Other standard games included Basset, Faro, and Biribisso. Since cards were quite expensive to get back then, they had to be imported.

As the Italian aristocrats often held private parties in places known as ridotti – private clubs for rich people, the only way for the lower class to have access to play the cards was only if they were “filtered down from the aristocracy.” At some point, before the end of the middle ages, domestic industries started producing cards wildly and they became available to everyone.

In the 1500s, it was in France that the Queen was introduced to the card deck, replacing the Nobleman. The French variation was actually the pioneer of the standard 52-card deck that we play with today. Of course, this invention led to the development of the types of online gambling that are popular nowadays.

Probably derived from the card game Chemin de Fer, Blackjack was created by the French Templars.

To name a few, Blackjack, known in those days as “vingt-et-un” (21), was created by the French Templars, as well the game of Faro. Both games were exclusively presented in neighbouring Britain, and later shipped across the Atlantic Ocean over to the United States.

As for the 17th century, the government of Venice decided to run a gambling establishment in order to better control this activity and make money, of course. So, they approved the opening of the Ridotto, a gambling house with several rooms where people could play card games, and the house also offered a variety of food and beverages to keep the gamblers stay and play.

In the same century, the French mathematician Blaise Pascal invented the roulette wheel, which of course led to the establishment of the roulette game.

In the late 1880s, Bavarian-born American inventor Charles Fey created an early reel-based gambling machine in San Francisco. Slot machine, also known as one-armed bandit, was later followed by the first electromechanical slot (from 1963) as well as the first electronic video slot (created in 1976). The machine operated by inserting at least one coin or token into a slot and pulling a handle to activate one, three or more reels.

First gambling machines had been installed in cigar stores, saloons, and barber shops.

At first, the machine had been installed in cigar stores, saloons, and barber shops. During the 1920s, slot machines had an expansion across the United States, especially in resort areas, and they continued to be trendy until the Great Depression years of the 1930s.

Brick and mortar casinos in the USA influenced the expansion of Las Vegas which started to grow in the 1930s, when Nevada was the first to legalise gambling, as all other states turned away from the harsher era of prohibition. Prohibition outside Nevada was virtually total by 1951, although illegal operation, mostly in private clubs, was widely ignored.

Tommy Hull built an inland casino (El Rancho Vegas), in the middle of desert in Nevada in the early 1940s. It was a smart move as it started the building of The Strip which eventually led to the formation of Sin City. Fast expansion of brick and mortar casinos followed throughout the 1950s. During that time, mobs made heavy investments in the casinos, recognising Las Vegas to be known as "the place to be" for people who enjoyed playing different types of casino games and the nightlife.

History of Online Gambling

In the mid-1990s, online gambling kicked off, but it wasn’t before the 2000s that online casinos became legal. They became licensed and regulated with control to protect players and casinos from frauds and abuse. In 1994, Antigua and Barbuda passed the Free Trade & Processing Act, granting licences to companies and organisations that wished to start online casinos and offer gambling services.

Before online casinos started to operate, the first online gambling software was developed by the Isle of Man based Microgaming. In 1996, InterCasino was the first to accept the real money wager on the web, having a portfolio of just 18 casino games. During the same year, the Kahnawake Gaming Commission was established to regulate poker rooms and online casinos.

And now as we talk about the history of online gambling and the history of slot machines (with online casinos becoming more prosperous), it is impossible not to mention some of the most renowned software providers. Along with the Microgaming, NetEnt initiated some of the most innovative games at the time. Having a wide array of online slots, progressive slots, table games and live games, they launched many branded releases that are still well-known and played.

Land-based gambling venues were quite popular in the 1990s and 2000s, and were based in many major cities, full of people willing to dip into the world of real money wagers.

Future of Gambling

The future of gambling is making its way in the online and social gaming direction, delivering more famous gamblers than we can count. With several legislations passing, online gambling is becoming more appealing and accessible. Gaming specialities like online slots, table games, and live casino are becoming the dominant forces in the gambling industry, each with different gambling terms. Using VR as a marketing tool, virtual reality casinos are making their way in the gambling industry, although their potential is uncertain.

And, even though online gambling history has varied, the industry has still managed to prosper throughout the last decade and we can say it is very likely that things will continue to grow.