10 Things You Never Knew about the History of Gambling

Gambling has grown ever more popular in recent years. With the rise of online sports betting in multiple places worldwide, it’s never been easier to place a bet on your hometown team—or one halfway across the world—and then watch and cheer as they cover the spread. Or, you know, as they fail to cover the spread. And while gambling is a very risky activity now, just as it’s always been, and should only be done in extreme moderation, that doesn’t mean it’s not incredibly popular with people all over the globe.

The interesting thing to think about is its history. Even though online gambling and app-based sports betting may be on the rise now, the simple act of betting on games of chance is a truly ancient activity. In this list, we’ll explain just how ancient it is. Here are ten fascinating and mind-blowing facts about the (old, old, old) history of gambling and its development through the ages into what we know today!

Related: Ten Weird Children’s Games from the Victoria Era and Before

10 Gambling Goes WAY Back

When we said gambling was old, we weren’t kidding. Primitive games of chance have been uncovered with direct evidence suggesting people enjoyed casual gambling as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, around 3000 BC. Archaeologists have uncovered six-sided dice-like objects from that era, which reveals that people were tossing the dice and taking their chances on some sort of primitive game.

Knowing human history and nature as we do, experts believe that gambling was widespread far before that, too—likely for thousands of years. We just simply haven’t found the evidence because it is far too old and likely gone forever. But we do know undoubtedly that Mesopotamians liked to gamble in a way often associated with seeking divine guidance or interpreting hard-to-parse omens.

Many games of chance back then had religious attributes or spiritual significance. The Egyptians famously had a game called “Senet,” which also carried spiritual weight for their followers. It was as much a game of chance, luck, and fun as it was an opportunity to see if the gods and fate were smiling down upon you. Part gambling, part fortune telling, as it were![1]

9 Chinese Dice and Chess

While the ancient Mesopotamians may have had gambling in the form of dice games as early as 3000 BC, the ancient Chinese dynasties weren’t far behind. Dice games in China were recorded and documented as early as 2300 BC, falling behind the Mesopotamians by a few hundred years but still besting much of the rest of the known world.

Then, during the Xia dynasty, which ran from roughly 2070 BC to 1600 BC, gambling took off in popularity all across China’s lands. At the time, the act of gambling was known as “bó,” and it became very popular very quickly with working Chinese people seeking diversions in their lives. As the legend goes, an ancient general and court official in the Xia dynasty named Wu Cao supposedly invented bó.

The most popular game was a chess-like setup with a board that held 12 pieces. The game was called “liùbó,” and even though its specific rules have been lost to history, ancient Chinese written recordings note the name of the game and the fact that it was played in contests between people. Some historians believe that liùbó was a precursor to modern chess, with the specific pieces used and splayed across a board.

Regardless, the game was so popular and long-lasting that the Chinese character that defined it gradually evolved into the one used as a general term to mean all types of gambling.[2]

8 Roman Casinos

The ancient Romans were very prolific gamblers, both in private situations with friends at home and in public settings. Those public settings, in fact, were some of the most interesting aspects of how gambling developed across Rome. Alternately called “tabernae ludi” and “tabernae aleatoriae,” these were taverns and public houses expressly set up so people could bet on games, play dice, and compete in other battles of skill, luck, and chance.

Think of these taverns as something like modern-day bars in one way, but casinos are probably a better comparison—just not as big as what Vegas may have now, and with no slot machines for the players!

Gambling was a thing played by nearly every class of Romans, too. Patricians and commoners liked to play these games and bet money on the outcomes of various contests. Older people and younger people did, too. Older ones typically had more free time, but younger Romans would go to taverns after work to play. Children even created their own forms of dice games and related contests in secret.

As expected, soldiers loved to gamble as often as possible—with evidence of games of chance filling up ancient Roman barracks sites. Technically, only men were allowed to gamble, but that didn’t stop women from doing so. And during the annual Bona Dea festival, women were allowed to play openly both indoors and outdoors.

To this day, engraved board games can still be seen at ancient Roman sites. The Basilica of Juliet, the Colosseum, the Forum Romanum, and various spots at other old Roman temples all have documented archaeological findings related to board games and heavy gambling. And in their way, just like they influenced so many different things about our society, these Roman “tabernae” would slowly but surely evolve into the modern-day idea of a casino. Of course, ours are much brighter and louder. But the parallel was put in place back in ancient Rome![3]

7 India’s Warnings

Two notable Indian epics from the ancient world—the Mahabharata and the Ramayana—very deeply describe gambling. And one instance of their descriptions even includes a famous game of dice in the Mahabharata that went badly and led to very significant consequences.

The sour dice game comes in the “Sabha Parva,” sometimes known as the “Book of the Assembly Hall.” It is the second of the eighteen books of the Mahabharata, and in it, among its ten parts and 81 chapters, is a very cautionary tale about gambling. Historians now recognize it as one of the first-ever outlined warnings about placing bets that have survived into the modern era!

In the “Sabha Parva,” chapter five of the book outlines more than 100 principles of good governance and administration that Hindus must undertake to succeed in building and sustaining their assembly hall. From there, chapters describe how to keep the kingdom virtuous, prosperous, and happy. They use examples of life in ruler Yudhishthira’s Rajasuya Yajna court and how that led to his expanded empire.

However, King Yudhishthira has a major vice—gambling. A man named Shakuni knows this, and after being encouraged by another ne’er-do-well named Duryodhana, he tempts Yudhishthira into a game of dice. Knowing that Yudhishthira won’t be able to say no, Shakuni keeps betting and keeps betting. Eventually, King Yudhishthira doubles down and loses. He is wiped out of all his assets and exits the empire in complete shame. Talk about a cautionary tale![4]

6 Playing Cards Emerge

The first playing cards are consistently thought to have come from ancient China. They were carefully produced and sent out to Chinese gamblers at some point in the 9th century AD during the Tang Dynasty. Of course, the first playing cards would have had to have come from a society that had advanced paper-making and printing technology, and China certainly had that.

The Chinese also had a popular gambling game known as “the leaf game” that relied on paper cards to be played correctly. Historians today aren’t entirely sure about the leaf game’s rules, but many believe it was probably more similar to dominoes than actual cards as we know it today. Regardless, playing cards were very well documented during that period, and in the 10th century AD, Emperor Mu-Tsung was noted as personally handling and using playing cards for gambling games.

Playing cards did not arrive in Europe until about the 14th century—at least based on what historians can find in the documentation. They almost certainly came to the Europeans in one of two ways (or perhaps both): via Islamic Spain from the southwest or trading between Egypt’s Malmuk people and the Italians in the Mediterranean.

Either way, playing cards as we know them—with all four suits, royalty cards, and everything—were well established enough by that point that Europeans picked them up as is. Thus, the ideas of playing cards and their use as we know them today must have been perfected in India or the Middle East before moving westward into Europe.[5]

5 The Lottery Begins

In medieval Europe, governments in the Low Countries—the area presently comprising Belgium and the Netherlands—used lotteries to raise funds for town projects. Those funds went to things like bridges, canals, and even fortifications from outside intruders. They worked in much the same way as lotteries still do today: They offered tickets for sale with the chance of winning prizes in exchange for money that could go into the public coffers.

These lottery opportunities were popular with citizens of these towns in this region pretty much from the time they were put into use in the middle of the 15th century. And the fact that the money the town earned from proceeds went to town improvement projects proved massively popular, too. For example, a written record from May 1445 in the town of L’Ecluse indicates that the local government was raising funds there to build walls and town fortification.

In their lottery, more than 4,300 tickets were sold to townspeople to raise money. In turn, the total prize money reached 1,737 florins—or about $170,000 in current-day currency. Not bad! Other towns in the region, including Ghent, Utrecht, and Bruges, all have historic documents indicating their lotteries may be even older than that.

As far as national lotteries go, the Netherlands led the way with that, too. It was very common for that nation to organize wide-scale lotteries to collect money for the poor. The Dutch state-owned “Staatsloterij” remains the oldest-running lottery on earth, founded in 1726. Even the English word “lottery” is a creation built on the Dutch template. The English word we know today is derived from the Dutch word “lot,” which translates to “fate.” Makes sense, doesn’t it?[6]

4 Tarot’s Rise

Before tarot cards became what we know them today, they were seen as playing cards and used in many popular forms of gambling! Of course, in the modern age, tarot cards are very commonly associated with the occult. And the people who can read and supposedly analyze them are keen on their divination abilities.

Tarot cards, as they are employed in the present day, are supposedly used to tell one’s future and what major life events may come to them in due time. Whether any of us believe in all that, well, that’s another story. But tarot is very heavily seen as a divination drive here in the digital age—and it’s been like this for a while. But that’s not how things started for tarot cards when they first became popular!

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, they were actually printed to be used in card games. Each card had a different image on it, so it was popularly used in several different card games in both France and Italy at the time. Players wagered money on each tarot card and went into a proverbial battle over the currency with whatever hand they were dealt. Think of it as an ancient “War” or something.

By the 18th century, though, that was beginning to change. With their unique faces, tarot cards slowly transitioned into something soothsayers and fortune tellers used to peer into the future. That use is what stuck, and it’s what we know them to be now. But for the first couple of centuries of their existence, they were a gaming tool![7]

3 Poker Goes West

Poker as we know it today was invented in the United States in the early 19th century. Historians aren’t entirely sure where exactly the game started or who was the first person (or, really, group of people) to set out the basic rules, but the general consensus is that it took hold in New Orleans at some point between 1810 and 1825.

From there, it spread like wildfire across the United States. It even spread back to France, thanks to New Orleans’ cultural and linguistic connections to French culture. But nowhere did it spread quite like it did west of the Mississippi, with pioneers, cowboys, frontiersmen, gold seekers, and other groups trying to strike out west for a new and brighter future.

Throughout the golden age of the American West, gambling was widespread across most of the 19th century. Saloons all over the West featured poker games and other betting opportunities for people who were already losing precious coins to copious rounds of alcohol. Pioneers and frontiersmen alike absolutely loved poker, and games got rowdy. Then, as men moved on—or moved back home in the East after failing to make it out west—they took the game with them and taught new people how to play.

Then, another breakthrough: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. With Chinese immigrants officially all but banished from the country after the passage of that act, those who remained were forced to go underground to make money and survive. For them, that meant opening up illicit poker dens and discreet gambling houses.

They made a ton of money doing that, and gambling-hungry Westerners rushed in to even further popularize the game. Over the next century, poker became a staple—and it officially landed in the infamous western casino town of Las Vegas in 1967, with the World Series of Poker starting there a couple years later.[8]

2 Slot Machines Spread

The very first mechanical slot machine was invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco at the end of the 19th century. As poker spread west with the pioneers and settlers, so did all other kinds of gambling. Fey and others wanted to capitalize on that, so he started tinkering with a slot machine that would accept coins and dole out prizes. He developed a mechanical slot machine and began to share it in 1895.

Fey’s machine was pretty simple. It had three spinning reels like most slot machines do nowadays. Each reel was painted with one symbol—diamonds, spades, or hearts—around the entire reel. Plus, there was the image of a cracked liberty bell on each reel. Appropriately, Fey called his machine “The Liberty Bell.”

However, people who came to lose money on it called it something different: “The One-Armed Bandit.” That colloquial reference to the money that disappears in slots is still used to refer to the lever-pulling contraptions in many places today.

Early slot machines like Fey’s creation were not only remarkably simple creations, but they also offered remarkably simple payouts. Many early slot machines made at the beginning of the 20th century used fruit symbols like cherries and melons to indicate winners. Those symbols are still in use today in many slots, of course.

The reason those early ones used it was for a very literal purpose. If you picked up a bunch of cherries on your reel, you would receive cherry-flavored chewing gum! So innocent and so silly, yet it is stuck in the public consciousness to such a degree that slots are now a mainstay in Las Vegas and other gambling meccas.[9]

1 Going Online

Like everything else, the gambling industry was licking its chops to get online and expand its markets in the late 20th century. One of the very first casinos to ever go online came around in 1994 when something called “The Gaming Club” was launched and marketed to the relatively small number of people who used the internet at that point.

But as the rise of the internet reached unprecedented heights over the next few years (and only kept rising from there), other casinos swarmed into the marketplace. One of the best-known and biggest early casino movers was a company called InterCasino. When they launched in 1996, they cornered a big chunk of the market of people desperately looking for reliable ways to place bets and (hopefully) win money.

The early years of online gambling were very much a true Wild West situation. We say that because everything was completely unregulated for a long time. Just like with a lot of early internet development, politicians and governments were very slow regarding regulating such a sensitive industry online. Simultaneously, several Caribbean island nations witnessed what was coming and joined the party.

In the late ’90s, Antigua and Barbuda passed the first-ever online gambling legislation ever produced by a sovereign nation. Online gambling outfits flocked to them and soon to other Caribbean countries that were early to market and lax in regulation. In a flourish, the “offshore betting” market was born.[10]

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