A Brief History of Gambling

Cards and Dice in Front of Space and Clock Background

The saying goes that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it. While there’s some truth to this, gambling is, to me, a bit of an odd duck on that front. Regardless of your knowledge of gambling, it tends to have a bit of a pull on those of us who fancy it. Though I don’t consider myself a gambling addict, I certainly think each and every time I buy a scratch off ‘I could win the top prize!’

This has rarely happened to me. When I say rarely, I mean it’s only happened once. And, as luck would have it, that one time was the first time I gambled. I hit a $1900 jackpot on a penny machine during my first gambling excursion.

Fortunately, I am still ahead of the house, even if it’s only by a small margin. The enjoyment I’ve had gambling is also a profit I haven’t considered in the count, so all told, I’m pretty far ahead.

Gambling has likely been around since the dawn of man, but as for recorded history, let’s go over the high points.

The First Evidence

Ancient China was where the first evidence of gambling was discovered. Believed to have been used circa 2300 BC, tiles were unearthed which appeared to have been used as an early type of lottery.

The Chinese ‘Book of Songs’ makes reference to ‘the drawing of wood,’ suggesting that these discovered tiles may have formed a rudimentary game of chance.

Keno’s origins are in a Chinese game called ‘baige piao,’ translating to white pigeon ticket and relating to the connection of tickets with homing pigeons.

Additionally, we have evidence of keno slips used around 200 BC as some sort of lottery to fund state efforts, possibly including the Great Wall of China.

Greeks & Romans

As we discussed, gambling likely existed far prior. The Greek poet Sophocles claimed that dice were invented by a mythological hero during the fall of Troy. This writing was around 500 BC, but dice were known to have existed in Egypt because they were discovered in a tomb from 3000 BC.

That being said, we know the Greeks and Romans loved to gamble on pretty much anything they could think to gamble on. All forms of gambling were forbidden within ancient Rome, and the penalty imposed on the unfortunate souls caught doing so was quadruple the bet placed.

Greek Statue of Women Playing Knuckles

Ingenious as they were, the Romans devised a system to avoid such fines by gambling with chips. In doing so, they could claim that the stakes were merely worthless chips as opposed to actual money.

Lotteries continued to be used for civic purposes throughout history. Harvard and Yale both saw the light of day from using lottery funds, and continue to do so today.

Play It Forward

Most scholars agree that the first playing cards existed in China in the 9th century AD. Some think the cards were both the game and the prize, much like trading card games still played by children today, and others think the cards were likely the first paper form of Chinese dominoes.

Around the 6th century, Koreans used cards of paper and silk, which they called ‘silk arrows,’ in games with about as much in common with tarot cards as with poker and blackjack. Many believe these would later inspire early Chinese paper money.

The earliest game still played in casinos today is the two player card game of Baccarat, a version of which saw its first mention around the 1400s, migrating from Italy and France.

If you saw this game today, it would hardly be recognized, as it has evolved drastically to arrive at the version we know and love today.

The standard version played at casinos today came from Cuba via Britain to the United States. Though it’s more or less a spectator sport than a game, it’s featured in almost every casino because of its popularity with the big spenders.

Flack the Blackjack, Mac

The French game of vingt-et-un (translated to 21) from the 17th century is most certainly a forefather of modern blackjack, arriving in the US with early French settlers. In this early format, only the dealer was allowed to double.

Once it arrived in the states, there were some different variants. For example, the dealer’s second card was sometimes visible, and some early games allowed the dealer to make their own decisions instead of requiring the dealer to stand on 17.

The name we know today was an American innovation linked to casino promotions in Nevada in the 1930s. To attract more customers, 10 to 1 odds were paid out if the customer won with a jack of clubs or spades together with the ace of spades. These odds didn’t last long, as they obviously weren’t very profitable.

Gaming Room

The earliest gambling houses remotely resembling casinos started appearing in the 17th century in Italy. In 1638 the Ridotto (the private room) was established in Venice to provide a more organized gambling environment in the chaos of annual carnival season. It was known to offer biribi and basetta.

Biribi was a lottery-style game in which a player places bets on 1 of 70 possible outcomes. Then a casino employee, or ‘banker,’ would draw a number from a bag, and anyone betting on that number would win the game’s pot. It featured a built in vigorish in which a player only collected 64 times his original bet. With a 1.43% chance of winning, this meant the house enjoyed a supple 9% vig.

The most popular game there was basetta, which was a cross between blackjack, poker, and gin rummy. It offered winning players 60 times their wager on payout and was later replaced by faro, which gained massive popularity in the US.

A Depressed Country Finds Casino Delight

The original settlers of the United States outright banned gambling. Much like alcohol prohibition, this was very difficult to enforce, and the stock market crash of the late 1920s gave way to legalization of both.

The first casino to be built on Highway 91’s then desolate stretch now known as Las Vegas Boulevard was the Pair-o-Dice Club in 1931, but the first resort on what is currently the strip was El Rancho Vegas, opening on April 3, 1941 with 63 rooms. It stood almost 20 years before being destroyed by a fire in 1960.

Old Vegas Flamingo Postcard

Because of the success of the first casinos, organized crime figures like Bugsy Siegel became very interested, leading to other resorts like the Flamingo and Desert Inn, opening in 1946 and 1950, respectively.

In recent years, we’ve seen the opening of resorts such as the Bellagio, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, and Encore. This saw the strip trending towards the luxurious high-end segment throughout most of the 2000s. Some older resorts remained, adding major renovations and expansions. High end dining, specialty retail, spas, nightclubs, and even residential condo units now make up what we know as the strip.

Age of the Web

In the mid 1990s Microgaming began development on what would later become online gambling software. Today, they supply gaming content to hundreds of online gambling brands worldwide, including 32Red, Bet365, 888 Casino, and LeoVegas.

The standard online casino powered by Microgaming has over 600 games like roulette, blackjack, video poker, and countless slots. These slots are interconnected to offer progressive jackpots across networks of interlinked casino operators.

Though gambling isn’t legal in all states at this moment in our history, online gambling exists in a gray area in the US.

Though many international internet casinos can’t accept American customers, there are signs this may change in the future.

New Jersey legalized online gambling in 2011, and there’s a boom in interest. There have been moves to legalize gambling state by state, and there’s a rise in mobile gambling. As we transition from our desk and laptops to our handheld devices, online gamblers are doing the same.

As our phones and tablets are becoming more and more advanced, so is our ability to throw our money into a void in the hopes of hitting the next big jackpot.


We don’t know what is to come in the way of future gaming. Like the oldest profession, gambling is not going anywhere, whether its legal status remains the same, expands, or becomes a strictly black market venture.

Even from this brief history, you can see gambling has come a long way. It will only be a short time before we see virtual reality applications that allow us to walk into a casino without having to worry about smoking sections or waiting for wait staff to serve our drinks without watered-down, bottom-shelf swill.

What do you think is the next innovation for gambling? Please comment below and let me know what you think. Good luck sharks and whales!