The idea of a gambling house is quite ancient. Although most modern gambling guides say the first casino was opened in Venice in the 1600s, that’s not entirely accurate. Archaeologists and historians have found evidence of gambling establishments across Europe going back for thousands of years.
Many people believe casinos are a relatively modern invention, but there is no simple explanation for this common misunderstanding. It could be because people assume casinos began when the word “casino” was first used to describe such an establishment, but there are problems with such an assumption.
The literal meaning of the word casino is “small house.” But that isn’t even the first modern word associated with the reputed “first” casino opened in Italy. The earliest government-sanctioned casino was named Il Ridotto di San Moisè.
However, ridotto simply means “private room” and Il Ridotto was a private room in the Palazzo Dandolo in Venice. The palace, originally built by the Dandolo family, had passed to the joint ownership of the Mocenigo and Bernardo families, who shared it between them.
The palace was divided into three sections during the 1500s, one for each of the families and one for social gatherings and parties. At the time, the word ridotto was used to describe the foyers of theaters, as well as the illegal gambling clubs that provided entertainment for the city’s aristocratic families.
The various ridotti were originally established in response to the city council’s attempt to stop gambling in the streets. When city leaders realized they could not stop their friends and families from gambling, they decided to open a legal establishment of their own. Il Ridotto was officially declared open to the public during Venice’s annual Spring Carnival in 1638.
What Is a Casino?
Since gambling was already widespread throughout Europe by 1638, one can only speculate how a normal Italian word like casino came to be used of the various establishments where gaming occurred.
My guess is that the word was probably already well-worn on its path to gambling glory before the 1600s. In modern Italian, casino may refer to a brothel, so the word seems to have had a very broad and flexible use over time. Any reference to a “small house” might imply a place where gambling or prostitution occurred, or perhaps other clandestine activities.
The Roman Empire outlawed gambling and so, naturally, gamblers found ways to get around the law. The most famous Roman gambling house was discovered in Italy in the late 1800s. It featured a carved stone sign promising a variety of meats and “open tables” for members of the Praetorian Guard. Archaeologists and historians quickly recognized the double entendre in the sign’s message.
So, the Italian tradition of referring to gambling houses by conventional names is at least 2,000 years old. The Praetorians ate well at their favorite tavern and just happened to gamble there quite often. That’s probably why the definition for casino has remained so simple. If a place is used for gambling, it’s a casino.
Travelers mention roadside taverns and private houses scattered across France, Switzerland, and Germany throughout the Renaissance in their letters and journals. These buildings were apparently used specifically for gambling and provided food and drink so people would stay for as long as possible.
Gambling Houses Were Common in the Middle Ages
Most early gambling establishments were probably taverns. In central Asia, gambling and prostitution were two common forms of entertainment at the caravanserais, the remote travel stops that served as trading posts and safe havens for caravans and lone travelers.
Caravanserais spread across Asia and the Middle East. Crusaders learned about them and returned to Europe with the idea of a special traveler’s house in mind. It may be that roadside inns and taverns only became widespread during this time.
By 1541, King Henry VIII of England had enough of public gaming houses. He had Parliament pass a law that forbade their use for profit. At that point, games of chance had spread from throwing dice to include card games and backgammon, which also had ancient gambling roots.
Henry VIII was an addicted gambler himself. Like many monarchs, he threw money away on dice games, card games, and other popular gambling pastimes of the day. He apparently only tried to outlaw gambling because he felt it distracted his soldiers.
The noble families of Europe didn’t always gamble in the streets, though. They were expected to remain indoors in their castles and palaces where it was safe for long periods of time. Medieval poets and writers celebrated the many games that lords and ladies played among themselves, including chess, backgammon, and cards.
Chess games had a reputation for being especially violent. While there isn’t any mention of gambling associated with chess, the good gentlemen of the upper houses occasionally came to fists and acts of vengeance over chess games. The violent practice even inspired a few plays and chansons.
The rest of their time was spent celebrating masses and festivals or city around the bathhouses and taverns entertaining themselves. Bathhouses were famous for more than just bathing. Taverns became the social centers for many villages.
And that’s probably why travelers wandering across Europe gravitated toward taverns for their entertainment. They would have felt right at home.
Medieval and Renaissance Europe had few great roads. If the Romans had not built a highway through a province or small kingdom, people got by with local dirt paths. To get from Paris to Rome was probably relatively easy. But to travel from Brittany to Hungary meant taking many small roads and hiring a lot of local guides along the way.
Travelers spent a lot of time visiting random inns and taverns. They entertained each other on the road by telling stories, as we learn from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. But at night, they needed to eat, drink, and be merry.
Even Chaucer speaks of the evils of gambling, so it was quite popular in his day.
Modern Casinos Introduced Luxury to Gambling
What began in Venice in 1638 was not sanctioned gambling but luxurious gambling. From that time forward, the nobles of Europe could look forward to and expect to play their games of chance in comfortable, safe surroundings.
Venice changed the “dicey-ness” of playing dice, so to speak. And no doubt, the city coffers received generous contributions from rents or other fees.
The palazzos that were converted to gambling houses were still called pallazi for another 100 years or so. But eventually, as specially-built gambling houses were built, the word casino became a popular designation for places to go.
The common people continued to throw dice in the streets or at local taverns, because the casinos had strict dress codes and the games were usually played for high stakes.
Over the centuries, the casinos in other countries refined their architecture and gaming rules. They hired skilled cooks, employed servants to tend to the needs of their clients, and located themselves in or close to wealthy neighborhoods.
It is said that treaties and marriages were arranged in Europe’s casinos, as well as trade deals and the settlement of estates. Vast sums of wealth changed hands on a daily basis.
And eventually, casinos became less the assets of governments and more legitimate business enterprises. The most successful private casino owner in history was probably William Crockford, who rose from the lowly trade of fishmonger to wealthiest man in Great Britain in the 1800s.
Crockford revolutionized British gambling by building a more luxurious gambling house than those where he worked and learned about gambling after leaving the fish markets behind. He also introduced honest gaming to the elites of Great Britain, realizing the house only needed to keep a small percentage of wagers to be profitable.
Crockford is said to have bankrupted many of the wealthiest of Britain’s great families through unscrupulous honesty and opulence.
Gambling Took a Detour in North America
The United States’ westward expansion created opportunities in many professions. Gambling in the United States quickly followed the settlers west, first on steam-powered riverboats where gambling rings cheated travelers of large sums of money and then in saloons.
Western saloons provided food, entertainment, and gambling for their patrons. In many towns, the food was free. But there are so many stories of feuds and gunfights surrounding these establishments that we can’t say they were safe environments.
It was, ironically, the mafia who created the first upscale casinos for the American public where people could gamble openly and in relative safety. While the mobsters had no problem with contracting hits on each other, civilians were strictly off-limits.
The mob even competed with the federal government for creating jobs and entertainment legends in Las Vegas after the Boulder Dam project began in the 1930s. By the 1940s, the mobsters realized that casinos needed an upgrade.
They began financing the construction of big, comfortable hotels and offering gourmet buffet food to attract gamblers from across the country.
Meanwhile, modern casinos were evolving elsewhere in the world, too. Portugal’s Casino Estoril was favored by spies and diplomats for its elegance and high-class games. It is said to have inspired Ian Fleming to write stories about an upper-class British spy.
The Portuguese government in Macau also created a gambling haven where baccarat became popular. Wherever big gambling money flowed, the casinos became larger, more attractive, and provided more amenities.
Howard Hughes began buying properties from the mob in the 1960s, leading other corporate investors to start pouring money into Las Vegas and Atlantic City. And as Native American tribes won court case after court case, allowing them to establish gambling businesses, Americans began flocking to local venues by the millions.
By the 1980s, Steve Wynn realized the next big thing for casinos was to make them family-friendly. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars from Wall Street investors and built the Mirage, the world’s first mega-resort and casino.
Now, everyone could stay in comfortable, safe hotels and the kids would have plenty to do by the pool or at local attractions. Mom and dad could take turns spinning away family fortunes on slot machines in ever larger gambling rooms.
The casinos brought in major entertainers, commissioned their own trademarked shows, and innovated gaming and reservation technology.
It’s impossible to do justice to the topic on a short page. I thought it was important to set the record straight on the history of casinos and gambling. They’ve been around longer than most people realize. They were known by different names 1,000 years ago.
The business of gambling has changed since the first gambling house was built. What hasn’t changed much is the public’s interest in gambling. It’s a vice that refuses to be put down.
And inevitably, every effort to suppress gambling has led to an evolutionary step forward in the art and architecture of the industry. It seems doubtful that any modern government would try to suppress it again, but if that happens, I doubt people will stop finding ways around the law.