Humans have been playing games of chance since recorded history. Many of the gambling practices we have today have their origins in the annals of history and even prehistory. A lot of the items we use in gambling, such as dice and playing cards, started off with different purposes. In fact, most of the games we play today began with different names and different rules.
This is a list of gambling firsts. Precursors to modern games include the early games of pakapoo and trente-un. Their modern versions are known as keno and blackjack. Dice, for instance, were originally made of animal bone and used to foretell the future. The origins of playing cards are more contentious, while the first casino still survives to this day.
Here are seven origins of the modern gambling world.
1 – Astragalomancy (Dice)
Dice has been used in gambling since the beginning of recorded history. Like most items in our modern world, the origin of dice may be unrecognizable to most today. Scholars believe that dice started as a form of divination called “astragalomancy” or “astragyromancy.”
These “astragali” were originally knucklebones or other small bones of animals used to divine the future. The bones were either rolled like modern dice or picked at random from a bag then interpreted by the caster. The earliest discovered astragali date back over 8,000 years and have been found in archaeological sites all over the ancient world.
Although bones were the most common material, astragali have been found fashioned from fruit pits, seashells, and pebbles. Over the centuries, numbers, letters, and symbols were added to the pieces. Specifically, dots representing numbers called “pips” were introduced to dice in ancient Mesopotamia, creating the version of dice we recognize today.
Because of the shape of knucklebones, astragali originally had two rounded sides and four flat sides. This evolved into, pyramid-shaped dice, cubed shaped dice, and eventually, many-sided dice like the famous Dungeons and Dragons D20 with 20 sides. Dice evolution hasn’t stopped there; modern incarnations include asymmetrical polyhedrons with as many 100 sides, barrel dice (cylindrical with flat surfaces), and dice with sides featuring everything from modern letters to astrological signs.
2 – Il Ridotto (First Casino)
Although gambling houses have existed since recorded history, Il Ridotto has the distinction of being the first mercantile Western casino. Its creation came from the Venetian government’s attempt to crack down on illegal gambling clubs. Il Ridotto, meaning the “The Private Room,” was created and opened to the public in 1638. The casino was located in a wing of Venice’s Palazzo Dandolo which still exists today as the palatial five-star Hotel Danieli.
Il Ridotto was a creation of the Great Council of Venice, making it not only the first modern casino but also the first government-owned gambling house in Europe. Gambling in the street was common in Venice at the time, so the Ridotto was created to regulate the gambling habits of its more well-to-do citizens.
The two most popular games at Il Ridotto were biribi and basetta. Biribi played like a modern lottery, where players would choose numbers and win on a matching draw. Basetta was played similar to many modern card games and later became the game of faro.
The casino bankers would take a cut of player’s bets known as vigorish in gambling terms, generating revenue for Il Ridotto. The casino closed its doors in 1774 at the behest of local lawmakers.
3 – Pai Gow (Dominoes)
Pai gow is an ancient Chinese game originating in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It’s played with numbered tiles traditionally made of bone or ivory. And it’s believed that these tiles were brought back from China by Italian missionaries where it was adapted into the domino sets we recognize today.
A pai gow domino set has 32 dominoes as opposed to the Western 28 domino set. They are black with white and red pips. Each tile is divided into a set of pips ranging in number from 1 to 6. Pai gow tiles have two suits, military and civil. It was originally a military-themed game. Each civil tile has a ranking based on its Chinese name while each military tile gets its values from the pips.
Chinese dominoes have different names depending on the region they’re found in with one common name in Cantonese being “gwat pai,” meaning “bone tiles.” The oldest set of pai gow tiles dates back to the 12th century. Like modern Western dominoes, Chinese dominoes can be used to play a variety of games including pai gow, tien gow, and gǔpái (literally bone tiles).
4 – As-Nas (poker)
As-nas was a 17th card game originating in Persia and played throughout the region. It is widely regarded as the precursor to poker, although there are contentions. Some scholars argue that the game of as-nas is contemporaneous with poker’s popularity in early 1800s America. This suggests that the games might have developed independently.
The as-nas deck consists of either 20 or 25 cards depending on the deck used. Unlike modern playing cards, as-nas cards have only four or five designs. For example, a deck of 25 would have five aces and five each of the five court cards. Court cards usually consist of kings, ladies, soldiers, and entertainers in descending value. Aces generally depict lions and other animals engaging in battle or with celestial bodies.
Aside from the word “as” used to refer to the highest card (ace), as-nas is most similar to modern poker in its gameplay. Each player gets five cards and is given the chance to fold, bet, and raise. Three like cards and a pair is the highest hand. The game does not allow flushes or sequences because there are no numbers or suits.
In as-nas, only one hand is dealt and players have the options to bluff referred to as “fire off a gun” or tûp zadan. After each player bets or folds, the cards are flipped and the winner takes the pot. When two players have the same hand, the other cards break the tie. 20=card as-nas can be played with a standard deck by removing all numbered cards except for 10.
5 – Aleatory Contracts (Gambling and Investment)
An aleatory contract is a term used for an uncertain event that determines an obligation. Why does this make the list? That’s because any form of gambling is considered an aleatory contract. In the case of gambling, the outcome of an uncertain event (a game or race) determines the obligation (payout) for the recipient.
An aleatory contract is an agreement between two parties based on uncertain outcomes. One party pays, one party receives. Features of investment that can be considered aleatory contracts include options and derivatives. This gives a new meaning to the phrase “gambling on the stock market.”
6 – Pakapoo (Keno)
The origins of the modern game of keno is an ancient Chinese game called “pakapoo” by Westerners and “baige piao” by Chinese. The legend surrounding the game and its relevance to Chinese history revolves around a lottery that the Han Dynasty held in the 2nd century B.C. to raise military funds. The name baige piao means “white pigeon ticket,” referring to the practice of sending the lottery results to rural regions via carrier pigeon.
The game originally used 80 characters found in the Chinese text, Thousand Character Classic. Each player has a sheet with all the characters and marks a designated number of them. These sheets are compared to the dealer’s master sheet, and the player whose sheet most closely matches the dealer’s sheet wins. Modern games allow players to choose up to 20 numbers with payouts depending on the amount of numbers matched.
The game of pakapoo was brought by Chinese immigrants to the US during the 19th century and eventually became the game of keno. The first known use of the word keno to describe the game was found in Houston in 1866.
7 – Trente-Un and Vingt-Un (Blackjack)
The modern game of Blackjack evolved from the games trente-un and vingt-un. In the French game of trente-un (meaning 31), players try to assemble hands totaling 31. This is believed to have been reduced to 21 (vingt-un) over time to increase the pace of the game.
The first reference to French 31 was in 1464. French Vingt-un spread throughout Europe and to the Americas in the 1800s.
Vingt-un was played with an original French playing card deck which differs from a standard 52-card deck. Original French decks contained 32 cards with ones representing aces and the numbers two through six removed. They are still sold today and share the suits of modern playing cards.
The origins of modern gambling are rich with interesting facts and folklore. There is often an earlier version of games played with different rules, under different names.
In the modern world, we see casinos and home players creating variants that could be the new standard for future generations. Gambling terminology has also evolved over the centuries to include new meanings for old words.
This list of gambling firsts is by no means complete. Like many other human activities, gambling is ancient. Games have been lost to history; numerous fortunes have been won and lost.
The next time you engage in an aleatory contract, have fun knowing you’re engaging in one of the oldest forms of human entertainment: the activity of gambling.