While the origins of gambling have been lost to time, we can be certain that, from carvings on bones and sticks to the invention of paper and the advent of playing cards to our modern digital world, gambling has been around since humans first began gathering in groups. Whether to forecast the future or to gain an advantage or extra portion of mammoth steak at dinner, humans have used games of chance for fun or profit for millennia.
CasinoPlay.com takes us on a quick trip down the history of gambling timeline to show how our understanding of gambling, our innovations from sticks to gambling machines, and our love of games of chance have shaped the world of gambling from Mesopotamia’s games of chance and prophecy to the games of the Middle Ages to gambling in the modern world.
Note: we are using BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). These dates are modern signifiers for BC and AD and relate to the same time frames.
Early evidence of bones marked with symbols (called astragali) was found in Mesopotamian archaeological digs that date back to approximately 3000 BCE and seems to show that these ancient peoples used these early games of chance to predict what the gods had in store for them.
Around the same time, games like senet and HUBEM-how were being developed in ancient Egypt, The Royal Game of Ur was popular in Sumeria (modern-day Iraq), and variations of the game mancala could be played across Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia.
One thing that has always been around since the origins of gambling is the origins of gambling laws. An Egyptian papyrus dating back to 3000 BCE features laws made to stop the spread of gambling across the region.
The origins of gambling are unknown. What we do know is that early humans used stone, bones and sticks to ‘cast’ divinations and predictions for their cultures. They believed that the gods would influence how the objects fell and give their followers signs that would help them with their lives and their fortunes.
While these early forms of chance were used more as predictions, we do have evidence that points to China in around 2300 BCE being the very first place dedicated tiles were used to engage in games of chance. These tiles appear to have been used for a type of lottery game and were an early form of a game called baige piao or pai-ko p’iao (white pigeon ticket would be a rough translation), which eventually became Keno – a game you can still play in casinos today.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were famous for their love of dice games. Sophocles, a Greek poet, mentions dice games in 500 BCE. The city of ancient Rome outlawed gambling within the city limits which led to the invention of the first known gambling chips so players caught could claim to be playing for ‘fun’ rather than money.
The beginning of card games would have to be attributed to the inventors of papermaking themselves, the Chinese. While the origins of paper are debated (common history has Cai Lun perfecting the technique around 105 CE) what is known is that the Chinese invented a proto-card game around 800 CE.
Europeans began devising their own card games in the Middle Ages. Baccarat was first played in Italy in the 1400s and soon moved to France and then across the medieval world. While it is the earliest known card game still being played today, it has undergone many transformations and changes since those first days. The modern game we play today is a version that came from Cuba via Britain to the United States.
The deck of cards that we know and love today was actually introduced in 1500s. The Worshipful Company of Makers of Playing Cards was incorporated by Royal Decree of King Charles I in 1628 and is still in existence today.
Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, wrote about a Spanish game called ventiuna in 1601. Ventiuna translates to 21 and this seems to be the earliest mention of the game we call blackjack today. Ventiuna eventually evolved into the French game of vingt-et-un (20 and 1) and from there travelled to England and then eventually the United States. It was in the US that a promotion was held in Nevada in the 1930s where players were given 10-to-odds on the chance of playing a black Jack of Clubs or Spades with an Ace of Spades. This promo was called ‘blackjack’ and led to the name of the most popular casino card game of all time.
With gambling rising in popularity across Europe, formal gambling houses became all the rage. While the upper classes ‘engaged in refined entertainment’ in ‘gambling salons’, the poorer citizens were left to ‘engage in sin and vice’ in ‘gambling dens’. This obvious hypocrisy led to the establishment of the first recognised casino – the Ridotto in Venice in 1638.
Casinos soon started opening all over Europe while less formal gambling houses were becoming popular in America, most famously the riverboat saloons of the Mississippi River.
Nowadays, casinos are massive multi-entertainment venues that are destinations in their own right and even the major attractions for cities and areas like Monte Carlo, Las Vegas and Macao.
The gaming houses of Paris upped the casino game in 1796 with an innovation that is a staple of casinos – online and land-based – to this very day: the ‘Little Wheel’ or roulette. While the original version featured double zeros (called American Roulette today), the casinos of Monte Carlo preferred a single zero system that then went on to become known as European Roulette.
While the actual origins of poker are disputed, there is evidence of an Englishman named Joseph Cromwell describing the game being played in New Orleans in 1829. Poker was a relatively unknow game until the 1970s when Las Vegas began hosting poker tournaments with lucrative pots being taken by the winners. When these tournaments began being televised, and then being offered online, the popularity of this now famous casino game exploded.
1891 was probably the most significant year for the gambling industry in history. This was the year that Sittman and Pitt introduced the world’s first slot machine to the world in New York. This was quickly followed by the Liberty Bell machine invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco and the slots craze was born. Today, slot machines and games are the biggest earners for casinos around the world and around the internet.
For over 100 years, the gambling world remained static. There were various happenings around the world related to the legalising of gambling and the laws around gambling, the founding of cities like Las Vegas and the growing popularity of casinos, but nothing that fundamentally changed or challenged the established order.
And then, in 1994, a bunch of forward-thinking people and companies saw the potential for the gambling world that the internet offered – and online casinos and online gambling was born.
From early pioneers like Microgaming to new innovators like Playtech and their online live dealer games, online casinos and online gambling has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry that puts players in front of their favourite games from anywhere around the world.
So, where are we today? The latest innovations in gambling and technology have taken us from casinos to the virtual world and now to wherever we happen to be. Mobile gaming is the biggest disruptor to the gambling (or gaming as it is more commonly being referred to) industry. With access to lightning fast wi-fi, incredible processing power in handheld and mobile devices, and the ability to hop onto a game from anywhere you can get a connection, mobile gaming is seeing a massive surge in the popularity of gambling.
As to what the future holds? VR, AR, AI, IoT, these are all future-focussed technologies that can only make our gaming lives even better.