There have been archaeological findings of objects, which date back 40,000 years, whose purpose is presumed to have been an ancient form of dice. They were made of sheep or dog ankle bone and were called “astragali”. Objects used in gambling games have been discovered in Egypt, dating back 3500 BC. Drawings show how Egyptians threw “ashik” – a talus from a lamb’s or goat’s leg. The Chinese played a game of luck with a tile around 2300 BC. In Ancient India all castes were attracted to gambling. In an old Indian legend, the world was portrayed as a game of dice between Shiva and his wife.
The oldest gambling game, which is still played today, is dice throwing. According to Sophocles, it was invented by the Greek Palamedes during the siege of Troy. Herodotus has said that dice were used by priests and sorcerers for the purposes of divination. In antiquity, Greeks considered dice as a symbol of aesthetics and that is why they produced dice from bronze, onyx, alabaster, cow horn, marble or ivory.
In Ancient Rome, Claudius adapted the structure of his carriage so that there would be room to throw dice. Caligula even allowed himself to confiscate his knights’ property to cover his debts. According to the Bible, the roman soldiers gambled over Christ’s clothes after His Crucifixion.
Native Americans believed that games of luck were created by the Gods. They thought that the sides of flat rocks, painted in white or black could foretell the fertility of the harvests and the fates of seriously ill tribe members.
Bets, along with money, property, and slaves, had quite an exotic and strange character. Italian gondoliers bet years of their life. Indians paid their debts by cutting off their fingers or sacrificed their lives in the name of the Gods. In China they even bet their ears.
Dice were dethroned by another game – roulette. Its existence has been known from as early as the French royal court or from the English game of roly-poly, however, it conquered the world later on. Initially, casinos in Europe were utilized as music and dancing venues. However, the bourgeoisie needed places for entertainment. In order to spend their money, the newly rich installed shiny gambling machines in the venues, where they had fun. The famous casino in Monte Carlo was founded in 1861.
In the USA, George Washington bought the first ticket for the federal lottery, which began in 1793. Its aim was to financially sponsor the development of the new country. By 1830, there were already more than 420 types of lottery in the USA. To save themselves from the Great Depression, in 1931 the citizens of Nevada gained the right to obtain a permit allowing legal gambling activity in Las Vegas.
Roulette is a gambling game, whose name originates from the French word “roulette”, meaning “small wheel”. Players can choose to bet on numbers, a series of numbers, the colors red or black, or odd and even. / picture /
Famous roulette winnings
Joseph Jaggers (1873) – an English engineer, who began with small bets on a Monte Carlo roulette and won between 150,000 and 300,000 francs during the first day. After three days his total winnings were 1.5 million francs. His system forced the croupiers to start spinning the wheel in the other direction.
Charles Wells (1891) – during a three-day win streak in Casino De Monte Carlo, he won 1 million francs and temporarily closed several roulette tables, by clearing out their “bank”. He immediately became an international celebrity and received eternal glory in the song “The Man That Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo”. He returned for a second win streak at roulette. In January 1892 he returned for a third time on an 88-metre yacht and lost an enormous amount of money, including some of the sums, received from the people that believed they were investing in a device that burns coal more efficiently. Later on, in Great Britain, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for fraud.
Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo (1989) – the Spanish mathematician studied the roulette wheels in Casino Gran Madrid, looking for their flaws and coming up with the system that became to be known as The Garcia-Pelayo System. After he was forbidden access to the casinos, he pressed charges and won. The Spanish Supreme Court defined his methods as “correct” and “open”.
Chris Boyd (1994) – English computer programmer that sold his house for £147,000 and went to play in Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas. He bet everything on red, doubled his money and returned to his girlfriend in High Wycombe, without her suspecting a thing.
Ashley Revell (2004) – attempting to repeat Boyd’s success, the Englishman sold his house, flew to The Plaza in Las Vegas and bet £76,500 on red. The wheel stopped on seven red – the same number that Boyd hit, and he, too, doubled his money. After that he returned to Kent to go on with his life.
Deal with the Devil
The most successful casino of the 19th century is François Blanc’s Casino de Monte Carlo. He brought his invention to Monte Carlo, which he had developed together with his brother in Bad Homburg, which is a roulette with only one zero. Blanc became famous as “The Magician of Monte Carlo” and legend has it that he made a deal with the Devil to win his casino’s success through roulette. “Proof” of this myth is that when all numbers of the roulette are calculated, the result is 666.
- 2. History of Blackjack
Bets on card games are supposed to have begun around the year 1440 in Germany, after Johannes Gutenberg printed the first card deck. Although it is quite vague, Blackjack is considered to originate from many of the first card games created during the time.
Despite the issue still being discussed, the game of Blackjack most likely originated from the French casinos around the year 1700, where it was called “vingt-et-un” (“Twenty-one”). The origin of this game in the USA can be traced after 1800. The name Blackjack is given to the game because if the player had the Jack and Ace of Spades as his first two cards, he received an additional reward.
Gambling and casinos were made illegal in the western states between 1850 and 1910. During that period Nevada incriminated the operating of gambling games, but in the early 40s through a re-legalization, Nevada allowed gambling and casino games. Currently, Blackjack is one of the main games that are offered to players.
The first documented attempts to apply mathematics to the game of Blackjack date back to 1953, culminating in 1956 with the publication of a book – Roger Baldwin published an article named “The Optimum Strategy in Blackjack” in the American Statistical Association’s journal. These pioneers used calculators, probability and statistics to reduce the dealer’s advantage to a minimum. Despite the name of the document being “optimal strategy, it was actually not a perfect strategy, because they actually needed a computer to refine their system.
Professor Edward Thorp continued what Baldwin and others had started. In 1962, Thorp perfected their basic strategy and created the first card counting techniques. He published his results in “Beat the Dealer”, a book which became so popular that for a week in 1963 it was in the New York Times best seller’s list. The book also scared the casinos to death.
Casinos were affected by “Beat the Dealer” to such a degree that they began changing the rules to make winning more difficult. This did not last long because people protested, refusing to play the new pseudo-Blackjack. The unfavorable rules actually generated losses for the casinos. Of course, not making money is a sin for casinos, so they promptly reverted to the original rules. Since Thorp’s “Ten-Count” method is not easy to master, on top of many people not understanding it, casinos made a hit with the newly gained popularity of the game, owing to Thorp’s book and media attention. Blackjack was table game number 1 in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Julian Brown, an employee of IBM, is another person who has contributed quite a bit to the history of Blackjack. Thousands of lines of computer code, written by him and hours of Blackjack simulations on the IBM mainframe machines were the basis of “The Basic Strategy” and several card counting systems. His conclusions were used in the second edition of the “Beat the Dealer” and later on in the book “Playing Blackjack as a Business” (1977).
In 1977, Ken Uston used 5 computers which were embedded in the shoes of members of his team. They won over $100,000 in a very short period, but one of the computers was confiscated and sent to the FBI. The Agents deemed that the computer was using public information for a Blackjack game and was not a fraudulent device. Maybe you have watched the story in the movie made on his Blackjack breakthrough, described in his book “The Big Player”. What is more, Ken led a legal battle to prevent the ban on “card counters” from Atlantic City casinos.
- 3. Famous figures and gambling over the centuries
Players in the casino: Early years
The Emperors of the Roman Empire – Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) partook in public betting during the Saturnalia festival and said the famous phrase Alea Iacta Est (The Die is Cast) during the crossing of the Rubicon river. Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) loved playing alea (an early version of backgammon) and often organized raffles with gifts for the guests of his banquets. Claudius (10 BC – 54 AD) ordered a special table for dice throwing so that he could play while his carriage was moving on uneven roads. He was such a keen player that often, while engrossed by the game, he would forget that he had already executed specific players and he would call for them to play with him again. Caligula (12 – 41 AD) often bet on carriage races and dice games, he turned his palace into a gambling house to fill the imperial treasury. He even played dice at his sister’s funeral. Nero (37 – 68 AD) adored all sports and games, as well as betting on them, he constantly popularized gambling and often bet large sums on dice.
Casino players: 15 – 18 Century
Lorenzo de' Medici (1449 – 1492) was a famous Renaissance figure – Florentine statesman and politician, famous patron of the arts and sponsor of famous painters. He was quite passionate about card games and was quite famous as a very skillful card player. He even invented some card games. He often mentioned the casino games la bassetta and il frusso in his poetry. He became infamous as a skilled card player.
Casino players: 18 – 19 Century
William Penn (1644 – 1718) was a Quaker and founder of the Pennsylvania colony and province in North America, which later transformed into the Pennsylvania State. One of the hypotheses is that his rights on the territory were received as to fulfill an unpaid gambling debt of £16,000, which was owed to Sir William Penn – Penn’s father.
Voltaire (1694 – 1778) – famous French Age of Enlightenment writer and Philosopher, he was also a passionate gambler. When the French Government established a lottery, in which only those who had bought certain securities could partake, he invented a scheme, with which he could abuse the participation rules by buying securities that allowed for maximum participation. He and his investors won a large share of the prizes in the lottery during the period. The Government tried to not pay the winnings, but Voltaire also won the lawsuit in court. He often played Faro (card game) and Biribi (a game, similar to roulette, in which numbers are drawn from a bag).
Giacomo Casanova (1725 – 1798), the famous Venetian adventurer, lover and writer of memoirs regularly gambled and would prefer Faro. Once he lost as much as 5,000 gold coins over two days in Venice. Casanova was an infamous womanizer, who often seduced rich ladies that covered his gambling debts. He often mentioned gambling games in his memoirs, which include detailed descriptions of his visits to Il Ridotto – one of the wings of the San Moisè palace.
Casino Players: 19 – 20 Century
The President of the USA Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826) regularly gambled in the period he wrote the Declaration of Independence of the USA. He also kept a ledger of his winnings and losses in various games, such as backgammon, lotteries, coin toss, and card games.
English writer Jane Austen (1775 – 1817) often used card games as a method of revealing the characters of the people in her novels. Lottery tickets, quadrille, 21, whist and piquet are mentioned in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.
Napoléon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821) kept in high regard all games that required skill, thought and strategy – all things he skillfully used on the battlefield. He supported casinos in France and assisted in promoting the game 21. His nephew, Lucien, became a successful gambler.
Russian novelists and poets – Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) spent his young years drinking and gambling, thus accumulating debts so large that he had to mortgage his wife’s serfs for a second time. The topic of gambling is indiscriminately intertwined in the plot of his work The Queen of Spades.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) was also an incorrigible gambler. He wrote The Gambler to fulfill the contract with his publisher, after he spent his advance payment for it in gambling houses and because he had deadlines, he based the plot on his personal tribulations in the casinos of Wiesbaden and Baden-Baden.
Casino Players: 20 – 21 Century
Leo Tolstoy (1828 – 1910) voluntarily enrolled in the army to escape gambling debts to his publisher, accumulated from billiards. As a result, he submitted the manuscript of The Cossacks to cover his obligation.
Ivan Turgenev (1818 – 1883) writer of the novel Smoke, in which he describes life and the casinos in Baden-Baden. Ironically, Turgenev had to subsequently rescue Tolstoy and Dostoevsky several times from unsuccessful casino visits.
Presidential poker – USA President Warren G. Harding (1865 – 1923) played poker twice a week with Cabinet members during his mandate, with games being quite competitive. There have been rumors that he even lost part of the White House’s porcelain sets in card games. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882 – 1945) preferred stud poker with low bets and often hosted poker games during the last nights of Congress Sessions; the winner was announced at the closing of the sessions. President Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972) had the reputation of an excellent five card stud, he organized poker marathons with the press during Second World War, including while making the decision of dropping the Nuclear Bombs over Japan. He also played poker with Winston Churchill, approximately around the time of the Iron Curtain speech. President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) learned to play bridge and poker in West Point. There are rumors that he used his poker winnings to seduce his future wife Mamie. President Richard Nixon (1913 – 1994) learned to play poker while he was serving in the United States Navy. He was considered to be an excellent player and he used the winnings to finance his first campaign for the House of Representatives.