The History of Gambling - From Bones to Phones

Gambling History Until Today

Learn how the golden thread of gambling is woven into the rich tapestry of human history.

Dating back as far as 2300 BCE

Evidence abounds that gambling origins stretch back to time immemorial. Chinese tiles were likely the distant ancestors of Pai Gow dominoes. The origin of Keno is seen in a game at least a couple millennia old called "white pigeon ticket", based on drawing square cards numbered from 1 to 80.

Dice of diverse materials and shapes have been recovered from ancient Egyptian, Roman, and Grecian digs. Old cave wall pictures depict early games, and dice-like objects as old as 40,000 years have been found.

There are plenty of references to gambling in ancient literature. Descriptions of games for stakes can be found in Homer, Buddhist texts, and the Jewish Talmud.

Gambling also makes an important appearance in Greek mythology. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades threw dice to divvy up the universe. Indeed, the Greek word for justice is dike, meaning "to throw", as in throwing dice.

Dating back as far as 500BC

Many see the origins of gambling in ancient religious rituals whose purpose was to predict the future or explain the incomprehensible. Counting the outcomes of throwing small objects might lead to an odd or even result. Odd outcomes were generally considered ominous, but even an indication of good fortune.

Counts sometimes gave way to the interpretation of patterns in random events. Some believed their chances of acting more in accord with a positive fate were greater when dictated by other chance occurrences instead of biased exercises of free will.

Knucklebones or astragali found their way into divination rites and games. Though not a cube, the sides were assigned numeric values, sometimes in accord with the relative chances of specific sides being thrown. The bones were thrown in pairs or threes, the significance of the sum of the sides varying by game.

Knucklebones were employed until Romans devised evenly shaped and dense dice made of other materials like ivory or stone. Although alternative shapes like pyramids were also made, the balanced six-sided cube became the most popular.


Early forms of playing cards were also rooted in divination. Korean cards called "fighting arrows" from the sixth century CE were made of oiled paper and silk. Used for fortune telling, they would later inspire early Chinese paper money.

Cards depicting deities and aristocracy appeared in many cultures. But they were hard to come by in the age before the printing press. Artists were enlisted to create them by hand, an extremely painstaking process.

Evidence of gambling in all the major ancient old world cultures has been found, including:

  • Mesopotamia
  • Persia
  • Egypt
  • India
  • China

Dice reigned as the gambling tool of choice, probably for being relatively easy to construct. Egyptian culture developed games similar in principal to modern board games, including throwing a pair of dice and moving game pieces on a board in accordance with dice outcomes.

Betting on animal competitions like races and fights also came pass, especially in China and India.

China became a cauldron of gambling creativity, with gambling dens on every major street in many Chinese towns.

Early 14th and 15th Century

Western gambling grew out of Medieval Europe, which was of course founded upon Greco-Roman gambling practices and tools.

But issues pertaining to ethics and morality clouded the scene. Obviously, kings could do as they pleased. Clergy often had one set of rules for themselves, but another for parishioners. Nevertheless, gambling continued to progress and develop.

Playing cards made their way to Europe from Asia and Arabia in the middle of the 14th century. Within 100 years, they had spread across Europe. By the 15th century, card games were over-shadowing dice games in popularity.

16th Century

Lotteries became popular and important in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. Lotteries were used to unload unsold goods in Genoa and Venice in the mid-16th century. Queen Elizabeth sanctioned the first English lottery in the same time frame, giving away royal money, tapestry, and silverware.

While gambling styles and customs continued to evolve in various ways in local Asian and European dominions, the path to modern gambling casinos runs more prominently through the North American continent.

17th Century & 18th Century

Between 1600 and the mid-1800s, gambling attitudes varied from one American colony to the next, generally along religious lines. On one hand, English settlers were completely comfortable with the liberal gambling positions of the English tradition. But Puritan colonies saw gambling as part of the moral decay of the motherland that they were trying to escape.

Puritan colonists were outnumbered, and the risk-taking spirit of exploring and seizing the frontier increased the appeal of gambling. But some prominent investors began to see gambling as a vice at odds with productivity.

Despite these concerns, they saw the colonist love of gambling as an opportunity to fund public works and even war through lotteries. Some of the most renowned founding fathers like John Hancock, George Washington, and Ben Franklin promoted specific lotteries.

The first North American horseracing track was built in Long Island in 1665.

19th Century

By the early 1800s, small time casino gaming in roadhouses and taverns led to larger, more decorated casinos, especially in the lower Mississippi Valley. The intersection of river commerce and the South's more permissive gambling attitude led to New Orleans becoming the de facto gambling capital of the United States.

Horse racing became popular in the early 19th century, though betting was generally between horse owners, their staff, and a small but growing number of adherents. More organized horse betting venues were still to come.

The game of craps evolved from a 19th century dice game called " Hazard". Many believe English Crusaders invented Hazard in the time of the siege of the Arab fortress of Hazart, given the Arabic word 'az-zhar' means "dice".

The middle of 1800s also saw the mining boom in the far west, where frontier spirit and newfound wealth drove gambling to new heights. Gambling became commonplace in towns from Monterey to Sacramento, all the way to San Francisco. The latter quickly supplanted New Orleans as the new gambling capital of the country.

The first slot machine appeared in San Francisco in 1895.

Early 20th Century

Along the way, gambling endeavors from horse races to the popular Louisiana Lottery became infested with cheaters and fraud. "Ringer" horses that ran either considerably faster or slower than expected threw the games in favour of those in the know. Criminal syndicates became increasingly involved in guaranteeing outcomes were anything but random.

Mid-Late 20th Century


Tommy Hull built the land-based casino called El Rancho Vegas in 1941. He also foresaw an entire resort smack dab in the middle of the desert, 66 acres that eventually became known as the Las Vegas Strip.


Organized crime also invested heavily in Nevada casinos. In 1947, renowned mobster Bugsy Siegel opened the opulent Flamingo with much fanfare and movie star participation. That gave Las Vegas a decisive boost in reputation over Reno as the place for high rollers to be.


The history of gambling took a sharp turn in the early to mid-1990s as Internet technology began accelerating beyond any geek's wildest imaginations.


The first graphical web browser was released in 1993, roughly coincident with the America Online (AOL) service connecting its huge customer base to the internet online discussion system called USENET. Soon, people would be "surfing the web", a possibility not lost on gambling architects.


The first online casino was launched.

21st Century

Today, numerous regulatory jurisdictions of varying reputation oversee at least 2000 online casinos where you can play for real money. They offer an astounding variety of slot machine and classic casino table games. Many offer a live dealer option for their table games. And it can all be accessed through a surprising number of devices, from desktop systems to mobile phones.

The opportunities to enjoy real money gambling have never been better. The casino in your pocket or purse also known as your cell phone attests to this fact in spades. And it's only going to get better. You can bet on it!

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