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.

Evidence abounds that gambling origins stretch back to time immemorial. Chinese tiles dating back as far as 2300 BCE 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 makes important appearances 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.

Speaking of Dice

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.

Pick a Card, Any Card

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.

Here, There, and Everywhere

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.


Europe in the Middle Ages and Beyond

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.

That said, 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".

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.

Crossing the Atlantic

Gambling Crossed Oceans

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.

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. By the early 19th century, horse racing became popular, 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 Saints Go Marching In

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.

But you can't please all the people all the time. While riverboat gambling flourished between 1840 and 1860, tides of largely religious opposition to gambling led to anti-lottery coalitions. Only three states still permitted lotteries by 1860. Of course, illegal lotteries rose to the occasion to fill the void.

Gold Rush Fever

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.

But opposition to gambling continued to gain steam. The California legislature responded, first by outlawing specific games. When it became clear that wasn't very effective, laws were passed going after those who ran the games. Still unsatisfied with the results by 1885, California created statutes making it illegal for individuals to gamble at all. By 1891, the penalties for playing were as severe as for those operating the games.

Despite the legal ramifications, the first slot machine appeared in San Francisco in 1895. Somehow, laws prohibiting them weren't enacted until 1911.

The Crackdown Spreads

While California took its hard line approach, Nevada remained friendly to gambling, where it was completely legal from 1869 to 1910. This led to gambling operations migrating from California to Nevada, especially in border towns. But even legal protection didn't result in gambling becoming as popular in Nevada as it had been in San Francisco.

Anti-gambling legislation pushed a lot of gambling operations underground. As a side effect, gambling activity became more segregated. For example, a Chinese gambling house might cater only to the Chinese. This inadvertently led to gaming laws becoming increasingly racially discriminatory.

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 favor of those in the know. Criminal syndicates became increasingly involved in guaranteeing outcomes were anything but random.

By 1910, almost all gambling was illegal in United States. Legal gambling was available only in the form of horse racing, but only in three states. Legal battles over the issue continued, finally to a fever pitch when Arizona and New Mexico were forced to outlaw casinos in order to become states.

Gambling Fights Back

The financial crisis of the Great Depression led to relaxed attitudes toward gambling as a means of stimulating the economy. In Massachusetts, bingo was decriminalized in 1931 to facilitate churches and other charitable organizations raising money. This trend continued until bingo was legal in 11 states by the 1950s.

21 states made horseracing legal in the 1930s. Automated systems and new laws cleaned up the game. Several states legalized pari-mutuel betting in 1933. In the meantime, cities like New York and Chicago waged war against gambling sponsored by organized crime.

However, the most significant development of the times occurred in 1931 when Nevada legalized most forms of gambling. A primary motivator was the legislature's desire to capitalize on tourism in the wake of the completion of the Hoover Dam. Illegal gambling operators in California packed up shop and moved their businesses and expertise to Nevada.

Tommy Hull built the first legal, 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.

Relaxing Attitudes

There were no legal lotteries operating in the United States between 1894 and 1964, a staggering run from a modern perspective. But by the mid 1960s, growing sentiments against raising taxes, and concerns over illegal "numbers" games had some states reconsidering the lottery proposition. New Hampshire took the plunge in 1964, followed by New York in 1967, and New Jersey in 1971.

But New Jersey didn't stop with merely a lottery. It legalized casino gambling in 1978 in hopes of infusing life back in its struggling Atlantic City resort area.

Casinos Go Native

Gambling From Your Computer

In "Bryan v. Itasca County" (1976), the Supreme Court held that states didn't have the right to assess property taxes on Native Americans living on tribal lands. But it went further than that, prohibiting states from regulating Native American activities on their own soil. This opened the door for so-called Indian gaming.

Various controversies and debates between states and Native Tribes over gambling practices and regulations persisted until the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988. The IGRA states that tribes have the sovereignty to open casinos, but only when they participate in Tribal-State compacts. Furthermore, the authority to regulate the gaming is retained by the federal government.

This seal of approval resulted in a flurry of Indian casino development. The result was an increase in Tribal gaming revenue from $100 million to $16.7 billion between 1988 and 2006. Nearly half the states have responded to the Native American gaming challenge by legalizing commercially owned casinos in hopes of recovering taxable gaming revenue.

Gambling the Web

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.

Just a year later, the Caribbean country of Antigua and Barbuda legislated free trade agreements for casinos online. The first online casino was launched soon thereafter. Other online gaming regulatory bodies quickly came into existence. With their blessing, online casinos could boast a greater degree of legitimacy for being regulated.

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.

Pockets of Legal Backlash

But legal issues pertaining to online casino gambling persist in some countries. While many countries have liberal attitudes toward adult entertainment, others remain committed to deciding such matters for their citizens.

Worse yet are legal jurisdictions whose citizens are stuck in a sort of grey area limbo. For example, the US Federal Wire Act (1961) forbids sports betting across state lines, but not other forms of gambling. This resulted in considerable litigation that muddied the waters even more.

Next, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIEGA) made US-based online casinos and gambling-related financial transactions illegal, but didn't prohibit individuals from gambling online specifically.

This led to games of cat and mouse between the government and offshore online casinos, culminating in United States v. Scheinberg. In this decision, the United States found the founders and associates of three of the largest online poker sites guilty of bank fraud and money laundering in accepting deposits and processing withdrawals.

All three sites stopped serving US customers after this ruling on April 15, 2011, a date that became known as "Black Friday".

It's Getting Better All the Time

Gambling has come a long way from the throwing of human knucklebones to foretell the future. But while much of the world has advanced to the point of letting adults be responsible for their actions, plenty of superstition and confusion remains.

What's clear is 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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