Research

From Ancient Greece to Vegas: A Concise History of Gambling

To understand the history of gambling, we need to first ask, what is the purpose of gambling?  Gambling is the act of betting something of value in order to win a reward. Chances are, then, that you will find gambling wherever you find humans. After all, humans are always taking risks in order to get something. 

Author: Editorial Team March 8, 2021

Table of content

Indeed, gambling has been around for a long, long time. Since at least 2,000 BC, to be precise, which makes gambling one of humankind’s most ancient pastimes.

Who Invented Gambling?

The question of who invented gambling is not easy to answer. Inventors of gambling games are rarely mentioned in any historical documents.

However, dice were found in excavations in China dating from 600 BC and in an Egyptian tomb dating from 2000 BC.

But we don’t necessarily know if these objects were used for playing games. They may have been used as divinatory instruments to make predictions about the future.

Gambling in Ancient Civilizations

The Greek poet Sophocles makes a reference to dice in his writings, which date from around 500 BC. Interestingly, the Greek word for justice is dike, which means “to throw”—as in throwing dice—and it’s likely that casting dice or lots was also originally used to dispense justice.

Meanwhile, pottery from Ancient Rome shows scenes of people betting on animal fights. And after gambling was forbidden in the city of Rome, gambling chips were invented to allow the player to claim they weren’t playing for real money.

Tiles have also been found that appear to have been used in some kind of rudimentary game of chance in Ancient China, where we also find the origins of the gambling game keno. The original Chinese name of this game translates roughly as ‘white pigeon ticket’.

In 800 AD in China, we also find the evidence of the first playing cards, although we don’t know exactly what games they played and the cards don’t look anything like those we use today.

Gambling During the Medieval Period

For much of the Middle Ages, ‘commoners’ were prohibited from gambling. However, aristocrats and royalty continued to enjoy the activity, and there are accounts of wealthy individuals losing a significant amount in various betting games.

There is also evidence of both dice and cards being played during the Medieval period. Small dice were made from bones and historical documents suggest that the punishment for playing with false dice was to pierce the die into the palm of the cheater’s hand.

In the 1400s, we also find a reference to the game baccarat, a card game which is still played today.

17th Century

The first legal gambling house appeared during the 17th century. Known as the Il Ridotta, it was opened in 1638 in Venice with the purpose of entertaining people during the Venice Carnival.

In the 1600s, we also find a reference to the game ventiuna by the author of Don Quixote. Some researchers claim this is the origins of what we now know as blackjack.

18th Century

The first mention to roulette was in Bordeaux in 1716. The game appeared to be an evolution of the games hoca and portique and would undergo several other iterations before settling on its current layout in around 1790.

19th Century

This was the heyday of casinos in Europe. By this point, they had spread all over the continent.

During this century, we also find accounts of poker games, originating from the French game poque.

And the first slot machine was also invented in the 1890s by Charles Fey in San Francisco, paving the way for electronic and online slot machines.

20th Century

By the 20th century, casinos had become prevalent worldwide, although, in the US, they were illegal in most states other than New Jersey and Nevada.

In the 1970s, the first video slot machines were invented by the Fortune Coin Company.

And then, in 1994, online gambling took off after the gambling software developers Microgaming introduced the first real-money online casino. Today, online gambling is a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Gambling Today

Since the invention of online gambling, we’ve seen the emergence of everything from live dealer casinos—featuring real dealers dealing in real-time—to online streaming where players stream themselves playing games to a live audience.

Now the focus is on developing mobile gambling as well as exploring the potential of both virtual reality technology and cryptocurrencies, which could further transform online gambling.