We are born gamblers
Where did gambling originate? Storytellers often tell tales of cunning gods or heroes in ancient times who taught humans the art of gambling. Whether it was clever animals like coyotes or spiders trying to deceive humans, or kings initiating games of chance to unite their troops, the moment gambling was invented was precious and yet simultaneously cursed and dramatic for someone.
However, historians of the modern era cannot provide a simple explanation for the origins of gambling. Their stories trace back to a point in the Stone Age when people engaged in games of chance by rolling bones to determine outcomes. It is not strange that they cannot provide an exact and concrete point in time. Just as we cannot pinpoint who invented prayer, music, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, or even money, the same goes for gambling. It predates recorded history.
Gambling predates even humanity itself, extending from bees to primates. Various animals also take risks for rewards.
According to a study conducted in 2005 by Duke University, macaque monkeys showed a preference for the “riskier” option over the “safer” option. This preference arose because choosing the “riskier” option allowed them to access a variety of beverages. This behavior bears a resemblance to gambling. Interestingly, the monkeys continued to prefer the riskier option even when the rewards for choosing it were reduced. This can be attributed to the lingering memory of significant rewards. Despite the decrease in rewards, they continued to choose the riskier option. The pursuit of jackpots is not a new phenomenon in human behavior.
Regardless of the secretive gambling behaviors of our primate ancestors, humans have long been natural-born gamblers. Just as engaging in mining or fishing today involves uncertainties, our early ancestors who relied on hunting and gathering for survival couldn’t escape the constant threat of danger. While a successful hunt could provide them with lunch, they were equally vulnerable to becoming someone else’s meal. Everything was uncertain and unpredictable, a blend of hope, fear, and superstition. With the discovery of new technologies, primitive humans gained a bit more control over their environment, but they were still captivated by the concept of chance. It was around half a million years ago when our early human ancestors began using tools, such as stones, wood, and bones, to test the unknown. These were the earliest gambling devices, serving the purpose of exploring the unknown in advance.
Indeed, these early “gamblers” did not engage in such activities for mere amusement. Initially, those who tested their luck did so for religious purposes rather than entertainment. The act of divination served the purpose of uncovering unknown information and foreseeing the future using supernatural or intuitive means that surpassed rational understanding. Creative diviners crafted dozens of tools to generate random outcomes. Some of these methods were quite messy. One favored by the ancient Greeks and Etruscans, known as haruspicy, involved religiously slaughtering an animal and examining its organs, particularly the liver. There were also more aromatic approaches. Diviners known as Karydatomauncers predicted the future using coconut shells, while Oomancers interpreted the patterns created by the breaking of eggs.
It is unclear whether those who sought divination from oomancers made omelets out of the cracked eggs while glimpsing the future. There were copromancers who divined through feces, urormancers who observed patterns in urine, and phyllorhodomancy that involved plucking rose petals. We are familiar with methods such as reading tea leaves, palmistry, astrology, and tarot reading as well. Ironically, modern fortune-telling was once a form of gambling.
The method of divination known as cleromancy, which involved throwing objects and interpreting their shapes, allowed for various interpretations. People would throw anything—plants, small stones, bones, or whatever they could find—to read something as a precursor to the future. Cleromancy, initially rooted in sacred rituals, later evolved into the more pleasurable act of throwing dice. Objects used for throwing could be anything, but smaller bones became preferred. A part of the astragalus bone, called the tali bone, rested just above the astragalus or talus bone (anklebone). While the image of people playing craps today, throwing dice, may seem different from Sumerian priests throwing bones for the hopeful devotees, they both involved rolling bones to generate random outcomes. People rolled the bones of many animals, especially domesticated ones like sheep and goats, to predict arbitrary results.
The talus bone consists of four asymmetrical faces: a concave side, a convex side, a wide side, and a narrow side (the round faces cannot fit each other perfectly). Each face had a distinct meaning and represented separate outcomes. The act of throwing bones to predict the future and obtaining something valuable from the results had a subtle distinction. The boundary between divination and gambling was blurred. For instance, a hunter might have thrown bones and said to their companions, “If the short side comes up, we go south; otherwise, we go north.” However, after the hunt, they might have engaged in the same act to determine who would get a larger share of the captured animal’s meat. If the act of throwing bones was seen as a result of the will of a sacred being, it was divination. If the hunters engaged in the same act, hoping for a favorable share for themselves, they were gambling.
In early archaeological sites spanning Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, anklebones and stones with various colors (possibly used for scoring) have been discovered. These primitive dice and ancient chips could potentially represent the earliest form of the game of craps. The relative abundance of ancient anklebones suggests that they were tools that could be used on a daily basis.
It is unlikely that only a few priestly groups used them, as they are too commonly found. The most plausible explanation is that people used them for entertainment, rather than solely for making decisions in daily tasks.
Archaeologists have confirmed that the first known dice-like objects were constructed as early as 7,000 years ago in the region of present-day Iraq, specifically between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in ancient Mesopotamia where modern urban societies originated. They have also discovered anklebones distributed throughout the history of Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamians used anklebones for gambling, assigning the numbers 1 to the convex narrow side, 3 to the convex plain side, 4 to the concave side, and 6 to the concave narrow side. This system became the standard across the Middle East and Mediterranean regions.
When Mesopotamian fortune-tellers began marking the astragalus bone with lines, the birth of modern dice took place. The evolution from anklebones to dice is not difficult to imagine. An anklebone with four faces would have initially been shaped into a cube, producing more arbitrary results. However, due to the bone’s density and structural variations, the cube-shaped bone would have inevitably rolled unevenly. Consequently, people logically deduced that ivory, wood, and other materials could be fashioned into more balanced dice with honest shapes. The earliest dice with six faces can be traced back approximately 3,000 years and were discovered in the northern region of present-day Iraq.
Gambling in ancient Asia
In the East Asian cultural sphere, gambling has been highly valued, rivaling that of many countries around the world. If the frequency of gambling activities was high in regions including Europe and North America, East Asia may have been the place where the most intense and valued gambling took place. From card games to keno, Asian culture has had a significant influence on the global gambling culture today.
Gambling in China has a long-standing tradition. Even in ancient China, the outcomes of random events were highly regarded. As early as the Shang and Zhou dynasties (around 1700 BCE), they sought advice from priests when making important decisions. Unlike the Etruscans who used the entrails of animals to divine, the Chinese would carve symbols on turtle shells or animal bones and compare the cracked patterns after heating them with a hot copper rod. These priests eventually became a respected group of scholars in China. This indicates that in many societies, those who can interpret and utilize random events, whether by breaking bones or rolling objects, gain power and prestige, despite gambling being criticized.
During the Han dynasty (around 1000 BCE), Chinese culture and cities flourished, and gambling became a common pastime. In commercial streets of most Chinese cities, gambling establishments operated alongside shops selling jewelry, clothing, and food. Bets on animal fights, ranging from birds like roosters to fish and crickets, were prevalent. Interestingly, even in the age of machine and internet gambling, these traditions have persisted. In 2004, 115 people were arrested for participating in cricket fights in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. They had seized 200 crickets, some of which were valued at $20,000. These successive raids on gambling rings demonstrate that such unique sports continue to thrive.
The Chinese have enjoyed a form of lottery called “Thirty-six Animals” or “Hua-Hoey Lottery” since the 10th century, which predates Europe by 500 years. The game involved drawing random animals depicted on 36 cards. This game, which had various betting methods, continued until the 19th century when Chinese immigrants brought it to Europe and the United States (similar to the popular Brazilian game “Jogo do bichos” today).
In the 4th century BCE, the Chinese enjoyed various games of chance and skill, such as the board game called “Po” and other entertainments. They constantly created new and powerful forms of gambling. In the 7th century, the Chinese introduced Western-style dice, and by the 9th century, they transformed those dice into dominoes called “gupai” or “Bone tabled.” A set of Chinese dominoes consists of 32 tiles with 21 different numbers, with 11 numbers appearing twice. The tiles were made of ivory, and the numbers were depicted in red and black. If the tiles were made of black sandalwood, the characters would be drawn in red or white. Similar to the modern game of Pai Gow, participants paired each tile based on the numbers. Some tiles had inscriptions that were poetically interpreted, making translation difficult. Additionally, the Chinese created games such as mahjong, fantan (a game using small round tiles), lotteries, bingo, and the precursor to keno. However, the most significant contribution of the Chinese to gambling is undoubtedly playing cards.
Asian gambling culture extends beyond China. In Korea, various board games, as well as games like cockfighting and toppling rubber shoes, existed. Koreans also adopted gambling from China. They had a type of bone tile called “hopae,” which was given the name meaning “imported from China.” In comparison to China and Korea, the Japanese historically engaged in gambling less frequently. Mongols in northern
Invention of Commercial Gambling
Commercial gambling, also known as mercantile gambling or commercial gaming, refers to establishments that are created based on professional gambling operations aimed at generating profits, where the general public freely bets against a fixed bank or house, as opposed to social gambling where participants bet against each other.
Slot machines in casinos are a prime example of commercial gambling, while a Tuesday night poker game gathering at a friend’s house is a typical example of social gambling.
Lotteries in the 16th century Italy represent a small fraction of the vast iceberg known as gambling, even before mathematicians developed systems to calculate the probabilities of gambling outcomes. Quick-witted Venetian gamblers began applying revolutionary probability theories to the realm of gambling. Lotteries promised to form public funds or bear the costs of government programs, offering people opportunities to become wealthy, just as commercial games provide opportunities for people to participate in gambling against impersonal houses instead of fixed banks.
The invention of commercial gambling and the development of modern operations share similarities in various aspects. The significance of gambling in the development of the banking game is as crucial as the significance of banking in the realm of finance. While banking was already prevalent in China by the 7th century, it did not become commonly used in Europe until the 18th century, a period when commercial gambling was widely spreading. As investors experimented with joint-stock companies and speculative ventures, gamblers also began to view gambling as part of business transactions, rather than mere entertainment among equals.
Social gambling was something that anyone who wanted to alleviate boredom or enjoy special moments could readily engage in. This is why ancient Chinese and Roman societies allowed gambling during year-end holiday periods. Authors like Alfonso X of Spain or Girolamo Cardano acknowledged that if social games were conducted within reasonable regulations, they could serve as appropriate forms of entertainment. However, there have always been people who viewed gambling not as a special pastime but as a means to quickly acquire wealth and luxury. Those who desired to gamble habitually sought to be individuals with infinite income and more leisure time, regardless of winning or losing. Ways to sustain a livelihood through gambling involved either expecting tremendous luck in the game, accepting poverty as natural when unable to win money consecutively, or deceiving others without experiencing guilt or facing repercussions.
The invention of commercial gambling led to the establishment of gambling venues where gambling was allowed and provided a legitimate pathway to earn income. Commercial gambling also separated participants from the social bonds of camaraderie. They could now engage in gambling with professionals as opponents whenever they desired. At the same time, the nature of the games themselves underwent a transformation. Rules became simpler, and game durations became shorter, making them more direct in nature. While individuals engaging in social gambling might leisurely enjoy games like Trappola (a type of card game) with friends for several hours, gamblers seeking bets in gambling establishments desired a faster pace, such as flipping cards in Basset or Faro games, spinning the wheel in roulette, or having game outcomes determined by a single roll of the dice.
The introduction of bank games and the growth of specialized gambling establishments swept the gambling enthusiast population across Europe. While the timing varied slightly from country to country, between 1650 and 1850, gambling establishments emerged in European society to an unprecedented degree. Gambling had always been a part of human history, but never before had it reached such universal and widespread levels as during this period. With the rise of capitalist economy, money circulated more freely, and the accumulation of wealth reached unprecedented scales. Governments operated lotteries during this period, and people from all social classes became heavily involved in gambling. The emergence of commercial gambling spurred the already attentive governments to pay even more attention to gambling activities.
The first bank game originated in Germany and was known as Lamsquenet, named after a 16th-century German mercenary knight who was well aware of house odds or house edge. Lamsquenet was a relatively simple game. The banker would place bets with one or multiple participants, placing one card on the right and another card on the left. If the cards came out with the same suit, the bank automatically won. If they did not match, the dealer would continue drawing cards until a match was found. If the left card matched first, the bank won; if the right card matched first, the participant won. The role of the banker in Lamsquenet was not fixed and could rotate among the participants. Over time, the game of bank evolved into a more sophisticated form, with Italy being the most passionate country during this transformation.