Gambling has been part of of human society for almost as long as we can remember: from the oldest records of gambling dice in ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day online slots, we have been addicted to playing for millennia. The timeline of gambling is a fascinating insight into how the games we play have developed over the centuries, crossing borders and evolving with technology. Here, we take a journey through the key steps of the history of gambling through the ages.
A six-sided dice from Mesopotamia from 3000 BC is the earliest evidence we have of purpose-built gambling dice, however astragali, which were made from animal bones, had already been used for centuries, mainly for religious purposes. Indeed, in ancient Greece, the roll of the dice was said to be dictated by the gods themselves, meaning dice were used for divination and to make important decisions.
The first mention of dice in recorded Greek history is from 500 BC, and we know that gambling was considered so popular – and so dangerous – in the Ancient World that Augustus declared it an illegal vice in the early days of the Roman Empire. Gambling in Rome was only legal one week a year, during the festival of Saturnalia, but it continued growing as an illicit activity: in fact, the Romans invented the first gambling chips, which allowed them to pretend that they were not playing for money if they were caught breaking the law.
On the other side of the world, Ancient China was also developing games of chance as we would recognise them today. Tiles from 2,300 BC have been uncovered which are believed to be the tools of a lottery-style game of chance. However, it is keno, which is still played today, which we associate most with Ancient Chinese gambling. Invented about 2,000 years ago, Keno involves selecting a number on a piece of paper, after which lucky numbers are drawn: it is believed to be the first state-sponsored lottery. Winnings from keno are thought to have funded part of the construction of the Great Wall of China.
Having perfected paper centuries before anyone else, China was the first country to develop paper cards, developing the earliest forms of card games between 900 AD and 1100 AD. They also created the first examples of numbered cards decorated with human figures, which would later be picked up in Europe.
In yet another part of the world, archaeologists recently uncovered a cave in modern-day Utah which is believed to date back to the 13th century. In the cave, which had been inhabited by Ancient Native Americans, they found almost 10,000 objects believed to be gambling tools, pointing to the cave being the earliest casino on record.
We know that gambling continued to be popular following antiquity and throughout the middle ages, particularly due to several laws prohibiting it appearing across the world. Indeed, laws restricting or forbidding gambling appear consistently throughout history, showing both its popularity and its apparent danger.
It is worth noting that most of these restrictions applied to the lower classes of society, whilst the wealthy generally continued to play and gamble freely. For instance, Augustus, who banned gambling from Rome, was famously addicted to playing, whilst Kings Richard I of England and Philip II of France both passed laws in 1190 forbidding gambling below the rank of knight and allowing all forms of gambling for kings.
The next main development in the timeline of gambling comes in the 15th century, with the appearance and popularisation of baccarat across Italy and France. During this time, the earliest forms of the 52 card deck we use today were being circulated, with the modern combination of suits and figures from the court.
Early versions of blackjack can be found in French and Spanish books and records from the 17th century; it was then brought over to the US with early settlers from Europe. At around the same time, the first modern casinos started appearing in Italy, providing a way for the people to play in a controlled, state-sanctioned environment. However, this was again ‘rigged’ for the wealthy: although access to casinos was open to the public, strict dress codes meant that only nobles could afford to attend.
By the start of the 19th century, casinos and gambling houses were common throughout Europe and the United States. During the century, recognisable versions of the games we play today started popping up, and modern gambling was born.
The roulette wheel was invented in Paris in 1796, whilst mechanised slot machines date back to 1891 in America. Poker is believed to trace back to the Persian era, however the first record of the modern game is from a casino in New Orleans in 1829. It was not always the world-famous game that it is now: whilst televised poker tournaments made it popular in the 1970s, it wasn’t until online gaming that it gained the mainstream appeal it has today.
The early 20th century was a difficult time throughout the world, with two world wars as well as the American Great Depression. Major developments in gambling did not happen until later on in the century, with the biggest one being, without a doubt, online gaming.
With the invention and popularisation of the internet in the 90’s, games could be played from the comfort of your own home, and the gambling industry was one of the first to spot the potential. The first online casino was launched in 1994, before most people even had a home computer! Online gambling allowed us to play any game, at any time, against people from anywhere in the world: for perhaps the first time, access to legal gambling was truly universal and democratised.
In the past few years, we have seen the industry go even further, with smartphones now allowing us to game on the go as well as at home. From rolling dice made of animal bones to having every casino in the world in our pockets, humanity’s love for gambling has come a long way.