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The History of Roulette

15 Jan 2018, 12:06 PM

The History of Roulette

The game of roulette has held an endless fascination with players since its very invention. It has consistently ranked amongst the most popular casino games, and its imagery and symbolism is intrinsically tied to gambling and casinos themselves: picture a casino and the very first thing your brain imagines is most likely a spinning roulette wheel, with crowds eagerly gathered around a table, waiting for the ball to stop.

Interestingly, we know that roulette has always been popular, and that its history is linked with the history of casinos and legal gambling, however we know very little about that history itself. Roulette history guides disagree on several points, from who is behind the invention to whether the game can be said to have ancestors in ancient cultures. The origins of the world’s favourite casino game are shrouded in mystery and controversy; however, we will do our best to make sense of it all as we set out on our very own Roulette history guide.

Inventing the Wheel

It is more or less universally acknowledged that roulette as we know it originated in France, and its invention is most often attributed to famed French physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal. It is believed that the roulette wheel was a by-product of Pascal’s search for a perpetual motion machine, invented in 1655 and then appropriated for gambling purposes. Interestingly, this would not be Blaise Pascal’s only contribution to the world of gambling: along with the equally famous Pierre de Fermat, he is also the father of the mathematical theory of probabilities, and was the first to apply advanced statistics principles to gambling problems.

Though this is the preferred and most prevalent theory, there is actually no real evidence that Pascal invented the wheel: it could have also been invented by French monks, and some even attribute it to Italy instead of France. Either way, this only tells us about the physical mechanism, and not about the rules of roulette as we know them or the principles of the game.

Ancient Ancestors

There are several competing theories about possible roulette ancestors. One states that the game is somehow descended from an ancient Chinese game involving 37 animal statuettes being placed in a magic square - an arrangement of numbers in a square where all horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines total the same number - totalling 666 (the total of all numbers on a roulette wheel). At some point, Tibetan monks are thought to have organised the statuettes in a revolving circle.

Some people also link roulette to games practiced by ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, which involved etching symbols on a shield or other circular object, and spinning the ‘wheel’ alongside a marker on the floor, betting on the outcome. Whilst it is easy to see how some of the principles of the game translate easily from these ancient forms into the game we know, the evidence that roulette is in any way based on them is unsubstantial.

Closer Relatives

Whilst the examples above are from antiquity, and seem too distant from Pascal, other similar games are closer relatives, and more believable inspirations for the rules of roulette. For instance, the Italian game of Biribi is often cited as an important influence, despite not being based on a wheel. Biribi was a lottery-type game, where numbers were drawn out of a bag. However, the similarity lies in the board, on which all the numbers were marked and on which players would place their stakes. It is a relatively tenuous link, especially given that similar boards have been a feature of gambling for centuries, however Biribi remains closely associated with the game in roulette history guides.

Another name which comes up often is Even-Odd, an English game. In this case, the resemblance is clear: E.O was played using a revolving wheel and a ball, where players would bet on the ball landing in a pocket. However, the pockets in the wheel were not numbered - instead, they would be marked with ‘E’ or ‘O’. There were 20 pockets for each, and a series of empty pockets representing the house edge. In many ways, E.O was practically identical, in terms of the basic principles of the game, to a modern game of roulette using only even odds bets.

The game was extremely popular in England in the late 18th century, and it would be easy to assume it had simply become roulette. However, there are accounts of roulette - using that name - going further back than E.O, and at the same time as well. Therefore, the exact rules of roulette must have originated at some point earlier: one the earliest mentions of the game is in a legal decree banning it from New France (Canada) in 1758. That, and of course the name, points to the game as we know it being developed and popularised in France sometime in the early 18th century, decades after Pascal supposedly invented the mechanism.

The Question of the Zeroes

Because it is known as a French and European game, it is commonly assumed that the game originated in the format we now know as European: with one 0 slot, the other being added when the game was transferred to America. However, if there is one thing roulette history guides agree on, it is that it happened the other way around. The game was originally played with a ‘0’ and a ‘00’, one black and one red, and was popularised in the US that way. The zeroes were changed to green in the early 18th century, quite understandably, to avoid confusion.

In 1843, a German casino decided to change up the established rules of roulette a bit, offering a version with only one 0 slot to tempt players with a reduced house edge. A few decades later, when gambling was made illegal across much of Europe - including Germany - the family behind that casino moved operations to Monte Carlo. Of course, Monte Carlo became a mecca for rich European gamblers and one of the most famous casinos in the world, and the single zero roulette wheel became the standard in Europe, whilst remaining unchanged across the pond. Though the principles of the game remained the same, the US also eventually chose to simplify the table and translate its elements into English, and American roulette was born.

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