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The Historical Origins of Today's Gambling Games


Over centuries, many different games have come and gone, and adapted to the countries and cultures that they found themselves in. Even today's games, which are available at an unprecedented level of accessibility, have their roots in some of the world's oldest and most prestigious histories.

Wheel games & roulette

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Roulette is one of the world's most recent gambling games, being inadvertently created by Blaise Pascal in 17th-century France as he was attempting to create a perpetual motion machine. The earliest known instance of roulette dates back to 1796, though it existed long beforehand considering Pascal died in 1662. The wheel itself has since outgrown even modern roulette variations, with spinning wheels being central to game shows and online gambling games. For example, the Wonder Wheel is a staple of gambling at Paddy Power's online casino.

While roulette as a game dates back to the 17th century, the wheel mechanism behind it has a deeper symbolic origin. The idea of a wheel that affects a player through random chance was much older than Pascal and his earliest version of the roulette wheel. In fact, it dates back to the writings of Boethius and Tacitus about the Roman goddess of luck - Fortuna. That's where we find the Rota Fortunae, literally the Wheel of Fortune. Just like the scales with Lady Justice, the turning wheel was an apt visual metaphor for luck and fate in ancient times. Fortuna spins the wheel, awarding and disadvantaging mortals depending on where the wheel stops. Fortuna remained a popular theological figure right up to the Renaissance, so its symbolic nature would not have been lost to early players of roulette.

Dice & backgammon

Dice are so old that they outdate recorded history, so we can't say for sure where these small but fundamental tools were first created. The oldest known dice probably started as knucklebones, made from the ankle bones of hoofed animals, and were used for telling fortunes. This wouldn't be surprising many games and their implements have a history steeped in mysticism, like tarot cards inspiring suited playing cards over time.

For playing games, our earliest known example is senet in 3,000 BC, an Egyptian game that was more like chess than any modern dice-rolling activity. However, even the dice here were actually flat sticks thrown to produce one of two outcomes. More complex dice were also found around the same time, in the Burnt City Shahr-e Sukhteh (sometimes Shahr-I Sokhta) an important Bronze Age settlement for the mysterious Helmand civilisation. The dice were domino-shaped, unlike senet, and they had spots on their sides that indicated numbers. They were used to play a game similar to modern backgammon.

Cards & baccarat

We've already touched upon the history of cards, specifically how today's face cards owe their origin to tarot cards and other mystic practices. Before that, the formative ideas behind playing cards started in Tang Dynasty China, AD 900, on printed wood blocks and later paper called leaves. They also passed through Persian and Egyptian civilisation, changing drastically along the way.

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Of all card games, baccarat stands as the oldest that still gets played today. Most associated with the casinos of Macau nowadays, some historians pin baccarat to Felix Falguiere, an Italian man from the late 1400s. The game may have been transferred to France during Charles VIII's Italian Wars. There it later became popular with French nobility in the 1700s, which is where most historical baccarat mentions date from.




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