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History of Gambling

Encircling Gambling

Before we begin digging into the history of gambling we must define what gambling is.

Gambling is the staking of money or other things of material value on an event with an unknown outcome with the intent of winning that which the other party is staking; whether the other party is the house, another player or several other players.

There is a great number of different games which all fit this description but they can be fit into two main categories.

Game of chance:
A game in which chance plays a bigger part than skill in determining the outcome. Among games of chance you have dice games like Craps, plain lotteries, lottery associated games like Keno and Bingo, slot machines and Roulette.

Game of skill:
A game in which skill plays a bigger part than chance in determining the outcome. Among games of skill you have card games like Poker, board games like Backgammon and tile games like Mah-jong.

In certain regions, only games of chance, upon which wagers are made, count as gambling in so far as legislation but in this article the defining trait is the act of betting on the outcome and not the degree of uncertainty. The outcome is always unpredictable whether we are talking about a game of skill or a game of chance, it is just different degrees of uncertainty. If the outcome was known beforehand there would be no betting and consequently no gambling.


History of Gambling

The game of chance, the game of skill and the wagering of material values are central constituents in the great cycle of life and death. In the game called life both skill and chance influence the outcome and the survival of the players is at stake. Seeing as gambling is living and dying it is only natural that the smartest species on the planet has devised mini-variants on the theme. With the universal principle out of the way we can proceed to the archeological record and the discernible games, of chance or skill, found therein.

The oldest unearthed board game dates back to roughly 3500 BC. The game, known as Senet, was found in a predynastic tomb in Egypt and judging from archeological records it was very popular during later dynasties. Although the precise original rules of Senet are unknown, it is certain that the game involved a great deal of luck and the Egyptians believed that an undefeated player stood under the protection of the gods. It seems probable that Senet was a race game for two players where the moves were decided by throw sticks or occasionally knucklebones, both of which are an antiquated form of dice.

Oblong dice:
Four-sided dice sticks have been uncovered in archeological excavations on several locations in India. The artifacts are dating back to the early third millenium BC. Some believe that India is the point of origin for four-sided dice sticks as well as board games although the evidence supporting the board hypothesis is missing. The oldest reference to gambling dice can be stumbled upon in the Vedic Sanskrit hymns which are dating back to around 2000 BC.

Royal Game of Ur:
In 1920, an archeologist by the name Sir Leonard Woolley discovered two game boards in the royal tombs of Ur. The tomb in which they were found is a surviving structure from the first dynasty of Ur meaning that the game boards date back to before 2600 BC. The game was given the name the Royal Game of Ur after the tombs. Although the exact original game rules are unknown, it is generally accepted that it was a race game for two players. The game was played with three pyramidial dice and two sets (one black and one white) of seven pieces.

In 1982, archeologists unearthed a board game while excavating a grave in the Persian city of Shahr-e Soukhteh (literally burnt city). The game dates back to 2400-2300 BC. The board itself consists of a serpent coiling around itself 20 times, forming 20 slots in the process and then there are the 60 game pieces and the two oblong dice sticks that were encountered in close proximity to the board. The game is believed to be an early version of the game known as Nardshir, Nardeeshir, Nard-i-shir, Takhteh Nard or simply Nard in Persian. Nard is the Persian name for a particular type of wood and the full name of the game can be translated as Battle on Wood. The shape and slots of the game board show that it is closely related to the Royal Game of Ur. It is very likely that the board game known as Backgammon has sprung from these ancient prototypes.

The origin of the Chinese board game Weiqi or Wei ch'i, known as Go in the west after the Japanese I-Go, is obscured by the veils of time. The story goes that the long lived Chinese emperor Yao (2337–2258 BC) had his counselor Zhun design it for his quarrelsome son Danzhu to teach him discipline, concentration and balance. However, there are other theories attributing its ancestry to the mapping of battle fields and enemy positions by Chinese tribal warlords, or alternatively to an augury device. The earliest reference to the game is found in a historical annal from the 4th century BC in which an event that took place in 584 BC is narrated. The game is referenced as Yi in these old records. At some point between 100 and 200 AD it spread to Korea where it assumed the name Paduk or Baduk. From Korea it spread to Japan well before 700 AD and there it became known as I-Go. In 701 AD a decree from a Japanese temple stated that gambling and other idle pastimes should be punished with 100 days of tough labour but apparently I-Go was exempt from that rule seeing as it was deemed to build character and strength of mind. With 2600 years of recorded history, Go is without a doubt the oldest game in the world in which the original rules are still employed. Go is a board game for two players where one disposes over black stones and the other disposes over white stones. The board consists of 19 x 19 grids. The game starts with an empty board and one by one, and turn by turn, the stones are put on the intersection points of the board. The objective is to stake out a larger territory than the opponent. The stones of the opponent can be removed from the game by surrounding them and thereby disconnecting them from any empty intersection points. The game went through a change from 17 x 17 grids to 19 x 19 grids before it reached Japan over 1300 years ago, and there currently exists a few variants of Go where scoring method and self-capture rule differ, but the game remains fundamentally the same. The game is not heavily associated with gambling but Go and gambling are not unheard of. In Japan, for instance, there are two different gambling variants of Go: Ban-Go and Me-Go. In Ban-Go the money won or lost is predefined, whereas in Me-Go the money won or lost depends on the territorial difference at the final position.

Theban dice
: The earliest known so called Theban dice, dating back to 1573 BC, were discovered in the Theban necropolis in Egypt in the early 19th century. The dice were apparently employed in a game called Theban in ancient Egypt. The game is claimed to be the ancestor of the modern dice game Craps.

Organized gambling, approved and regulated by authorities, started in China around 200 BC. Legend has it that a local ruler, Cheung Leung, created a game through which he could raise funds for his military operations. The battered and dissatisfied population was rebelliously refusing to pay taxes so he had to find another way to tap into their money and raise the needed funds. The game, which he invented and named Keno, immediately took China by storm and the funds accumulated through it contributed significantly to the building of the Great Chinese Wall. Keno is a lottery based game where the players choose numbers from a board and make a wager. The house then draws numbers at random and the winning players are paid in accordance with the number of matches. Keno remains exceedingly popular to this day.

Playing cards:
Playing cards are assumed to first have been invented in China seeing as that is where paper was invented. According to the American historian Stuart Culin, playing cards emerged in China before 1200 AD. It appears that these playing cards originated from paper money. The first paper money was issued by the Sung dynasty in 1023 AD and thus the cards must have showed up somewhere between 1023 and 1200 AD. There were two principal types of Chinese playing cards: Kwan P'ai and Lut Chi. In Kwan P'ai there were 3 kinds of suits: coins, strings of coins, and myriads of strings of coins. The deck had 30 cards - 9 of each suit plus an honour card. In Lut Chi there was a 4th suit added to the suits of Kwan P'ai: tens of myriads of coins. It is speculated that Lut Chi formed the basis for European playing cards but there is no explicit evidence linking them together. The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates back to 1371 AD. The most plausible theory is that the Mamelukes of Egypt brought their playing cards with them to Europe around that time. The Mameluke cards had 4 different suits: polo sticks, coins, swords, and cups. The deck itself had 52 cards, 13 of each suit, which is precisely the same setup as that of modern playing cards utilized in games like Poker and Blackjack.

Tile Games:
Tile games have been present since 1120 AD in China. The earliest Chinese tiles or Dominoes were carved from bone or ivory. The Chinese Dominoe with 32 tiles representing the 21 permutations (+11 duplicates) that are produced when tossing two cubic dice can be traced back to the 14th century AD. The history of Chinese tile games is intertwined with the history of Chinese playing cards and it is not proven whether the tiles gave birth to the cards or if tiles and cards arose independently. It should be noted that the Chinese word P'ai which is generally associated with playing cards really means playing rectangle and in the light of this it is plausible that cards and tiles have been used interchangeably throughout history with no clear card to tile or tile to card transition. The modern tile game of Mahjong can trace its ancestry to the original Chinese tile games.

It is not established whether wagers were made on the earliest board games and dice games or not but there is very little reason to believe otherwise. Staking material values in games where the immaterial decides the outcome is in all likelihood just as ancient a practise as the playing of the games themselves; although not all are associated with the staking of material values.

An important observation made by anthropologists is that gambling is more common in societies with widespread polytheism where the favours of different supreme entities can be sought. This in combination with the fact that the oldest unearthed games involve the rolling of dice, often made of bones, indicate that the games originate from tribal religion or more specifically from the ancient ritual of divination. The immediate precursor to human gambling may in other words be the superstitious ritual of throwing out stones on the ground and gaining insight from the observed patterns. This suggest that the game board stems from the ceremonial circle drawn by the tribal magician while the game pieces derive from the magical items scattered therein.

This theory makes a lot of sense for what is gambling if not a submission to higher powers? Who are you reaching out to if not the gods when you wish for a special turn of events to ensue? The theory is also supported in various tribal mythologies worldwide where gambling frequently serves as a metaphor for the harmony of cosmos and illustrates the fragile balance between its two constituents: chaos and order, or death and rebirth, or chance and skill. In matters like weather control, bringing back the sun, plants, game or health of an individual, gambling supports the harmony of cosmos. Gambling outside of such contexts, however, is seen as detrimental to both individual and cosmos and tribal mythology contains many accounts of humans betting everything - freedom, arms, legs, eyes and head - against superbeings in the hope of personal gain. Entire tribes and even worlds are often destroyed in the process and it is up to the hero gambler to restore balance.

In the light of its history and contrary to popular belief, gambling is not a symptom of some greater spiritual drive inherent in man - gambling is the supreme force of nature mediated through man.