Gambling is a hugely popular activity in today’s society, with people from all over the world and from all social classes enjoying the vast array of betting options available to them.
The gaming industry is investing billions of dollars every year in advertising, marketing, innovation and new ways to allow its many millions of customers to enjoy a flutter. But behind the recent boom in online gambling lies a long history. This article will attempt to give you a brief introduction to the rich history of gambling.
Betting: Popular throughout the time
Betting is one of the oldest forms of recreation, dating back to in ancient Rome where chariot races and gladiatorial battles were wagered on by the great and the good. From those epic beginnings came the horse racing, Formula 1 championship and glitzy boxing matches that we enjoy today.
Things change. Fashions come and go. Sports go through changes that render them almost indistinguishable from their origins. Yet, at the end of the day, most things stay the same. Gambling has always been about betting on the winner. And it has always been about making the right decisions based on all the information to hand. After that, it is – as always – in the hands of the gods.
Is it all about luck?
Whether the betting is enjoyed as pure gambling, or whether it is a science based on extensive background knowledge and a thorough analysis of the opponents and context of the competition. It cannot be denied that there are some bets which are all about luck – for example, the outcome of a coin toss.
Sports betting is of course also a gamble, but skilled punters can often give themselves an edge by collating all the detailed background information and general form of the participants, or previous encounters of the participating teams in order to better assess the chances of the various betting opportunities.
Ambitious players try therefore to get as much information as possible in advance. This is as true of today’s modern bettors as it was of punters placing their bets amid the dust and fury of the chariot races of Ancient Rome.
3000 BC: In the beginning was the dice
People began to gamble around 3000 BC, first with dice. Researchers found the first dice in China and Mesopotamia. These dice differed in shape and size from today’s six-sided favourites. The modern dice – as we know it today – was invented about 1000 years later in Egypt.
Dice games were popular not only in these regions but also had many enthusiastic followers in Ancient Rome. There, however, the Emperors tried to prohibit the game by allowing it only on Saturnalia, the celebrations held in honour of the god Saturn.
500 – 1500 AC: Moral Concerns
Like the Emperors in antiquity, gambling was not quite appreciated by the rulers in medieval Europe. There were concerns about gambling’s effect both from employers and the Church; one feared about gambling’s effect on their workers, the other had moral doubts about gambling.
Despite the best efforts of the bosses and the bishops, attempts to forbid gambling failed in most cases. People always found – and continue to find – new ways to pursue their punt. But even this had an advantage for the authorities because they benefited financially from the players through a targeted tax and duty obligation.
At the beginning, these prohibitions were targeted at parties, trade fairs and carnivals, popular meeting places for gambling. This meant that people fancying a flutter had not choice but to meet mainly in guesthouses (the upper class was mostly arranged in their own “playhouses”) to play games of chance. Here, the in-house ‘bookmaker’ offered gamblers a safe haven in which to bet – and thus asked the operators to pay.
A special form of bet: life insurance
Already in the Middle Ages, there was a special form of betting going in places as far apart as Genoa and Antwerp: life insurance. In this rather grisly form of gambling, bets were made on the “life and death of persons”. It was possible for traders and travellers to secure a lumps sum for their families before embarking on dangerous trips by making a bet on their own death. If the traveller did not return home, the bet was “won” and the prize money was paid to the family.
1350: Concession as control
Another attempt by the rulers to bring gambling under control was the introduction of licensed ‘playhouses’ in the 14th century. Only members of the upper classes had access to them, so gambling shifted from the lower social classes to the well-to-do.Gambling was, however, forbidden even to the upper class, who faced severe punishments if caught.
At this time, the card game came from the Orient to Europe and developed, a second popular game variant, into the dice. The southern German city of Ulm quickly became a centre of cards production and, as such, also known beyond the borders.
In the new “game machine”, the class differences were also shown, which symbolised the different patterns on the backs of the cards. The upper class played with artistic decorations, while the simple population received only cards with simple or no patterns.
The importation of the cards to Europe once again revealed the negative aspects of gambling: loss of property, fraud, murder and manslaughter. In response, many cities passed the strict ban on gambling and increased game controls. The resultant controls, however, mainly affected the lower classes and, in the upper parts of the society and the clergy they continued to be able to play cards and gamble undisturbed.
1400 to today: Lotteries – a social background
The origins of Lotteries lie in Italy and Holland. In the 14th century, the first variants of the Lotto developed, appearing in the German-speaking world a little later. The participants were able to acquire tickets for a prize draw in the hope of winning big. The drawing of the winners took place in public and developed into a popular social event. Both private draws and public lotteries that attracted players and in many cases the proceeds of theses lotteries were used for social purposes, such as the construction of churches and poor houses, or to support victims of disaster or famine.
Of course, the Ruling Classes also wanted to get in on the action and therefore organised their own lotteries to help swell the coffers of the state budget (and keep the proles quiet). The first numbers lottery – as we would know it today – started in the 17th century. But the introduction of such lotteries did not change the often negative consequences of gambling: loss of possessions, the slide into poverty and – in some extreme cases – suicide.
Towards the end of the 18th century, however, criticisms of the lottery grew. As with other games of luck, it was also feared that people – especially the poorer classes – would become addicted, lose too much money and go on to neglect their work, thereby not be able to pay the taxes to the ruling class. As a result, the numbers lottery was forbidden in many places.
1480: Mathematical considerations
From the late 15th century, different scholars also started thinking about the game. Profit probabilities should no longer be simply estimated but were now clearly calculated according to the laws of stochastics.
Today, every modern casino game can be given the winning probability. In the majority of games only as high as the provider of the game can still make a profit. Otherwise, it would not be possible for casinos and game banks to offer luck games profitably.
However, there are also games where it is possible to achieve a positive expectation through optimal decisions, in the long term to make a profit. These are, however, such games, which are not played against “the bank”, but against the other teammates. A well-known example is the different poker variants.
This is not a question of being better than the bank, but of merely beating the other players. Then there are actually players who are able to play the game profitably and, on average, make a profit. This principle applies not only to poker but also to many other card games.
As a well-known board game, which can be played with a positive expectation value, backgammon is to be mentioned. Here, too, some of the games are still played with high amount stakes nowadays.
1500 – 1900: Board games
The goose board game
Today the Game of the Goose was is a harmless game for children, but by the end of the 19th century, it had transformed into a high-stakes game enjoyed by bettors. In Europe, this game first appeared towards the end of the 15th century and quickly became very popular.
In Spain, France and the Netherlands the Game of the Goose became widespread. The game is played on a total of 63 fields. Each player receives a game character that he can move forward according to a roll of the dice. The goal of the game is to reach the target field (the Garden of the Goose) with the exact number of the dice.
On the way, there are several fields that can accelerate or complicate the achievement of the goal. German author and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe use the game as inspiration for his poem “Life is a Goose Game”. Jules Vernes also tackled the topic in his 1899 novel “The Testament of an Eccentric,” by describing the USA as a giant Goose Game, in which people are constantly climbing over each other’s backs.
Life is a goose game (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)
Life is a goose game:
The more you go forward,
The earlier one arrives at the goal,
Where no one likes to stand.
They say the goose are stupid,
Oh, do not believe them:
Because one looks around once,
To mean me backward.
It is quite different in this world,
Where everything pushes forward:
If someone stumbles or falls,
No soul looks backwards.
1638: The “Ridotto”
The first public casino was the Italian “Ridotto”, which was already very similar to the casinos of today. As early as 1638, the famous Casino in Venice was opened followed by over 100 other casinos throughout Italy. In November 1774, the Ridotto has closed again.
The consequences were directly felt by the advocates of gambling, as not only the casino itself benefited from the numerous guests, but also surrounding businesses such as the emerging textile industry, restaurants and guest houses.
Around 1750: Prohibitions on prohibitions.
At just about the same time as the invention of roulette, the 18th-century rulers of Europe made use of their power to regulate and organise gambling. Charles III, the King of Spain, forbade public ‘gambling banks’; Napoleon, on the other hand, subsequently punished private games in Italy in order to make public gambling possible.
He went on to close casinos in many large cities, and from 1837 the gambling was forbidden in the whole country. This set the stage for a huge upsurge in the prosperity of the gambling industry in Germany.
In holiday and resort towns across Germany, pompous gambling banks emerged. The large volume of visitors who flocked to these centres brought with them revenues that the cities invested in the improvement of the local infrastructure and architecture.
Particularly noteworthy here are the houses in Baden-Baden and Bad Homburg which attracted international celebrities such as the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, who was inspired by his experiences create to his novel “The Player”. However, as criticism against gambling became loud, Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck issued a decree in 1872 that banned gambling across the entirety of the German territories.
Around 1800: Horses and Racing
Horse racing first became popular as a sport for spectators and punters in 18th century England before gradually spreading to other European countries. In Germany, the first racecourse was opened in 1822 in Bad Doberan. Originally, the races were used to select the best horses for breeding, but with increasing popularity, they were bred specifically for the sport.
Despite the rise of football as the world’s most popular betting sport, betting on the gee-gees is widespread, especially in England. Here, too, of course, the chances of picking a winner rely heavily on a punter’s grasp of form, rider, the condition of the track and all manner of other background knowledge, but many participants also bet simply for fun and the thrill of the chase.
1865: The Totalizer Revolution
When betting against a bookmaker, the bettors receive fixed odds. It is therefore already clear in advance how much profit the participants will win if they have correctly predicted the outcome of a sporting event.
In the middle of the 19th century, a new form of bet came up: the totaliser. Here, the participants did not bet against a bookmaker, but among themselves. Originally, the totaliser was developed for horse racing but is still used today in the lottery, the football pools and similar games.
The money collected from participating players is collected into one big pot and divided among the winners. The fewer number of players who correctly bet on the right result, the bigger the win.
Since the odds of this type of betting can change until to the end of the event, no fixed winnings can be given beforehand. In the case of the lottery, for example, the participant only learns after – or immediately before – the drawing of the numbers how big his or her windfall is.
For the organiser of such a lottery or ‘tote’, the bet has the advantage that he does not take any risk. A bookmaker is, naturally, also working to achieve profit, but in other forms of gaming, they always run the risk of making a loss if they have not correctly calculated the odds. In the case of the totaliser bet, on the other hand, the organiser does not act as a bettor, but as the so-called totaliser, which merely mediates the bets of its customers.
1867: “The Player”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel ‘The Player’ was published in 1867 and is set in the fictional city “Roulettenburg”. It is to be assumed that the German city of Bad Homburg, with its famous casino, was the model for the novel because Dostoyevsky himself gambled there during a stay.
The novel is about a Russian general, who is addicted to gambling and lost all his money on roulette. An offer from rich aunt brings back hope that he could clear his debts. However, she also loses her entire fortune at the roulette table. Little by little, the general loses his entire fortune, his beloved and his social standing.
Wartime – The Biggest Gamble
The prohibition of gambling in Germany in 1872 merely changed the framework in which the population pursued their desire for betting. Gambling went underground.
Intermittent attempts to legalise gambling were rejected during the Weimar Republic, but that the ban was lifted by the Nazis in 1933.
However, by the end of the war, most German casinos had closed. After the war, gaming houses such as the casino Baden-Baden were revived under the new Federal Republic, but would never recapture their earlier success.
1867: “Skill games”
At the end of the 19th century, the first game machines were developed in the United States. The Liberty Bell, designed by the German-born mechanical engineer Charles August Fey in San Francisco, was the first example of a slot machine – a “one-armed bandit” – with a 3-reel system.
This entertainment found its way to Europe quickly but was not allowed in the Germany of the Weimar Republic due to the local ban on gambling. However, games of skill were allowed in the country, so that many other machines – which worked without the chance for money gains – were constructed.
Present: Betting on the Net
Online betting offers an astounding array of betting possibilities. From humble beginnings, net betting has flourished thanks to a constant surge of technology and the popular innovations of online betting sites. Now, live bets can be placed in real time even during a match or event.
A useful side-effect for online bettors is that fees are lower with online betting companies because operators have significantly lower fixed costs compared to high street bookmakers. Nevertheless, classic betting houses remain immensely popular.
And when it comes to the sport of kings, trackside betting retains all of the sights, sounds and -for good or ill – smells that go along with a day at the horse races. For many punters, trackside betting is part of the tradition while for others it is a grand day out with a few bets thrown in!
The Future: Gambling in the digital age
Technology and digitalisation have led to massive developments in the gambling industry. Since the mid-1990s, gamers have had the opportunity to chance their luck on the internet. In fact, the array of options offered by online casinos is so vast that it is sometimes hard to keep track of. Almost all online betting companies offer classic games in their dedicated casino – roulette, blackjack, poker – as well as many other table games and slots.
The introduction of online casinos has made betting easy – wherever you are, 24/7.
Gambling regulations worldwide
Gambling State Contract in Germany
Since 2008, gambling in the Federal Republic of Germany has been regulated by a state contract between the individual federal states. The aim of this state contract is to strengthen the protection of players and young people in order to combat and/or prevent the development of addiction before it arises. Furthermore, with the uniform regulations, the offer should be limited and the implementation of the games carried out by law should be insured. The state also aims to prevent fraud and criminal activities.
Strict regulations – gambling in the USA
In the modern era, it was only in the early-1930s that the state of Nevada was licensed to offer to gamble, an exception that enabled Las Vegas to become the “Mecca of Gambling”. As of 1978, the state of New Jersey allowed gaming, allowing Atlantic City to develop into a formidable metropolis of gambling. Another exception is found in many Native American reserves, where gambling is also legal.
Gambling in China
Unlike some parts of the world, China attaches no stigma to gambling and, for many people, it makes up a regular part of everyday life. That said, gambling is officially prohibited in the whole of China, with the exception of the special administrative area of Macau. However, this ban is not strictly enforced, and gambling in the private sphere is widespread – at family events, on parties and even funerals!
For the overwhelming majority of Chinese bettors, superstition plays a very important role: certain numbers, rituals and behaviours are supposed to influence the player’s luck. The games played have changed and developed over the years, but this mystical component has remained.
The often-issued prohibitions and the drastic penalties imposed by the various governments could not reduce the passion of the players, and the officials enforcing the laws were often the ones who played very frequently – for high stakes.
One theory for the Chinese’s great passion for gambling is the conviction that fate is influenced by external powers. The belief is that the external powers can be influenced by certain behaviours, which ultimately leads to the players believing that they can make their own fortune – even if it is proven to be a game that is exclusively dependent on luck, such as roulette.
Macau puts Las Vegas in the shade
While gambling in China is ‘illegal’, it was legalised in Macau in 1847. Since then, the revenues of casinos have become an important part of the gross domestic product. The possibility of playing for money – legally! – draws many Chinese from the mainland to the island. Today the Macau casinos make six times as much revenue as the ones in Las Vegas
A moving story
Gambling enjoys a rich and exciting history that has always been closely linked to society and the rule of the day. Even today states regulate gambling in most regions of the world.
It will be fascinating to see how gambling will develop over the next decades and centuries as technical advances continue to make betting more fun, more accessible and more exciting.