However, we did not reinvent the wheel here, and same goes to gambling. In fact, games of chance have been around for thousands of years and, as far as scientists can tell, they played major role in just about any civilisation to date. And while today they only serve as a hobby, in the old days they were often an integral part of some religious and cultural traditions.
So, without further ado, let us dive into the origin of gambling and how it fit in the lives of different ancient civilisations.
Gambling in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
When it comes to ancient civilisations, it doesn’t get much older than those in Mesopotamia and Egypt. In fact, according to current scientific knowledge, humans first decided to leave behind the nomadic life and settle down in Mesopotamia. So, it is no surprise that the earliest evidences of gaming can be found there.
Very little is known about the gaming artefacts recovered from those locations, but it is widely believed that a lot of them also involved a healthy dose of betting on their outcome. One of the earliest gaming items recovered are the four-sided Astragali, also known as knucklebones. These were originally made from animal talus bones, and were later recreated with various materials, such as wood, metal, and stone. They were mostly used as a more-primitive version of dice, before the six-sided die was created.
Ancient Egyptians also used both knucklebones and dice. At first, however, they were used to communicate with the gods. It was widely believed that the result of a dice throw could reveal the answer of the celestials, regarding specific questions. A 2012 discovery also proves that they used a 20-sided die, as well. However, it is unknown what its purpose served (it probably was not for Dungeons & Dragons sessions).
Of course, the Egyptians also found the entertainment value of gaming, so they later started using dice in various games, including the earliest known board game – Senet. Its name translates as “the game of passing,” but today’s historians still argue over its rules. They have managed to reconstruct the rules of the Royal Game of Ur, however, a board game found in the Royal Tombs of Ur, Iraq, in the 1920s. This game also made its way to Egypt under the name Asseb, but Senet predates it by as much as 900 years.
Gaming in Ancient China
Throughout history, China was (and still is) the gambling capital of the Far East. Despite games of chance being banned there for prolonged periods of time, it has always been a mecca for those looking to bet some of their hard-earned money. In fact, most historians believe that the origin of gambling can be traced to Ancient China.
Gambling has been known to exist as far back as the Xia dynasty’s reign (1900-1600 B.C.). However, even back then, most of the country’s rulers recognised the significant risks it posed if it turned into an obsession. Therefore, games of chance were usually under very strict control, or outright banned throughout Ancient China. Still, people hardly cared, and this was still one of the top pastimes for ancient Chinese. When gambling was finally legalised, it was done because it introduced great financial benefits for the government. It was a good way to get money from the common people, relying only on their own free will to play, instead of forcing any additional taxes upon them.
Considering China’s deep-rooted gambling culture, it comes as no surprise that a lot of today’s most popular games of chance originated there. This includes games like blackjack, poker, keno, and many others. In fact, the Chinese are credited with inventing the playing cards as well. It is believed that they were introduced around the 9th century AD, during the Tang dynasty. The British sinologist Sir William Henry Wilkinson believed that the first playing cards were actually paper currency, used in games as both the tool and the stakes of the game.
Ancient Chinese are also credited with developing the first tile-based games. These would later become the basis on which modern dominoes were created.
Gambling in the Ancient Americas
When it comes to games in the Americas, very little information has been found or preserved. However, what we know today is that dice games were quite popular in the Americas. Back in 2010, archaeologist Barbara Voorhies discovered what she believes is an ancient scoreboard used for a dice game of some sorts. It consists of a series of holes, punched in the floor, and was determined to be approximately 5,000 years old. This makes it the oldest evidence of gaming activities in the Americas.
One of the oldest known games of the Americas is the game of Patolli. When it comes to board design and gameplay, it was very similar to a game of Ludo. However, it only involved two players and the stakes were much higher. Each contestant had six markers and usually, they had to bet one item for each of them. The wager could include personal belongings, food, precious stones, and gold jewellery. However, in some extreme cases, players could bet their homes, family, or their own freedom. Then, as many rounds were played as needed until one decisive victor emerged. The game only ended when one of the players won all of their opponent’s items and had their own original bet by their side.
Early Gambling in Europe
Gambling was prominent in Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece. One of the most popular games was called Par Impar. In theory, it was very similar to the present-day Odds or Evens. It involved two players: one had to hide a few small objects in their fist, usually nuts or pebbles, while the other had to guess whether their number was odd or even. The game’s simplicity naturally led to players placing small bets on the outcome.
The ancient Greeks also played a lot of dice games, as well as other games of chance. There were even various gambling establishments throughout Greece. However, those venues had a bad reputation and it was considered dishonourable to gamble, even though luck-based games are even part of the ancient Greek mythology. According to the legends, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades split the Universe among them through a game of dice. The least-fortunate one proved to be Hades, who got the Underworld because his brothers had better throws.
When it comes to Ancient Rome, gambling was largely prohibited during the days of the Republic. It was only allowed during the Saturnalia festival, which was celebrated by turning everything upside down. Slaves were served dinner by their masters, public revelry replaced the usually civilised routines, and gambling was allowed, among other things.
However, despite the wide-spread ban, Romans still gambled, and they did so a lot. This, of course, included cheating, as well, which resulted in a lot of fights and arguments over the outcomes of games. In fact, frauds were so common that graffiti have been found in Pompeii, saying “I am skilled enough to win without cheating.” It appears that the gambling ban was not strongly enforced, though, since a lot of similar doodles and texts have been found by archaeologists, including a sign outside an ancient tavern that advertised “good food and gambling within.”
Some Roman emperors were also well-known betting men. Emperors Augustus and Nero were both famous for their love of gambling, with the first admitting to losing quite a lot in games of chance. It is said that Emperor Commodus was so obsessed with gaming, that he gambled away the state treasury. Then, in an attempt to make up for his losses, he turned the royal palace into a casino.
Gambling in Ancient India
Gambling might be frowned upon and legally challenging nowadays, as you can read in our page dedicated to Gambling in India, but this was not always the case. In fact, gambling has been present from the rise of the Indian civilisation. Hindu mythologies dating back to 2000 BC are the primary sources reporting on gambling games played during these times. For example, in Mahabharata, which is among the greatest epics of the Hindu religion the Kauravas and the Pandava, a game of dices is the turning point of the story. A seemingly harmless game of dice becomes the reason of the Pandavas’ loss of their kingdom and their right to rule. Furthermore, the Pandavas are also sent to exile and the wife of the Pandavas, Draupadi is humiliated in open court by the Kauravas. The God Krishna eventually comes to her rescue, but the point is that the game of dice becomes the reason of the dishonour of the Pandavas and eventually leads to the battle of Kurukshetra.
However, gambling in this story is also used as the tool to orchestrate a major plot of how to make the Kauravas fight against the Pandavas. According to the myth, it was all planned by Shakuni the uncle of the Kaurava, who was supposed to be an expert in the game of dice and who was behind the whole plan of getting the Kauravas involved with the Pandavas during the game. He did all this as an act of revenge as he knew that the Kauravas would not stand a chance against the Pandavas during a battle. Thus, gambling turns out to be the key to the plot of the Mahabharata and seems to be an accepted social activity during the Aryan period.
Moreover, if we observe the major Indian festivals like Holi and Diwali we would find that nowadays gambling is supposed to be an opportune activity. The festivals celebrate the arrival of the new in terms of finances, colour and season. Furthermore, it is believed that if Lakhsmi the Goddess of wealth is generous to you on Diwali, you would have a prosperous year. That is why many people gamble on this day and Diwali is considered a material festival. If we look at gambling from a historical point of view, however, many anthropologists believe that it was often seen as a way to resolve the conflicts between two sides. The aforementioned myth of the Kauravas and the Pandava confirms this theory. It is an interesting fact the appearance of Pachisi also introduced the board games to India. Pachisi is a board game shaped as a symmetrical cross. The name pachisi actually means twenty-five, which is the highest score that can be thrown in the game. There are two additional versions of the game – the chausar and one played by Yudhishtira and Shakuni. And if you are curious about ancient gambling but you like the modern world, take a look at our list of the best gambling sites for 2021.