An Evolutionary History of Gaming, Gambling & iGaming – Part 1

How Ancient Gaming Changed the World

Join WA.Technology as we explore the birth, growth, and development of gaming, gambling, and iGaming over the years. Learn how the development and expansion of three distinct but intertwined industries have shaped society over the centuries and how they will continue to impact the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Gaming, Gambling & iGaming

Gaming, gambling, and iGaming. Three branches of the same tree are so alike but also uniquely different. Throughout history, gaming and gambling rubbed shoulders in villages, towns and cities from ancient civilisations to the modern day. 

Our three-part blog series will cover a condensed history of gaming, gambling, and iGaming from the start of humanity to the present day. But why all three? Why not just one? Scour the internet, and you’ll stumble across countless ‘The History of [insert gaming, gambling, or iGaming here]’ articles. However, few address more than one, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any that address all three. The reason behind this is probably the sheer scale of information, but it is foolish to dismiss it. The three go hand in hand. Without gaming, there can be no gambling and vice versa. Gaming can even be an umbrella term for gambling and gaming. The two are intertwined. Without gambling and gaming, there can be no iGaming. iGaming incorporates gaming and gambling. Do you see what we’re getting at?

To provide a complete, in-depth history would be a staggering undertaking. So, to make things easier to digest, we’ve cherry-picked and condensed the significant events that acted as catalysts in the world as we know it today.

Pre-Historic, Ancient History & Classical Antiquity

Ancient civilisations enjoyed games and gambling. Gambling was not restricted to a small corner of the globe but sporadically occurred independently in multiple locations worldwide. Taking many forms and guises, ancient people relaxed by partaking in sports betting or wagering on the outcome of leisure games.

Physical evidence supports ancient societies playing dice games of chance. Dice began as bones, inscribed with markings used during the Paleolithic period (Old Stone Age). They usually were used in astragalomancy, a type of divination. Similar bones were used across the ancient Eurasian continent. Civilisations in what is now Greece, Turkey, and the surrounding areas were users of these mystic bones. Variations in size, material, and use came and went, but these bones were the precursors of dice as we know them.

Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Romans, Greeks, and More!

Around 3,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia, people used six-sided dice to play games, and dice have been discovered during excavations of ancient Egyptian tombs. The items were prized enough to join their owners in the afterlife. Dice were used readily. 

Not only were the notable Egyptians fans of gambling and gaming, but the ancient Greeks and the Romans also partook in a wager. The ancient Egyptians enjoyed games like senet, mehen, mancala, and twenty squares. There is also archaeological evidence of dice being used in ancient Tibet, China, India, South America, and almost every other area inhabited by people. Close your eyes, and you can practically hear the ancient Olympians being cheered on by their faithful fans who’ve placed large wagers on their favourite athletes to win a race or gladiators bravely fighting for their lives against fearsome lions as Roman leaders placed their bets. Ancient Romans and Greeks were fans of betting and created the first type of betting chip to get around laws imposed by officials.

Ancient Asia

A few thousand years later, around the 5th century B.C.E., the first minted coin currency was created in Lydia (modern-day Turkey). Which certainly made betting easier. But it was the ‘Mahabharata’, an ancient Indian Sanskrit text, that first described dice in written form over 2,000 years ago.

Ancient China has provided evidence of other betting forms, such as using tiles and even a lottery, as described in the Chinese ‘Book of Songs’. The ancient Chinese are also credited with inventing the first deck of playing cards. They differ from our modern cards, but they were the first nonetheless, and it was written that Princess Tong Cheng of the Tang Dynasty enjoyed playing something called the leaf game.

The first ever gambling ‘machine’ was sculpted around the year 500 in Constantinople. Carved from a single lump of marble and engraved on the outside with a relief of images showing people enjoying chariot races, players would bet on which hole a marble would emerge from after being dropped into a hole at the top. Still on display at The Bode Museum in Germany, this feat of engineering is believed to represent a race with multiple possible outcomes that people could bet on.

Early Modern History, the Middle Ages & the Renaissance

Cards, dice, and the games played using them developed into early forms of baccarat and later blackjack and craps. Dice and cards are relatively cheap and easy to transport, which makes them attractive and viable. A card game called Hazard is described in the historical ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century.

The late Middle Ages and Early Renaissance periods brought more changes. The 15th century saw early versions of the games we know and love today. Baccarat, the first actual casino-style game, was devised in Italy and first drew a mention in contemporary texts to come out of  Italy. 

However, baccarat probably developed from a Chinese game called Pai Gow, which uses cards. Pai Gow was introduced to Italy by the epic explorer Marco Polo after his legendary travels to China. During this period, China began to develop many popular casino games, particularly lotteries, including keno, which is still enjoyed worldwide.

Early Card Games

A little later, the first versions of blackjack were described.  There is some evidence that the game originated in Spain from the game ‘ventiuna’. Miguel de Cervantes, author of the first modern novel, ‘Don Quixote’, discusses ventuina in one of his works. 

Variations such as ‘trent un’, ‘quinze’, ‘sette e mezzo’, and ‘vingt et un’ possibly originated in France. Later, it morphs into ‘pontoon’ in Great Britain, possibly ‘ochko’ in Russia, and twenty-one in the USA.

Around these events, some of the first gambling laws were written in England. The first was declared by King Richard of England in 1190, who introduced legislation on who could gamble and how much they could bet (noblemen only with a maximum of 20 shillings a day, around the equivalent of £700 in today’s money). Later, in 1388, Richard II attempted to ban money wagers from being placed on dice games and, in 1397 restricted gaming to non-working days only. 

When domineering Tudor King Henry VIII sat on the English throne, he decided enough was enough. The historians among you may well be aware that tyrant Henry was not someone to be trifled with and often changed laws on a whim to suit his own personal needs. This is true for The Unlawful Games Act 1541. The act had nothing to do with responsible gaming and more to do with a domineering monarch who did not wish his underlings to be distracted from fighting on his behalf by indulging in any fun and games. Only members of the Royal Court could gamble every day, excluding Christmas and religious holidays. 

The First Lotteries

Lotteries were the day's game when his daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, came to power. She drew up the first lottery in 1569, followed by the Million Lottery/English State Lottery in 1694. Lotteries were one of the few types of gambling that the royals of the time were keen supporters of due to the immense sums of money that could be made and used, such as finances raised for refurbishing London or funding the military.

As the Renaissance blossomed, more enlightened geniuses across Eurasia bolstered the popularity of gaming and gambling. The year 1663 saw the publication of the first book on gaming and probability. Written sometime earlier, in around 1564, by the Italian medic, philosopher, mathemetician, and all-round genius Gerolamo Cardano, the ‘Liber de Ludo Aleae’ (Book on Games of Chance) contain concepts of chance, probability versus improbability, strategy, odds, and ratio among others. All the things mathematicians and gamblers alike reflect on today. 

The World’s First Casino

All the while, the popularity of games and gambling has engorged the world. Italy was a shining light during the Renaissance, so it should come as no surprise that Venice is the location of the world’s oldest casino. Opened in 1638, the Casino di Venezia has almost mythical status. Primarily a theatre, the popular casino section – named Il Ridotto – drew large crowds, including royalty. Now owned by Venice City and officially opened as a casino in 1959, tourists can enjoy guided tours of the legendary building. The original interior can be seen in a painting titled 'The Ridotto Pubblico at Palazzo Dandolo' by Francesco Guardi, on display at The Met Museum, New York.

Our tour of Europe travels from Venice to Paris to witness the birth of one of the greatest casino games – roulette (meaning little wheel). Blaise Pascal was a physics and mathematical prodigy credited with developing some of the world’s first calculators. He was responsible for building the mechanism, the perpetual motion machine, that gave the roulette wheel its abilities. And thus, roulette was born (though not in its current sense)!

Early Horse Racing

Sports betting was also growing, especially horse racing. Popular across the globe, nobles and common folk alike dabbled in a flutter on the horses. The Carlisle Bell is a flat horse race that began in 1599. The name comes from the prize of two bells awarded by Queen Elizabeth I, which are now displayed in Carlisle Guildhall Museum. The race still takes place every year. One of the first documented races was arranged by King James I, who instigated Newmarket as a royal resort in the 17th century. There is documented evidence of him betting a hefty £100 in 1622, the equivalent of around £14,000 in today’s money! Newmarket is still going strong, and it’s not the only one. Several old races, like the Kiplingcotes Derby in Yorkshire, England, are held annually. Other animal sports like dog and cock fighting or bull baiting were popular, but thankfully, these have long since been banned. 

The Industrial Revolution to Modern-Day

The Age of Enlightenment was indeed upon the world of gaming and gambling. Mankind made huge strides towards progress during the Industrial Revolution and modernism. Roulette was still developing, and a wooden version named Roly Poly was enjoyed in England briefly before being outlawed. 

However, during this period, we see the emergence of another of casinos’ greatest and most loved games… poker. Poker possibly originated from a Chinese domino card game, from the French game poque or the German version pochen or pochspiel (which all developed from the Spanish game of primero), or the Persian game of as-nas

Poker – The American Creation

However, poker became the game we know and love today in the Deep South of America. In the 1800s, riverboats set sail around the steamy waterways of Mississippi and New Orleans, where plucky Americans played an early version of poker using 20 cards. Riverboats swerved strict gambling laws and offered entertainment for the locals. This original game developed into Texas Hold’em and other versions. The Wild West saw more than its fair share of brawls over poker games, most notably legendary sharpshooter Wild Bill Hickok, who was reputedly shot in the back and killed over a poker game. Legend has it he was holding a pair of eights and a pair of aces at the time, giving rise to the phrase ‘dead man’s hand’.

Meanwhile, lotteries were being used increasingly by charities and communities to fund initiatives in the States. Historic churches and universities benefited from the sale of lottery tickets as their popularity grew, though with opposition from the Puritans and Evangelicals. As well as lotteries, craps began to be more widely played in casinos and enjoyed for its quick and easy style of play.

Native Americans also enjoyed games of chance as part of their culture and traditions. One game involved throwing plum stones or marked bones into a bowl. A Cheyenne tribe named the game monshimout, while the Arapaho tribe played a similar game called hubbub. These and other games were the forerunners of the established Tribal Casinos that are widespread in America today

Casino Expansion in Europe

While over in Europe, the American minister brought poker to the court of Queen Victoria herself; and in France, François Blanc, otherwise known as ‘The Magician of Homburg’ and ‘The Magician of Monte Carlo’, will forever be immortalised as the inventor of European roulette. The debonair gent worked with his brother in the French gambling business. He officially invented European roulette as we know it today and developed many big casinos across Europe before the royal family of Monaco invited him to take over the Casino de Monte Carlo. The casino was a huge success, and not only did he go down in history for his gambling feats of invention, but two of his five children rose in the ranks of genteel society due to his efforts and married princes!

Several key laws on gambling were introduced in Great Britain in the 19th century; the Gaming Act 1845, the Betting Act 1853, and the Betting Act 1874  were implemented to take control of the industry and reduce unscrupulous bookmakers. The English State Lottery finally closed in 1826, with the last money going towards building Westminster Bridge and the British Museum. It would be 168 years until the National Lottery of the United Kingdom was reintroduced, with the very first draw taking place on 19 November 1994.

The Birth of Slots

The final pillar of casino gaming began to take form with the creation of gambling machines that would lead to the main-stay of casino gambling, the slot machine. 

Slots, fruit machines, video slots, one-armed bandits, fruities, pokies, poker machines, vending machines, gaming machines, coin machines, coin-operated machines, amusement machines, vendors, dispensers, etc. We could go on (but we won’t). Known by many names, slot machines changed the world of gaming and gambling. But where did they start?

The First Slots

There are actually a few precursors to the modern-day slot machine. The first mechanical slot machine was the Liberty Bell machine, invented by Charles Fey in 1894 in San Francisco. It is so famous that visitors can even read a dedicated placard at its original location. You can also check out an 1899 Liberty Bell machine at the Nevada State Museum's Fey Collection. The automated machine had three reels with five symbols: diamonds, hearts, horseshoes, spades, and the Liberty Bell. The Liberty Bell was the highest-ranking symbol, with a matching line winning the player a nice lump sum of ten nickels. Despite the Liberty Bell eventually being banned, the design developed with more machines being made, and the original slot symbols are still being used today. The Liberty worked better than alternative mechanisms that held actual cards; by utilising spinning drums, the process was fast, reliable, and fun.

Meanwhile, Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn developed a similar mechanism in 1891 in New York that used five reel drums holding 50 face cards. Their machine used the ‘one-armed’ lever, and instead of prizes, players won whatever the public house could provide, such as beer and smokes. The ten of spades and the jack of hearts were omitted from the deck, giving the house a higher edge. However, using cards instead of reels made the machine clunky, hence the comparatively better success of the Liberty Bell.

More companies began to develop similar machines, such as the Operator’s Bell, which supplied prizes of fruit-flavoured gum. These gum machines added fruity symbols to the reels that match the flavours of the gum. You've guessed it: cherries, lemons, oranges, and plums. Sound familiar?! Yep, the fruit machine was born! Not only did gum and other food prizes prove popular (especially during financial hardship in the USA), but it also helped avoid gambling laws.

The 20th Century, Before the Digital Gaming Age

The 20th century saw the most significant changes in gaming, gambling, and, eventually, iGaming. Turbulent times such as the Great Depression, Prohibition in the United States, the two World Wars and other conflicts, economic and social upheaval, and political changes blighted the century. Developments in engineering, electronics, and the digital age gave life to a time of swift progress with staggering results. It is here we see the most significant changes.

The first half of the century saw much poverty around the world. War, famine, and pandemics thwarted the ability of many to enjoy the lighter side of life. On June 29, 1905, The City of Traverse, a colossal steam vessel, set sail in America, providing sports betting on the waves, much to the dismay of Chicago’s city officials but to the delight of the residents who could now access some much-needed entertainment and escapism.

The Dawn of Las Vegas

The following year, however, sees the actual dawning of a new age. The Golden Gate Casino (originally Hotel Nevada) opened its doors in Las Vegas. Frequented by celebrities from the get-go, the casino is still open to the day, providing accommodation and casino entertainment. The first casino licence in Las Vegas was issued in 1931 to Mayme Stocker and J. H. Morgan. Mayme was new to the casino business, but the Stocker’s Northern Club proved popular, offering: 21, craps, horse racing, faro, poker, and roulette.

In 1962, the seminal book on card counting, ‘Beat the Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One’, by Edward O. Thorp, was published. Still in print today, the book is considered the origin of gambling strategies, and the author has gone on to appear in multiple documentary movies and television shows over the years.

Electronic Gambling

The first electromechanical slot machine was launched by Bally Technologies in 1964. Still very much a one-armed bandit sporting a lever to spin the reels, the game was called Money Honey and proved highly popular. This was when the famous strip of Las Vegas grew into the tourist destination we know today. Casinos such as Circus Circus, where performers would fly above the players' heads, provided thrilling entertainment of the non-gambling variety alongside the usual casino games. The strip began to feature more in popular entertainment, such as movies like James Bond

However, while Nevada remained a dream location for American gamblers, most other states set somewhat different rules that did not favour most types of gambling. While this may have been bad for gambling fans in the states affected, Nevada flourished and made the most of their lucrative tourist draw.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that things began to relax in the USA. Atlantic City in New Jersey saw its first casino open in 1978, with Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota finally opening casinos in the 1990s. Many state-sponsored lotteries were introduced in multiple states from the 1960s onwards, proving hugely popular.

Tribal Casinos

It was the Tribal Casinos that really benefited in America. In Native American culture, games were an essential part of life. By the 1970s, there were very high unemployment rates in the community. Bingo halls began to be built on Indian reservations. They proved popular and opened up a new avenue of employment. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 established the laws from which the National Indian Gaming Commission was formed that currently regulates Tribal Gaming.

Meanwhile, things were also changing overseas in Britain. Many laws and legislation covering everything from football pools and greyhound racing to betting on the card game bridge, lotteries, and horse racing (among others) were brought into law. However, the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960 changed the face of gambling. It legalised off-course betting and bingo and provided 13,000 licences for betting shops across Great Britain. Soon, it was common to see the streets of England lined with bookies (bookmakers) offering all sorts of bets to willing punters. Moreover, casinos were now legalised, the first to open being The Casino Club Port Talbot in Wales.

Turbulent Times

Elsewhere, changes were turbulent. Many countries outlawed gaming and gambling, and while some changed their minds on the matter, others didn’t and remain opposed, staunchly anti-gambling to this day. This, though, is always subject to change.

Bringing the Branches Back Together

At this point, we end Part 1 of our concise history. We’ve arrived at the cusp of change, that golden era of old-school retro video gaming of the 70s and 80s that is so en vogue. Join us next time in Part 2 of our exploration, where we look at the emergence of gaming and video gaming and what the future may hold in times of rapid technological advances.

As we journey through the rich tapestry of gaming and gambling's past, it's important to remember that with the thrill and excitement of these activities comes a responsibility to engage in them wisely and sustainably, underscoring the ever-relevant creed of our times: to always approach gaming and gambling with mindfulness and a commitment to responsible practices.

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