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A History of Casino Games & Culture

March 24, 2022

Casino games seem like a very modern thing, don’t they? The technology behind slots, the juggernaut industry of casinos, the 21st century world of online casino games… it’s tough to imagine a world of casinos and gambling before this.

Casino games in the (very) early years

Gambling predates recorded history. The earliest six-sided dice discovered dated to around 3,000 BC. These were based on divination markers that were thousands of years older, and we know that in Mesopotamia and Ancient China gambling games were common.

What have the Romans ever done for casino games?

Upon crossing the Rubicon and beginning his campaign to become dictator of Rome, Julius Caesar famously proclaimed “the die is cast.” This concept wasn’t a foreign one for wealthy Romans, who often participated in public gambling during the Saturnalia festival.

This hobby obviously ran in the family. His nephew (and first Emperor of Rome), Augustus, was known for holding raffles at lavish banquets. He also played a Roman game called alea, which is an early form of backgammon. Emperor Claudius was a notorious dice player, and Caligula (naturally) was another big gambler. He even converted his imperial palace into a gambling house.

Some historians even believe that the game of craps originated in Ancient Rome. Soldiers would use an upturned shield as the table and pig knuckles for dice. We still use “knucklebones” as a slang for dice games today, two thousand years on.

The King of Casino Games

Alfonso X of Castile and León, Spain, reigned from 1252 until his death in 1284. He is the author of the first known guide to gambling: the Book of Games. The book clocks in at 98 pages and is mostly devoted to chess and board games. However, Alfonso also described a game named hazard, a predecessor of modern-day craps.

Exploring the world of casino games

Marco Polo is perhaps the most famous explorer of all time, best known for introducing Asian cultures and inventions to Europe. Without him, Italy wouldn’t have pasta. He has been (likely incorrectly) credited with bringing playing cards to Europe after they were invented in China around the ninth century.

Heads of state and gambling through the ages

It wasn’t just the Roman Emperors and early Spanish kings who enjoyed a flutter – it’s a hobby shared by a few Presidents of the United States, all the way back to the very first.

George Washington’s diaries include detailed accounts of his card games, while his successor Thomas Jefferson regularly gambled on backgammon and cards. Once, Harry Truman famously took Winston Churchill for a significant sum of money in a game of poker.

Casino’s early innovators

Card games by Cardano

Giralamo Cardano was an Italian mathematician and inventor. He was also a prolific writer, and his posthumously published The Book of Games of Chance laid a strong foundation for the mathematical field of probability theory and modern-day odds.

The man who invented roulette

We’ve talked about Blaise Pascal’s contribution to the world of casinos before. The French mathematician is credited with inventing the roulette wheel in his attempts to create a perpetual motion machine. We like roulette, but it would probably have been better for the world if he’d succeeded in those attempts instead…

From chocolate and coffee to casino games and craps

One of London’s oldest and most exclusive clubs is White’s, having operated on St James Street since 1755. Before that, it was Mrs White’s Chocolate House, a coffee house founded in 1693. Francis White was actually born Francesco Bianco in Italy. Upon moving to London, he anglicised his name.

White’s maintained a betting book throughout the 1700s and 1800s and hosted games of chance and proposition bets, making it one of England’s oldest gaming establishments.

Politics, poetry, prop bets

Lorenzo de’ Medici was a renaissance politician in the Florentine Republic. An advocate of the arts, he played and invented numerous card games and often mentioned them in his poetry. He was known as a card sharp across the state.

Modern-day casino innovators

Of course, casino innovation didn’t stop in the 1600s. We’ve had plenty of people come up with groundbreaking concepts in the world of casino games in recent years, too.

Benny Binion

You might not have heard of Benny Binion, but the simple fact is that without him you would not be reading this. Binion founded The Horseshoe and introduced innovations like comping big players, free drinks on casino floors and adjusting games to keep whales coming back.

His legacy, however, is the World Series of Poker. He established the tournament in 1970 and it was this that ultimately led to the Poker Boom decades later, and thereby the establishment of companies like PokerStars. Thanks, Benny!

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes was an inventor, aviator, filmmaker, and business mogul who unfortunately is now best-known for having fallen into sharp mental decline. His germaphobia became a mania and mental illness and he vanished from public view for years.

He is largely credited with transforming Las Vegas into the city it is today. His ownership of several large casinos in Las Vegas hugely contributed to transferring Las Vegas from mafia control to being owned by corporations.

Charles Fey

German-born machinist Charlies Fey used his electronics acumen to invent the first-ever mechanical three-reel slot machines. His invention, The Liberty Bell, paid a $0.20 jackpot ($7 today) for lining up three bell symbols.

Don Johnson

Not so much an innovator as a huge winner, Johnson made his living as the CEO of a horse racing software company. However, he is best remembered by the state of New Jersey as a man who won over $15,000,000 playing blackjack from 2011-2015.

Casino games in books, film, and song

The cultural impact of casino games and gambling is massive. In fact, people have created countless films and songs and books about the world of casinos. Here’s a few firm favourites.

Rain Man (1988)

Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar-winning role as autistic savant Raymond Babbitt isn’t a casino film per se, but the inspiring tale of brotherly love has one of the most famous casino scenes of all time, filmed on location at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. Raymond’s mathematical genius is exploited by his brother to win huge sums counting cards at blackjack.

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming (1954)

The first James Bond novel inextricably linked the character to casinos and gambling. The novel opens with Bond playing high-stakes roulette, while the overarching plot of the novel revolves around a baccarat tournament. Daniel Craig starred as Bond in the 2005 film based on the novel, with baccarat replaced by No Limit Hold’em.

Ocean’s 11, then and now (1960, 2001)

The original Ocean’s 11 starred the core of Hollywood’s Rat Pack: Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Angie Dickinson, and Joey Bishop. Lawford bought the original rights to the story. When he presented the plot to Frank Sinatra, Sinatra joked: “forget the movie; let’s pull the job!”

The 2001 remake assembled a similarly all-star cast including George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Andy Garcia, and Julia Roberts. It spawned several sequels and an all-female remake. During production of the original film, Sinatra performed shows in casinos between days of filming.

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866)

The renowned author of Crime and Punishment also wrote this book, which spends a lot of time at the roulette tables and at other gambling halls – much like its author. A notorious gambler, Dostoevsky actually wrote this novel in order to pay off his own sizeable gambling debts.

Casino (1995)

Martin Scorsese’s movie about mobsters Ace Rothstein and Nick Santoro was a brutally violent look at the mafia’s control of Las Vegas throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Based on the stories of real mobsters like Anthony Spilotro, the film stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone, who won a Golden Globe for her role.

The Gambler by Kenny Rogers (1978)

Not only is this classic an absolute belter, but knowing when to fold ‘em and when to hold ‘em, as well as never counting your money while you’re sitting at the table are sound strategies, meaning the lyrics are full of bona fide poker tips.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

This movie and musical was inspired by one of the most famous gamblers of all time, Alvin “Titanic” Thompson. This road gambler would bet on anything and everything, from golf to dice to pool to proposition bets.