A Brief History of the Casino
When we think of casinos, we picture flashing lights, baize-covered tables and high-stakes gameplay. While the concept of the casino is relatively modern, the history of gambling is interlinked with the history of humanity and goes back thousands of years. Nearly all cultures and societies show evidence of early forms of gambling, many of which we will explore in this article. Let’s take a closer look at the history of casinos and gambling!
The Early Signs of Gambling
Gambling has, in all likelihood, existed since the dawn of human history. The earliest evidence unearthed in China, where archaeologists excavated a set of carved wooden tiles used for rudimentary gambling. The usage of these tiles was confirmed by the Chinese Shijing, or Book of Songs, a collection of poetic pieces from the 11th to the 7th century BC; in it, texts mention drawing wooden tiles to reveal prizes, which suggests that these tiles may have been used in place of tickets in a lottery-like game.
Ancient Civilisations and Gambling
Ancient China wasn’t the only hub for ancient gambling! Ancient Egyptians were one of the earliest societies to develop a smash-hit board game — senet. This game is quite similar to backgammon and has been an integral part of Egyptian culture for millennia.
One of the oldest pairs of dice on record was recovered from an Egyptian tomb from 3000BC; they are made of animal bone, and it is speculated that their original purpose may have been involved in a form of ancient Egyptian fortune-telling.
During the same period, various dice have been uncovered across South Asia and other parts of North Africa, including dice with two, four and six sides. The oldest evidence of the cubic die comes from the Indus Valley, where knucklebones of quadrupeds, like sheep and goats, were carved and commonly used in board games and other gambling games. It is speculated that many of the earliest dice games were played for rewards and, although not always monetary, this pay-to-play system is quite reminiscent of modern gambling.
Ancient Greeks and Romans also valued their pastime, and many enjoyed playing various games for money as early as 500BC. Unfortunately, gambling was illegal at the time and, thanks to the ingenuity of Roman soldiers, the first chips came to be. If the gamblers ran into guards, they would simply pretend to play for useless rewards — like the chips — instead of real money or favours.
The first playing cards appeared in China around the 9th century, believed to be paper forms of dominoes. Although tiles were also used in ancient Chinese dominoes, like in pai gow, evidence suggests that paper cards may have been used as part of the game and in place of the stake, similar to modern trading card games like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Magic: The Gathering. By all accounts, these cards bore little resemblance to the 52-card deck we know today.
Keno is another lottery-like game of chance played with card slips, or tickets, with evidence of keno slips being used around 200BC in China. Legend has it that this lottery game served the people in times of great need — during wars and the construction of the Great Wall of China, helping boost the public’s morale and raise lottery funds for the nation’s first line of defence. Some records suggest that results of keno games were sent to outlying cities and hamlets by carrier pigeons, which earned the game the name of beige piao, which translates to ‘white pigeon ticket’.
History of Casino Gambling — First Casinos
The first casinos that could be compared to the venues we know today were called gambling houses. They appeared in Italy in the 17th century, the first being Il Ridotto and the Casino di Venezia, both of which opened their doors in 1638, Venice — the city of romance and, as it turns out, gambling! Il Ridotto was a government-owned gambling establishment and is the first public, commercial casino in the West. The Casino di Venezia sits on the Grand Canal and was originally called the Theatre Saint Moses, which had a wing for gambling during intermissions. These Venetian gaming houses sparked the public’s interest in gambling and, within the next century, Venice became home to over 120 casinos.
As casino houses spread across Europe, they also found their way to North America. There’s evidence of lotteries and betting on horse races in the colonial era, but a nationwide crackdown on gambling forced venues to relocate to safe havens like riverboats, where the captain was the law. As railroads gradually replaced riverboats and steamboats, fewer and fewer venues remained open — practically all of them illegal; the first officially recognised, legal riverboat casino did not hit the waters until 1989! Riverboat gambling lives on to this day, as massive cruise ships tour the world and offer their passengers a chance to relieve boredom through gambling.
The Entertainment Capital of the World — Las Vegas — was founded in 1905 and became America’s gambling hub in the 20th century. Since the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, gambling was outlawed, but underground venues remained in operation. In 1931, the activity was legalised in Nevada and forever changed its economic landscape. Casino hotels and gambling houses popped up left and right, with Tommy Hull’s El Rancho Vegas hotel becoming the first of its kind on the Las Vegas Strip.
Las Vegas Casino Resorts
Bugsy Siegel, a New York City mobster, gave the public the first taste of the larger-than-life casinos in Vegas with the opening of the Flamingo. In the 70s, the trend of turning casinos into enormous hotel resorts brought unprecedented prosperity to the city, drawing in families and gamblers from all over the country to experience top-of-the-line entertainment as well as the country’s most extravagant gambling venues. Today, the MGM Grand and the Bellagio are some of the largest and most famous casinos in the world, each boasting over 2,000 slot machines and hundreds of casino tables.
Games of chance have been in existence for far longer than modern casinos; let’s have a look at some of the most popular games.
While the origins of most casino games are debated, it is believed that baccarat emerged in the 1400s, Italy. The game was originally called ‘baccara’, meaning ‘zero’, because all 10s and face cards are worth zero points. The game moved to France from Italy, where it became a roaring success, and the name was quickly adapted to the french spelling — baccarat. The game’s objective is simple: bet on one of three outcomes — Player, Banker or Tie — and the hand with the closest value to nine wins the round.
Blackjack as we know it was called vingt-et-un (meaning 21) in 18th-century France. The game is played against the house with the objective of forming a hand with a value closest to 21 without surpassing it. Some tables offered a payout of 10:1 for a hand containing an ace of spades and a black jack (spades or clubs), earning the game a name that stuck around for years to come — blackjack.
Variants of roulette existed as early as Ancient Rome, when soldiers used spinning shields and markings to gamble for coin. It wasn’t until Blaise Pascal’s 17th-century invention that we first saw the roulette wheel as we know it. Later, the Blanc brothers forever changed the game by introducing the single-zero roulette wheel, which took Monte Carlo by storm. The American and European roulette wheels are widely enjoyed in land-based and online casino platforms worldwide.
No casino is truly whole without a solid variety of poker tables. The game’s origins can be traced to Persia, but the closest European predecessor — poque — surfaced in 17th-century France. In poker, players must build the strongest hand or bluff their way to victory.
Live Game Shows
In the late 1930s, game shows appeared on both television and radio, with Spelling Bee, Information Please and Truth or Consequences being the first of their kind. The popularity of these live shows spread to live-dealer casinos as well, where shows like Crazy Time, Dream Catcher, Monopoly Live and Mega Ball offer a one-of-a-kind gameplay experience and attract thousands of gamers every day.
The Invention of Slot Machines
Slots are the bread and butter of every casino! The first coin-operated slot machine was the Liberty Bell, invented by Charles Fey in the late 19th century, which featured automatic payouts. The first video slot gambling machine was created in 1976, California after an eight-decade long prohibition of gambling. These slots featured a computerised display, colourful graphics and anti-cheating mechanisms. This pushed the horizons of creativity for creators and casinos alike, allowing them to experiment with different slot layouts, bonus features and prizes. Over 70% of all casino players prefer slots, so it’s no surprise that today’s online platforms boast hundreds and even thousands of innovative video slots.
The Beginnings of Online Casinos
Online gambling is any kind of wagering conducted on the internet, including virtual poker, internet casinos, sports betting and other gambling sites. The first online casino opened its virtual doors in 1996 by InterCasino, a popular provider to this day.
The Regulation of Online Gambling
Many countries struggled over how to regulate the online gambling industry and ensure safety for internet users. It was then that the Caribbean nation, Antigua and Barbuda, passed the Free Trade & Processing Act in 1994, issuing the first regulatory casino licence.
Isle of Man
The Isle of Man Gambling Supervision Commission was established in 1962 to safeguard the gamblers' interests, ensuring that betting remains crime-free and fair. With the advent of online gambling, the island gained worldwide attention due to its reputation as a tax-friendly jurisdiction.
Currently, online gambling is heavily regulated in countries where it is legal (most EU countries, some states and provinces in the USA and Canada, and several Caribbean nations). The Malta Gaming Authority, UK Gambling Commission and the Gibraltar Betting and Gambling Association are just some of the regulatory bodies that issue licences to online casino platforms. Casino operators must align with rigorous industry standards and practices that ensure a safe, reliable and fair gambling environment for all.
As the casino industry grows, so does the number of talented developers and slot game developers. Some of the industry's biggest names are NetEnt, Microgaming, Evolution, Play'n GO, Pragmatic Play, Big Time Gaming, Novomatic, Wazdan, Red Tiger Gaming, Pariplay, Merkur and Blueprint Gaming.
The Introduction of Mobile Casinos
The rise of mobile devices gave online casinos another milestone to achieve — mobile-friendly platforms. In 2004, Microgaming released the first mobile casino gambling software, which served as one of the building blocks of successful mobile games. As of 2021, nearly 50% of all casino players prefer gaming on the go, and most slots and tables are optimised for mobile devices.
Sports betting has been around for as long as sports have and is one of the most popular forms of gambling today. Sports betting is wagering on a predicted outcome of any spectator sport, like tennis or football. Many operators will also offer comprehensive selections on hot sports markets.