Gambling: Crash Course Games Part 2

The way the cards fall is still subject to the randomness inherent to casino games, and the player can do nothing to influence the quality of their hand. The skill comes in the reading of one’s opponents, and the use of strategic betting to either force opponents out of the game, or lure them into betting when you have a stronger hand.

But no matter what kind of gambling we’re talking about, there’s no doubt that people have been gambling for a long, long time. Probably for as long as there have been people. Maybe one prehistoric guy bet another guy that he could throw a rock over a tree or something, and he lost his cow, and next thing you know, we’ve got casinos all over the world. There were probably a few steps in between there, though. Actually, we’ve got plenty of non-speculative historical and literary evidence of gambling throughout history.

The Rigveda from India includes the Gambler’s Lament, written around the 12th century BCE. It’s the story about a gambler who loses it all. The poem reads, “My wife holds me aloof, her mother hates me: the wretched man finds none to give him comfort. As of a costly horse grown old and feeble, I find not any profit of the gamester.” And the narrator advises other gamblers to, quote, “Play not with dice: no, cultivate thy corn-land. Enjoy the gain, and deem that wealth sufficient.

There are thy cattle, there thy wife, O gambler. So this good Savitar himself hath told me.” There are also references to gambling in the ancient poetry of China, dating as far back as 1100 BCE, and gambling appears in Greek and Roman antiquity, and the Christian Bible as well.

After Christ’s crucifixion, Roman soldiers “divided up His garments among themselves by casting lots.” The casting of lots shows up in many early references of gambling which grew out of the ancient tradition of cleromancy, predicting the future or understanding the will of gods by interpreting random distributions of stuff they’ve thrown around. These lots eventually evolved into the dice we know today, and became much more secular. Playing cards emerged in China around the 9th century CE, and we covered the history of cards pretty extensively in our Card Games episode. So we don’t need to get into that too much again. Card and dice games were prevalent in Europe from antiquity onward, and casino gambling first appeared in Italy in the 17th century.

By the middle of the 19th century, there were casinos all over the continent that would still be recognizable today. During the same period, gambling made its way to North America. Lotteries were used to fund all kinds of things in colonial America, and all 13 colonies used official government lotteries.

In fact, fundraising by lottery was used to help initially fund a bunch of the first American universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton. Most gambling involving games of chance with cards and dice was more informal, and was happening in taverns, parlors and riverboats all over the New World. The legends of exploitative card sharps and cheaters in the 19th century American imagination contributed to changing attitudes about gambling.