The Ups And Downs Of Gambling

CULTURE | October 16, 2019

Las Vegas Strip. Source: (wikipedia.org)

It would be a safe bet to say that gambling is one of mankind’s oldest pastimes. Evidence has been found which suggests that games of chance were played dating back as far as the cavemen. And, of course, where there are games of chance, there are also people who try to cheat at those games of chance.

The oldest evidence of gambling was dice-like objects made from sheep or dog bones which are estimated to be 40,000 years old. Additional evidence has been found in the form of cave drawings. The discovery of weighted pairs of dice among the ruins of Pompeii suggests that perhaps it’s not such a good idea to attempt to control fate. The origin of poker has been traced back 3,500 years to the Minoan civilization. Ivory dice from around 1500 B.C. were found in Thebes, indicating that gambling was also practiced in ancient Egypt. There is also evidence of gambling in the Roman Empire, even among children. In the bible, Roman guards cast lots to see who would get Christ’s garment during the crucifixion. 

Dice discovered in among the ruins of Pompeii. Source: (pinterest.com)

Gambling seems to have been particularly prominent in ancient Greece. In fact, it is said that Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon decided who would get the heavens, the seas, or the underworld by throwing dice. Doubles sixes was known as the “throw of Aphrodite” and was a winning throw then as it is today. Despite the participation of the gods in these games of chance, the pastime of gambling had early detractors. This was probably due to the fact that people were just as likely then to gamble away their fortunes as they are today. As a result, the practice was criticized by philosophers who considered it to be a plague and eventually came under government regulation.

Fresco of two gambling men in a tavern of Pompeii. Source: (pinterest.com)

Gambling in ancient China dates back as early as 2300 B.C. with the invention of a tile-based game of chance. The game of keno was also invented in China around 2,000 years ago. It was originally called “white pigeon ticket” and was played in a similar manner to today’s lottery. Around 900 A.D., they had invented playing cards decorated with human forms which would eventually make their way to Europe where they evolved into the playing cards used today.

Native American gambling sticks. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, in the western hemisphere, Native Americans believed games of chance were invented by the gods and they would wager on future harvests. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was financed by lotteries and, in 1793, George Washington bought the first federal lottery ticket, the proceeds of which went to pay for improvements in D.C. By the 1830s, there were more than 420 lotteries in the United States. Riverboats and frontier towns provided new gambling venues. However, this also led to an increase in cheaters and con men, who were often lynched by their marks.

A lottery drawing being conducted at the television studio at Texas Lottery Commission headquarters. Source: (wikipedia.org)

Gambling declined after the Civil War, beginning with the abolition of most lotteries. By the time of the Prohibition, both drinking and gambling had to be done in secret. However, it began to make a comeback in the 1930s with the legalization of horse racing. In 1931, Nevada legalized gambling and saw the rise of casinos. In 1978, Atlantic City followed their example, providing Nevada with competition on the gambling front. Since then several states have legalized gambling or at least some forms of it; however, the pastime is still highly censured, due to its questionable morality and its tendency to lead to debt and criminal activity, and it continues to fall under government regulation.

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