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Gambling in Ancient Times

Author: Skyla Burrell

Where does the idea of gambling come from? It seems humankind has gambled for millennia, so let’s take a look at the question and examine the origins of a few of our favorite casino games created in ancient history that we still play today in one form or fashion.

The creation of the game of Poker is credited to the Minoan civilization, which is said to have developed the game over 3,500 years ago. The Minoan's were a Bronze Age people that lived on the island of Crete (and other smaller Aegean Islands) from c. 2700 to c. 1450 BC. They were quite creative and known as a peaceful civilization (relatively speaking), that were eventually absorbed by the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks consequently are credited with many of the gambling games we know and play today.

Greek mythology contains a story that God’s Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon played a game of ‘throw the dice’ to decide how the Universe would be split up between them. In the days of Homer, rolling double sixes was referred to as the ‘throw of Aphrodite’, denoting victory. Though the catchphrase has changed through the centuries, some call them ‘boxcars’, while others call them ‘midnight’, the result is the same – victory or success. On a side note, the probability of rolling double 6’s with 2 fair-sided dice is 9.09%. The very first depictions of dice games date back approximately 40,000 years ago to cave drawings proving gambling has been around for pretty much all of documented history.

The game of Checkers was originally called ‘Tilia’ and also stems back to the ancient Greeks. During the Roman era citizens took the game to another level, calling it ‘the game of the 12 lines’ and it involved betting on animal fights with animals bred specifically for that purpose. Archeologists have found many references on pottery from the period that depicted betting on animal fights between dogs, birds, and even chickens. Today, Checkers is still popular but not considered a form of gambling and definitely does not involve any animals.

The game of Keno can trace its roots to China 2,000 years ago and was called ‘white pigeon ticket’. The game was allowed to be operated in legal gambling houses with the permission of the provincial governor, who received a rather large percentage of the profits. It is commonly reported that this is how China managed to finance the construction of the Great Wall.

We find references to gambling games in ancient Egypt and China, as well as in Islamic texts and even Buddhism. In biblical texts, Roman guards reportedly ‘cast the lots’ for the garment of Jesus during the Crucifixion. In every written instance found in history, at some point gambling was regulated and extreme punishment was inflicted upon those who participated in games of chance. Still today, gambling is heavily regulated and punishments are handed out to those who break the rules, though thankfully not nearly as extreme.