Ancient High Rollers and the Games They Played

Regardless of how far we’ve come and how much we understand about both the world that surrounds us today as well as the one now only present in history books, one thing that has always been part of our development on individual and societal levels is gambling. Surprisingly, a lot of those that condemn the practice seem to be totally oblivious to this. Gambling can take many shapes and even surpasses humanity’s realm, oftentimes manifesting itself in other life forms. Going against the odds and succeeding always carries a high reward… but equally implies great risks. Foraging for food, war tactics of old, or undertaking perilous journeys across the high seas all carried big promises but not oftentimes delivered. However, when Lady Luck smiles wide, it’s blinding.

Today, we’re taking a trip back in time to look at how gambling evolved as a thrilling pastime across millennia. Encyclopedia Britannica keeps strict accounts of the practice and teaches us that Rome and China heavily regulated gambling activities and severely punished those who strayed from the rules. Half a world apart, ancient Egyptians punished incurable gamblers through forced labor. Greeks also didn’t shy away from the occasional gambling bouts. Alternatively, Minoans are believed to be among the first ancient civilizations that introduced card games similar to modern-day poker.

China and Card Games

Once ancient Chinese invented paper, it was only a matter of time before alternate uses were found for the newly discovered material. First came paper money, though. Just as soon as they learned how to shuffle paper money, it wasn’t log before they came up with shuffling cards, as well.

Keno draws its roots from ancient China. The game is played with numbered cards with values ranging from 1 to 80. Players had to select a set of numbers and sit in for a draw that would determine the winning ones. In antiquity, the 2,000-year-old card game was known by another name which loosely translates to “white pigeon ticket”. It wasn’t until 900 AD that the Chinese started adorning the playing cards with human figures. This is believed to have sparked the trend that later took off in Europe. However, the human figures were changed to Kings and Queens that are still used in modern designs.  

Greeks Really Loved their Gambling

History has a knack of repeating itself, so it comes as no surprise that views on gambling among ancient Hellens was as divided as it is today. While many philosophers of the time condemned the practice warning that it would become a plague, they were no match for the opposition comprised of at least two Gods. Surviving records talk about Pan and Hermes – two highly regarded mythological beings in ancient Greek culture – partaking in gambling activities. Alternatively, it is said that Zeus, Hades and Poseidon threw dice in order to decide how to split the Universe between them.

Checkers (otherwise known as “tilia” in ancient times) and heads or tails were among the most popular activities back then. Also, in the beginning, players used a shell for playing heads or tails before replacing the crustacean remnants with coins. Romans borrowed checkers and rebranded it as “game of 12 lines” during their era. Both the Greeks and the Romans loved their dice, but the former actually used three clay cubes, whereas the former would bring the number down a bit to just two.

Native Americans and Cave Casinos

It wasn’t up until 2015 that the world laid eyes on what’s thought to be America’s first ever casino. It was discovered in a cave in Utah and further studies have concluded that the primitive venue dates back to the 13th century. At least 10,000 objects related to various gambling activities have been discovered in the cave. Researchers believe that the carved sticks served a different purpose than pure excitement. According to their in-depth research, apparently it was mostly women that used the carved stick in order to assign tasks among themselves. University of Alberta’s John Ives further goes into detail saying such activities oftentimes involved sewing and meat preparation. Alternatively, men also didn’t shy away from a bit of gambling. Funny enough, it is believed that among their preferred gambling activities, one of the most prevalent such pastime was betting on the outcomes of women’s gambling sessions. 

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