The Origins of Games of Chance

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A Brief History

On January 13, 2016, Powerball produced the largest lottery jackpot in history; the $1.586 billion jackpot was split by three tickets sold in Chino Hills, California, in Munford, Tennessee, and in Melbourne Beach, Florida.  Nevertheless, the multi-billion dollar industry around gambling certainly is not a recent phenomenon. The origins of the word come from the Middle English word, gammlen, meaning “to play, jest, be merry,”, and if you look even further back, you will find it actually started in prehistoric times.  

Digging Deeper

Prehistory and the ancient dynasties

The Egyptian game of Senet” by University of Brooklyn (CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the earliest cavemen calculating the odds of being able to kill their foes to punters placing bets using mobile apps, calculating probability is always at the back of our minds. Archaeological evidence suggests that as far back as the Paleolithic era, cavemen liked the occasional game of chance with the family after a hard day’s hunting.

An Egyptian game called Senet is featured on hieroglyphs and multiple tombs in Egypt and the accessories used even became a talisman for the journey of the dead. The game unsurprisingly depended heavily on luck, so people believed the winner was under the protection of the gods.

Revels with the Romans

Dice players in Pompei” by Wolfgang Rieger (CC-PD-Mark

BAFA was the game which swept the Roman Empire, played by everyone from the poorest slaves to Emperors. Caesar, Nero and Genghis Khan all rolled BAFA for coins, for property and even for clothes at Roman orgies. Furthermore, if proof were needed that we humans also have cheating in our collective DNA, weighted pairs of dice were found in the ruins at Pompeii, so perhaps what happened there was divine retribution!

The Greeks were also in on the act. Philosophers condemned gambling, resulting in severe restrictions to limit it. Having said that, Plato and Aristotle probably had the odd side-bet on the quiet…

Gruesome odds and hazardous gaming

The first casino, The Ridotto in Venice, opened in 1638 to provide an environment where controlled gaming could take place. Even the refined Georgian period in England was notable for a game called, appropriately, “Hazard”. Entire fortunes could be lost in a night playing this fast-paced game, and losing thousands of guineas was not uncommon.

The lucky number that came good… eventually

U.S. lotteries. As of 2016, all states with lotteries (in blue) plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands offer Powerball.  Map by Soccera2g.

If we think we have a chance, we love taking a punt, and it gives us the opportunity to spin a little mysticism or plain illogical thinking into the mix. Whether it is a scratchcard or a randomly generated number for the weekly bonanza draw, we are drawn to the possibility of winning a life-changing amount of cash. Sometimes, just sometimes, those dreams come true in a big way, like the lucky winner of the Powerball record jackpot on January 13th, 2016, where the payout was mind-blowingly enormous and, if fact, never matched since.  It is the kind of payday dreamed of every week by the millions of people who chance their luck every day around the world.

If there had been a Paleolithic lottery back in the day, it would be interesting to see how the hunter-gatherers would play that one out – although every day was sure to be a form of lottery back then.

Question for students (and subscribers): What is the most you ever won in a lottery?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Crist, Walter, Anne-Elizabeth Dunn-Vaturi, et al.  Ancient Egyptians at Play: Board Games Across Borders (Bloomsbury Egyptology).  Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

Zollinger, Manfred.  Random Riches: Gambling Past & Present.  Routledge, 2016.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States of a billboard for the Powerball and Mega Millions lottery game prizes in Missouri, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  This image was originally posted to Flickr by Tony Webster at https://flickr.com/photos/87296837@N00/44555666811. It was reviewed on  by FlickreviewR 2 and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

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Abdul Alhazred

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked. "Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad." "How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice. "You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland