Your In-Depth Guide To Roulette’s Storied History
March 18, 2019
There are a few theories about how roulette came to be invented, but much like the spread of fire across the world, it seems cultures in different places all managed to come up with similar games that interacted with one another to produce the version we have today.
From France, to China, Greece and the whole of the Roman empire, it appears the game in some form or another has been around for hundreds of years.
In Europe, the roulette wheel as we know it was invented in France, which goes almost entirely – well, entirely – to explaining why the game has a French name. In the 17th century, Blaise Pascal – a French inventor, physicist and mathematician – conceived a rudimentary version of the game as he tried to invent a perpetual motion machine, which was ultimately perfected in the form of Brazilian right-back Cafu.
The world ‘roulette’ translates from French to English as ‘little wheel’, due to the spinning wheel that is used to choose the number. However, there is another theory that the name comes from another game, ‘Roly Poly,’ which was played in England around the same time.
From there, the contraption was adapted and developed in conjunction with the Italian-French game of Biribi, where a bingo-style card was matched with numbers drawn out of a bag. The roulette wheel was introduced as a way to derive the number.
In 1796, the roulette we play today was largely set. The roulette wheel was introduced first to Paris, where single zero was coloured red, and double zero was black, with green for the zeros used for clarity at the start of the 19th century. The presence of at least one zero is necessary to give the house an edge over the long term. One slot gives the house an edge of just 2.7%, but doubling the number of slots brings the edge to 5.26% – only a few versions of the game use a third slot, which would take the edge further away from those placing bets.
Halfway through the century, in 1843, there was a further development when Francois and Louis Blanc, two Frenchmen, introduced the roulette wheel with just a single zero, in Bad Homburg, a famous spa town in Germany with plenty of casinos. Across the Atlantic, some tables ran 1 to 28, with an American Eagle slot in addition to the single and double zeros, further weighing the odds in favour of the house.
The numbers on a European roulette wheel ran from zero to 36, which means that the sum total of the numbers come to 666, which is widely considered a number with occult implications – the ‘Number of the Beast’. That has led to some speculation that the Blanc brothers had made a Faustian pact in order to gain the success at the hands of the roulette business, which would add a slight zest to the history of the game.
The number 666 has led to some to theorise that the game instead is based in a Chinese board game. The game used 37 figurines of different animals, and they had to be arranged into the right order on a square to reach a total of 666. The game was brought to Europe by Dominican monks who were in China at the time and studying the country’s culture. The theory has been hampered because the rules were not recorded by the monks, and that the original game had not included any slots for zero.
There are older potential origins too, both from Europe. During the time of the Roman Empire, soldiers would occupy themselves in downtime by betting on the outcome of spinning a shield or wheel. In Ancient Greece, soldiers there also used their spare time by predicting the final position of a symbol on an upturned shield, which would then be spun. The concept of the game is centuries older than the game that was introduced in France.
Back to France. During much of the 1700s, gambling was a repressed activity, and did not find popularity until laws were introduced late in the century to allow some forms of gambling. It was in the 19th century that the game spread across the Western world, but it was not without obstacles. The German state outlawed gambling in the 1860s, meaning the Blancs had to relocate to Monte Carlo, which can still be considered the home of big money gambling in Europe.
In order to solve the financial constraints in his principality, Monaco’s Prince Charles licensed gambling properties which housed roulette tables, bringing in revenues and introducing the game to some of the nobility in the region. That association lent glamour to roulette, allowing it to gain wider popularity. It was this move that allowed the Blancs to develop the Monte Carlo resort, allowing it to spread to the rest of France.
In the US, there were other regulatory problems. Gambling was not banned, but gamblers and operators embraced cheating by adding instruments to the roulette wheel to artificially change the odds in order to reward whomever had interfered. The cheating was so extensive that US wheels were then moved onto the top of the table to prevent any further cheating, with the audience for American roulette finding their homes in gambling dens compared to the more salubrious European environ in Monaco.
Until the 1970s, casino towns in the West were limited to Monte Carlo and Las Vegas, which employed the single zero and double zero wheels respectively, but gambling started to spread. In 2008, roulette flourished in casinos across the globe. And in 2016, the triple zero wheel was established a the Venetian casino, which is counter-intuitively located in Las Vegas.
The internet has allowed roulette and online casinos to find a wider audience, to be played in any country that gaming is permitted through a number of roulette sites, and at any time of the day. The ease of gaming allows people to find both single and double zero wheels, and gives players the chance to focus on their game rather than be distracted by the experience of a real-life casino.
Author: Tom M.
Tom has been creating online content for over 10 years now starting way back as a small, impressionable 16-year-old. Tom mainly writes about sport and gambling, but every now and then also delves into fleshier subjects like politics and psychology. When he was 18 he created HungarianFootball.com and over the last few years he's written on a freelance basis for ESPN, WorldSoccer, Goal.com, among many others.