Gambling is older than history itself, but permanent venues for games of chance are a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back only to the 17th century. Until then, nobody understood the mathematics of games well enough to figure out how to make a consistent profit from them.
Such bright luminaries as astrophysicist Galileo Galilei (1564~1642), mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623~62), and calculus-inventor Pierre de Fermat (1601~65) were commissioned by wealthy patrons to study how one might regularly win at cards and dice. Soon, papers were been published far and wide on the probability of coins flips and strategies for wagering. The gambling public devoured them and demand quickly grew for opportunities to test odds.
Almost overnight, Europeans became enamored of lotteries. Churches from France to Belgium and Holland started using lucky draws to raise funds, offering money, gold and jewelry as prizes. Merchants discovered they could earn more profit by getting a thousand potential buyers to risk a ducat or a franc on winning a carpet than they could by selling it for a few hundred to just one of them.
In particular, the citizens of the Rialto District in Venice, Italy went mad for such “mercantile gambling,” and the town fathers soon recognised this craze as a fund-raising opportunity. They began conducting their own drawings, raffling off not only municipal real estate but also official jobs and commissions. Then they began regulating what others offered, too, gradually bringing all lotteries under government control. It was “good for the people,” they claimed, because they were diverting a percentage of the lottery revenue to feed the poor and ransom hostages held in foreign lands.
But bans on unsanctioned gambling activities were ineffective at best. Dice and card games started appearing spontaneously on Venice streets. When authorities attempted to stop them, the organisers fled to private chambers known as “ridotto,” which flourished among the local aristocracy as well as common folk.
Knowing that any gambling prohibition was doomed to failure, the Great Council of Venice came up with an alternative. For the city’s annual Spring Carnival in 1638, they converted part of the San Moisé Palace for legal gaming. They named it “The Ridotto”—the world’s first state-sanctioned “casino.”
The word “casino” derives from the Latin term “casa,” a small humble dwelling or cottage, but the Ridotto was neither small nor humble. It was four storeys high, containing numerous parlours and huge candlelit chandeliers. All players except nobility were required to wear Carnival masks. Refreshments were sold for a profit, and admission was charged for non-players to watch the games. The state easily made money.
By 1768, the Ridotto had expanded and become a Venetian institution. A second legal casino was opened at the San Cassian Theatre. Games enjoyed then included the card games known as Basset and Faro, as well as biribisso, a lottery type game in which a winning number is blindly drawn from a leather sack—similar to Keno or Bingo.
Between 1650 and 1800, the Italians’ gambling fervor swept across neighbouring France. King Louis XIV made games of chance an integral part of court life. It was in Paris during this period that Baccarat, Roulette, and Vingt-et-Un (“21”) were invented, all games with a built-in “house edge” or advantage that made them perfect for organisers of casinos.
Many attempts were made to stamp out gambling in France prior to the French Revolution (1789~1799). In 1785, Louis Philippe Joseph I decided to allow casino operators to open “social clubs” in the basement of the four-storey Palais Royale as a way of containing them while earning rent from their activities. The number of rooms devoted to gambling was once estimated at more than 100.
Meanwhile, the newest games of chance made their way across the Atlantic to the French enclave at New Orleans. And by 1796, a town closer to home, on the Riviera, had established itself as Europe’s “legal location” for casino gambling—Monte Carlo.
In the saloons and gambling halls of America’s Old West, French casino game rules were modified to emerge as Blackjack, the dice game know as Craps, and a new bluffing game called “Poker.” Like Europe, the United States struggled with the morality of gambling, but left the decision up to individual states whether it should be legal or not. By 1931, all but one state decided against allowing casinos to operate—Nevada—which led to the explosive growth of Las Vegas as America’s gambling playground.
Today, casinos are legal in many countries, from Spain to the Philippines and Australia. Macau is has become the fastest growing location for casino properties, and more and more jurisdictions are following suit, allowing casino business to open. Government regulation ensures that play is fair, and the casinos are a steady source of tax revenue—a winning arrangement for all involved.