The table game known as Roulette got its start in France, but it was based upon a number of other popular gambling activities that preceded it. For example, “Roly Poly,” a wheel-type game played in England in the 1720s, allowed players to place bets on which slot a small ball would land in. The Roly Poly wheel had two “banker” slots, which would cause all bets to lose if the ball landed there.
When the British Parliament banned Roly Poly in 1739, a new game appeared called “Even and Odd” or E/O. This game’s wheel had forty unnumbered Black and White slots, with one of each colour for the banker. As a strictly an even money game, whenever a bank slot came up, bets were collected only from the losing colour and no payouts were made on the winning colour, thus creating in a small advantage for the house.
In 1745, E/O made its way to France, where the colours of the wheel were changed to Red and Black and the game was renamed “roelete” or “small wheel.” The French also introduced a more balanced and smoother-spinning wheel mechanism, based on a 1655 prototype for an unsuccessful perpetual motion machine designed by French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623-1662).
Meanwhile, gamblers in southern France had discovered an Italian lottery-type game called biribi that had become all the rage in Genoa. This game featured a playing board with a 36-number display. This numbers correlated to three dozen marked balls contained in a leather pouch. Players would wager directly on the board to predict which ball would be drawn from the pouch by the dealer at random.
Between 1760 and 1789, biribi and roelete were combined. The slots on the wheel were numbered to reflect the playing board layout, showing 36 alternating numbers coloured Red and Black. Two unnumbered slots were designated for the banker.
When anti-gambling laws were relaxed following the French Revolution (1789–1799), the new game of “roulette” caught on quickly. At the Palais Royale in Paris, Roulette soon became the main form of entertainment. Soon, the “small wheel” was exported to the resorts of Spa in southern Belgium and the casinos of Monte Carlo. It was also exported to French enclaves in New Orleans in 1803, just about the time of the Louisiana Purchase.
It is interesting to note that the original French Roulette wheel had 38 numbered slots or “pockets.” Of these, 18 were coloured Red and 18 Black, while the other two were coloured green as the bank slots and numbered Zero and Double Zero. This wheel was the one that landed in America, became the new star of New Orleans’ French Quarter and traveled the country’s waterways on paddle-wheel riverboats. It did not take long for the Roulette wheel to become a standard attraction at saloons and gambling parlors in California and the Old West, too, just in time for the Gold Rush Era (1848-1865).
Even as the 38-number wheel was becoming a part of American culture, back in Europe in 1842 a pair of enterprising brothers, Francois and Louis Blanc, “made a pact with the devil” to discover a way to entice more players for their Roulette games. The secret they allegedly got in return for their souls was devious indeed: remove the Double Zero. The 37-number wheel was thus born, giving the bank only one winning slot and offering players better odds.
Not surprisingly, the single-zero idea caught fire, first in Germany and then Monaco and France, spreading across the continent. As the new “European wheel” evolved in the latter half of the 19th century, the original 38-number layout remained unchanged in the United States. It has ever since been known as the “American wheel.” Nowadays, both varieties can be found in casinos all over the world and online as well—still one of the most popular table games ever invented.