In the 21st century, gambling is a multibillion dollar global industry, and one which has embraced digital technologies like the internet to reach vast, international audiences.
Of course the cutting edge nature of online casinos and even the bright lights of land-based venues disguise the intriguing history of gambling. So let’s pull back the curtain on this ancient pastime and find out about the oldest games of chance from around the world.
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The unfortunate reality of human history is that the further back you go, the harder it is to be certain about anything. However, in the case of gambling, lots of evidence is available to suggest that people were playing games and probably placing bets tens of thousands of years ago.
Dice are the most common gambling artifact to survive over the millennia, with civilizations from Ancient Greece to China known to have produced many-sided examples back in the mists of time.
Indeed dice evolved from the even earlier use of knuckle bones by prehistoric peoples, both as a means of playing games and predicting the future. There is clearly something compelling about rolling objects and seeing which sides are shown, as dice games are still hugely popular to this day.
Moving forward to an era about which more is known thanks to extensive record-keeping and remaining physical evidence, medieval gambling and tavern games were many and varied, particularly in Europe.
Taverns, pubs and inns were epicenters of gambling because they were hubs for so many other activities, serving communities, hosting travelers and facilitating trade. It is no surprise that the people who ran them often acted as bookmakers in addition to fulfilling a number of other roles for their patrons.
Once again dice games were prevalent at this time, even if they were outlawed in plenty of places throughout the medieval period because of ethical concerns, or simply because they could be the source of conflict in drink-fuelled environments.
Meanwhile the rise of playing cards also occurred around this period, originating in China and gradually spreading to other nations, being adapted along the way.
The proliferation of card games still played today, such as poker and blackjack, did not begin until much later, and the 19th century was a golden era for this. Even so, the fact that you can trace this type of gambling back to roots in far flung places and the distant past shows how enduring it can be as an activity.
It would be impossible to talk about the earliest forms of gambling without mentioning that people not only wagered on games that they were actively involved in, but also on events to which they were merely spectators.
Just as modern gambling fans can bet on everything from the NFL to the Olympics, throughout history there are many records of wagering on all sorts of sporting and sport-adjacent showdowns.
Many of these would be human-on-human in nature, be that a wrestling match or a test of strength. In fact entire medieval tournaments, in which knights competed in everything from jousting and archery to hammer throwing, were in part fuelled by widespread betting at every level of society, from the lowliest peasant to the mightiest lord.
However, there was also plenty of wagering on activities which would be completely illegal today, such as cock fighting and other often brutal sports involving animals of all shapes and sizes.
We may find the thought of this barbaric in the 21st century, but it was entirely normal and hugely popular in many parts of the world during bygone eras.
Another thing you might not realize is that it was not just games which we still associate with gambling today which were being wagered on many moons ago; lots of other types of games first arose specifically to scratch that gambling itch that all humans seem to have.
For example, medieval variations on games like draughts and tic-tac-toe were conceived as a way to gamble. So winners would not just walk away from playing board games with honor and respect, but also a slightly heavier purse.
So as you can see, gambling is inextricably tied to every epoch of human history that we know about, and can safely be assumed to have been used in some for or other by our oldest ancestors, predating recorded history itself. Based on this, we can assume that people will continue to gamble for as long as our species exists.