An absolute casino classic, roulette is one of the oldest house-banked gambling games in the world. The details of its exact inception remain veiled in mystery to this day, with many clashing theories as to where the game originated from.
Many believe it was French mathematician Blaise Pascal who invented the roulette wheel by accident in the 17th century. Others draw parallels between roulette and the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune, spun by the blindfolded Lady Fortune to randomly determine the fate of men, often to ruinous results. The idea was both good and bad fortune are transient, which inarguably is a great metaphor for the impermanence of a gambler’s luck.
Yet, various historical references suggest similar games were played in ancient times by the Chinese and the Romans. In this article, we trace the history of this casino classic and introduce you to the key changes roulette has undergone throughout the centuries. Why? Because in order to truly understand roulette, you should know the game’s history and the metamorphosis it went through that shaped it into what we know today.
The Evolution of Roulette
1The Ancient Ancestors of Roulette
Let’s go back to the very beginning. Some theories suggest a game vaguely similar to roulette was played in ancient China. The players arranged 37 figurines representing different animals on a square board that contained numbers whose cumulative total added to 666.
This game was then arguably brought to the European continent by monks who introduced various modifications, such as using a circle instead of a square. The trouble with this theory is the absence of any surviving records with details about the exact rules of this ancient game. Still, the fact the numbers on the roulette wheel also total 666 is an interesting coincidence in our opinion.
Games with vague semblance to roulette were also popular among the ancient Greek and Roman soldiers, who would draw symbols on the inner side of a shield and place it on the ground next to an arrow. The shield was then spun, with the soldiers gambling on which symbol the arrow would point to when the spinning shield comes to rest. While this resembles the gameplay in roulette for the most part, there is no substantial evidence for us to allow roulette is of Greek or Roman origin.
2Blaise Pascal and His Failed Attempt at Devising a Perpetual Motion Machine
Many people share the belief that French mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal came up with a primitive form of the roulette wheel in the 17th century while he was trying to devise a perpetual motion machine. The motion of one such machine was supposed to continue for an indefinite period, without the presence of an external source to feed it with energy.
Of course, Pascal’s attempts proved futile since the operation of one such machine is in stark violation of the laws of thermodynamics, the first and second law to be precise. The scientist, who also studied the probabilities inherent to gambling, may have failed in his attempts but he arguably gave rise to one of the most popular casino games in the world.
A person of unknown origin supposedly liked the idea and decided to carve pockets with numbers onto a spinning wheel, large enough to accommodate a tiny ball that would determine the winning outcome.
Other sources suggest the design and gameplay of roulette were borrowed by two similar games called Even/Odd and Roly Poly. These were played by gamblers from Continental Europe in the 17th century. Gambling at the time was not particularly well-spread, mainly due to the fact such activities were prohibited by law in many European countries as demoralizing.
One of the earliest recorded descriptions of roulette in Europe comes from an 1801 book by Jaques Lablee where the author alludes to a roulette wheel in 1796 Palais Royal. At the time, the game was almost similar to the one we know today.
Even the payouts for the different types of bets were quite identical. The wheel contained numbers 1 through 36 along with a single and a double zero in alternating black and red pockets. Green was chosen for the pockets with the zeros in the early 1800s for the purpose of preventing confusion.
3The Blanc Brothers Introduce the Single-Zero Wheel
France deservedly gets all the credit when it comes to shaping roulette into its present form. In 1842, the Frenchman François Blanc and his brother Louis opened a successful gambling house in the independent territory of Bad Homburg, which is now part of present-day Germany.
In 1837, gambling houses were outlawed in France so the two brothers had no other option but to establish their gambling hall in a foreign country. Bad Homburg’s ruler granted them a license. In exchange, the Blanc brothers had to pay generous annual taxes that went toward the expenses for the small state’s law-enforcement and defense.
Shortly after the establishment opened shop, François and Louis decided to do away with the double-zero pocket and introduced the first roulette wheels that played only with a single zero. In turn, this reduced the bias in favor of the house.
The Bad Homburg casino was a highly profitable venture despite gamblers winning massive amounts of money on some occasions. Usually, when the cash reserves at a roulette table were fully depleted by a lucky gambler, Francois would request the table to be covered with a black cloth to indicate it is temporarily out of service.
The casino had an immense success and attracted hoards of notable personalities, including Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. He quickly fell prey to the spell of the Devil’s Wheel and struggled with problem gambling for ten years. Dostoevsky was so fascinated with roulette that it served as the inspiration for his short novel The Gambler, which relates a story of love, demise, and gambling addiction.
Roulette takes over the gambling world
Roulette Takes Monte Carlo by Storm
The success of the Homburg casino piqued the interest of Prince Charles III of Monaco, who desperately needed money to mend the struggling economy of his small kingdom. When Germany outlawed gambling in the mid 1860s, the Blanc brothers finally succumbed to Prince Charles’ pleas and moved their operations to Monaco where they took over the Monte Carlo Casino. The business quickly took off, generating such enormous revenue that Prince Charles even absolved his subjects from paying taxes.
It was around this time that the systems for winning at the roulette tables began to gain traction. An English gentleman by the name of Charles Deville Wells arrived at the Monte Carlo Casino sometime around the year 1891. Wells played roulette with such inexhaustible energy and drive that people first assumed he was the reckless heir of a great fortune.
He would arrive at the Monte Carlo Casino at noon and gamble at the roulette tables with abandon until the establishment would finally close doors at 11 o’clock in the evening. Wells is said to have broken the bank at the roulette tables on multiple occasions, generating £40,000 in profits (around £4 million in present-day terms) over the brief span of several days.
The gentleman was bold enough to return a couple of months later when he repeated the stunt and won £20,000 more. This gave rise to speculation and many people believed Wells was cheating the house at roulette, a plausible supposition considering his previous history as a patent fraudster.
The explanation he furnished was that he had perfected his own “infallible system” for beating the game, although there is a good chance he was just incredibly lucky during those particular visits. Gamblers flooded the floors of the Monte Carlo Casino in an attempt to replicate the immense success Wells had at the roulette tables there. The game then spread throughout Europe like wildfire.
Roulette Travels to the New World
Roulette sailed to the New World with the French settlers who reached the shores of Louisiana at the beginning of the 19th century. The first gambling houses to offer the game in the country opened doors in the port city of New Orleans and were quickly flooded by gamblers from different races and social standing.
This motley crew of customers inevitably lead to a commotion of brawls and even homicides in some cases. It was because of this reason that the authorities decided to allow gambling but only on board of the riverboats that traversed the Mississippi River.
The game traveled to the frontier towns of the American West with the Gold Rush that shook the country in the mid 19th century. The American wheels originally featured only 28 red and black numbers. There were three additional pockets that gave the house a greater edge, the green single zero, the double zero, and a pocket with the image of an eagle, which symbolized the young country’s liberation from the British Empire.
Gamblers were naturally displeased by the higher house advantage and the eagle pocket was eventually ditched for the present-day version of the wheel, which play with numbers 1 through 36 plus the single and the double zeros.
Gambling became legal in the state of Nevada in 1931 and soon after, the first gaming venues in what was to become Sin City received their licenses to offer roulette and other games of chance. Over the next decades, roulette gradually began to give way to card games like blackjack, which offered much better odds to gamblers.
Roulette in Present Days
Roulette saw a revival in terms of popularity after the internet started to spread to households around the world at the turn of the 21st century. The new technologies gave rise to the emergence of the first online casinos, which presented roulette fans with instant access to different single-zero and double-zero variants.
Now that there are no longer physical limitations to hinder the development of the game, gamblers are facing an enormous choice of original alternatives to traditional roulette. Few of the prime examples are games like Pinball Roulette, Double Ball Roulette, Multiwheel Roulette, and Spread Bet Roulette.
This undying casino classic has reached unprecedented heights, offering the players of today more betting opportunities than ever before. With the launch of the first live dealer casino in 2003 by Playtech, authentic roulette games streamed in real time became available at the fingertips of gamblers the world over. We are convinced the future holds even greater surprises for the fans of the Devil’s Wheel as gambling technologies would surely continue to improve in the years to come.