Roulette – From a Perpetual Motion Machine to a Casino Landmark

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Yet, various historical references suggest similar games were played in ancient times by the Chinese and the Romans.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.

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