The history of gambling – is it the oldest game in the world?

There is evidence of gambling that dates as far back as the evidence that humans existed at all. It seems like we have always been gambling in some form and for some purpose. Let’s have a look at the long journey from the first instances of gambling to the online betting possible today.

Definition of gambling

When looking for a definition of gambling, you can turn to the UK Gambling Act of 2005. It lists the different gambling activities as arcades, betting, bingo, casinos, lotteries and gaming machines. The dictionary defines it as ‘the activity or practice of playing at a game of chance for money or other stakes.’ When simplifying the meaning of gambling from the activities listed in the Gambling Act to playing a game of chance for money, it’s easier to see how there have been gamblers in ancient times.

First appearances


While the American city of Las Vegas is now seen as the most famous place for gambling, as far as we can tell, it originated in China. Evidence was found as far back as the First Dynasty which was 4000 years ago. References to tiles, slips of paper and the drawing of wood have been found in relation to chance games. An early version of cards were also discovered. It is theorised that the Great Wall of China could have been partly built using lottery funds. Even so far back, the lottery was used to fund projects.


Other ancient societies have evidence of gambling too. The Romans have a myth about the creation of dice by one of the gods. Whether what the poet Sophocles wrote is true or not, dice definitely existed in Roman times. In fact, dice have even been found in Egyptian tombs. It was the Romans who first used chips in gambling. It was a trick to bypass the gambling ban in Rome. The soldiers couldn’t punish them for playing for chips, only if they were carrying about cash winnings.

First casino

Italy holds the title for the first casino, dated around the 17th century. Italy started to create more formal environments for gambling during the chaos of carnivals and they continued to be popular. Other countries like America kept their gambling places more informal, even setting up games for the wealthy on boats. America’s puritan settlers didn’t approve of gambling so throughout its history it has had an unstable relationship with gambling. The Great Depression sparked the creation of the luxurious party casinos America is known for today.

First games


Baccarat is the game still played today that can be traced back the furthest. It originates in Italy and France and has made its way around the world in different forms since the 1400s. This is a two player card game so it is not as much of a social game as poker, for example. However, it does still exist in many modern casinos.


The origin story of blackjack is uncertain. There are reports of a form of the game in Spain and France. Both times it was called 21.The game is about getting a hand of cards closest to 21 without exceeding the number. In the city of Serville the game was first written about in a story published in 1601. The name blackjack didn’t start being used until French colonists reached America. It referred to a bonus deal that was offered at the time but quickly disappeared. There was a bonus payout if your hand included an ace of spades and a clubs or spades Jack (a blackjack).


Roulette is another popular casino game that is associated strongly with America. Despite there being an American Roulette Wheel, the game was first discovered in Paris. Gaming houses there did originally use the double zero wheel but 50 years later, the wheel was changed to the version we now see as European with one zero. 


Poker also has a difficult to identify history. It has lots of possible origin stories. It could have come from Persia in the 17th century or the French game Poque. Its origin date is usually agreed as 1829 where it was reported to be played in New Orleans by actor Joseph Crowell. Poker became really popular when tournaments were introduced at the end of the 20th century. This has been boosted further by online poker introducing the possibility of anyone becoming Poker rich.

First gambling machine

How about slots – where did that game come from? Gambling machines are a more modern invention in relation to the other games on this list. The first one was called the Liberty Bell and used some of the card symbols on its three reels. It was invented by Charles Fey who was a car mechanic. He also created the first draw poker machine. 

Online gambling

These developments have led to the forms of online gambling used today. Online casinos replicate many of these games that have been played for centuries. Technology pushes the possibilities of gambling further and further. If you would like to play some online gambling yourself, I would recommend the website

In-game gambling

Casinos and gambling have taken another step into the world of technology. In many video games, you can visit casinos and play games. Mini-games (games within the overall narrative of the game) are popular with players. It allows you to take a step back from the intense narrative you are playing and earn some extra points. All types of casinos have been depicted in video games. They can be found in fantasy worlds or games depicting situations closer to reality.

Clearly gambling has a long and complex history far beyond what has been mentioned here. It’s shocking to think about how the slips of paper used in China years ago have developed into the online games we play today. The future developments of gambling could be just as drastic with the introduction of new technology such as virtual reality. No matter your opinion on gambling, it has stood the test of time.

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