History of Casino Games

Gambling in some form may be as old as civilization itself. The first official account of gambling came from the Chinese around 2300 BCE. Thereafter, every major civilization and most minor societies as well gambled, most often with dice, from the Greeks and Romans through European empires. Wherever humans went around the world, they took their gambling pursuits with them.

Origins of Various Casino Games

Most of today’s popular casino games grew out of previous games. For example, in the 16th century, the French adapted an Egyptian game involving a small ball and a spinning wheel into today’s roulette (French for “little wheel”). Emperor Napoleon was fond of playing a card game called vingt-et-un (twenty-one), known today as blackjack. The English invented a game called hazard, which emigrated to England’s American colonies and became the game known today as craps. All of these games and others can be traced to similar earlier diversions played in Italy, Persia (Iran), and yes, China.


Roulette is believed to be the oldest casino game still in existence. Today’s version descends from other wheel-type games that became popular during the Middle Ages. Roulette earned its name because of its popularity in France especially. To play the game, one bets that the ball will land on certain numbers or a color when it drops into a slot as the wheel slows down to a stop. The game remains much more popular in Europe than in America because of differences in the game wheel. American casinos use roulette wheels with both 0 and 00, which increases the house edge to 5.26 compared to 2.70 in European roulette, which uses only 0 on the wheel. Out the four basic American casino games – baccarat, blackjack, craps and roulette – roulette has the worst odds for American players.


Baccarat has a swanky reputation, evoking images of sophistication based on dealers in tuxedos working tables roped off from crowds. In reality, baccarat can be a game for the masses, because it has the lowest house percentage of any of the standard casino games, somewhere between 1.17 and 1.36 percent. Baccarat was invented by Italians and popularized by those fun-loving French. Europeans know the game as chemin de fer after its French version. The object of the game is to draw cards that total nine, betting on the outcome of each draw. The game is played at elongated oval tables numbered one through fifteen. The scoring is complicated, but the rules are clearly displayed at each table.


Gambling histories record similar precursors, but today’s blackjack is commonly traced to Napoleon’s favorite card game, vingt-et-un, or twenty-one. This alternative name mistakenly leads many novice gamblers to believe that the purpose of the game is to draw cards that total 21. In reality, as the famous mathematician and gambling expert Edward O. Thorp wrote in his groundbreaking book by the same title, the object of blackjack is to “Beat the Dealer.” Blackjack for money is the most popular game in casinos, which can have entire rooms devoted to blackjack tables. Its strategies can be complex, depending on what a player holds in his or her hole cards, but it does have one cardinal rule: A player will never go wrong assuming that the dealer has at least one 10-count card in the hole. Betting this strategy often saves a player from going over 21 (busting) and often results in a win.


The dice game known as craps is the descendent of many related games player through the centuries. The version played today in American casinos developed out of an old English game called “hazard.” The object of the game is to make the “point” before rolling a seven. This is harder than it might sound, because seven is the most frequently thrown number on the standard six-sided dice used in craps. More dice combinations can make seven than any other number. The most important roll of the dice in craps is known as the “come-out,” when a player throws the dice to determine the “point,” four, five , six, eight, nine, or ten. Players wager on whether the “shooter” (the player who throws the dice) will make the point before throwing sevens. The strategy is complex, based on the odds of certain numbers being rolled, but the excitement is undeniable.

Mainstream Acceptance of Casinos

To the horror of churches and civic groups, casino gambling has become widely accepted across America over the past 50 years. From the glittering casinos of Las Vegas and Reno, casino gambling spread first to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then to dozens of American Indian reservation casinos, putting casino games within a few hours’ drive of most Americans.

Casino games have become acceptable in part because of a successful advertising campaign by professional gaming interests that has recast the pastime as entertainment rather than gambling. In addition, television, movies have depicted casinos as glamorous. Finally, casinos reinvented themselves as places of entertainment, including shows by big-name performers.

In the 21st century, casino parties have become popular pastimes for private gatherings as well as fund-raisers for civic and community organizations.

On TV and in Movies

Casino games also have gained respectability through their portrayal in contemporary media.

Countless episodes of mainstream TV shows have been visited casino sites, from the occasional Las Vegas visits of the venerable Perry Mason series to the futuristic gambling halls of Star Trek: The Next Generation. At least two drama series, Vega$ (1978-81) and Las Vegas (2003-2008) have been named after the gambling mecca. The allure of poker spawned a rash of reality shows including World Poker Tour on the Travel Channel, and High Stakes Poker on GSN. In April 2010, an online casino, Casino Las Vegas launched its Casino TV games service, which allows players to play live dealer roulette and blackjack online with real dealers in real time via the Internet.

Among recent movies, probably the most notable for their casino settings are:

* Ocean’s Eleven, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts and a host of other top-name actors as a gang of thieves determined to steal millions from fictional versions of the Mirage, the MGM Grand and the Bellagio;

* Casino Royale, the reboot of the James Bond film franchise that introduced Daniel Craig as the new 007, set in a swanky international casino in Montenegro, Uruguay.

* Rain Man, in which selfish Charlie Babbit (Tom Cruise) exploited the card-counting ability of his autistic older brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) to win at blackjack in a Las Vegas casino.

* 21, based on the book Bringing Down the House, about how the famous MIT Blackjack Team led by Professor Mickey Rosa (played by Kevin Spacey) won millions of dollars in Las Vegas.

* The Cooler, a fantasy in which William H. Macy’s bad luck rubs off on other players, giving the house an extra advantage, until he falls in love with a casino waitress played by Maria Bello.

* Bugsy, the highly fictionalized story of gangster and Las Vegas co-founder Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, played by Warren Beatty.

* Honeymoon in Vegas, featuring Nicolas Cage as a hapless poker player who loses $65,000 to James Caan, who offers to cancel the debt if he can spend a non-sexual weekend with Cage’s fiancée Sarah Jessica Parker. Watch for the skydiving Elvis impersonators.

Possibly the most true-to-life movie about casinos is the aptly named Casino, a 1995 crime drama based on Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book of the same name. The story is based on the life and career of the late sports book innovator, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who secretly ran the Fremont, Stardust and Hacienda casinos in Las Vegas for the Chicago Mob in the 1970s and early 1980s. Rosenthal was also noted for running a sports book from a casino (previously the reverse had been true) and for being the first to hire female dealers. The latter innovation doubled the Stardust’s take in a single year. (Note that until recently, this film held the record for the greatest use of the “F” word in movies).