It seems safe to say that gambling has an ancient history. Not only that, the archaeological evidence even suggests that the birth of civilization was at the same time as the birth of gambling. The history of humanity is inseparably linked with the history of gambling.
No matter how far back we look, we will find people gathering together to play games of chance. This would suggest that there is a connection between human nature and the deep desire to risk and take a chance with one’s luck.
China is the home of some of the oldest accounts of gambling. Some of them can be found in the feudal states of the Chou Dynasty period (800-256 B.C.). But, some historians believe that the origins of Chinese gambling go deeper in the past, to the Shang (1700-1027 B.C.) or even the Xia periods (2000-1500 B.C.).
Later Chinese history saw some restrictions put on gambling, such as in the Sung (960–1279), Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming dynasty (1368–1644) periods. But the rulers of these dynasties were usually only serious about outlawing gambling in the early stages of their rule. Later, the bans would no longer be enforced. Some Chinese rulers, like Zhu Yuan-zhang (1328–1398), were known to enjoy gambling themselves!
This long history produced many different forms and types of gambling. It is believed that the Chinese invented the card games when they introduced them in the Tang dynasty period (during the 800s). Also, the Chinese Book of Songs mentions “the drawing of wood” – and some believe that this describes a type of lottery game involving tiles.
Without China gambling wouldn’t be what it is today – games like blackjack, keno, and poker all originated there!
Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
Mesopotamia is the place which competes with China for the title of the originator of gambling. Not surprising since this is the place, according to the scientists, where ancient nomads finally decided to stop their wanderings and finally settle down, thus creating the Western civilization.
The primitive form of dice, the four-sided Astragali (also known as knuckle-bones) originates there. Knuckle-bones (originally made from talus bones, and later from wood, stone, and metal) were also used in Ancient Egypt – at first, as a way to communicate with gods!
Mesopotamia and Egypt are also the places where the earliest known board games come from! The rules of the Royal Game of Ur – one of the first strategy board games played in ancient Mesopotamia (found in the Royal Tombs of Ur in Iraq), were successfully reconstructed. But the earliest known board game, Senet, comes from Egypt. It predates the Royal Game of Ur by 900 years! However, the rules of Senet remain a mystery!
It is interesting to note that the very countries that endorsed chance games in ancient times, such as Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the UAE, heavily restrict gambling today. However, there are still some blogs that provide guides on how to play these games if you’re based in the likes of the UAE, and how to play them legally in the first place.
Buddhist texts describe Indians using the nuts of the Vibhitaka tree as dice and gambling with them as early as 300 BC. Later, with the introduction of the game of Passa, nuts were replaced with Astragali. At the same time betting on animals became popular: ram fights, cockfights, and eventually horse racing!
In the 15th century, legal gambling spread all over India. It was heavily regulated to make sure the games were fair, and India was the place where the gambling tax was first introduced. Also, it is often overlooked that in many cases playing cards and other gambling devices found in Europe contained Indian symbols.
India also has its own board game Pachisi, first introduced during the Medieval India period. The name of the game means twenty-five, which is the highest score that can be thrown in the game.
But India has a much deeper connection with the games of luck!
It was found in both great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata! And while in the Ramayana the mention is only casual, in the Mahabharata a game of dice has a very significant role to play. A game of dice is the reason why Pandavas (the five brothers who are the main characters of the epic) lose their kingdom and the right to rule. So, the game of dice becomes the reason for the fall of Pandavas and it eventually leads to the battle of Kurukshetra!
Is ancient India the cradle of all the games, or we can dig even further? A question yet to be answered.