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The History of Roulette

12 Aug 2022

Like most casino games, the history of roulette isn’t completely clear-cut.

There isn’t one definitive moment in time when a line was drawn in the sand as to when it was officially invented, by whom and how. There’s certainly a lot that happened between then and online roulette today as we know it.

Keep reading about roulette history and we’ll tell you how a French physicist, the Prince of Monaco, a couple of French brothers with great entrepreneurial minds and riverboat owners in Mississippi all had a hand in allowing roulette to evolve into what is these days.

The result is a relatively simple game involving a wheel, a little ball and chips, and enjoyed by millions of casino gamblers all around the world as one of the most popular casino games.

But how exactly did it get here?

Roulette Origins: The Theories

Some of what you’re about to read next is based on reliable evidence in books, journals, witness accounts and other sources we can all trust. Some of it is more based on legend and a little bit of speculation. 

So let’s try to sort the wheat from the chaff as we go delving into roulette’s history

Casanova wins at Biribi

Whereas we don’t know when exactly Biribi is meant to have started being played, we know when it stopped being played: 1837. 

That was the year that it was banned and it never really returned after that. 

 But while it was alive and well, it was an Italian game played on a board with numbers ranging from 1 to 70. 

But there was no wheel in sight. 

Instead, the person running the game would produce a ticket from a bag and players who had that number were paid out at odds of 64/1, so considerably shorter than the genuine odds of that number being drawn. 

Given there was no wheel, the game resembled a lottery more than modern roulette as we know it. 

That said, it was played among a lot fewer people at the same time than a lottery and players were taking on the house, rather than playing for communal money. 

One fan of it was the legendary lover and adventurer Giacomo Casanova. 

In true maverick style, he played it despite it being illegal in Genova at the time and came up trumps more than once. 

In a similarly typical fashion, soon after the wins, he was accused of collusion with the game's organiser. 

On the one hand, cheating on such games was common at the time and Casanova himself referred to Biribi as a ‘regular cheat’s game’ in some of his memoirs. 

On the other hand, in his writing, he also claims he broke the bank fairly without any external help.

Pascal reinvents the roulette wheel

When in around 1650 Blaise Pascal invented the concept of the wheel with different slots on it into which a small ball was released, gambling was the last thing on his mind. 

Pascal was a French physicist and what he was trying to do was to develop a perpetual motion machine that would keep on spinning or moving, without any external energy needed. 

Centuries later, we know it's impossible to develop a perpetual motion machine but Pascal didn’t know it back then and was determined to be proven right in that it could exist. 

That in turn was part of his desire to be able to calculate cycloids involving the rolling of wheels in what was one of the first-ever examples of using mathematical probability to prove something. 

Whatever was the result of his research, its legacy wasn’t nearly as lasting as the tool he used to conduct the research: the roulette wheel. 

Blanc brothers do it for themselves 

Born in a small French town in 1806, twins Francois and Louis Blanc had a colourful upbringing, to say the least. 

Obsessed with the circus from a young age, they joined one, learned about the entertainment business and dreamt of becoming rich entrepreneurs themselves one day. 

Their first steps in business were in unspecified gambling ventures. Using that money, they speculated on government pensions and sold real estate, but were later arrested.

They were released, moved to Luxembourg and made more money before their game-changing move to Hesse-Homburg, near Frankfurt.

In a bid to clear city debts and develop tourism, they signed a contract with the local monarch to build, develop and run casinos. 

This was a roaring success and part of the secret of their success was to introduce the single zero rather than multiple zeros, thus making them more competitive than the Paris casinos, who used two zeros at the time to increase the house advantage. 

But the twins realised that in Hesse-Homburg it was only ever going to be a seasonal business with players only visiting it during the warm summer months. 

But they were probably out of there anyway because in 1860 the Frankfurt government banned gambling and their race was run there. 

A return to France resulted in the brothers eventually ending up in Monte Carlo in Monaco, where by chance, Prince Charles of Monaco was keen to use gambling as a source of revenue through taxes and tourism. 

Ever the entrepreneurs, they built the roads and railways needed to attract rich tourists to Monaco where he had already set up the first-ever casino in the principality. 

Roulette unsurprisingly was the casino’s flagship game and many more Monte Carlo casinos followed.

With gambling outlawed in both France and Germany between around 1830 and the early 1930s, Monaco was just about the only place in Europe that had casinos and remains Europe’s casino capital to this day. 

Evolution of the Game over Time

All games and sports have changed and evolved over time. The same happened throughout roulette's history. The game we play in 2022 has gone through several changes to its rules, format and even tools since it first started. Let’s go through some of these. 

Blanc brothers remove the double zero 

When our old pal Blaise Pascal invented the roulette wheel with just 36 numbers and no zeros, that was how the wheel stayed for…centuries.

As the wheel became a popular fixture in Paris casinos at the late 1700s, the norm was for the house to have two ‘edges’: the zero (red in colour) and the double zero (black). Or as Jacques Lablée put it in the novel La Roulette: "There are exactly two slots reserved for the bank, whence it derives its sole mathematical advantage."

Roulette, by the way, is the French word for 'small wheel'.

But the Blanc brothers were thinking long-term when they started setting up casinos in Hesse-Homburg. 

Rather than having an extra edge on the wheel on the night, the better odds offered to the player by having just the one zero gave their casinos an edge over what was going on in Paris.

The theory was that all the extra business generated from players choosing their casinos over others was worth it in the long run. 

Americans lay it down on the table

When the game reached America, the owners of gambling dens weren’t so keen on the Pascal brothers’ generosity in only having the one zero, and kept them both. 

And as you'll read below, they even had a third box that belonged to the house in the form of ‘the Eagle’, though that was somewhat short-lived. 

But the double zero remains in US roulette wheels to this day.

However, the Americans introduced a very important improvement to the game. 

To reduce the risk of suspicion regarding what was going on in the wheel underneath players’ legs, the wheel started to be positioned on top of a table so everyone could see the action, which had the added advantage of making it all more exciting for the players. 

British Parliament unhappy about the zero 

You’d have thought that in 1967 the British Parliament had better things to think about than the number of zeros on the wheel, which was one (zero) at the time. 

Or maybe not! 

Ever the champions of fairness, it didn’t sit well with them that players were paid out at 35/1 rather than 36/1 when those were the true odds of the ball landing on a single number. 

They could just about stomach the lower odds on the payout if…there wasn’t a house edge thanks to the zero, as well. 

Casinos couldn’t have it both ways. 

So they banned the zero and gambling houses that still offered it were at risk of having their owners arrested. 

Eventually, a compromise was reached: casinos could keep their precious zero but payouts on a single number increased from 35/1 to 36/1. 

European Roulette

If you're playing in a real casino just about anywhere that isn't the USA or the Caribbean, you're likely to be playing European roulette.

There are 36 numbers on the wheel/table and crucially, it uses a single zero roulette wheel.

Any bets placed on any number other than the zero itself, result in all bets being lost.

The number grid is laid out horizontally across the table.

Beneath it, are located the Outside bets, in two rows. On the top row, you can see the three Dozen bets, while the bottom one you will find the other bets in the following order – Low, Even, Red, Black, Odd, High. The Column bets are placed on the right side of the grid.

American Roulette

Below you can read about how American roulette evolved since it first started being played in the US to the modern-day version. But what are the rules now?

It has the usual 36 regular numbers but uses the double zero variation, also known as the double zero pocket. That means that, unlike the European version, there are two danger numbers rather than just one, resulting in a higher house edge of 5.26%, double what it is in the European version.

Some US casinos use the 'Surrender' rule, very similar to the 'Le Partage' rule explained below.

The American Roulette table layout closely resembles the European version with some very minor changes.

In terms of the roulette layout, the number grid is laid out vertically, instead of horizontally, and on its left side, you will find the zero and double zero bets. The Outside bets are also positioned beneath the grid in two rows.

French Roulette

As a way of providing a middle ground between the one zero and two zeros on the wheel, some European casinos introduced the ‘En prison’ rule. 

If the ball landed on the zero, all even money bets (red or black, odd or even etc) were held ‘En prison’ for the next spin. 

But only even money bets. If you’d gone for number 10 and zero came up, tough luck. 

The bets ‘En Prison’ would then be settled as per usual on the next spin. But if the next spin produced another zero, that was your second chance gone and the house kept your chips.

An alternative to this rule was the ‘Le Partage’ rule where half of the stakes were returned to players whenever the zero came up. 

Not many casinos still use these two rules but some European ones still do.

Roulette Makes its Way to America

As the Blanc brothers were getting rich over in Europe in part due to roulette, the same game had made its way over to America at the end of the 19th century, as a result of French and other European settlers taking the game with them across the Atlantic.

The birth of American roulette

When roulette arrived over in America, they weren’t so keen to take a leaf out of the Blanc brothers’ book with only one zero slot and only offered roulette tables with the double zero slot there, too.

And they went a step further. 

In addition to there being a single zero and a double zero, there was a further box that was bad news for the player: the Eagle. 

Supposedly the symbol of freedom in the US, it was anything but liberating for the players at the table. 

It was a third box that meant the House cleaned up on all bets that weren’t specifically placed on one of those three. 

Worse still, the wheel only had 28 numbers on it in addition to those three nightmare scenarios, so the house edge was massive. 

But as we've seen above, American roulette has since changed. There are now the usual 36 numbers (plus the zeros) rather than the original 28, the Eagle has flown away from the wheel but the two zeros remain.

Riverboats provide a loophole 

Unlike in Paris and later Monte Carlo, where playing roulette at casinos was seen as glamorous and sophisticated, things were a bit more rustic over in the US.

Roulette on water

Most gambling establishments which offered the roulette game were more like underground gambling dens where the patrons, owners and the games themselves were all somewhat dubious and where cheating by either house or player was frequent.

And they weren’t always happening on land.

In many states gambling ashore was illegal but water freeways weren’t so regulated. So offering gambling on riverboats was a good way of sidestepping local gambling laws. 

And nowhere better than to do so than on the Mississippi River, which bordered several states meaning it was something of the perfect ‘legal grey area’. 

Riverboats with gambling on board, plus music, dancing and refreshments became extremely popular at this time. 

Some did 3-4 hour trips before returning, while others never left the dock at all!

Given they were still technically on the water, they weren’t actually doing anything illegal. 

The return of the riverboat

But the rise of the railway and the American Civil War led to the decrease in popularity of the riverboat towards the end of the 19th century and so the number of riverboat casinos declined sharply. 

In 1904 the goalposts were moved when the US government decided that legalised and regulated casino riverboats were a better idea than unregulated ones and that making it all legal would lead to a good source of revenue for them. 

The City of Traverse set sail on Lake Michigan that year as the first riverboat casino functioning as an organised commercial operation. 

But the riverboats were quite restricted in terms of how many hours they could offer casino games.

Later, in 1951, it became illegal to transport gambling devices across states, unless it was legal in the next state, further limiting how riverboats could operate and where. 

But there was a revival of their popularity in the 1980s where they were seen as refreshingly ‘retro’. 

In 2018 there were 63 riverboat casinos operating in the US across six states.

Vegas brings roulette back to shore 

The 1930s saw the emergence of Las Vegas as the USA’s gambling capital after the state of Nevada went all-in on casinos as a way of battling the effects of the Great Depression. 

And the setting could hardly have been more different than the riverboats surrounded by water. 

Las Vegas was bang in the middle of the desert! 

Like Blackjack, roulette became one of the staple games at Las Vegas casinos and like with the early adopters of the game in the US, the casinos refused to drop the double zero, giving US casinos a greater house edge than what you get in Europe. 

Roulette in Pop Culture

With its dramatic wait while players hope that the little white ball lands on the square they want it to, a spin of the roulette wheel makes for some pretty good drama.

But how and where has it featured in pop culture over the years in books, films and TV? 

Casablanca 

It's sometimes forgotten that this classic movie with memorable characters and endless quotable one-liners actually had lots of references to gambling and more specifically, roulette. 

After all, Rick’s, where most of the action takes place is a casino as well as a trendy nightclub in Casablanca. 

In one scene, the local police chief Captain Renault, a keen roulette player himself, pretends to be shocked to discover that gambling goes on at Rick’s. His surprise may have been a bit more convincing had a croupier not come up to him to pay out his winnings just a few seconds later. 

But the key scene involves a young Bulgarian couple. Desperate to secure the money they need to buy Visas to flee Casablanca, they try their luck at the roulette wheel. 

The protagonist Rick, usually a cynic but in this case someone who takes pity on them, realises what’s going on. 

The man puts his money on number 22 and Rick gives the croupier a knowing nod. The croupier accepts his cue and manages to get the ball to land on 22. 

Rick then advises the man to leave all his money on 22, gives the croupier the nod again and 22 comes up again. 

Rick then tells them to cash in their chips, get out of Casablanca and never come back.

The Gambler 

 Fyodor Dostoievski’s 1866 novel is a story about Russian aristocracy, gossip, unrequited love and roulette. 

Most of the action takes place in the Grand Duchy of Hesse, a spa and casino town in Germany, in 1863. 

The main character Alexei, a tutor, is a keen roulette player who believes in different roulette strategies and that above all, discipline and restraint is key to being successful at the table, qualities he’s lacked himself when playing in the past. 

Over the course of the novel, Alexei and other characters experience a mix of huge wins and at times even greater losses playing roulette and the outcome of these playing sessions have a huge bearing on their actions and the plot as a whole. 

In the end, Alexei decides to embark on one last desperate attempt to win in a bid to try to solve all his problems. 

It’s ironic that this novel has roulette at its heart. 

Dostoevsky, a lover of roulette, was at the time himself seriously indebted as a result of his own roulette habit and was in a race against time to complete the novel in order to have his debts paid by a publisher. 

He finished the book in time. 

Other appearances of Roulette in pop culture 

In the controversial 1993 movie Indecent Proposal, a wealthy older man proposes to pay a newlywed bride 1 million dollars to spend the night with her in Las Vegas. 

 She accepts. 

But maybe they would have turned down the offer had they not just lost a load of money playing Roulette in Sin City.

In Bad Times at the El Royale, roulette features throughout the film, including a scene at the end where the character played by Dakota Johnson will have her own fate determined by the spin of a roulette wheel.

Ever the gambler, James Bond chances his arm at roulette in 1971’s Diamonds are Forever. In the film Bond has his own unique roulette strategy that involves betting on the same numbers every time. 

But a few years earlier, Sean Connery, the actor who played Bond in Diamonds are Forever broke the bank himself at a Turin casino playing roulette, incredibly watching number 17 (where all his chips were) come up three times in a row. He won several billion lira. 

Or did he? 

Years and years after it all happened, it was all revealed to be a publicity stunt involving a rigged roulette wheel and some sharp PR minds. 

Connery was unknown at the time to film audiences and the story was published in newspapers all around the world, the perfect stunt ahead of the first-ever Bond film, Dr No, being released. 

Roulette’s Rise to King of Gambling Games

There’s no doubt that roulette is right up there as the two or three most popular casino games in the world, rivalled only by blackjack and to a lesser extent, baccarat.

But why do people love it so? Hard to say. It may be the rich history of roulette, certainly one of the oldest gambling games. 

Or it could be the simplicity of it all: putting chips on different outcomes and getting paid out accordingly at different odds isn’t a hard concept to grasp and in this sense, it’s far less complicated than say craps or baccarat.

Or maybe it’s the odds themselves. 

Playing a single number and getting paid out at 36/1 if it lands can be far more attractive to some people than say blackjack, where payouts are at even money or 1.5x your stake if you happen to get blackjack. A couple of those wins and you’re going to be in clover for a long time. 

Or maybe it’s just the tension of it all as that ball finally stops. But whether it’s at land casinos, online casinos or at parties among friends, it carries on being a real favourite.

The Transition to Online Casinos

Online casinos started to emerge in the mid-1990s with gambling quickly becoming one of the most popular uses of the internet. And so the first online casino is thought to have been made available in 1994 offering a basic selection of online games.

Unsurprisingly, at any online casino available, roulette became one of the very first casino games to be offered.

On the one hand, the original mechanical versions of the game weren’t particularly easy on the eye. On the other hand, playing the online variant had all the other advantages that playing online in general had.

These include internet casinos being available 24/7 unlike land casinos, welcome bonuses offered to players when they signed up, a faster pace to the game and the a bit later, the ability to place bets anywhere, thanks to the emergence of the smartphone. 

But what really took the experience to the next level was the introduction of live casino online roulette at the best online casinos. 

Streamed live from an actual casino or at times a studio, real dealers spin the wheel, talk you through the game and pay out your winnings. There are generally a variety of roulette games you can play with different little quirks and features. One such feature is a version that uses a golden ball rather than the traditional white one.

Most casinos also offer you the chance to interact with the dealers and other players such as to congratulate another player on a good win or to thank the Dealer for spinning in your winning number! 

Some even offer additional betting options to the classic game.

The pace of online roulette is generally quicker than being in an actual casino but maybe not quite as quick as the mechanical version because the Dealer still needs to physically spin the deal, collect and pay out chips. 

But all in all Live Roulette provides an excellent experience and it’s as close as you can get to playing the enigmatic casino game 'in the flesh'.

Just without all the other inconveniences such as closing times, noisy fellow players or dress codes. 

The Roulette Game in India

If you want to play in an actual modern casino in India, you’ll only be able to do so if you’re in one of the following places: Goa, Sikkim and Daman. 

Goa is the one with the most casinos, some of them floating casinos on the Mandovi River. 

Players need to be at least 21 years old to be able to enter the casinos to play, with some also imposing dress codes. 

But if you don’t live in or near to those three places, you can always open an online account in order to play roulette. 

Indian players can open accounts with casinos based outside India such as Pure Win, one of the best online roulette sites.

Players can benefit from welcome bonuses, excellent customer service, and an excellent variety of games.

Conclusion

Roulette has certainly evolved from its days as an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine when it was being played by Casanova in Genoa in the 1830s and in gambling dens in the US at the start of the 20th century to becoming one of the greatest casino games.

So now you know everything about the history of roulette and its rules, why not give it a go and see how you get on?


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