Centuries of courting Lady Luck

From reading the gods' minds by tossing bones to Las Vegas and state lotteries

Review History

November 19, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun Reporter

Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling

David G. Schwartz

Gotham Books / 500 pages / $30

Two recent news events affecting the universe of gambling are reminders of fundamental underlying themes concerning the millennia-old human affinity for risk-taking.

Several weeks ago, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation designed to block money transfers that have enabled millions of Americans to gamble on the Internet; the move is expected to substantially curtail online gaming in this country.

Soon after, in an unrelated development, two private investment funds offered to buy Harrah's Entertainment, the world's largest casino company, for more than $15 billion, in what would reportedly be the fifth-largest leveraged buyout on record.

The enormous offer for Harrah's serves to illustrate that gambling, now as always, is an enterprise that attracts serious cash. And the earlier federal action echoes another and just as persistent truth about gambling. Governments - either stirred by moral compunction or motivated by self-interest - chronically grapple with decisions of allowance and prohibition regarding gambling.

As luck would have it, a new book by gaming scholar David G. Schwartz, Roll the Bones, dwells on these very themes throughout a 500-page chronicle of gambling's history.

Schwartz - who has a doctorate in United States history from the University of California, Los Angeles and is now the director of the Center for Gaming Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas - traces the origins of human fascination with the concept of chance and its tools to, of all things, religion.

Ancient, and even prehistoric, attempts at divination were pursued by scattering or tossing objects and then interpreting them to understand or predict the otherwise unfathomable.

Among the first tools used in this chance divination was the astragalus, or the hucklebone, found in the foot of some animals, particularly goats and sheep. Hence, we have the first dice.

As Mesopotamians founded the first urban villages seven thousand years ago, astragali were familiar parts of their culture and gambling was beginning to take on a familiar complexion. First the six sides of the ancient die were given values; then, they were carved into cubes, and finally they were inscribed with pips, or dots, in an epoch that predated our current numbers.

Stories of gods and goddesses engaging in games of chance are threaded throughout ancient cultures, including Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Egyptians believed that Thoth invented gambling (as well as writing) and was a divine entity whose judgments were to be valued. And it was Thoth, so Plutarch would write much later, who won five extra days from the moon that made a 360-day Egyptian calendar more accurate.

But Thoth's successful game playing didn't mean a universal embrace of the practice. If plain folks gambled, Egyptian law dictated severe penalties - hard labor in the quarries.

Already, humankind was wrestling with its ambivalence about the appropriateness of challenging fate by invoking fortune.

Throughout his book, Schwartz gives examples of governments' seesaw attitudes and resultant lawmaking regarding gambling.

Tali, or dice, were as much a part of a Roman legionnaire's gear as his sword and shield. And while a long string of Roman emperors enjoyed gambling, the practice was illegal under republican and imperial regimes. Yet those laws were often ignored, especially during holidays.

Schwarz's march through gaming history is, as expected, chronological, taking readers from ancient cultures, through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment, Victorian and modern times. While much of his historical parade marches through European, Anglo and later, American cultures, he frequently moves laterally as well, describing concurrent developments in Middle Eastern, Far East and even native New World societies.

And at appropriate moments, he detours onto affiliated byways, such as the evolution of gambling apparatus and the science of gaming, probabilities and odds.

Particularly illuminating are Schwartz' accounts of the work in probability done by Girolamo Cardano, a 16th-century Italian scholar, and the more famous Blaise Pascal, a mathematician who followed Cardano by a century. The author also describes a contribution by none other than astronomer Galileo Galilei. Together, these thinkers took gambling from the mystical to the scientific, laying the groundwork, as Schwartz points out, for the basic concept that's the underpinning of any modern casino - the "discrepancy between the true odds and actual payouts."

Thus giving birth to the house edge.

Anyone who has ever strolled through a casino will find a strong family resemblance in Venice's Ridotto in the San Moise Palace, which opened in 1638. Sanctioned by the state, it was the prototype for mercantile gambling houses in Europe and a model for, say, Caesars Palace.

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