Every year Alaskans take part in a ritual known as the Nenana Ice Classic. It is a wager, created in 1917 by a group of bored surveyors trying to guess when the ice on the Tanana River would break. Today, in a state with fewer than 700,000 people, hundreds of thousands of tickets are bought by bettors who try to predict when a tripod placed on the river will move 30m.
People will bet on anything. That is the grand theme of Roll the Bones, David G. Schwartz’s lively history of gambling through the ages. Archaeological evidence
suggests that shortly after developing opposable thumbs, early Homo sapiens used this newfound dexterity to roll craps, a game that in various permutations has outlived great empires. The earliest dice were made from the hucklebones of sheep, but by 1300BC they had acquired the smooth cube shape and dots familiar today. Dice use dots for a simple reason: they predate numbers.
Schwartz, the director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, takes his assignment seriously. He begins even before the beginning, with the great wagers described in ancient religious texts, where even the gods gambled furiously.
After beating the moon at the game board, Thoth, the Egyptian god of gambling, added five days to the calendar, making possible the creation of the human race. Having rooted his narrative, rather grandly, in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, China and India (“dice are like pieces of divine coal, which cause the hearts to burn, though remaining themselves cold,” we read in the Rig-Veda, a Hindu volume), Schwartz sets out on a quick global march that takes the reader from the gambling dens of Pompeii to the slots at Caesars Palace.
The gambling urge has expressed itself in myriad ways over the centuries. Schwartz diligently traces the evolution of cards, dice, board games, bingo, lotteries, horse racing and cockfighting, with asides on intriguing variants like cricket fighting, an ancient Chinese contest in which the insect opponents were tickled on the head with a feather until they charged each other, cheered on by excited bettors. The sport lives. In 2004 Hong Kong police broke up a cricket-fighting ring on Kowloon and seized nearly 200 crickets, some worth US$20,000.
For centuries gambling was crippled by a poor understanding of probability, whose mysteries attracted thinkers like Blaise Pascal and Galileo. Their work helped pave the way for concepts like the house advantage (the basis for all casinos) and the lottery, the first form of commercialized gambling. An early beneficiary of this pioneering work was Voltaire, who noticed a mathematical error in the rules for the French national lottery. A canny player — in this case Voltaire and a team of investors — could buy up a certain class of ticket and, relying on the laws of probability, be guaranteed an enormous profit.
Although Americans probably do not count as the world’s most ferocious gamblers, they have put their own stamp on the pursuit, notably in the game of poker. Vying games, in which players are dealt cards and then compete with one another using stakes, date back to the Renaissance, but it was in Louisiana that the 16th-century French game known as poque got a couple of new twists. Sometime in the second half of the 19th century, players in New Orleans decided to throw out cards they did not want and draw new ones.