Nowadays, we take the range of games at our local casino for granted, yet if you look a little closer, you’ll find an incredible history behind most of them, which stretches back hundreds, if not thousands of years.
Roman soldiers were known for making rudimentary dice from animal bones, and various forms of playing cards have existed across Europe for centuries, with their rules influencing sports and business decisions to this day. Even the humble slot machine has a fascinating history, starting life as a mechanized poker game complete with traditional cards long before the cherries and bars ever appeared.
The invention of roulette
Perhaps the most captivating story of them all is that of roulette because this popular casino staple was invented by accident. 17th-century scientist and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, didn’t set out to make a new gambling machine. He was trying to build something altogether more profitable – a perpetual motion machine. This was the holy grail of scientists at the time, a machine that would continue to work without a source of energy. If he had been successful, Pascal would have been rich beyond his wildest dreams. Unfortunately, to achieve this, he would have to violate the basic laws of thermodynamics, as proposed by Isaac Newton.
Although he didn’t succeed in creating a completely frictionless wheel, Pascal did manage to reduce the friction coefficient significantly through his work. He soon realized that this smooth-running wheel would be perfect for a new and improved version of the random number games that were popular at the time. Until Pascal’s wheel, the numbers for roulette-style games were drawn from a bag, leaving the game open to accusations of dishonesty and sleight of hand.
Pascal’s new wheel, with its open and honest spin, proved very popular very quickly. Nonetheless, the ‘crooked wheel’ remains a popular fictional device in everything from Casablanca to casino thrillers, with the croupier pressing a mysterious switch to somehow rig the outcome. In reality, this would be incredibly hard to achieve, given the random nature of the wheel.
Today, roulette has become one of the most popular games at the casino, and many smart players have tried to work out a roulette strategy to improve their odds against the dramatic spinning of Pascal’s famous wheeland the randomness of the bouncing ball. Even online casinos have had to introduce live versions of the game to give their players the same visceral experience, rather than simply showing a digital representation of the spin created by a random number generator.
Perhaps if Pascal has succeeded in creating his dream of a perpetual motion machine, the world would look very different from how it looks today. But then if he had, we may never have got the thrill of pushing our pile of chips onto a number on the green baize and watching to see which slot the little white ball will eventually drop in to.
How a house edge was introduced to roulette play
Pascal worked with another famous scientist of his era, none other than Pierre de Fermat (who left us his famously challenging ‘last theorem’), to calculate the odds of each outcome of a random spin, creating the odds and payouts that have been used ever since. Of course, working out the odds and paying the punters accordingly meant that there was nothing in it for casino operators. Simply paying out on probability meant that over time, they would only win as much as they lost, leaving no profit to cover their costs.
In 1863, a Monte Carlo casino owner, Francois Blanc, figured out how to skew the odds in the casino’s favor and guarantee a profit. He simply added an extra number – the zero. Initially, the zero was colored and given an odd or even rating, so it was still active in the betting, but eventually, it became green and was always a winning bet. By adding the zero, Blanc guaranteed the casino a profit, known as the casino edge, or 2.7%.
Caption: Double zero increases the house edge to 5.4%
Other casinos saw the opportunity to make even more money by adding a double zero as well. This increased the house edge to 5.4%. Contrary to popular belief, that double-zero wheels are an ‘American roulette’, this was not a greedy American idea but was, in fact, exported from Europe in the 18th century.