Original image

The Origins of 6 Casino Favorites

Original image

Planning a trip to Vegas in the near future? Never forget that in the long run, the house always wins. But knowing the history of some of your favorite casino games may help soften the blow the next time you're losing your shirt. If you're going to be forking over your money to a casino, you might as well have a few good talking points.

1. Roulette

Roulette, which takes its name from the French for "small wheel," traces its roots back to 18th-century France, and there are a number of interesting tales about its supposed invention. One of the most frequently repeated legends is that mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal invented the game at some point during the 17th century, possibly while searching for a perpetual motion machine. While it's a great story—as are similar narratives about French monks importing the game from China—it probably isn't true.

In fact, no one's quite sure who invented roulette. Encyclopedia Britannica notes that the first record of a similar game called "roulette" dates back to Bordeaux in 1716. The game, which is probably a synthesis of previously existing games called hoca and portique, took a while to evolve, but by the 1790s the familiar roulette wheel layout was in widespread use.

Roulette's popularity in the United States and Europe exploded during the 19th century, but it wasn't so widely practiced in its homeland. From 1836 to 1933 roulette, along with several other forms of gambling, was banned in France.

2. Craps

The next time you toss the dice, remember the traditional game called hazard. Hazard dates all the way back to the 13th century and probably has Arabic origins; the game made its way to Europe following the Crusades.

Craps is a simplified version of hazard that supposedly grew rapidly in popularity after Creole aristocrat Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville introduced it to slaves in Louisiana during the early 19th century. Players shot dice against each other throughout the 19th century, but the casino version we now play didn't burst onto the scene until around 1910. That's when John H. Winn, a bookie and dice maker, invented "bank craps," which is what casinos now offer.

What are the origins of the odd name "craps," though? In the parent game hazard, a roll of two or three is generally referred to as "crabs." When the simplified game came to North America through French-speaking Creoles, they corrupted the word "crabs" into "craps."

3. Keno

Think the senior citizens you usually see playing this bingo-like game are old? They don't have anything on the game itself. Keno traces its roots back to Chinese villages over 2000 years ago. Chinese people played a lottery-like game called "baige piao," which translates into "white pigeon ticket" and operated like modern keno games. As early as the 3rd century B.C. many Chinese towns had an officially sanctioned baige piao game.

When thousands of Chinese immigrants made their way to the United States during the 1840s, they brought the game with them. Although the immigrants first played the game among themselves, it soon caught on with the general population under the name "Chinese lottery," which later gave way to "keno," a slant on the French word quine for "group of five."

Keno made its casino debut in Reno in 1933, but with an interesting twist. At the time, Nevada outlawed lotteries, so players' cards couldn't include numbers. Instead, players bet on the names of racehorses, which were then drawn. In 1951, Nevada law changed, and the familiar numbered cards came into fashion.

4. Blackjack

Blackjack is another game with murky origins. Some historians give the Spanish credit for inventing the game and note that one of the earliest written records of a similar card game comes from Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes around 1601. Others point to the 17th-century French card game vingt et un as the closest forerunner to modern blackjack. Either way, by the 19th century, gamblers in Europe and the U.S. had embraced the task of getting cards that added up to 21, and the game's popularity soared.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the name "blackjack" is just as mysterious as the origins of the actual game. The word "blackjack" goes back to at least 1591, when it was used to refer to a tar-covered jug of beer. By 1889 it had become synonymous with the small club weapon, and only in 1910 did it start referring to the card game. Some sources claim that the name comes from a stipulation in some casinos that getting a blackjack with the ace of spades and a black jack triggered a special bonus payout.

5. Slot Machines

Something like the coin-spewing one-armed bandits that can suck down your quarters so quickly has been around since 1888. Earlier in that decade, similar mechanized gambling devices had started to pop up in American bars, but instead of paying out coins, they usually just earned patrons a free drink or two from the barkeep.

The slot machine didn't really take off until around 1894, when San Francisco mechanic Charles Fey, a German immigrant, built a slot machine of his own. He talked a local saloon owner into putting the machine on his bar, and it made so much money that Fey soon quit his job to open a slot machine factory. In 1898 he introduced the Card Bell, the first three-reel slot machine with automated payouts like modern slots have.

Within 15 years, Fey had placed over 3000 slot machines around San Francisco, but in 1909 the city of San Francisco banned his wares as an amoral menace. At that point it didn't matter, though, as Fey's creations had caught on around the country; he simply shipped his machines out of state.

6. Poker

Records of games like poker exist as far back as 1526, when Europeans played a game called primero or primiera with three-card hands that were ranked like modern poker hands. The bluffing-and-betting variation we now play dates back to around 1700 in England, which later morphed into a French came called "poque." When the French brought the game to Louisiana in the early 19th century, Americans corrupted the name in "poker," and the game caught on.

Texas hold "˜em, the popular variation often played in competitive tournament formats, has cloudy origins, but the Texas State Legislature officially recognizes the small city of Robstown, Texas, as the birthplaces of Texas hold "˜em at some point during the early 20th century. Hold "˜em began to catch on in Las Vegas during the 1960s and really took off when the World Series of Poker gained popularity.

Original image
The Secret to the World's Most Comfortable Bed Might Be Yak Hair
Original image

Savoir Beds laughs at your unspooling mail-order mattresses and their promises of ultimate comfort. The UK-based company has teamed with London's Savoy Hotel to offer what they’ve declared is one of the most luxurious nights of sleep you’ll ever experience. 

What do they have that everyone else lacks? About eight pounds of Mongolian yak hair.

The elegantly-named Savoir No. 1 Khangai Limited Edition is part of the hotel’s elite Royal Suite accommodations. For $1845 a night, guests can sink into the mattress with a topper stuffed full of yak hair from Khangai, Mongolia. Hand-combed and with heat-dispensing properties, it takes 40 yaks to make one topper. In a press release, collaborator and yarn specialist Tengri claims it “transcends all levels of comfort currently available.”

Visitors opting for such deluxe amenities also have access to a hair stylist, butler, chef, and a Rolls-Royce with a driver.

Savoir Beds has entered into a fair-share partnership with the farmers, who receive an equitable wage in exchange for the fibers, which are said to be softer than cashmere. If you’d prefer to luxuriate like that every night, the purchase price for the bed is $93,000. Purchased separately, the topper is $17,400. Act soon, as only 50 of the beds will be made available each year. 

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

Original image
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Fart Gallery: A Novel History of Spencer Gifts
Original image
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When U.S. Army Corps bombardier Max Spencer Adler was shot down over Europe and imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, it’s not likely he dreamed of one day becoming the czar of penis-shaped lollipops and lava lamps. But when Adler became a free man, he decided to capitalize on a booming post-war economy by doing exactly that—pursuing a career as the head of a gag gift mail-order empire that would eventually stretch across 600 retail locations and become a rite of passage for mall-trekking teens in the 1980s and 1990s.

To sneak into a Spencer Gifts store against your parents' wishes and revel in its array of tacky novelties and adult toys felt a little like getting away with something. Glowing with lasers and stuffed with Halloween masks, the layout always had something interesting within arm’s reach. But stocking the stores with such provocations sometimes carried consequences.

A row of lava lamps on display at Spencer Gifts
Dean Hochman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Returning from the war, Adler sensed a wave of relief running through the general population. Goods no longer had to be rationed, and toy factories could return to making nonessential items. The guilt of spending time or money on frivolous items was disappearing.

With his brother Harry, Adler started Spencer Gifts as a mail-order business in 1947. Their catalog, which became an immediate success, was populated with items like do-it-yourself backyard skating rinks and cotton candy makers [PDF]—items no one really needed but were inexpensive enough to indulge in. In some ways, the Spencer catalogs resembled the mail-order comic ads promising X-ray glasses and undersea fish kingdoms. Instead of kids, Adler was targeting the deeper pockets of adults.

Bolstered by that early success, Adler moved into a curious category: live animals. He had small donkeys transported from Mexico and marketed them as the new trend in domestic pets. LIFE magazine took note of the fad in 1954, observing the $85 burros, being sold at a clip of 40 a day, “except for stubbornness, are very placid.”

Burro fever foreshadowed the direction of Spencer’s in the years to come. The Adlers opened their first physical location—minus livestock—in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in 1963, expanding on their notion to peddle unique gift items like the Reduce-Eze girdle, which promised to shave inches off the wearer’s stomach. That claim caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which chastised the company for advertising the device could reduce body weight without exercise [PDF]. The FTC also took them to task for implying their jewelry contained precious metals [PDF] when the items did not.

Offending the FTC aside, Spencer’s did a brisk enough business to garner the attention of California-based entertainment company Music Corporation of America, Inc. (MCA), which purchased the brand and proceeded to expand it in the rapidly growing number of malls across the country in the 1970s and 1980s. (The mail order business closed in 1990.)

Brick and mortar retail was ideal for their inventory, which encouraged perusal, store demonstrations, and roving bands of giggling teenagers. The company wanted its stores to capture foot traffic by stuffing its aisles with items that had a look-at-this factor—a novelty that invited someone to pick it up and show it to a friend. When executives saw specific categories taking off, they “Spencerized,” or amalgamated them. When there was a resurgence of interest in Rubik’s Cubes and merchandise from the 1983 Al Pacino film Scarface, visitors were soon greeted in stores by stacks of Scarface-themed Rubik’s Cubes.

Mike Mozart via Flickr

Apart from its busy aesthetic—“like the stage from an old Poison video,” as one journalist put it—Spencer's was also known for its inventory of risqué adult novelty items. Pole-dancing kits and sex-themed card games occupied a portion of the store’s layout. The toys captured a demographic that might have been too embarrassed to visit a dedicated adult store but felt that browsing in a mall was harmless.

Sometimes, the store’s blasé attitude toward stocking such items drew critical attention. In 2010, police in Rapid City, South Dakota seized hundreds of items because Spencer's had failed to register as an “adult-oriented business,” something the city ordinance required. As far back as the 1980s, parents in various locales had complained that suggestive material was viewable by minors. In 2008, ABC news affiliate WTVD in Durham, North Carolina dispatched two teenage girls with hidden cameras to see what they would be allowed to buy. While they were shooed away from a back-of-store display, they were able to purchase “two toy rabbits that vibrate, moan, and simulate sex” as well as a penis-shaped necklace.

As a possible consequence of the internet, there are fewer incidences of parental outrage directed at Spencer’s these days. And despite the general downturn of both malls and retail shopping, the company bolsters its bottom line with the seasonal arrival of Spirit Halloween, a pop-up store specializing in costumes. Despite only being open two months out of the year, their Spirit locations contribute to roughly half of Spencer's $250 million in annual revenue.

Today, the chain’s 650 stores remain a source for impulse shopping. They still occasionally court controversy over items that appear to stereotype the Irish as drunken oafs or other inflammatory merchandise. With traditional mall locations expected to shrink by as much as 25 percent over the next five years, it’s not quite clear whether their assortment of novelties will continue to have a large retail footprint. But so long as demand exists for fake poop, fart sprays, and penis ring toss kits, Spencer’s will probably have a home.


More from mental floss studios