The Origins of 6 Casino Favorites

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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.

iStock_000002103184XSmall-crapsCraps 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

iStock_000006592121XSmall-slotSomething 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.

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October 23, 2009 - 6:36am
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