The history of roulette is fascinating. Many different countries have some claim on the invention of the game. Casino games that have been around as long as this one tend to have rich histories and the Devil’s Wheel is no disappointment. This centuries-old game of chance is popular for myriad reasons: the rules are easy to understand, as are the bets, payouts, and odds, and the visual of the spinning wheel and bouncing ball are captivating.
Origins of the Game
Three countries can stake a claim to inventing this gambling classic: France, Italy, and China. Generally, it is accepted that the origins of the game played today in casinos is France, thanks to the mathematical mind of Blaise Pascal. The French perfected and categorized the game, though the name ‘roulette’ actually made it to France from Italian origins.
Frescoes and written histories show ancient Romans playing a variety of games of chance involving a spinning wheel and bets of money or property. The excess of Roman chariots meant that spinning wheels were a common sight, especially for Roman warriors, who are rumored to have spun the wheels of their chariots to determine the outcome of battles, races, or other contests. Histories of ancient Rome are full of stories of the spoils of war being split up by the random chance of a spinning chariot wheel.
What is the Chinese connection to the game? The Chinese, like the Romans, have long used spinning wheels, but in China these wheels were used for fortune telling or numerology, and not necessarily for gaming. When a Chinese game of chance involving a spinning wheel and various animal symbols made it to Europe through the trade routes, Europeans had access to yet another game using a wheel and random chance to determine the outcome. It is unlikely that today’s game of roulette has much to do with this Chinese spinning wheel game, but the story goes to show that many cultures were developing spinning wheel games all at the same time.
Blaise Pascal and the French Game
In the 17th century, a French mathematician and philosopher named Blaise Pascal was making huge changes to the study of arithmetic and was a great lover of games of chance. Pascal was a student of physics, and it is said that he accidentally developed what we’d recognize today as a roulette wheel while he was working on a physics experiment about motion. Pascal’s original wheel didn’t contain the green number 0, so the odds were far more in favor of the gambler. The addition of the 0 space changed the gambler’s chance of an even-money payout bet from 50% to around 48%, and is the reason why casinos latched onto the game: the 0 space gave them an edge against the gambler.
The Devil’s Wheel
An interesting side note about the Chinese version of the spinning wheel: the wheel itself was set on a stone or other foundation traditionally engraved with the number 666. This tale comes to us through the writing of Dominican monks, suspicious of the number 666 because of its use in the Bible as a symbol of evil.
The notion of this game as “the devil’s wheel” doesn’t have anything to do with the Chinese 666 label, though. Rather, it has to do with the numbers on the roulette wheel. Add 1 through 36, the numbers on the wheel itself, and you end up with a total of 666. This kind of inauspicious sign would have been a big deal to religious communities in Europe and other Christian nations thanks to the association of 666 with the “number of the beast” in the Bible’s Book of the Revelation.
Since the Christian church frowns on gambling along with other vices, the wheel’s association with the number 666 didn’t do the game any favours, and that’s where the phrase “the devil’s wheel” comes from.
American Game History
Like most casino games, roulette made its way to America in the 18th century, when trade with the European world was at a peak. But the European game gave too much away to the gambler, so American casinos and gaming providers came up with a simple alteration to the wheel that put the odds squarely against the gambler.
The addition of a single number to the wheel, a green 00 space to match the green 0 space, increased the house edge against the gambler to the point that the game was really profitable for anyone operating it. You wouldn’t think adding a single number to the wheel would make that big a difference in the outcome, and it doesn’t, but it does push the odds just a little more in favour of the casino. When American casinos and gambling halls realized the profit available from offering this style, the game started popping up all over the place. The double zero version of the game has a higher built-in house edge is responsible for the game’s widespread availability in America casinos today, though they aren’t as popular worldwide.
How Roulette Came to Australia & New Zealand
No doubt colonists from the UK and other parts of the world brought their favourite games of chance with them when they emigrated or were sent to this part of the world. Spinning wheel casino games and betting contests were well-known at the time of mass colonization of both Australia and New Zealand, and it is easy to image original colonists being well-familiar with The Devil’s Wheel itself.
Though the history of this game is complex and difficult to pin down, we know that the game as it is played today required hundreds of years and much cultural interweaving. Chinese fortune telling wheels, ancient Roman chariot wheels, and the brilliant mind of a mathematician-philosopher all converged to give us one of the more popular casino table games anywhere in the world. We may never know the exact origins of roulette, but we know that people love to line up and bet on the spinning wheel for their chance at casino winnings.