Chinese pottery figures from the Han dynasty (206 b.c. to  a.d. 220)  The standing figure is watching the two seated figures playing liu-po, an ancient dice game (playing with notched four-sided sticks as well as cubical dice) that was also used for divination.

In India, where there was a highly advanced civilization centered on the Indus River as early as 2500 b.c., there are no historical records until the time of the Vedas-the hymns composed by the priests and bards in honor of the deities.  But the Vedic hymns, which reveal a good deal about the social history of the Indo-Aryans in the second millennium before Christ, leave no doubt that the chief amusements of the people were chariot racing-on the results of which great herds of cattle were staked-and dicing.  So apparently by 1500 b.c. gambling was very much a going concern.

Cheating was a going concern too-which raises the eyebrows a bit, considering the holiness of these people.  Loaded dice, trick dice boxes, and sleight-of-hand on the caster’s part are frequently referred to.  Loaded dice, in fact, played a big part in an epic gambling match between two families –the Pandavas and Kauravas – for the possession of a kingdom.

The cause of the match was the envy of the Kauravas for the Pandavas’ game of fortune, which were then at their peak.  Duryodhana, the instigator of the kauravas’ challenge, had an uncle, Sakuni, who could be relied on to win every game with the aid of loaded dice.  And Yudihishthira, who represented the Pandavas, was a poor player anyway; but he couldn’t refusee the challenge, because it came from an equal (a raja) and a refusal would have stirred up even more acrimony than existed between the two families already.

Yudihishthira lost every game and gambled away all his possessions, including a hundred thousand slaves, a hundred thousand slave girls adorned from head to foot, and eventually his entire kingdom.  But he foolishly persisted and staked his brothers’ riches, then his brothers themselves, and finally himself.  On a last fatal throw, the cheating Sakuni offered Yudihishthira the return of al his losses against the additional loss of Draupadi, his wife.  And Sakuni again won with his crooked dice.  The final scene of the tragedy describes the bitter exile of the Pandavas, and Draupadi’s vengeful threat as she pulled her long black hair over her face and cried out, “My hair shall remain disheveled from this day until my people shall have slain the Kauravas.”

This seems to be the first case on record of a man’s staking his wife after losing everything else he owned.  But if it every came to the ears of later gamblers, its scarifying outcome didn’t deter them.  The staking of wives is a common occurrence in the gambling history of most nations.  And not only wives: Mistresses, courtesans, and maidens have also gone with the winds of fortune.  The writer Athenaeus (second century b.c.) mentions that Hegesilochus, one of the rulers of Rhodes, used to play at dice for the best bedfellows to be found among the Greek maidens –the catch being that the loser had the task of capturing and bringing the girl to the winner, after she has been selected by lot.

Lotteries as we think of them today-that is, as an organized gamble in which prizes are distributed to lucky ticket holders-didn’t burst into the news until Roman times, which is a little ahead of my story.  But in the sortilegious sense this form of gambling is of immeasurable antiquity.  The choosing of a person in relation to some particular task or ceremony has been decided by lot since the earliest civilizations.  Some aborigines determine who among then may be causing unrest by throwing a bone into the middle of a circle around which the tribe is gathered.  The one to whom the bone points gets the sorcerer’s attentions and dies within a few days.  Even the bushmen of the Kalahari, of whom only a few thousand survive (still living in their own enduring corner of the Stone Age), decide the tribe’s daily huntsman by casting a stone.  And in the Aztec civilization in Mexico, the lottery method was often used to decide which of a number of prisoners of war should be taken as the day’s sacrifice to the sun god.

As for gambling in ancient Greece-well, the Greeks gambled, for sure.  Otherwise they would never have been able to include in their mythology the legend that, after defeating the Titans, Zeus and his brothers Poseidon and Hades became lords of the universe and cast lots to determine how it should be divided.  (Zeus won the heavens, Poseidon the sea, Hades the underworld.) The die they used to decide this important division of power would have been an astragal –the hucklebone or ankle joint of any cloven-footed animal.

An astragal is oblong in shape, like two cube dice stuck together, with domed ends.  The four flat surfaces were of course marked with figures or symbols when used as dice, and a cup or vase was used for throwing.  Cups made for the purpose were shaped like the astragal itself, with one rounded end weighted, so that they stood upright on the table like tumblers.

The Greeks actually had a legend to account for the origin of gambling strategies itself.  According to this narrative, Tyche, the goddess of fortune, was wandering one day in the shady groves of Olympus when Zeus (then young and a bit of a seducer) corrupted her.  The union resulted in the birth of an offbeat daughter whose only pleasures lay in inventing games of chance, gloating over the quarrels they caused, and encouraging depressed losers to suicide.  Tyche endowed her with houses that had everlasting lamps at their doors to attract passers-by.

The Greeks’ determination to account for everything, from the creation of the universe to the existence of gambling taverns, as the work of the gods didn’t affect their strong moral sense.  Gambling was frowned on by most of the law-givers as detrimental to the structure of the state, and it was punishable with terms of servitude, regardless of the social standing of the offender.  Still, aside from the myths and laws, there isn’t much evidence that the Greeks were given to gambling to the same extent as the Oriental races or, later, the Romans and Teutons.


Nor, in the formative days of their nation, were the Jews addicted to gambling.  There is a good deal of lot-casting for one thing and another in the Bible, so we can safely assume that it was an acceptable thing to appeal to chance; and indeed no direct injunction against poker gambling game appears anywhere in the Scriptures.  All the same, the ancient Hebrews seems to have resisted most of its incitements until they ran up against the Romans.  After that, Jewish law makers found it necessary to exclude gamesters from the courts of justice on grounds of unreliability and avarice.