The word roulette derives from the French roué,  a wheel, and literally can mean any kind of caster, roller, or small wheel.  The idea of a wheel (or balanced pointer) spinning and stopping in an unpredictable position is as basic to games of chance as the drawing of lots.  The ancient Greeks gambled on the spin of a battle shield balanced on the point of a sawn-off sword; the Roman emperor Augustus used a chariot wheel that spun on a vertical axle in the floor of the gaming room of his palace; the American Indians and Greenland Eskimos played a gambling game (which I mentioned in Chapter 2) with a revolving pointer.

The Indian teetotum ( a spinning top) is a variation on the same theme, as was the once- popular western game of put-and-take, which also used a top.  Today the carnival game known as “the wheel of fortune” (in America sometimes called “crown-and-anchor,” but not to be confused with the dice game of that name) employs the same basic principles of these ancient gambles.  A numbered and usually upright wheel is spun and players bet on which number will come to rest against pointer. 
Roulette obviously belongs to the same family of games, though the line of descent is less direct.  In roulette the winner is not chosen by the wheel’s final positions in relation to a pointer.  Instead, the choice is made when a small ivory ball falls into a numbered slot on the wheel.  The wheel is divided into 37 of these equal radial slots (38 in America), which are colored alternately red and black and numbered irregularly.  The wheel revolves clockwise inside a fixed circumambient ledge around which the ball is thrown  in a counterclockwise direction.  As the wheel slows, the ball falls into one of the slots.

History is vague concerning the origins of this variation on the spinning game.  There is the usual abundance of theories, including the erroneous idea that the 17th century French philosopher-mathematician Pascal invented roulette during a monastic retreat.  In fact, Pascal was experimenting with a device concerned with perpetual motion and saw no connection at the time between a possible game and his ball-and –wheel experiment but his experiments did employ a wheel, to which (it is thought) he gave the name “roulette.” Presumably others saw its commercial possibilities.

The first wheels specifically designed to throw a ball into a numbered slot for gambling purposes were used for an early version of roulette called hoca.  These wheels wee used in the early 18th century at casinos in France (Saint-Cyr), Germany (Baden-Baden), Austria (Baden bei Wien), and Hungary (Pest).  These early wheels, of course, were much cruder than the delicately balanced mechanisms used today.  They consisted of a circular flat bed with numbered pockets around the periphery and a spindle projecting upward through the center, with a six-spoked rimless wheel pivoted on the spindle.  In the game of hoca that was played with this wheel, the ball was placed between the spokes (which were about half the radius of the bed); when the wheel was spun, the ball was thrown by centrifugal force toward the 40 numbered pockets on the edge, at the same time being forced clockwise around the bed.  A rim around the edge of the bed prevented the ball from flying off.

Hoca was sponsored on a grand scale by the French statesman Cardinal Mazarin, who saw in it an easy way to increase the fortunes of the youthful Louis XIV.  He authorized the opening of innumerable casinos in France and then collected the profits for Roulette players in action at an American casino.  Bets may be placed after the wheel has started to spin-but not after the croupier has called “ rien ne va plus” (no more bets).

the royal treasury (and no doubt the Mazarin treasury too, for he was immensely rich when he died in 1661).  Since there were three zeros among the 40 pockets, and all the money on the table went to the Mazarin’s death the government decreed that anyone running a hoca casino should be executed.

Other variations of roulette had phases of popularity in the 18th century, and some have lasted until today.  Petits chevaux – which still flourishes in Northern France and Ireland- indulged the fancy of horse-racing enthusiasts in an effort to tempt from the courses into the casinos.  The number of spokes in a hoca wheel was increased to 19 (and later reduced to nine), and small ivory or china horses were fixed to the other ends of spokes.  The wheel was placed on an elaborately painted cloth depicting a country scene (rather after the manner of old maps) with a “winning post” marked at one end.  The horses were numbered for betting purposes, and the player whose horse stopped nearest the winning post took the money.

An etching of a late 19th century European roulette wheel (with one zero) and its layout.

Another variation was E.O. (Even-Odd), in which a wheel (again with 40 compartments ) was set in the middle of a round table marked for the placing of bets.  Twenty of the compartments were marked E, the other twenty O.  If the ball came to rest on an O compartment the bank took all the bets staked on E, and vice versa.  Like petits chevaux, this game might have been as monotonous as a coin-tossing session, though it did offer the spell of a spinning wheel and ball without the complication of roulette odds.  Possibly for this reason it was immediately popular with women.  At the English resort of Tunbridge Wells, for example, where the most fashionable ladies went to take the waters, an E.O.  casino was set up in 1739 and was considered part of the cure.  One of the many shrewd doctors who took up residence at the spa prescribed this remedy for an ailing patient: “Of a morning and post-noon, the waters; and in the evening the excitement of the Roly-Poly [E.O.] tables: watching which, brings out the vapors.”

Incidentally, aside from the question of society ladies’ vapors, there are circumstances in which gambling does have a definite therapeutic value: in cases of enforced boredom, for instance, or at times of extreme tension or danger.  And ingeniously contrived roulette games seem a favorite at times.  During the 1939-45 war, prisoners of both sides proved themselves to be very skillful in making mechanisms that supplied all the excitements of roulette.  The British artist John Worsley, a wartime naval officer who was captured by the Germans, has described and depicted the gambling activities that went on in the Milag Nord prison camp, a merchant-navy camp near Bremen to which Worsley was transferred from a naval prison camp at Westetinke.  Discarded bicycle wheels salvaged from dumps were ingeniously divided into segments with the aid of wood, canvas, cardboard, and anything else at hand.  The segments with the aid of wood, canvas, cardboard, and anything else at hand.  The segments were then numbered and the wheel spun on a fixed pivot, like the Emperor Augustus’s chariot wheel a more or less perfect roulette poker game resulted.  The prisoners gambled for the currency called “Lagermarks” that was issued in the camp, or for a vicious form of alcohol can hardly be called therapeutic, there is no doubt that the action of gambling itself, like escape attempts, gave some point to an otherwise pointless existence.

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