It would be pleasing to be able to state with conviction when gambling began.  Pleasing but impossible. Gambling Game is a mental phenomenon as fire is a physical one, and there is no possibility of establishing precisely when man stumbled on either of them.

The first known man arrived on the scene during the Lower Pleistocene era, about half a million years ago.  Since he was primarily concerned with food, this early Stone Age fellow may have stumbled upon the idea of chance in relation to his hunting activates: Although he could set up a trap before bedding down for the night, it was by no means certain that an animal would enter his neck of the woods before morning.  Sooner or latter he would appreciate that the odds against his getting a meal would be smaller if he left less to chance; and having realized there was such a thing as chance, he was on the road to grasping the notion of bet.

There are six racial groups of mankind-archaic white, Caucasoid, australoid, mongoloid, Amerindian, and Negroid-and there is evidence of games and gambling in the earliest records of all of them. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that when man segregated into races he took the notions of high low poker and gambling with him.  (The anthropologically minded will recall the opposing theory that ideas occurred independently to different races and were not disseminated before segregation.  That theory in no way changes the fact that as soon as people could record their ideas in speech, pictures, or hieroglyphics they made references to games and chance.)

A prehistoric painting from a cave wall at Alsace, France.  The cave dwellers believed that drawing a spiked trap (center) over the figure of an animal would help them to trap the animal.  This “sympathetic magic” was perhaps the earliest way in which man tried to offset chance.

Most poker games are contests of one sort of another, and almost certainly the first kind of game to be played was a contest of strength, in which one man could prove his physical superiority over his opponent.  Contests of skill –such as games in which targets are involved-presumably came later.  And this is where the idea of chance as a game in itself is most likely to have entered the mind of man.  Unskilled players probably developed games that simulated games of skill, but in which luck rather than ability decided the winner.  Instead of aiming a stone or spear at a target, the early gamesters might have flung the stone –or shell or bone-into the air, so that chance could decide its position on reaching the ground.  Dice would be a logical development from stones, shells, or bones. (The earliest know die is in fact the ankle bone of a sheep.)

Contests of speed, or races, probably appeared at the same time as contests of strength; and the simulation of racing brought about such games as back-gammon, in which a course is reproduced in miniature and the players move their representative piece along it, every step being decided by the throw of dice or their equivalent.  Backgammon is the oldest known game of chance simulating racing; variations of it crop up in every known civilization.

Such a sketchy6 résumé of man’s gambling activities during the long dawn of history must necessarily be mostly conjectural.  But plenty of recorded facts are available after dawn stretched into daylight.  For instance, in the Pyramid of Cheops at Gizeh near Cairo there is a tablet recording a mythical explanation of the origin (through a gamble) of our present calendar:

Nut, the goddess of the sky, had secretly married her twin brother, Geb, and had thereby angered Ra, the god of creation, who as a punishment decreed that the two were to be separated and that Nut should not bear a child on any day of the year.  But in which one man could prove his physical superiority over his opponent.  Contests of skill –such as games in which targets are involved-presumably came later. to her in the form of five new days to be added to the Egyptian calendar of 360 days.  Because these five days were outside the scope of Ra’s jurisdiction, Nut used them to produce her five children – Isis, Osiris, Horus, Set, and Nepthys.


From this narrative it is clear that gambling had been going on long before 3000 b.c., which is about the time Gizeh pyramid was built.  Other evidence of gambling among the ancient Egyptians includes ivory dice found at Thebes, dating from 1573 b.c. and now resting in a museum in Berlin; a mural (in the British Museum ) showing two Egyptians playing step, a game of pure chance in which one player bet on the number of fingers his opponent extended while the two players stood back to back and a referee kept the score; and the draught board (or checker board, if you prefer the term) of Queen Hatasu (1600 b.c.), also in the British gambling Museum.  The Cairo museum has several copper bowls used in a game called hab-em-hau,  in which players had to throw disks into the bowl in a special sequence; and various collections of Egyptology have papyri recording the fact that convicted gamesters among the populace were sent to work in the quarries –a harsh punishment, but one that suggests how deeply the gambling bug had bitten into the first civilization.

A drawing of the four faces of an astragal (the ankle-bone of a sheep or other cloven-footed animal), used in the earliest dice games.  Each side has a specified  value: Top left is six, right is four; bottom left is three, and right is one.

In China, which was very close behind Egypt in establishing a civilization, there are few written records of gambling until 300 b.c.  But then, in the Confucian classics shih-ching and Shu-ching, coms a reference to the invention of wei-chi’i, an elaborate game with hundreds of pieces that are used to simulate the moves in a highly complicated poker strategy concept of war; it may be a precursor of chess.  The reference in the scroll implies that the game was invented by the Emperor Yao (about 2300 b.c.) so that his son could brighten his dull mind.  Wei-ch’i, is as nearly as possible a game of pure skill, but spectators bet on the outcome, and there are several references in Chinese literature to games played to decide which of two eligible candidates should be awarded provincial governorships.

There are also several references in The Book of Songs (second millennium b.c.) to agricultural workers finishing their day’s grind at the harrow and rushing off home to indulge their fancy for “the drawing of wood” –a phrase that in context seems to mean the drawing of lots.  At all events, the inveterate predisposition of the Chinese toward gambling seems to have been established well before the sun was over history’s horizon.

Gambling plays a part in many legends of ancient India, like the tale (possibly fourth century b.c.) of Nala, a king with a foundness for dice.  Above, an 18th century painting of a scene from the legend shows Nala (top right ) in a dice stud poker game (holding non- ubical dice).  On the far left (seated) is his queen, Damayanti.s  The legend states that several gods had sought Damayanti’s hand, but she had preferred Nala.  To avenge the insult, a demon charms Nala’s dice.  Nala cannot stop gambling, and eventually  loses his kingdom and all his possessions.  He and Damayanti flee, penniless and half nakes.  In another painting left Damayanti seeks shelter in neighboring kingdom.  According to the legend, Nala finally overcomes the demon and wind back his kingdom with fair dice.