Another profession that might be called a gambling is, perhaps surprisingly, law.  For instance, an element of chance is very closely involved in the process of trial by jury.  The verdict is the prize for which lawyers compete, armed with their knowledge of the facts of the case and their belief in the innocence or guilt of the accused.  But their competition becomes a gamble because the final outcome (i.e., the verdict ) is influenced by an unknown quantity: the collective mind of the jury.

A direct appeal to the emotions may antagonize a jury that is intellectually on the alert against such appeals; but with a predominantly simple-minded jury, it may gain the accused a favorable verdict.  Clever and experienced lawyers often seem able to choose the right approach to sway a jury-but not infallibly.  And the judge can do little more than attempt to clarify the evidence and the arguments, and to enforce the rules of game (in this case, legal procedure).  Thus any trial by jury depends on the judgment of 12 people, selected by chance, whose knowledge or ignorance, personal emotions, and prejudices are totally unknown and unpredictable.

In other legal systems than ours, chance may play an even bigger and more direct part.  The Andaman Islanders, for instance, try a suspected criminal by a kind of human roulette.  Secured by guards, the accused stands in the middle of rhythm and direction of the dance are controlled by a blindfolded drummer.  If the dancers are halted with the accuser facing the back of the accused three times in succession, guilt is proved.  As you may imagine, this doesn’t often happen.  The Andaman Islanders are happy people, much given to conversing in song, and have very little crime.  So they can afford to be relaxed about their legal system and, when one of their infrequent trials becomes necessary, can play it very much as a  game.

Also a rummy game, but a terrifying one, is the setup depicted by the American writer Shirley Jackson in her realistic horror story “The Lottery.” The story begins with the people of a mythical American village (population 300) assembling at the end of June for the purpose of choosing a “scapegoat”- a villager who will symbolically expiate the sins of the others for the preceding year.  Every villager draws a slip of paper from lottery box; one person draws the single marked slip.  Then he and all the members of his family return their slips to the box for the second draw, to decide which individual member of the family will be the scapegoat.  Whoever holds the marked slip this time is set upon by everyone else and stoned to death.

The grim practice of the choice of a scapegoat exists in fact as well as fantasy.  It is closely tied up with primitive rites hopefully performed to ensure fertile “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.”) But the practice has been perpetuated through a great many civilized societies.  In Judaism, for example, Mosaic law commands that a lot is to be cast on the Day of Atonement to decide which of two goats will be slain as a sacrifice.  Then the rabbi, by confession, transfers the sins of himself and the congregation to the other goat, which is turned loose “into the wilderness.”  It escapes (or “scapes” ) death, which in this case is an honorable sacrifice to God; but it suffers the punishment of being dishonored by sin-symbolically an intolerable burden.

It may seem that activities involving punishment,  cruelty, and death are too grim to be considered as games.  But there’s no doubt that, human nature being what it is, every willing participant in such activities gains a lot of excitement.  And it is pitched in the same key as the excitement of gaming in the more accepted sense; for part of that excitement has to do with the hurt that the gambler feels as the result of his own losses, or that he inflicts on an opponent who is losing to him.

But these grim considerations are only peripheral to my subject,  which is the games people play when they are not playing cards, dice, or roulette, or betting on races, or drawing lottery tickets.  (Each of these major categories of gambling will get a separate chapter to itself later.)  In the survey of games to follow, I intend to show diversity by sampling.  Any omissions will probably be either obscure variations on more familiar themes or else games played by so few people that they do not warrant inclusion.  In other words, the survey will cover gambling games that are reasonably well known throughout the world – the games of pure chance, and the games that require some skill.
Games of pure chance are for the most part simply guessing games.  They are universally played, and they will be found even where no other form of gambling exists.  For instance, the Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen noted the enthusiasm of the Eskimos for their primitive form of roulette (the “spinning game” that Leif Ericson brought to Greenland).  And the anthropologist Störvildt also mentions, by the way, that the Eskimos’ marriage customs permit interchange of wives among husbands, and that wives among husbands, and that wives are often staked in the spinning.  “I learned of one case,” he says, “where a young hunter, preparing for a long journey to replenish the larder, played at spinning the wheel the night before setting out and won all 17 wives of his fellow players.  With dire results; for to refuse to accept them would have been socially insulting, and to accept them, which he did, meant that he had to support them while their husbands were away-no mean task for a lone hunter.”

Guessing games probably got their start those ancient days when a man couldn’t count on his future stretching much past the next full moon.  People in those days went in for a lot of divination.  It comforted them.  Gloomy forebodings or happy auguries were attributed to sticks, straws, spears, and stones flung into the air and directed by the winds of fortune to land in certain positions. 

One of these objects might have become a special totem or talisman –perhaps an unusual stone, thin and flat, light on one side and dark on the other.  It would have been tossed into the air to let the side that landed uppermost decide important questions such as where the best hunting bingo games would be found.  Then someone might have perceived the advantages that could be gained by correctly guessing the result of throwing the talisman.  And this might have led to competition between guessers.  In time the stone would probably have lost its magical qualities, coming to represent simply two opposing chances that could be sided with.  From there it would have been a simple step (adding excitement to the prophesying )to let some material possession be the prize for a correct guess.  Man would have placed his first bet.

All this is pure conjecture.  But if anything like it ever did happen, it is easy to see how coin tossing (as soon as there were coins) became a gamble.  It is the simplest of all games of chance.  The coin itself can, of course, be the prize; but it is more usual to have other material gains or losses at stake, and to use the coin merely as the deciding instrument.

By its very nature, coin tossing has always been suitable for a private gamble between a few people, rather than as a game that can be built into a professional gambling enterprise.  But the private gamble can often develop into a full-scale coin-tossing match.  For instance, the Arabian caliph Abdul-Malik (about a.d. 700) once lined up the officers of his army in the palace courtyard and had them toss coins to decide which of them should share in a distribution of some of the wealth of Syria.