Home > Features > From the Chinese Dynasty to Ancient Greece and the Italian Mafia: The evolution of gambling through the ages

From the Chinese Dynasty to Ancient Greece and the Italian Mafia: The evolution of gambling through the ages


4 Oct 2018

The Great Wall of China; an irrepressible feat of structural engineering, yet a high-stakes gamble.

Initially completed approximately 200 BC it was funded predominantly through introducing Keno, a game of chance lottery to the general public, and as such the Chinese authorities were able to erect a unique fortification which enabled the country to defend against invaders for centuries.
The earliest forms of gambling in China can be traced back to roughly 2000 BC with the irony being that it was actually soldiers, who discovered a game with tiles which has evolved into modern day Mahjong.
While considered to be entertainment, during the Han Dynasty (200 AD), gambling had become over-indulged upon by several imperial officials who were hastily punished, being made an example of as a warning to the lower social classes where gambling had started to become widespread.
Much ambiguity around gambling in China persists even today, commonly caused by the country’s city states of Macau and Hong Kong (where it is allowed) at one time, colonies of Portugal and Great Britain respectively.
Despite gambling being a form of entertainment in China, according to studies, there are many Chinese who believe that through gambling, they can unmask their true identities.
This would certainly explain the proverb: “at the gambling table, there are no fathers and sons” …

Gambling in Ancient Greece in the hands of the Gods

Around a similar time when Chinese soldiers were playing with tiles, according to Greek mythology, Zeus, Posiedon and Hades were all drawing straws to see who would be responsible for each area of the universe, both physical and spiritual.
For those who are wondering, this isn’t where the term ‘Responsible Gambling’ originates.
It so happened that Hades drew the short straw and presided over the underworld, while Zeus and Posiedon took the Heavens and the Sea respectively.
This really begs the question. If the US dollar has the term ‘In God We Trust’ printed on it, then why is gambling illegal in most parts of the United States? Perhaps slightly mischievous, nevertheless a point with potential precedence for a clever attorney, though who no doubt would see the odds inevitably and sensibly stacked against them.
Ancient Greece was a hotbed for gambling. Traced back to 700 BC when according to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Minoan civilisation introduced the earliest forms of Poker to society, Greece also coined the popular game ‘Heads or Tails’.
Although we know that the outcome of such games are dictated by luck, the Ancient Greek’s believed that the Gods purely played a part in deciding the fate of those who took part in them.
A faith also shared by the Romans and Ancient Egyptians who participated in such games. As centuries passed by, when the middle ages arrived there appeared to be no end to gambling.
Land and livestock became common wagers among the nobility as dice games shuffled aside for cards, which originated in China. Gradually, casinos became commonplace, especially in Europe, mainly frequented by the aristocracy and higher echelons of society.
France and Switzerland especially became a big draw for gamblers, with the foothills of the Alps providing an ideally discreet destination for those committed enough to brave the cold conditions.

Gambling’s very own Italian job

By the time the 20th century came around, gambling had begun to take a much more sinister turn.
With the rise of Italian immigration in the United States, which had increased rapidly throughout the 19th century, there was also a spike in organised crime as the Italian-influenced American Mafia tightened its noose around society.
Gambling was one of the many lucrative industries in which Mafia families waged war to dominate a power-struggle as authorities cracked down on other precarious activities.
Up until 1931 when the state of Nevada legalised gambling, high-ranking law enforcement officials were on the payroll of many Mafia families who made fortunes illegally through gambling.
In 1946, Mafioso boss Meyer Lansky poured illicit profits into the first gambling resort of Las Vegas; ‘The Flamingo’ and the city soared, attracting Mafia families from all over America who struck a deal so that each shared in everyone’s profits, making ownership nearly untraceable.
Now an entertainment hotspot of the world for many, the city’s shady and illegal dealings of the past are long gone, with the FBI cleaning Las Vegas up in the 1960s giving way to legitimate businessmen.
Ancient China may have funded the Great Wall with their profits to keep invaders out, though there were clearly no barriers standing in the way of what Las Vegas has achieved over the last few decades, with revenue being ploughed back into the city, attracting an influx of tourists.