The History of Roulette

While roulette is a simple enough game to learn, trying to pin down its exact history is a very different process.

Admittedly, the name itself comes from French and means “little wheel.” But how did this game of a small wheel and a ball develop into the popular type of gambling entertainment that it is today?

Various stories abound about how the game of roulette actually got its start. Some are pretty wild, but they all add to the sense of history and romance surrounding the game.

Roulette’s Beginnings

Does It Have Chinese Roots?

Some people believe that roulette is based on an ancient Chinese board game. In this game, players would arrange 37 animal figurines on a numbered square — the numbers of which added up to 666, just as they do in roulette now.

Dominican monks delighted in the game and brought it back to Europe with them, with some modifications. They changed the layout, including making the square into a circle and adding a special slot for the number zero.

Unfortunately, no one seems to know how the original Chinese game was played, so we have no idea how much it influences other versions later in history.

Or Medieval Beginnings, Perhaps?

Another story says that the game was inspired by the Rota Fortunae from medieval philosophy, or the Wheel of Fortune. The goddess Fortuna (Fate) spins a wheel that can bring great misfortunes or giant windfalls.

This potential connection seems the weakest, but it’s easy to see why some folks might tie this concept to human gambling.

Maybe It All Started in Ancient Greece…

There are tales of Greek soldiers drawing symbols (or, in some stories, numbers) on the inside of a shield, placing it face-down on the ground beside an arrow or a spear. They would then spin the shield and bet on which symbol the arrow or spear would end up pointing to.

…Or Maybe It Was Ancient Rome

Allegedly, Roman soldiers loved to gamble, and one game they played involved marking 10 fields on a shield or chariot wheel. They would then lay the shield or wheel on the ground, mark a spot on the ground, and spin the wheel to see which field landed on the mark.

Like many tales from Roman myth, this seems suspiciously similar to the story of the ancient Greek warriors. Are we really that shocked, though?

Perhaps It Came From Italy

Others say that roulette came from the Italian board game biribi. This tale makes a little more sense than some of the others, as in biribi players bet on a layout of numbered squares to see which is randomly selected. It was also exported from Italy to France in the early 18th century, and France is inevitably where the game of roulette as we currently think of it came from.

And Then There’s the English

England had a popular betting game in the 17th century called Roly Poly (and some even say that it was brought over from France to begin with). It featured a wheel and ball, and players wagered on the result of the spin. In 1739, Roly Poly was banned in the United Kingdom, along with many other games of chance.

A similar game, called Even-Odd, came about to get around those laws. This game also used a ball that went around a wheel, with 20 areas marked with an E for Evens and 20 with an O for Odds. By 1800, Roly Poly had virtually disappeared in favor of Even-Odd.

The Most Popular Story

The most common story says that 17th century French physicist Blaise Pascal invented actual roulette while exploring the mathematical theory of probability and playing around with trying to create a perpetual-motion machine. He was apparently also a fan of gambling, so he’d most likely have been familiar with these other games of chance like Roly Poly.

What we know of as roulette now got its start in Paris in the 1700s. The French novelist Jaques Lablee describes the game in his 1796 novel La Roulette, ou le Jour, even mentioning that the layout contained “the bank’s two numbers, zero and double zero.” There’s an even earlier reference to a game by this name published in 1758, in which regulations for the territory that would become Québec banned games like “dice, hoca, faro, and roulette.”

How Roulette Became Popular

While the late 18th century saw strict gambling laws in France, sovereign city-states didn’t have the same restrictions. The Principality of Monaco was in dire need of cash after years of rebellions had exhausted the territory’s military resources. Princess Caroline, the consort to Florestan I of Monaco, came up with the idea of turning Monaco into a gambling destination to save the ruling family from bankruptcy.

Caroline and Florestan’s son, Prince Charles, recruited the talent to run the operation and developed a destination with a spa to treat various diseases, a casino modeled after one over in Germany, and English-style villas. This became the historic Casino de Monte-Carlo (named after Charles, of course).

Prince Charles had actually modeled his gambling casino after one that was already well-established over in Bad Homburg. In the mid-1800s, Bad Homburg was a major spa casino destination after France had made gambling illegal. Twin brothers François and Louis Blanc had moved there and made a name for themselves by running a successful casino.

Prince Charles’ new casino was making some profits, but it wasn’t yet to the scale that Princess Caroline had envisioned. She campaigned hard to get the Blanc brothers to come to Monte Carlo and run their casino. When the German government outlawed gambling in the 1860s, she got her wish. The Blancs moved their operation to the Monte Carlo casino, where roulette was prominently featured. As a result, roulette became quite popular with the aristocracy.

How Roulette Has Evolved

The Blanc brothers, while in Bad Homburg, had altered the roulette wheel to make it more popular they had removed the double-zero pocket from the roulette wheel. This dropped the house edge greatly (from 5.26% to 2.7%), meaning that casinos with just a single-zero pocket became all the rage. Bringing the Blanc style of roulette to Monaco ensured that the principality would become a destination for the affluent and that roulette would be a favorite pastime for the elite.

Roulette made its way to America in the early 19th century with the help of European settlers who brought the old double-zero wheel with them. These settlers landed in New Orleans, and the game made its way up the Mississippi River and then westward.

Stories say that American casino proprietors didn’t love the 5.26% house edge that the double-zero setup gave them and tried to increase it (though no one says how they actually attempted this, except maybe through cheating). But this just ended up frustrating players because of the low earning potential, and people lost interest in the game.

It looks like American casino owners learned their lesson and went back to the double-zero setup that gave them a 5.26% house edge. American players went along with it and seemed to have rejected the single-zero wheel almost unanimously. That’s how double-zero roulette became known as American roulette.

Online Roulette

The 1990s saw an explosion of gambling as never seen before: via the internet. In 1996, the first online casino started, offering some slot machines and blackjack. Roulette didn’t hit those online casinos for a few years, but when it did, roulette suddenly blew up in popularity once more.

Now, players weren’t limited to playing only one style of roulette or the other, restricted by their personal geography. Do you live in the U.S. but want to try single-zero roulette? You don’t have to buy a plane ticket anymore to give it a go. And you could get the thrill of casino gambling while in your own home. You still get the wheel, the ball, and the plethora of bets to make, but now it’s all digitized.

Online roulette uses random number generating software to mimic the randomness of spinning a roulette wheel again and again. This means that the house doesn’t have an unfair advantage by choosing the same numbers repeatedly, but it also means that players also can’t cheat by finding patterns in the results. It’s a truly random game, based on chance instead of learned skill just like it always has been.

But for those roulette players out there who still crave some human interaction in their games, many online casinos have evolved further to include live dealers. Rather than using a graphical wheel, a live dealer spins a wheel that you can watch via webcam. You can place your bets through the casino’s online platform as you watch and get the best of both worlds: betting at a real casino while still sitting in your sweatpants on your couch.

Modern Roulette

Roulette is still one of the top games for casinos, both physically and digitally. On average, roulette is responsible for 24% of casino table game action, making it the second-most popular casino game that people flock to. As for the online version, it’s always listed among the top five games on any online casino list.

Live Roulette

If you live near a real, physical casino, you’ll have no problem finding a roulette wheel. The challenge comes from finding the type of wheel you prefer to play on.

The double-zero setup is most commonly used in North America, South America, and the Caribbean. However, there are places you can find the single-zero wheel here in the States if you’d like to have some better odds. Look in high-traffic casino destinations like Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or try the riverboat gambling halls in Louisiana.

If you find an American casino that has a European theme, you’re bound to find a single-zero roulette game. Also, in competitive casino markets like Mississippi, you should be able to find a single-zero wheel just be on the lookout in the bigger “brand name” casinos.

Single-zero wheels are also immensely popular in Europe (of course) and Asia. So if you ever find yourself booking a flight abroad, keep this fact in mind if you plan to try a little gambling on your trip.

Online Roulette

If you choose to play roulette online, you aren’t limited to playing only the type of roulette available in your region. You can play single-zero or double-zero roulette, depending on how lucky you feel.

You can also try different formats, with 2D and 3D options when it comes to the digitized wheel. Numerous casinos offer the live-dealer option, while other brands are looking into trying VR to make the online experience even more thrilling.

Playing Online Roulette in the U.S.

Due to regulations in the U.S., most states have banned online gambling within their borders. There is no federal law prohibiting U.S. citizens from gambling online, but you can’t bet across state lines. This makes it a little tricky when it comes to choosing your online casino, but depending on where you live, you still have several options.

These following states have made it legal to run online casinos based within their borders, in various capacities:

  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • West Virginia
  • Delaware
  • Michigan

Numerous other states allow online gambling, such as online poker or online sports betting, but these five are the only ones as of 2020 that have expressly given online casinos the right to exist. If you live in one of these states, your options for playing online roulette are many and varied.

This issue of legality may initially make it seem like playing online roulette is impossible for most Americans, but that’s not the case. If you don’t live inside a state that has its own online casino establishments, you can easily turn to an offshore option instead.

There are plenty of online casinos based in other countries like Australia, Gibraltar, the Philippines, or the U.K. that you can create an account with instead and not be breaking any laws.

One of the Most Popular Casino Games

Roulette is right up there with slots and poker as one of the most iconic and popular casino games in existence. You can’t help but watch the ball go around and around while willing it to stop on the right number. The popularity of both live roulette and online roulette cannot be denied.

The roulette tables will also probably be some of the loudest spots in a casino, with crowds cheering each other on with every spin of the wheel. Plus, there’s no limit to the number of people who can make the same bet, so if multiple people make the same wager, you’re all cheering each other on and bringing a communal spirit to the game.

And when you’re playing online, you have the advantage of taking your time to plan out your betting system, and you can also rack up special bonuses like free spins or boosted wins if you place some side bets. Plus, you don’t have to worry about the loud crowds if you’re more introverted.

Whether you prefer live or online, roulette is here to stay.