The History of Gambling Around the World

Gambling has played a significant part in the culture of most societies. At some point in their evolution, groups of people decided that risking everything on chance to secure an even bigger bounty was fun, and it felt strangely satisfying.

Although gambling games today look almost all the same, and are very familiar, the activity itself dates back to the Palaeolithic period. Before mankind figured out that keeping written records is actually a good idea.

The first modern-esque dice were discovered around 3000 BC and they were inspired by astragali. A sort of ill-shaped tooth-like dice that appeared thousands of years before and were used by seers, shamans and other spiritual leaders for divinations.

From the United States to China, gambling has evolved at its own pace. Futhermore, even though many regions were mostly unconnected, the same gambling patterns emerged throughout the millennia.

History of Gambling via Country

History of Gambling in America

Image of USA flag and Poker Cards

The history of gambling in America is fraught. Naturally, it began with the first settlers who discovered the continent and rushed towards it with great expectations to recreate paradise on Earth. Yet, European settlers brought with them a number of games popular in France. Of course, later in the 19th and 20th century, Americans would come up with more games, such as blackjack and poker.

Yet in those early days when the British Empire was colonizing the North American continent, gambling was developing in different forms. There were horse races and various card games. In 1612 King James I created the first lottery to raise funds for Jamestown, Virginia, a decision which would later cotton on in America.

The Downfall of Society in the US

Gambling quickly became problematic among the nobility so much that in the 18th century, esteemed member of the society would end up gambling away all their possessions. That led to a string of prohibitions throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with lotteries first welcomed and then suspended for almost two hundred years.

Native American Tribes and Gambling

Native Americans also used to have gambling games of their own, which never stuck, but interestingly, in modern America, tribes tend to hold a big portion of the gambling business in the United States.

There are 460 Native gaming establishments in the country, according to data collated by the American Gaming Association and the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC).

Do you want to know more? We have put together a comprehensive overview of the American gambling origins and history in a separate blog post which you can view here.

History of Gambling in Canada

Image of Canadian Flag and poker cards

Canada is a country which, from the standpoint of history, is still a sapling.

The country was formed in 1867 at a time when settlers were striving for control. They were trying to build a new life for themselves and divesting themselves of the powers of monarchs stuck in continental Europe.

Yet, natives had been playing games of chance long before Europeans had the same idea of their own.

The Early Days of Canada Gambling 1400 – 1900

In 1497, an Italian navigator known as John Cabot set out to explore coastal North America and came across a population of indigenous people who played such games.

In fact, Cabot discovered that people had been gambling since at least 6000 BC, using various items found nature, such as stones and sticks. At the time of discovery, most such games were banned back in England by order of Richard III who believed gambling undermined social mores.

Games of chance remained popular with no order able to stop Canadian’s appetite for gambling. The country saw gambling come and go in fits and starts, until Canada finally surfaced as a country with a rule of law.

In a true Anglo-Saxon tradition, Canada suspended all gambling activities in 1892, featuring games of chance in the Canadian Criminal Code. Yet, this only lasted eight years, and at the turn of the century in 1900, raffles and bingo games were allowed again.

Gambling in Canada 1900s to Today

A decade later in 1910, Canada also allowed bets to be placed on horse racing events and in 1925, the country’s lawmakers agreed to let exhibitions operate and showcase various gambling games.

As years passed, Canada recurrently tapped into gambling for additional funds. For example, in 1969, the Canadian government agreed to allow both federal and provincial lotteries, exempting those activities from its Criminal Code, to raise more money for various initiatives.

Gambling in Canada today is mostly legal, although there is a patchwork of federal and provincial regulations. Brick-and-mortar casinos are the only facilities that are fully regulated by law.

Internet gambling remains elusive in certain jurisdictions and may be entirely restricted in others. The next chapter of Canada’s gambling will take place on the digital frontier.

History of Gambling in Australia

Image of Australian Flag and poker cards

The first-time people landed in Australia was some 65000 BC or so scientific evidence suggests. Nobody really cared much about gambling back then. Homo sapiens mostly cut some bushes and hunted some of the more menacing predators on the continent, and then packed up and left.

Of all the nations who gamble, Australians are certainly the most feverish about the activity.

According to official government statistics, over 80% of the adult population in Australia engages in some form of gambling. These numbers have led to some serious addiction among the population, with estimated 1% of Australians suffering from problem gambling.

Where did Gambling Start in Australia?

But where did it all start? As it turns out, the first modern gambling venue was the Wrest Point Hotel Casino in Tasmania which opened back in 1973. Interestingly, though, Australia saw many different types of gambling brought to the country.

Image of the Wrest Point Hotel Casino
Image of the Wrest Point Hotel Casino, Image Credit

There was European, Aboriginal and Chinese gaining popularity in the country in equal measure. By 1840, Chinese settlers had managed to popularize some traditional forms of gambling traditional to their country of origin.

Gambling continued in the form of sports betting, as the country had a great appetite for horse races. By 1890, the totalisator was introduced to racecourse in several states and not surprisingly, it boosted both interest in the activity and attendance. This event was preceded by the introduction of lotteries and specifically in Sydney in the 1880s.

20th Century Australian Gambling til Modern Day

The arrival of televised sports helped immensely. The development of telephones and radio broadcasting in the 1930-1960 offered Australians the opportunity to get a first brush with illegal gambling which will proliferate in the decades that followed.

Yet, Australia’s appetite for gambling didn’t go unnoticed, attracting interest from established brands such as The Adelaide Casino and Darwin MGM Grand, a subsidiary of Las Vegas MGM Grand.

The years since 2000s have been some of quickest changes in the status of gambling.

The Internet boom has led to an unprecedented number of illegitimate gambling operators, which Australia ignored for a long while. However, the federal government was quick to act and introduced the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 which effectively restricted operators from providing Australians with interactive forms of gambling.

Many operators continued to do so, but then Australia threatened to file complaints with licensing authorities and brands began to pull out. The number of illegal offshore gambling websites has remained steady, though, even though the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has been looking to restrict access of such websites to Australians.

History of Gambling in the UK

Image of UK flag and poker cards

The United Kingdom has earned itself a name for being one of the most liberal gambling liberal markets since the Gambling Act of 2005 was introduced and until at least 2016 and 2018. However, this may be about to change, as the country is seeing an unprecedented level of regulation going in restricting certain operations, reducing gambling limits and showing a genuine concern about vulnerable players.

Medieval Times to the 1800s

Not surprisingly, the story of the United Kingdom with gambling dates back to at least the 16th century, even though gambling was already banned under Richard III’s Law on Gambling in 1380. There were many acts that sought to restrict gambling in the United Kingdom in the centuries that followed.

The country saw, one after another the Unlawful Games Act 1541 and then a string of restrictive laws in 1710, 1728, 1738, 1739, and 1744.

British lawmakers lost interest in prohibiting gambling in 1845 when they passed The Gaming Act and legalized games of skill and even introduced rules on cheating, stating that it was a crime.

John Pettie The Gambler's Victim
The Gambler’s Victim – John Pettie (1839-1893)

More laws emerged again in 1853, 1854, 1874 and 1906 and later, in 1928, the country’s growing love for horse racing occasioned the Racecourse Betting Act. By passing the 1934 Betting and Lotteries Act, the United Kingdom addressed greyhound races, another popular aspect of the gambling experience in the country.

19th Century British Gambling to Modern Day

As the British public warmed up to gambling, lawmakers managed to introduce the Betting and Gaming Act of 1960. This introduced private casinos and gave one of the biggest boosts to the industry in the country.

Things mostly remained the same for years to follow until 2005. The government realized that a new challenge has surfaced, and the need to regulate Internet gambling had become urgent.

The Gambling Act of 2005 coincided with a major piece of legislation in the United States the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (UIEGA). This banned interactive gambling products under a pretext that funds from Internet wagering funded terrorist organizations and were a threat on national security.

Defeated, many companies scurried back to the United Kingdom, enjoying their new-found freedom or relocated offshore where they continue to operate an industry worth hundreds of billions annually.

Just sports betting alone accounts for $150 billion in the offshore gambling sector. Back to the United Kingdom however, there have been some dramatic changes in the make-up of the gambling industry.

Modern gambling in the UK

UK Takes a Heavier Stance on Gambling

The country regulator, the UK Gambling Commission, has issued heavy penalties running in millions to legitimate operators for failing to comply with AML and KYC practices. The country has passed a law that limited the betting limits of the so-called Fixed-Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs) in 2018 and enacted it in 2019.

The decision prompted the closure of thousands of betting venues and putting 12,000 jobs at risk. Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 also put jobs at risk with casinos in the UK announcing closures.

On a purely regulatory level, the UK Gambling Commission has been able to enforce some stricter measures, such as demanding that gambling operators verify the funds and identity of people register at Internet gambling websites within hours.

As of today, credit card can no longer be used to fund gambling accounts, including electronic wallets. All in all, 2019-2020 has been a period of rapid and historic changes and lawmakers are demanding for further restrictions they interpret as consumer-focused moving forward.

History of Gambling in the Middle East

Image of Dubai and poker cards

The Middle East has been an interesting region for thousands of years. Understandably, gambling has managed to find its way into one of the most vibrant civilizations.

Before Christ or Anno Domini, and before Islam became the main religious text in the Middle East, gambling was practiced in varying degree and intensity throughout the region. By one estimate, the Middle East’s first recorded accounts of gambling games date back to 1500 AD, and before the colonial era.

Islam, though, and the Qur’an offered an unequivocal stance on gambling, qualifying it as Maisir or absolutely forbidden.

The rather restrictive and purposeful attitude of the Qur’an towards gambling has allowed the Muslim world to avoid many of the social degradation that was experienced elsewhere. However, it has also affected gambling to the point where it never managed to exist in some formal form throughout the better part of the region’s history.

What is Gambling Like Today in the Middle East?

Today, commercial casinos are available in some countries throughout the region. However, not to the same extent as they are in Macau or Las Vegas, for example.

Some of the biggest properties include the Semiramis in Cairo, Egypt and Nasr city, Al Qahirah, Egypt. Dubai also lists several gambling properties, in line with the United Arab Emirates’ opening up to the world under the rule of Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

History of Gambling in China

Image of Chinese Flag and poker cards

The evidence of gambling history is contentious at best, as written records of societal life aren’t very easy to find. Yet, China is one of the oldest countries in the world and as such there were some reports in China of games of chance as early as 1900 – 1600 BC.

The Xia and Shand Dynasties

During the reigns of the Xia and Shang dynasties gambling became popular in the high castes of society. This possibly led to the neglect and downfall of the empire in those times. The next centuries were patchy and gambling kept coming and going.

In the instance when the activity was legalized, it was to support the war chest of the empire. Though China seldom went to war and mostly used its ethnicity to melt in any conquerors who, through ironic twist of fate, became assimilated within a generation.

When the Shang came down from power, everyone in China was already gambling. Between 780 – 475 BC the activity grew tremendously and Chinese continued to develop new and entertaining games.

What we in the west describe as Anno Domini, accounts about gambling in China arrived in 617 – 908 AD but in the form of organized gambling. Contrary to the belief that rallying gambling operations in specific venues would lessen social tensions, the decision actually created more problems than it solved.

The period between 950 – 1128 AD was marked by the commercialization of the activity once again. Yet, for all it’s worth, Chinese have always sought to create not only a form of entertainment, but a sort of game where skill also played a part.

This is how Xuan He Pai appeared in 1130 and preceded mahjong, a domino-styled card game, which continues to be popular in China and Asia. The next chapter in the history of gambling in China arrived between 1489 and 1911 or roughly the Middle Ages.

Fan Tan Gambling House 1907
Fan-Tan Gambling House, Image Credit

Gambling in Modern Day China

While many rulers have tried to restrict gambling, ordinary Chinese and especially the nobility found the activity to be too profitable to just pass on. The activity raised to prominence in two provinces especially, including Fujian and Guangdong, not too far from Macau.

In Modern day, people in China can participate legally in lotteries approved by the government. Alternatively, they can travel to Macau or the Philippines where there is a big concentration of commercial casinos designed to cater to the appetites of players.

Macau became one of the biggest gambling hubs in the late 20th century under the guidance of Stanley Ho and the approval of the Chinese Communist Party. Despite some repercussions in 2020, gambling continues to be popular among Chinese people, even though most nationals have to travel abroad to indulge.

In 2019 alone, the national lottery in China generated as much as $30.8 billion in revenue. Overall, the numbers have been growing. In 2018, there was a 20% year-over-year jump in lottery revenue.

Macau is not without competition though. South Korea and Japan are both shaping up as important regional leaders, although the integrated resort in Japan is yet to be constructed.