It All Started With… The History of Roulette, or Why We Bet on Spinning Wheels

Betiton
14 min readJun 22, 2021

It all started with… the series that explains the beginnings of gambling powered by Betiton™

Welcome to the third entry in our series of articles that trace the history of casino games. Now we’re turning our attention to the history of roulette. We’ll first be investigating the mysterious origins of roulette, then we’ll be discussing its future as well the features that it made so popular in the first place.

‘It all started with Blaise Pascal’s efforts to defy physics…’

Sadly, the beginnings of roulette aren’t truly known. And like with anything whose origins aren’t entirely known, theories about who invented roulette abound. In fact, different people believe that the game was invented by the Romans, the Ancient Greeks, or even the Ancient Chinese…

Failed Experiment or Brilliant Invention: Who Invented Roulette?

The most credible theory is that roulette was accidentally designed by Blaise Pascal. In his attempts to make the impossible possible, Pascal attempted to create a perpetual motion machine (something which is physically impossible due to the laws of thermodynamics).

Pascal knew very well that the laws of thermodynamics prevent such a machine from being possible — but he tried anyway. Of course, he was far from successful. However, even though his attempts were doomed from the start, they were fruitful nonetheless as they produced the designs for the first ever roulette wheel.

From Failed Experiment to Gambling Machine: History of the Roulette Wheel

Evidence of a gaming wheel that resembles the roulette wheel comes from 1702 — a whole 40 years after the death of Blaise Pascal. It was a gaming wheel that was designed for the Italian game known as cavaglone (also known as biribi and biribissi).

It was originally a Genoese game that was played quite similarly to modern day bingo. However, rather than having a caller that calls out the numbers and players have to dot the numbers on the bingo ticket, players in cavaglone would simply pick numbers on a card from 1–70.

The “banker” then pulls out a number from a bag and the players who picked the winning number win. In a way, it’s actually much like keno.

a spinning roulette wheel with a roulette ball inside
Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

It’s likely that the wheel was used to substitute for the banker having to pull balls out a bag. If this was the case, then the wheel for cavaglone was numbered much like the modern roulette wheel. The wheel would then be spun and a ball would be placed in it to give the winning number. The game played this way would be extremely similar to modern roulette.

Cavaglone was then introduced to France sometime later, likely between 1710–1720, where it became extremely popular with the aristocracy. It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint when the game went to France, but the renowned games historian Thierry Depaulis mentions that the first instance of this game is from 1719.

It’s unclear, however, if and when the wheel was brought over to France. However, the name of the game is indeed French, so it must have been brought to France as some point. In fact, the word “roulette” in reference to a game crops up in legal documents that date earlier than 1719, which means that a game called “roulette” predates the arrival of cavaglone in France.

The earliest instance of the mention of “roulette” comes from a judicial case in Bordeaux in 1711. The game is mentioned a handful more times in following years in other pieces of judicial literature. In these instances, the game is mentioned alongside other gambling games, meaning that roulette was already considered a game of its own.

Despite this, it’s good to keep in mind that “roulette” is a rather ancient word. It descends from the Old French word roelete, which comes from the Late Latin rotella or “little wheel”. This word has been used variously to mean any circular object that rotates on an axis — in fact, it still retains this meaning today. This suggests that any number of games could have been called “roulette”.

However, it’s important that the game started being differentiated from other similar games. At the time, there were a number of other games that were quite similar to roulette, including portique, hoca, bassette, roly poly, and even-odd. Incidentally, these games are also thought of as precursors of roulette, especially roly poly. Due to these similar games, it’s almost impossible to accurately pin down the origin of roulette.

The Rise and Fall of Roulette: From Popular Game to Banned Activity

Whilst it’s not entirely sure when and how roulette came into being, we at least know that its modern rules were established by the 1790s. In fact, a French novel written by Jaques Lablee with the title La roulette, ou Histoire d'un joueur describes the roulette wheel that was used in the Palais Royal in Paris.

The novel, which was published in 1801 but written in 1796, describes the roulette wheel as having ‘two betting spaces containing the bank’s two numbers, zero and double zero’. It’s curious that the original French roulette wheel had both the zero and the double zero, a feature which is nowadays associated with an American roulette wheel.

We’ll go over this in the next section but for now it’s good to know that roulette was becoming immensely popular in France. However, despite its popularity (or because of it), the eyes of the law always looked upon the game in disdain. In fact, those judicial cases we mentioned before were pleas for the game to be gotten rid of.

For example, the earliest mention of the game in 1711 was when the municipal officers of Bordeaux were asked to ‘destroy entirely the game of roulette, which several individuals were playing in the city, because of the swearing, noises, scandal and knaveries caused by this game.’

Despite these exhortations, the game proved very popular nonetheless, until the law finally got the upper hand when France introduced strict gambling prohibitions. On the 18th of April, 1741, roulette was included amongst a rather long list of forbidden games.

Interestingly enough, amongst these are listed games such as hoca, bassette, and biribi. As we saw before, these games are considered as precursors to roulette. This means that roulette was a separate game entirely with its own rules.

However, contemporary accounts of the game show that the game was far from it is today: instead of a numbered wheel, it had a wheel with “squares” of alternating colours (black or white). Moreover, even the ball alternated in colour between black or white. It seems that the ball needed to land in a pocket or “square” of the same colour in order for punters to win.

After the ban of 1741, several others followed; but, despite the prohibitions, we know very well that roulette remained quite popular in France, especially since for a long time the authorities thought it fruitless to truly crack down on gambling. The novel we mentioned above proves beyond any reasonable doubt that roulette was still played in France. Nonetheless, the restrictions on gambling became ever tighter with the passage of time and the shifting of rulers.

One Zero or Two? The Origin of Single Zero Roulette

Even if roulette was still played despite being illegal, this largely applied to the higher classes. The lower classes, on the other hand, were at the mercy of swindlers. All in all, this created a situation where a legitimate casino was “legal” to operate in France insofar as the right people attended.

Nonetheless, the shifting legal landscape still proved unpalatable to some, which brings us to the French brothers François and Louis Blanc. The Blanc brothers operated casinos in Marseilles to great success. However, the brothers stepped on the wrong toes when speculating on government pensions and tampering with the country’s semaphore telegraph system, thus bringing their business to the government’s attention.

The brothers were arrested but the code of law wasn’t yet developed enough to deal with such cases. Thus, the Blanc brothers were released from custody, after which they went to Paris. Their stay in Paris was short-lived, however, as after new laws were passed under the reign of King Louis Philippe I, it meant that they could be tried for their previous crimes. This time, they moved to Luxembourg.

Whilst they continued their business in Luxembourg, they later seem to have moved to the German state of Hesse-Homburg — specifically to the town Bad Homburg vor der Höhe. There, the Blanc brothers set up a casino with the approval of the local monarch as a way of dragging the town out of the significant debt it accrued.

In the process of making the town of Bad Homburg much more attractive to tourists, the Blanc brothers came up with a new variant of roulette that would make their casino successfully compete with the established gambling houses in France. Their variant of roulette got rid of the double zero on the roulette wheel, which resulted in a single-zero roulette wheel — or a European or French roulette wheel as it’s known today.

As a result, the Blanc brothers’ casino proved immensely successful — more so because Bad Homburg was a spa town. The combination of spa and casino proved to be an incredibly successful mix, and Bad Homburg became one of the wealthiest towns in the entirety of Europe. This caught the attention of a particular monarch that was looking to turn his nearly-bankrupt state to a prosperous nation.

The Saviours of Monaco & the Magicians of Monte Carlo

That monarch was Charles III, then the sovereign prince of Monaco, who found his country in massive debt. His predecessors taxed the residents of Monaco harshly, and Charles found himself between a rock and a hard place: either tax the residents until they revolt against his rule or face near-unrecoverable bankruptcy.

players around a roulette table laying down their bets
Image by Thanks for your Like • donations welcome from Pixabay

It was his mother, Princess Caroline, who, after recently visiting Bad Homburg, came up with the bright idea of legalising gambling in Monaco and opening a casino there in order to emulate the success that Bad Homburg was enjoying. Charles acted on his mother’s suggestions without a second thought and cordially invited the Blanc brothers to relocate their casino to Monaco.

Much to the Prince’s disappointment, the brothers refused and it was up to other entrepreneurs to try their luck opening establishments in Monaco. However, these would prove to fail due to a massive lack of patronage. Desperate, Prince Charles made one last plea to the Blanc brothers.

Luckily for Charles and the fate of Monaco, the stars seemed to have aligned perfectly and the events went in his favour: in the 1860s, the government of Frankfurt abolished gambling as it felt that it was no longer a necessary means of encouraging tourists to visit.

Fun fact: did you know that the sum of all the numbers on the roulette is 666, otherwise known as the Number of the Beast? Due to this, it was believed that the Blanc brothers sold their souls to the devil in exchange for the secrets of the casino.

This saw the Blanc brothers shift their operations entirely to Monaco, striking a deal with the Prince: the Blanc brothers would pay the Prince a percentage of their profits on top of a yearly contribution of 150,000 francs in exchange of allowing them to operate in Monaco.

When the Blanc brothers opened their casino in Monaco, they suggested naming the site “Monte Carlo” (or Mount Charles) in honour of the Prince that allowed them to operate their business there. The venture proved immensely profitable, turning Monaco into a prestigious and wealthy getaway resort — and the rest is history!

An American Sensation: How Roulette Became One of America’s Most Beloved Games

As more and more Europeans seem to have made their way to America, more and more European elements found themselves following along too. One of these was roulette, amongst other popular gambling games.

The immense popularity of roulette meant that it was only a matter of time before it too would find itself in America. In fact, it’s hard not to deduce that French migrants brought roulette with them over to America, especially when you consider the fact that the original French wheel had a zero and a double zero pocket.

Nowadays, this wheel is considered to be the American variant of roulette because it was mainly available in the US during the 20th century. As to why double-zero roulette stopped being popular in Europe, there might be a number of reasons for this, including the tightening grip of European authorities on the restriction of gambling.

Moreover, it could also be the fact that single-zero roulette became so popular that it pushed double-zero roulette into oblivion. Single-zero roulette has a lower house edge, which players obviously tended to enjoy. On top of that, single-zero roulette was the invention of the Blanc brothers who, as we saw, operated the most successful casino in all of Europe.

Moving on: the original French wheel must have been taken to the US by French immigrants wishing to settle there. This happened a little before the Blanc brothers moved their operations to Monte Carlo, sometime in the 1850s. Thus, gambling houses in New Orleans found themselves equipped with a new game to provide punters with.

Needless to say, it was a well-received game in the US as well, gaining immense popularity just as it did in Europe. And just as it did in Europe, roulette began moving around America, going up the Mississippi river and moving to the west. However, since the roulette wheel seems to have been integrated in the table it was placed on, this allowed for cheating. In fact, cheating was rife thanks to this design defect.

As roulette was moving about the US and increasing in popularity, a number of changes in its design was undertaken, first and most important of which was the relocation of the roulette wheel. Instead of being integrated into the table, the wheel was simply placed on top of the table.

This prevented cheaters from tampering with the wheel from underneath the table, as was often the case. Moreover, the layout of the betting table was simplified, giving rise to the rudimentary American roulette table. This kept on being modified until it gave us the modern table we see and enjoy today.

From Prestigious Casinos to Digital Platforms: When Roulette Finally Became an Online Game

Due to stringent restrictions on gambling, the only places in the world that were worth visiting for their casinos to play roulette were either Las Vegas or Monte Carlo. This was until sometime in the 1970s, when casinos started flourishing and spreading around the world.

Arguably, this might have been due to gambling restrictions being relaxed around the world. As casinos became more popular, so was technology continuously advancing. When the internet started becoming more and more common by the 1990s, casinos sought a way to get online too.

Which brings us to InterCasino, the first ever online casino, which opened its “doors” in 1996. It was InterCasino that provided the possibility of playing roulette on the internet, and thus they were the first providers of online roulette. From then on, online roulette never stopped developing, and will likely never stop.

How Did Roulette Became Such a Popular Game?

The popularity of roulette was something that increased over time. However, it was already quite popular to begin with in France, where the modern rules of the game were developed. In fact, it was a well-known game within French mansions known as hôtels particuliers, such as the now-demolished Hôtel de Soissons, which seem to have had special permission to host these games.

As a result, these mansions were gambling hubs where people from all walks of life — nobility and peasantry — would play a large range of games, including roulette. It seems that roulette was somewhat known for its profitability combined with its ease of play. As a matter of fact, the Marquis d’Argens, Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, proves this in his memoirs.

In 1730, the Marquis visited the Hôtel de Gesvres and passed the time playing roulette. Despite never having gambled in his life, the Marquis had won six thousand pounds (which were worth nearly 2 kg of gold) in the span of an hour and a half. The allure of winning big seems to have always been part of the game.

a stationary roulette wheel with the ball having landed on 13 black
Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo: How One Man Made Roulette the Most Popular Game in Europe

In fact, about a century and half later, the game exploded in popularity for the very same reason: in 1891, a seemingly innocuous and unassuming Englishman by the name of Charles de Ville Wells arrived at Monte Carlo and did the unthinkable: he began winning like crazy at roulette.

Not only that but he did it in the most unimaginable way possible: he played roulette every day during his stay in Monte Carlo. Moreover, he would play from dawn till dusk, and with such recklessness that he seemed like, according to author Robin Quinn, ‘a mad millionaire trying to get rid of his capital’.

Many speculated how Wells managed to pull it off. Wells himself claimed to have been using an ‘infallible system’ of his own invention. However, many theorise that he simply cheated the casino; others believe that he had the right attitude for the game, able to take risks and keep his cool even when losing; others instead simply believe that he was merely lucky.

Well, whatever it was, Wells won, and won big. In a matter of 5 days, Wells broke the bank a number of times, making off with £40,000 (around £4 million in today’s standards). A handful of months later, Wells did this incredible feat it again, winning £20,000 (about £2 million).

Understandably, this led to a furore that put Monte Carlo as the place to be and roulette as the game to play. And thus, thanks to Wells, people from around the world flocked to Monte Carlo to play roulette for the chance of also hitting a massive win. Needless to say, the Monte Carlo casino recovered the money it lost to Wells not too long after!

The Future of Roulette

Can the popularity of roulette really ever fade? We don’t think that it’s even possible. If anything, roulette is only getting more and more popular, especially thanks to the numerous innovations that have been developed as of late. In fact, many innovations have already happened in recent years: think of auto roulette, live roulette, multi-ball roulette, multi-wheel, and even triple-zero roulette!

The possibilities don’t simply stop there, of course. We’re fairly certain that roulette can be innovated even further. Who knows? Maybe new variants will emerge with differently arranged wheels and betting tables. Moreover, maybe it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be able to enjoy virtual reality roulette!

Conclusion

It all started with Blaise Pascal’s efforts to bend the laws of physics, where he wanted to create a machine that won’t ever stop working. His designs seem to have found themselves in a number of gambling wheels, each one employed for a different game with different rules to roulette as we know it.

However, it seems that through the influence of all these various games, their rules, and their use of the gaming wheel, a new game emerged sometime in the early 18th century that was being called “little wheel” — or roulette, as we now know it. From its invention, the popularity of roulette never faded away.

In fact, the popularity of roulette even withstood successive legislations that forbade its existence! And the more people played roulette, the more popular it became. Which is why we firmly believe that roulette will continue to be one of the most popular casino games around, and will continue being innovated for as long as we’ll have casinos.

In the meantime, join us on our next entry where we’ll be going into the history of another highly popular casino game!

Other Articles in Our Series It All Started With…

Curious to know more about the history of gambling? You can find out more by reading our other articles in our series It All Started With… which you can find below:

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