The Possible Origins of Roulette

Extract from Roulette – History and information, in Jean Boussac, Encyclopaedia of Games. 

As is the case with several games, there are many diverse theories as to the origin of the game Roulette. The most popular of these claims that it was devised in 1655 by the French scientist Blaise Pascal during his monastic retreat and that it was played for the first time in a Paris casino. The second is not unlike the first, simply stating that it was invented by a French monk in an effort to relieve the monotony of monastery life.

The third theory attributes it to Dominican monks, inspired by an old Tibetan game whose object was to arrange 37 animal figurines into a square to add up to the magic number 666. Alas, the exact rules of the game have been lost and we can only speculate. Ostensibly the monks numbered the 37 figurines from 0 to 36 and placed them randomly onto the rim of a rotating wheel.

The ancestors of roulette

In French, “roulette” means “little wheel”, which brings us back to the game’s French origins. However, if you read the numerous websites that give a summarised history of Roulette, they affirm that nearly all of the supposed ancestors were English, namely “Roly Poly”, “Ace of Hearts”, and “Even-Odd”, or Italian, namely “Biribi” and “Hoca”. Their conclusions are based solely on Wikipedia, which is not nearly enough.

Let’s take a closer look at the potential ancestors of Roulette. Casanova’s 1763 memoirs affirm that “At that time, all the great ladies were mad about ‘Biribi’, a game of legal cheating. It was strictly prohibited in Genoa, but this made it no less popular.” It seems that 3 numbers were drawn from a bag on each turn; Casanova continues, explaining: “The board contained thirty-six compartments, and if the player lost, he would pay thirty-two times his bet; this, of course, was of an enormous advantage to the bank.” Despite a few similarities, there is no ball nor wheel to give a clear indication that is game is an ancestor of roulette.

It seems that “Hoca” was played with a deck of cards, thirty spaces, and thirty balls, and probably more resembled a lottery-based card game than it did roulette.

 “The Ace of Hearts”, according to Brandt’s “The Game and the Law of the Gambler”, was another name for “L’as de l’os”, a game clearly described by Charles Cotton. It was a simple card game in which players bet on the value of the card which their opponents would then show. It has nothing in common with roulette.

Even-Odd, moreover, was a game involving a wheel and a ball, just like roulette, but rather than using numbers, it had 20 sections labelled “E” for “Even” and 20 labelled “O” for “Odd”. Instead of a zero, one portion of the sections was the house’s. The game seems to have quickly gained popularity in the 1770s, until it was forbidden by law around the year 1782. In this way, it is a possible ancestor of roulette. Nonetheless, there is no significant reference to it to be found; that is, unless it carries an alternative name – Roly Poly. 

According to some interpretations, Roly Poly is an alternative name either for Even-Odd or for Roulette. If it is another name for Roulette, this means there is no known ancestor of Roulette – unless Roly Poly is the alternative name of Even Odd, in which case, it is likely the ancestor of Roulette.

The first mention of Roulette

Documentary evidence shows that the game of roulette was born during the 18th century. As with many games, the first mentions are found in legal documents outlawing gambling. One of these decrees, dating from 1758, expressly prohibits “dice games, hoca, faro and roulette”. The 1745 English law 18 Geo. 2 bears the oldest reference to the word in these terms: “And considering that a certain pernicious game named roulet or roly-poly is practiced every day […] no establishment may be kept while the game known as roulet or roly-poly is being played.”

The first mention of Even-Odd appears more or less at the same time, in 1750. Strangely, in 1801 Strutt mentioned Even-Odd and “Roulet” at the same time, but “Roulet” is only listed regarding a former law, and Strutt, who knew a lot about gambling in England, took it for a card game. Around the same time (1808), a sports magazine refers to “Roulet” as a “foreign game”. The author infers from this that Roulette had disappeared or was becoming very rare in England at the beginning of the 1800s and was indeed replaced by Even-Odd for a while. Before the middle of the 19th century, Roulette reappeared in England and from 1875, Hoyle described roulette while Even-Odd was not mentioned at all; as a result, the situation seems to have been inverted three-quarters of a century later.

What is Roly-Poly?

The oldest mention of this game dates from 1713, with Arburthnot John Bull’s “What d’ye think of Rouly-pouly, or a Country Dance?” But this argument will be rejected because Arbuthnot was Scottish and the 1894 publication of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells us that “in some parts of Scotland, the game of nine pins is called rouly-pouly.”

The oldest reference therefore comes from 1730, in a letter from the Countess of Suffolk: “The Duchess of Marlborough takes to losing her money at Roly-Poly.” This does not give us any information about the details of the game.

A book named The Fatal Effects of Gambling, published in 1824, has a section entitled “Description of the newly-introduced game of Roulette or Roly-Poly”, and the 1745 English law also refers to “roulet or roly-poly”, which suggests that these games are one and the same.

But in The Old Amusements of London, Vol. 1, Boulton writes that Even-Odd was “introduced to the continent […] just as whist was becoming popular”. He wrote this earlier, around 1742, and later wrote “Roly-Poly, as one has generally referred to as the game Even-Odd …”. If he was right, and Roly Poly and Even-Odd are the same games, then Even-Odd could plausibly be the ancestor of Roulette, but the idea that Roly Poly was introduced at this time seems to be contradicted by the fact that it was a famous game in 1730, and so the credibility of the claim seems fragile.

In this way, this author concludes that it is very probable that Roulette entered England from France at the beginning of the 1700s, where it was initially known under the name of Roly Poly. After having been prohibited in 1745, the similar game Even-Odd seems to have circumvented these laws. Roulette or Roly Poly virtually disappeared in 1800, to be ostensibly replaced by Even-Odd which in turn disappeared in 1875, in favour of a renaissance of Roulette.


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