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Possible Roulette Origins

As with many games, there are competing theories as to the origin of Roulette. The most popular is that it was invented in 1655 by a French scientist called Blaise Pascal during his monastic retreat and first played in a casino in Paris.

The second is very similar and simply says that it was invented by a random French monk to alleviate the monotony of simple monastery life.

The third theory is that French Dominican monks invented Roulette, basing it upon an old Tibetan game in which the object was to arrange 37 animal statuettes into a magic number square of 666. The Tibetan game apparently came from China but unfortunately, the method of play is not recorded. The monks apparently created the game by transposing the 37 statuettes to the number 0 to 36 and arranging them randomly around the rim of a revolving wheel.

Of the 3 theories above, the third seems to lack any evidence but, cutting through the chaff, the common theme is that the game was invented in a monastery in France and it would seem reasonable to assume this is based in truth. Whether the actual monk inventor was Blaise Pascal is more open.

 

Ancestors of Roulette?

Roulette in French means "Small Wheel" which again points back to a French origin of the game. However, if you read the many websites out there with a summary history of Roulette, they almost all point to supposed ancestors that are English, namely: "Roly Poly", "Ace of hearts" and "Even-Odd" and Italian, namely "Biribi" and "Hoca". They all say the same thing because they all just copy what they find on Wikipedia which is quite often incorrect.

Let's look at the hypothesised ancestors in slightly more detail. Here is an extract from the memoirs of Casanova dated 1763: "Just then all the great ladies were mad over 'biribi', a regular cheating game. It was strictly forbidden at Genoa, but this only made it more popular". It appears that 3 numbers were picked out of a bag each turn and Casanova goes on to say "The board had thirty-six compartments, and if one lost, one paid thirty-two times the amount of the stake; this, of course, was an enormous advantage for the bank." As can be seen although there are a couple of similarities, no ball or wheel means a distant cousin is more likely than an ancestor in this author's view.

Hoca appears to have been a game played with cards with thirty points and thirty balls and was probably more of a lottery card game than something like roulette.

"Ace of Hearts" according to "Games, Gaming and Gamester's Law" by Brandt was another name for Bone-Ace, a game clearly described by Charles Cotton. This is just a gambling card game of the simplest sort whereby players bet on the value of the card that the dealer will turn up. It doesn't appear to be similar to roulette.

Above is an antique EO Table. To the right is a Thomas Rowlandson cartoon of the period showing a bit of a cuffuffle around such a table.

Even-Odd, on the other hand, was a game with a wheel and a ball just like roulette but instead of numbers there were just 20 sections marked E for Even and 20 marked O for Odd. Instead of a zero, a portion of the sections were allocated for the house. The game seems to have become rapidly very popular in the 1770s until it was banned by statute around 1782. This then is an obvious possible candidate for an ancestor of the game of roulette. However, there are unfortunately, no references to it prior to those of Roulette. So the only way that E.O. is the ancestor of Roulette is if it was went by another name - i.e. Roly Poly....

Roly Poly is either an alternative name for E.O. or an alternative name for Roulette, depending upon source and interpretation. See below for a discussion on this. If it is an alternative name for Roulette then there is no known ancestor of Roulette. However, if Roly Poly is one and the same as E.O., then E.O. is probably an ancestor of Roulette.

 

Earliest viable evidence of Roulette

Documentary evidence indicates that the game of roulette sprung up in the 18th century. Like many games, the earliest mentions are in legal documents banning the game. One appeared in regulations for the new country of "New France", later renamed to Canada. The decree, dated 1758, specifically prohibits the playing of ""dice, hoca, faro, and roulette." The English Act 18 Geo. II has the earliest mention of the word at 1745 and stated "And whereas as certain pernicious game called Roulet or Roly-Poly is daily practised"... "no place shall be kept for the playing of the said game of Roulet or Roly-poly"....

To the left is a cartoon of a Roulette game c.1800.

The earliest mention of E.O. is at about the same time - in 1750. Interestingly, Strutt in 1801 mentions both E.O. and "Roulet" but "E.O. tables of today" are mentioned in passing and it's clear that it is a well known game whereas "Roulet" is only quoted from an earlier law and Strutt, who let's face it knew a lot about the games of England, deduces it incorrectly to be a card game. A sporting magazine from around the same time (1808) refers to "Roulet" as a "foreign game". This author deduces that Roulette had either disappeared or become very rare in England at the start of the 1800s and was effectively replaced by E.O. for a time. By the mid 1800s though, Roulette had returned to England and a Hoyle from 1875 describes roulette but E.O. is not mentioned so the situation seems to have been reversed three-quarters of a century later.

 

What is Roly Poly?

The earliest mention in the OED of any of these games is is from 1713 Arbuthnot John Bull "let us begin some Diversion; what d'ye think of Rouly~pouly, or a Country Dance?" but this should be dismissed because Arbuthnot was Scottish and the 1894 edition of Brewers Dictionary of Phrase and Fable tells us that "In some parts of Scotland the game of nine-pins is called rouly-pouly".

So the earliest genuine mention is from 1730 in a Letter from the Countess of Suffolk we have "the Duchess of Marlborough takes to losing her money at roly-poly". Which gives us no information about the details of the game.

A book called "The Fatal Effects of Gambling", 1824 has a section entitled "Description of the newly introduced game of Roulette or Roly Poly" and Act 18 Geo II of 1745 also refers to "Roulet or Roly-Poly" which implies they are one and the same game.

But in "Amusements of old London Vol.1, Boulton says that E.O. was "introduced from the continent"... "About the time that whist was becoming popular" - he earlier says occurred around 1742 and then goes on to say "Roly Poly, as the game was popularly called...". If he was right that Roly Poly is E.O., then E.O. would have a claim to be the ancestor of Roulette but the introduction of Roly Poly at this time seems to be contradicted by the fact that it was a well-known game in 1730 and so the credibility of the statement looks shaky.

So, this author concludes that it is most likely that Roulette came to England from France in the early 1700s where it was initially known only as Roly Poly. After it was banned in 1745, the similar game of E.O. was appeared to get around those laws and Roulette / Roly Poly had virtually disappeared by 1800 having been effectivley replaced by E.O. But E.O. in turn had died out in favour of a resurgent roulette by 1875.

 

Roulette Basics

A roulette wheel consists of a wheel like that pictured to the right that revolves inside a bowl around which a ball rolls until eventually ball and wheel come to rest with the ball in one of the 38 (or on modern European/Latin American tables, 37) divisions around the edge of the wheel. Prior to rolling the ball, people place bets on what number will come up by laying down chips on a betting mat, the precise location of the chips indicating the bet being made. Roulette is a game of French origin and on a traditional table, the French terms on the betting area are still used even in English speaking areas. However, on most US tables, English terms and a slightly different style of mat are used.

Much of the interest in Roulette derives from the the number of different bets and associated odds that can be made. Here is a list:

  • Evens - Rouge (red number), Noir (black number), Pair (even number), Impair (odd number), Manque (1 - 18), Passe (19 - 36). Incidentally, Passe is so named because the ball has "passed" the centrepoint. Manque is French for "failed" and is used because the ball has failed to pass 18.
  • 2 to 1 - "Le Douze". Twelve first numbers, Twelve middle numbers, Twelve last numbers. Place bet in one of the squares marked accordingly.
  • 2 to 1 - A column of twelve numbers. The stake is placed in the square at the end of one of the three columns of twelve numbers.
  • 6 to 1 - A set of 6 numbers. Place the stake on the intersection of the edge of two rows of three numbers to bet on the 6 numbers in those 2 rows.
  • 9 to 1 - "Carre en pleine". A set of four numbers. Place the stake at the intersection of the square of four numbers to be bet upon.
  • 12 to 1 - "Carre simple". A row of three numbers. Place the stake over the line forming the end of the row of three numbers to be bet upon.
  • 18 to 1 "En Chaval". Two numbers. Place the stake across the line dividing the two numbers to be bet upon.
  • 35 to 1. A single number. Place the stake in the box showing the number concerned. It is allowable to bet on zero or double zero.

Ironically or perhaps prophetically, the sum of the numbers on a roulette wheel is 666, which is the number of the beast (the devil) in the Bible's book of revelation.

 

Roulette Zeros and the Banker's edge

It is often said that the "double zero" wheel was invented in America. This is rubbish - the original roulette wheel of modern times as played in France around the turn of the century (1800) has both zeros and the Americans simply used that wheel. Apparently in 1842, fellow Frenchmen François and Louis Blanc created a new-style wheel with only the single zero and the game quickly became popular but both wheels were in existence in France and Europe until the 20th century.

French roulette as described by at the end of the Victorian era, has both the zero and the "double zero". The zero was coloured red and also counted as "Pair" and "Manque"; the double zero was black and also counted as "Impair" and "Passe".

If the ball fell into one of these numbers, all lost stakes were taken by the bank but if the bet was matched by virtue of being Pair, Impair, Rouge, Noir, Passe or Manque, instead of being won, the stake was imprisoned until the next spin of the wheel. On that subsequent turn, the stake is either lost or if the ball matches the bet again, the stake is merely returned to the gambler without any profit.

Pictured is the classic French roulette table from a book on games dated 1903.

Obviously, these two extra numbers are the primary factor giving the bank the edge over an extended period of time. On the one hand, as the ball is bound to fall into one of the zeros twice every 38 balls, this gives the bank a profit of 1/38 (around over 2.5%). But just as importantly, if you look closely at the odds given above, it can be seen straight away that they also are skewed in the bank's favour. For instance, a single number stake pays odds of 35 to 1, but clearly as there are 38 compartments that the ball can fall into, the correct odds are in fact 37 to 1. Over time, this gives the bank 2/37 or over 5% of all money staked on specific numbers or groups of numbers.

 

 

The Evolution of Zero

These days zeros are not coloured red or black but a clearly distinguishing green.

In Latin America and Europe, Roulette is the most popular casino game and the reason for this is that the wheels in Monte Carlo, Deauville, San Remo, London and elsewhere in these countries have only the single zero which means that the cut taken by the Casino is pretty reasonable. T

There are 2 variants of European roulette. Those casinos playing the "En Prison" rule have kept something of the old game - if the ball lands on zero, and only if your bet was an evens stake, the bet is imprisoned and the result determined on the next spin. If it lands on zero twice, the imprisoned bets are lost. Alternatively, premises playing the "La partage" rule simply return to the gambler half the stake when a zero turns up.

The pictures show the standard modern French and American roulette styles of mat.

In North America and the Caribbean, roulette wheels have a double zero, like the original French game and worse, all bets (except a direct bet on the selected zero) are lost when either zero turns up. This gives significantly worse odds for the punter and thus increases the cut made by the Casino over time. This is probably why in this region, Roulette is the third most played casino game after Craps and Black Jack.

 

Rules of Roulette

Free printable rules of Roulette here.

 

Where to buy

You can buy small plastic cheap Roulette sets from many toy and games shops. There aren't really any High street stores that specialise in the game. On the Internet, Masters Traditional Games has an extensive roulette range.

 

Links

Roulette is a fashionable game and a multi-million dollar Internet gambling industry and there are dozens of on-line Roulette websites - a quick search will find more than you'll ever need...

 

 

 

 

 

 

Email to jm at tradgames.org.uk

Copyright © 1997 - now by James Masters.