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The History of Gambling: Roll the Bones – A Detailed Book Review

Are you ready to take everything you know about world history and throw it out the window? Why would we ask such a thing?  Well, it’s because you can expect that to happen when you read this book. It walks you through pre-historic times, brings you to the heights of the Greek and Roman civilizations, on to the Middle Ages and ends with a twentieth and twenty-first century re-cap. Slowly, but surely, you’ll realize that the majority of what has happened in the past has been affected by some kind of wager or bet. You’ll discover strong leaders with gambling problems and even famous battles that have been affected by the toss of a coin.

While the urge to gamble hasn’t changed, how we gamble and where we gamble has changed drastically over the years. In this book, you’ll learn about types of gambling you’ll never heard of before and you’ll discover where the world used to gamble before casinos were established. Reading this book is an experience we bet you’ll never forget.

About the Book

The History of Gambling: Roll the Bones
Anyone with an interest in History or Gambling
David G. Schwartz
Non-Fiction/ Historical
570 Pages
Penguin Group Inc.
Publishing Date
October, 2006

Brief Bio of David G. Swartz

Even though David G. Swartz was born and raised in Atlantic City, New Jersey, he traveled north to attend the University of Pennsylvania where he double majored in anthropology and history. He then continued his education, earning his doctorate in US History from UCLA. He was always passionate about history and educating his students.

That’s why it makes sense that David G. Swartz is currently a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s also the gaming and hospitality editor for Vegas Seven, and he even has his own column in that same magazine. If anyone was qualified to write a history book on gambling, it would be Swartz.

Chapter Summaries & Thoughts

Part One: The Discovery of Gambling

  • 1 – Thoth’s Gift (The Ancient Origins of Gambling)

In this chapter, we hope to discover where and how gambling originated, but we are disappointed to come to the bleak realization that the exact origin of gambling remains a mystery. Swartz points out that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as a whole was just one big risk, as finding a game for that night’s dinner was never guaranteed. He pointed this out to show us that humans have a natural tendency to want to take risks.

In this chapter, you’ll also find an illustration of sheep hucklebone. This is the precursor to modern dice that you find today. Cavemen would “roll the bones” to determine what to do next. How they landed determined whether or not they would travel north or south or whether or not those berries were safe to eat. Dice are evidently older than numbers, hence why they contain dots. This is just one example of the interesting information you’ll encounter as you read this chapter.

  • 2 – The Die is Cast (From Classical to Medieval Times)

The author starts this chapter off by talking about Greek Mythology and its influence on gambling. As you read this chapter you’ll discover many interesting things about the Greeks like the fact that they invented the game, “heads or tails,” and that their earliest form of gambling was when they would bet on cockfights. The most interesting component of the Greek culture that we discovered in this chapter was that Archaeologists found “cheaters dice,” in Greece. Even way back then the Greeks had discovered a way to make a fool out of their enemies.

The end of this chapter talks about how gambling relates to different religions like Christianity and Islam. There are several examples in the Bible, where gambling has made a prevalent role in decision making. Everyone knows the story of Jonah, who got swallowed by a big whale. What you may have overlooked in that story though was the fact that before Jonah was thrown overboard, the other men on the boat “cast lots” to determine whose fault it was that God sent a huge storm. Since the lot fell on Jonah, he was thrown overboard. The rest is history. The Koran also specifically condemns gambling along with a plethora of other religions.

  • 3 – Knaves and Kings (Cards Come into Play)

Chapter 3 covers the first half of the second millennium, and it was during this period that playing cards became particularly popular. The standard 4 suit, 52 card deck was foreign to the world at this time. Each country seemed to have their own idea of what a deck of cards should entail. In Korea, a deck of cards consisted of eight suits of ten cards each. Their symbols were of men, fish, crows, pheasants, antelope, stars, rabbits and horses. Cards were 8 inches wide and one-half inch thick. This is just one example of the unique set of cards you may have encountered.

After the book describes cards from China, India, Italy and a variety of other countries, it shows you drawings of what each one may have looked like. The author then goes on to explain that card playing was a growing obsession in Renaissance Europe, and it was around this time that Bridge was developed. This is a fairly complicated game and one of the oldest games of that era that is still enjoyed by thousands of people today.

Part Two: Gambling Becomes a Science

  • 4 – Taming Tyche (The Science of Chance Creates Professional Gambling)

This chapter focuses on the scientific side of gambling. It starts off by talking about a known scientist named Girolamo Cardano who performed several scientific studies on gambling. He’s most famous for developing the theory of probability and the rationalization of chance. Although his findings were quite advanced for the time period, he overlooked one very important factor: the house advantage. Because of this reason, all of his numbers and theories are slightly misguided.

The second part of this chapter takes us back to sixteenth-century Italy, where the birth of the modern lottery took place. During that time lotteries were being used to help raise money for charities, military schools, and other noteworthy causes.

  • 5 – The Ridotto Revolution (Mercantile Gamblers Create the Casino)

This chapter introduces us to early gambling houses where game rules were simplified so that they would take less time to complete. Ridotto, the Italian name for gambling rooms, were becoming progressively popular in Venice, and they were exclusively designed for the wealthy. Poor Venetians were forced to gamble on the street corners instead.

“The opening of the Ridotto represented a historic union between mercantile gamblers, who ran games for profit, and government, who sought to legitimize the gamblers for purposes of public order and revenue enhancement.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? What happened in Las Vegas during the mid-1900s, was happening in Venice back in the 1500s. Some things never seem to change in the gambling world.

Part Three: Gambling Takes to the Sea

  • 6 – All is on the Hazard (The British Come to Play)

The British have always been consumed by gambling. It was there the game, Hazard, known to be one of the most addictive dice game in existence, was born. Hazard, a simple game played with two dice, was mentioned in the famous Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Never heard of Hazard? That’s because it’s practically extinct now, being played by only a few people whose love of the game was instilled to them by the older generations.

This chapter isn’t exclusively about Hazard, as it talks about other gambling related games and facilities that originated in England. There’s even an illustration on page 132 of Bath’s Pump Room, where visitors enjoyed light refreshments before they indulged in the serious business of gambling.

  • 7 – Star Spangled Gamblers (The Birth of American Gambling)

Gamblers are staples of Native American myths. The Navajo tribe, in particular, told stories of Noquilpi, the god of gambling. Many of the stories told were of Noquilpi steal sacred treasures and throwing them away at the gambling tables. These stories were designed to warn the younger generations of the dangers of gambling and how addictive it can be.

After America swooped in and claimed the North American land as their own, the stories of Noquilpi were less prevalent, but the thirst for gambling didn’t seem to disappear. After the United States made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, they were greatly influenced by French culture. This is when they first were introduced to a variety of French card games including the still popular today, Euchre. This chapter also features a picture of America’s earliest lottery tickets on page 147. They were hand-written masterpieces that are worth a fortune today.

  • 8 – Baiting John Bull (British Gambling, 1750-1914)

We are reminded in this chapter of how the standard, “sandwich,” earned its name. Of course, it was inspired by gambling. John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich, would gamble for twenty-four hours or more at a time. He was so dedicated to his gambling efforts, that he wouldn’t even get up from his seat to grab a bite to eat. Instead, he would have his servants deliver it to him. He would often order a slice of meat between two slices of bread. Other hungry gamblers would order, “the same as Sandwich.” Eventually, the name got shortened to sandwich, hence the name they’re called by today.

In addition to John Montagu, this book also mentions William Crockford, who opened the famous gambling hall, in which he proudly named after himself: Crockford’s. Many famous souls gambled their lives away at the facility including The United States’ first official president, George Washington, and England’s very own, Queen Elizabeth. Other gambling related items discussed in this chapter are the renowned St. Leger Stakes and the British-inspired game: contract bridge.

Part Four: Europeans Gamble at Home and Abroad

  • 9 – Seeking the Cure (Spa Gambling Defines Europe)

“By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Spa was well established as a health resort, thanks to the ingenuity and perseverance of the town’s promotors, who even turned the decrepitude of the infamously muddy streets to their advantage.” These spas, where visitors could come to pamper themselves, doubled as gambling houses. They took the dirty stigma once associated with gambling and turned it into something very appealing.

In the second part of this chapter, we travel across Europe to Germany where gambling finally starts to take off. Germany actually had several “gambling towns,” known to have the best game selection and highest success rates. Some of the more popular German gambling towns that you’ll learn about in this chapter are Austria, Bavaria, Hanover, Prussia and Saxony.

  • 10 – Flight of the Sparrow (Gambling, Conquest, and Colonies)

While England was focused on expanding their empire by taking over territories and acquiring more colonies, their love of gambling never whimpered. They took their passion to the seas, spending the majority of their long days playing card and dice games to pass the time.

While England was doing that, India was developing a taste for gambling, putting their own spin on the beloved pastime. While some Indians enjoyed betting on horse races, many of them resented gambling for religious and political reasons. Mahatma Gandi declared gambling to be more evil than drinking and warned people to stay away from it. Many listened, many did not.

Part Five: The United States Bets Big

  • 11 – Wild Cards (Gambling Moves West)

When Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803, New Orleans became the gambling capital of the world overnight. Gambling caused such tragedy in the lives of Americans that it was officially outlawed in 1811. Of course, Americans without gambling caused chaos. By 1820, there were six legal gambling houses established across the United States.

Poker was finally introduced to North America, again thanks to the French colony of Louisiana. They also acquired craps around this time and their passion for gambling only continued to flourish. Two gamblers that cannot go without mention in this chapter are the infamous James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, who earned himself a reputation as one of the best traveling poker players the West has ever known and Doc Holliday who was equally as notorious.

  • 12 – Fools of Fortune (American Gambling Becomes Urban)

New York City was known for two things during the nineteenth century: an influx of immigrants and a surplus of gambling houses and lottery shops. China Town, in particular, seemed to house the majority of these facilities. Now obscure games such as Faro, Rondo and Wolf Traps were the games of choice. The now well-known game of Keno also emerged during this time.

In this chapter, we become familiar with Edgar Allen Poe, a prominent poet in the late 1800s, who had a secret addiction to gambling that very few people knew about. His gambling debts were so out of control that he often was on the run from his debtors. We also learn about another US Congressmen with a passion for gambling: John Morrissey. Serving from 1831 to 1878, Morrissey was the first professional gambler elected to office. It was clear that gambling was becoming more socially acceptable. His picture is featured on page 278.

Part Six: Gambling for Fun and Profit

  • 13 – A Sunny Place for Shady People (Gambling on the French Riviera)

For this chapter, we travel to Monte Carlo. When looking at its picture on page 303, we notice that Monte Carlo Casino’s twin towers gave it a distinct appearance. “Visitors to Monte Carlo wagered virtually any currency they wished,” which made currency exchange difficult. Moneychangers made profit simply by exchanging currency incorrectly on purpose.

Monte Carlo is known for initiating the Monte Carlo Grand Pix, or the first ever car-racing rally. In addition to that, Monte Carlo would host sailing races, bicycle races and other unique competitions. People were starting to bet on each other for the first time, outside of fighting, that is.

  • 14 – Wise Guys and One-Armed Bandits (Big-City Gambling in the Twentieth Century)

John Morrissey, the Congressmen we mentioned earlier, opened one of the most well-known gambling houses of New York City: Morrissey’s Club House. His club only had two rules: no women and no Saratoga residents. His clubhouse grossed over $250,000 a year, which is equivalent to over 6 million dollars in today’s numbers. Not too shabby, for a side gig.

What else can you expect to find in this chapter? Well, you’ll learn about Arnold Rothstein’s World Series fiasco, the inaugural race of the Kentucky Derby, the first Triple Crown Winner and much more. Be ready to discover interesting tidbits of information that you otherwise wouldn’t have known.

Part Seven: The Legitimization of American Gambling

  • 15 – Hard to Resist (Nevada Becomes America’s Gambling Oasis

This chapter points out that “In Reno, gambling halls were not formally restricted to any single part of town, at first, but the stretch of Center Street between Commercial Row and Second Street soon became the town’s de facto casino district.” Surprisingly it was Reno, not Vegas, which attracted the most visitors back in the day. Don’t get us wrong, Las Vegas was still popular, featuring games such as blackjack, craps and roulette at their clubs, but Reno was known to have more action and more gambling variety.

This chapter takes us back to the twentieth century by introducing us to the infamous gangster, Bugsy Siegel, and by alluding to a strong prejudice against African Americans, who were often barred from casinos just for entering the building during that era.

  • 16 – The Salvation of Sin (Is Gambling a Crime or a Virtue?)

Two fads known during the twentieth century were Greyhound racing and point-spread betting. Although both can be found in various parts of the world today, it was during this time period that they first appeared. Point spread betting, specifically, revolutionized the way people bet on sports and continues to have a lasting impact today.

Towards the end of this chapter, the author gives a warning to anyone who wins the lottery, repeating something that most of us already know. “Winning the lottery was, for some, a pleasurable experience. For others, it proved to be more a burden than a windfall.”

  • 17 – A Place in the Sun (The Strip is Born)

An antique photo of El Rancho Vegas, the first casino resort to be built Las Vegas’ Highway 91 can be found on page 392. On April 3, 1941, Las Vegas would forever be changed, as El Rancho opened their doors for the first time. Soon, hundreds of casinos started popping up along the highway. Before Las Vegas knew it, the Strip was born; it seemed to have a life of its own.

In this chapter, we learn more about Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and the launch of his legendary casino:  the Flamingo. We also hear about Nick “The Greek” Dandolos for the first time, and a variety of other famous gamblers. In addition to gamblers, we will learn about a famous author, Edward Thorp, who discovered a way to find nearly guaranteed success at the blackjack tables, which he wrote about in Beat the Dealer. Bringing down the House, which was published in 2002 and written by Ben Mezrich, also gets an honorable mention.

Part Eight: Gambling’s New Prominence

  • 18 – Runaway American Dream (Gambling in the Public Interest)

Several well-known casinos are mentioned in this chapter including the Trump Taj Mahal and the MGM Mirage. A picture of Harrah’s first riverboat casino to actually cruise is featured on page 444. This boat shockingly cannot be found in Las Vegas, but instead, can be found off the Illinois coast of Lake Michigan. Other states that allowed casino gambling early on were Colorado, South Dakota, Louisiana and of course New Jersey.

“Yet, aside from the first wave of casino operators who preserved the past out of expediency (they wanted to get open as quickly as possible, and renovation was faster than new construction), the city’s casino resorts paid little attention to the city’s rich past, its urban framework or its pedestrian-friendly boardwalk.” Instead of staying true to the Atlantic City’s unique culture, casino owners simply tried to replicate the Las Vegas Strip entirely.

  • 19 – All In (Gambling’s Global Spread)

In this chapter, we take a trip down under to Australia, where we read about the Wrest Point Hotel Casino, the country’s first legal casino that opened its doors on February 10, 1973.  Although Australia was late to jump on the legal gambling bandwagon, their casinos became very widespread very quickly. They developed one-of-a kind “pokies” or poker machines that lured gamblers in from thousands of miles away.

We then are moved north to Canada, where it is revealed that lotteries helped defray the costs of the Montreal Olympics in 1976. Canadian lotteries are either owned by provincial governments or dedicated to charitable organizations. Charity bingo quickly soared in popularity as well, becoming a billion dollar enterprise.

Part Nine: Into the Twenty-First Century

  • 20 – A Clockwork Volcano (Technology and Triumph)

Finally, what we all probably know best: the twenty-first century. This is the era where poker not only became big, it took over. Poker greats like Doyle Brunson, Phil Ivey, Howard Lederer, Johnny Moss and Amarillo Slim all make an appearance in this chapter.

Of course, Chris Moneymaker, is also talked about here. He changed the world’s view on poker forever when he won the World Series of Poker back in 2003, gaining his entry through an online tournament that only cost him $40 to enter. The online poker world exploded after his victory, and it has barely had a chance to slow down. “The Moneymaker Effect,” refers to peoples’ hope to one day do what Chris Moneymaker did; be an amateur player to win the WSOP!

  • 21 – The Dream (History in Perspective)

The last chapter brings us up to speed with what was currently happening at the time this book was written. On April 28, 2005, Wynn Las Vegas, the most expensive casino to be built on the Strip, opened its doors. The author describes this luxurious hotel to point out how gambling has evolved over the years.

The author leaves us with this final note, “Wherever humanity ventures, it is sure that they will bring a fascination of gambling along for the ride, and they will continue to dream about their next tryst with fortune.”

What Others Are Saying

Amazon gave this book 4 out of 5 stars and described the book as,

“The first narrative history of gambling, spanning the Stone Age to the Internet era, examining how it evolved with—and influenced—human civilization.”

Goodreads gave this book 3.76 out of 5 stars and said,

“In Roll the Bones, historian David G. Schwartz tells the epic story of gambling, beginning with its early emergence from divination rituals and ending with today’s global gaming culture.”

The New York Times had this to say in regards to the book,

“People will bet on anything. That is the grand theme of “Roll the Bones,” David G. Schwartz’s lively history of gambling through the ages.”

VegasTripping thought highly of this book, saying,

“Exhaustively researched over a two-year period, “Roll The Bones” documents the history, tools and machinations of gambling from the earliest discovery of primitive dice to the grand opening of the most advanced and expensive casino in the world – Wynn Las Vegas.”

Our Rating and Why We Recommend It

4 Out of 5 Stars

4 Star Rating

We want to start off by saying that although this book is very long, we’re talking 500 pages of tiny text long, it IS worth reading! As you read through this book, you’ll discover a plethora of interesting facts about gambling and how it has evolved over the years. Keep in mind though that these facts are not always presented in a very exciting way. This book was written by a professor and it’s written in textbook style. It’s very informative, but a little dry; that’s why we’re giving it 4 out of 5 stars.

One thing we really appreciate about this book is its numerous pictures and illustrations that help readers understand what is being described in the text. As the book’s language is somewhat advanced, these illustrations are very helpful. They do an excellent job of taking you back to the time period that’s being described.

One critique about this book that we feel is necessary to point out is its emphasis on the United States and European countries.

While gambling was huge in these parts of the world, other parts of the world seem to be overlooked. Swartz occasionally talked about Asian and Australian countries, but failed to mention any countries in Africa at all. Gambling may not be as prevalent over there, but I would be appalled to think it doesn’t exist.

One last issue we found as we were reading through this book is the fact that, even though it is only a decade old, it is out of date. The same year this book was published, the United States passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), which has had a significant impact on the world of gambling.

When all is said and done, we still cannot deny that this book is worth your time. It’s a first-rate resource for history buffs that have an appreciation for gambling. Add this book to your summer reading list, but be aware that it may take you the whole summer to read!

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