Fun Facts About the History of the World’s Oldest Hobby: Gambling.

For a change of pace, here is some short and fun reading about everyone’s favorite hobby – gambling. Whenever I do a gambling-related legal project or research, it amazes me how much time and effort has been spent by lawmakers across the United States regulating and restricting gambling in all its forms. And, it is equally amazing how much time and effort has been spent by people to evade those restrictions by designing every sort of workaround imaginable. The battle continues in the age of the Internet and evolves with each technological advance, with mobile gaming being the latest front.

The history of gaming and gambling is fascinating. For as long as people have been playing games, they have bet money on them. According to “The History of Backgammon” by Oswald Jacoby, the world’s original dice game (with dice carved from actual bones) was played as early as 3000 B.C. in southern Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Backgammon boards were found in King Tut’s tomb that date back to 1500 B.C., and evidence exists that Ancient Egyptians played for money and even designed an elaborate mechanical dice box to protect against cheaters. Real-money gaming was huge in the Roman Empire, both among royalty and ordinary Romans. Nero (among his other excesses) is said to have played a version of backgammon for an equivalent of $15,000 per point and Emperor Commodius turned the imperial palace into a grandiose casino. Wall paintings in Pompeii depict scenes of ordinary Romans playing in inns, arguing over a backgammon board, and being promptly thrown out by the innkeeper. Suddenly naming one of Las Vegas’s most popular casinos “Caesar’s Palace” makes sense.

Backgammon and gambling in general were so historically popular and addictive, that during the Third Crusade in 1190, Richard the First and his allies issued a joint proclamation that prohibited playing any game for money for any person “beneath the degree of a knight.” Knights and clergymen were permitted to gamble, but were restricted to losing no more than 20 shillings per day, with strict penalties for exceeding the limit, including being flogged naked through the army for 3 days. Sports betting dates back at least to Ancient Greece, where betting on the original Olympics was widespread.

Today, there are so many iterations, versions, and types games that people wager on, it is no wonder that each of the 50 United States has an extensive statutory scheme addressing gambling. Courts all over the U.S. have thousands of pages of options dating back more than a hundred years dedicated to analyzing various devices to determine whether they are prohibited “gambling devices.” Did you know that pinball machines were originally restricted as gambling devices and there remain detailed regulations in each state as to the maximum number of free games that a pinball machine can award? But that’s a topic for another day.

Despite heavy regulation, gambling and betting remain extremely popular across the world. The modern global casino industry is estimated to be worth in excess of $100 billion, with steady and continued growth expected. The sports betting market, which is tracked separately, is valued at approximately $85 billion worldwide. According to analysis by Morgan Stanley, the U.S. sports betting market is projected to grow from $833 million in 2019 to $7 to $8 billion by 2025. Although COVID-19 dropped casino and gambling related revenues by over 10% in the United States in 2020, the market is still expected to recover and grow robustly in the foreseeable future. Indeed, latest data indicates better-than-expected revenues in the gaming industry in 2020, as many people are turning to gaming (both video games and gambling) as entertainment, social interaction, and an escape from the stresses of daily life. Stay tuned.

Dan Artaev is an experienced attorney who has advised domestic and international clients regarding gambling regulations, legislation, and provided other gambling- and gaming-related representation. Contact Dan by email at or by phone or text at (269) 930-0254.

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