A History of Problem Gambling

When Did Problem Gambling Start? 


For when that was, here is Wikipedia: 

“Gambling dates back to the Palaeolithic period, before written history. The earliest six-sided dice date to about 3000 BC in Mesopotamia. However, they were based on astragali dating back thousands of years earlier. In China, gambling houses were widespread in the first millennium BC where betting on fighting animals was common. Lotto games and dominoes appeared in China as early as the 10th century. Playing cards appeared in the 9th century in China. Poker, the most popular U.S. card game associated with gambling, was based on the Persian game As-Nas, dating back to the 17th century. The first known casino was the Ridotto, established in Venice, Italy in 1638.”

Those of us who have had our problems with gambling addiction will know how and why one or more of the people will have become addicted. So many reasons but, usually, there’s some underlying mental problem like depression. Certainly, if a person wasn’t depressed before they started gambling compulsively then they would have been afterwards. This brings me to an old joke which might just identify the first problem gambler:

Gambling in History

An archaeologist was digging in the Negev Desert in Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, he called the curator of the Israel museum in Jerusalem.

“I’ve just discovered a 3,000-year-old mummy of a man who died of heart failure!” the excited scientist exclaimed. The curator replied, “Bring him in. We’ll check it out.”

A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. “You were right about both the mummy’s age and cause of death. How on earth did you know?”

 “Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand. It said, ‘10,000 Shekels Goliath to win’.”

Was this backer of Goliath a gambling addict or was he merely the first person to lump everything he had on “a sure thing”?

We’ve all done that, haven’t we? Convinced ourselves that a certain horse, dog, team, the system can’t lose and then discovered, to our mortification, that it definitely could.

Damon Runyon is instructive on this subject. “One of these days in your travels,” Sky Masterson recalls his father telling him, “a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.”

Another Damon Runyon character, Sam The Gonoph, points out why gamblers will eventually always lose. “I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is six-to-five against.”

Or, in the words of another sage, “gambling is a sure way of getting nothing for something”.

Gerolamo Cardano (or Jérôme Cardano) was a 16th century Italian doctor, mathematician, physicist, chemist, astrologer, philosopher, writer, and gambler. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the Renaissance and was one of the key figures in the foundation of probability. In his autobiography, he laid bare his addiction to gambling. “As I was inordinately addicted to the chessboard, and the dicing table, I know I must be deserving of the severest censure. I gambled at both for many years: at chess for about forty, and at dice for twenty-five”

Cardano features in Mike Atherton’s brilliant book Gambling: A Story of Triumph and Disasterin which the former England cricket captain describes how gambling came to be the massive industry it is today. Along the way, he tells of how people won and lost fortunes on the turn of a card or the roll of a die. Nothing has really changed: only how the cards are turned or the dice are rolled.

Atherton also tells us about the aristocracy who won and lost whole estates in an evening’s gambling. Perversely, it was the fact that gambling debts weren’t legally enforceable that led to such high stakes gambling as it allowed the aristocrats to display their sang-froid when they lost.

The emerging stock markets of the 18th century also gave plenty of scope to what was not investing but gambling. Sir Isaac Newton mistimed his purchases and sales in the South Sea Bubble and ended up losing £20,000. Atherton quotes Newton as saying that he could “calculate the motions of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people”. Meanwhile, as if to further demonstrate that this form of gambling wasn’t the sole province of the stupid, the writer Daniel Defoe lost £17,000 gambling on stocks and was declared bankrupt.

For a Small Stake

Most early gambling – especially in Britain – revolved around lotteries. And then they disappeared until the National Lottery arrived in 1994. Lotteries have always flourished in countries where there are few legalised forms of gambling. In Britain, we already had bingo, horse-racing, the dogs and casinos. For a small stake, you had an evening’s entertainment and the chance of winning some money. It was called having a flutter. For those who wanted a bigger upside there were the football pools where, for a few bob, you might win a small fortune or the wonderful Premium Bonds where, even if you didn’t win, you could cash in your entire stake. That was the uniquely British way of doing things. Then along came the National Lottery and its scratch card offspring to root out our baser instincts and then appeal to them. It wasn’t enough to win a few quid – even a few hundred – now it was time to start thinking in millions – it could be you.

Inevitably, it was the poorest who latched on to it but, beyond the brief thrill of the draw, there was nothing in it for them – save the knowledge that wealthy non-lottery players would have their opera tickets subsidised through the 28 percent deducted for “good causes”. Sure, there were winners – multi-million-pound winners – but they were so rare that they became news stories. Everyone else was a loser; in many instances, a frustrated, resentful loser terrified of stopping just in case their numbers came up; the ultimate monkey on the back. Camelot, with its cheesy Arthurian motifs that made it look like the worst kind of theme pub, was canny. Through its advertising, it pandered to the greed that it had nurtured while keeping the supine media onside with a drip-feed of “exclusives”. 

To its eternal shame, the BBC went native and not only became a cheerleader but actually paid for the privilege. More important, Camelot had done its maths. It knew that to maximise publicity it needed massive jackpots. To subsidise these it had to trim the payouts in the few areas where people stood a realistic chance of winning. So for getting three balls, it paid £10 when the true odds were 56-1. For four balls they paid an average of about £60 instead of the £1,000 indicated by odds of 1,032-1. To achieve anything more – eg. five balls – you would need to overcome odds of 55,491-1 while the jackpot itself was a one-in-13,983,816 proposition. Almost one in 14 million. To put that in perspective you have less chance of winning the jackpot than you have of being struck by lightning (one in 10 million), being killed by a bee sting (one in six million), hitting two holes-in-one during the same round of golf (one in eight million) or Elvis turning out to be alive and extraterrestrial beings officially sighted on Earth (less than one in 10 million according to one bookmaker’s odds). That’s all right, people said, we’ll just buy more tickets. And so they did. In some cases, they bought hundreds more using money they could ill afford. One ticket costing one pound was enough to buy the dream but desperate people told themselves that they’d have 10 times more chance with 10 tickets. If only Camelot – or the media – had explained the probability to them. If the odds are (as they were before they became 45,057,474 to 1 ) 14,000,000-1 and you buy one ticket, then there are 13,999,999 chances of not winning. If instead, you buy 10 tickets, it means that there are now 13,999,990 chances of not winning. The difference is meaningless. Jackpots of millions of pounds change lives and not always for the better. Perhaps people who want their lives changed should ask themselves whether money is actually the answer. For a few dreadful years, the country was entranced by a truly alien concept. Fortunately, the people have come to their senses. They’ve voted with their wallets and deserted the lottery to such an extent that jackpots have plummeted and Camelot was forced to change the name of its game to Lotto. 

What more can a gambler lose than his or her life?

No, we’re not talking about all the suicides that so many addicted gamblers are driven to. Meet DR WILLIAM PALMER (aka ‘THE RUGELEY POISONER’) Palmer is one of the most prolific British serial murderers of all time. He poisoned between twelve and fifteen members of his family to inherit money to pay his gambling debts but he was eventually caught when he murdered a gambling companion, John Cook, whom Palmer poisoned after Cook won at the Shrewsbury races in November 1855. Palmer was hanged outside Stafford Gaol in June 1856 in front of a 30,000 crowd. 

Of course, some people really do gamble with their lives – literally. As you probably know, Russian roulette is the most terrifying gambling game ever invented – even more dangerous than playing blackjack in an illegal spieler in Soho’s Chinatown. It appears to have originated in the 19th century among Russian officers. The revolver with its revolving cylinder had just been introduced. Officers who had drunk one too many straight vodkas would spin the cylinder and pull the trigger. They believed in fatalism; that it didn’t matter what you did, the outcome had already been pre-destined by a greater power. Interestingly, the odds were one in seven rather than one in six because the early Russian revolvers had seven chambers instead of six. 

The peerless British novelist, Graham Greene, played Russian Roulette – on his own with a single bullet in a revolver with six chambers – on five occasions. He then decided to give up but only after playing one last game to even up the odds (as he saw it).

Fortunately, for all the subsequent fans of his books, he won.

Greene is not the only famous person to be affected by gambling (was his bipolarity a possible cause?). So many more people are affected by relatives’ gambling.

Here are some quotes from famous people:

“Mum used to say about Dad, ‘I wish he was a drinker rather than a gambler because there is only so much you can drink before you fall down’, but with gambling, he brought nothing into the house” (Michael Barrymore, whose father was buried in a pauper’s grave, having left when Michael was 11“My father had no direction in life and he was a compulsive gambler who was a failure at it. He gambled with the rent and the gas bill.” (Sir Michael Caine)

“My mother was consumed with her own interest which was gambling. She was really very self-centred’ (Michael Winner whose mother gambled away the family fortune)

“One of the healthiest ways to gamble is with a spade and a package of garden seeds” (Dan Bennett)

Over the past two decades, the gambling landscape has continued to evolve with eSports, using skins-as-currency, as the most popular gambling product among younger players. Having seen a shift from ‘green felt’ to gambling in a more virtual environment, we are now seeing a transition once again to a more ‘integrated’ form of gambling – where gambling is merged so closely into the fabric of video gaming that it is normalising younger players (11-15yrs old), from the moment they pick up a gaming controller.

This ‘dice to mice’ transition suggests gambling is as much about identity and status, as it is about escapism, distraction, winning (and losing) money. Nothing has really changed: only now it’s not just cards and dice; it’s crates and skins.

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