Against the Gods : The Remarkable Story of Risk
by Peter L. Bernstein

"Gaming and risk taking possibly defines the human spirit more than any other activity. Many have conjectured on what sets human kind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. Is it the ability to reason? The abilty to use tools? Or is it the desire to gamble with destiny and the odds? Perhaps this is why casinos and gaming are so pervasive. Gambling is in our blood and the nature of our very being. It has been with us through out history and the reason for where we are today." Andrew MacDonald

Excerpt from "Against the Gods : The Remarkable Story of Risk" by Peter L. Bernstein.

Gambling has held human beings in thrall for millennia. It has been engaged in everywhere, from the dregs of society to the most respectable circles.

Pontius Pilate's soldiers cast lots for Christ's robe as He suffered on the cross. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was regularly accompanied by his personal croupier. The Earl of Sandwich invented the snack that bears his name so that he could avoid leaving the gaming table in order to eat. George Washington hosted games in his tent during the American Revolution. Gambling is synonymous with the Wild West. And "Luck Be a Lady Tonight" is one of the most memorable numbers in Guys and Dolls, a musical about a compulsive gambler and his floating crap game.

The earliest-known form of gambling was a kind of dice game played with what was known as an astragalus, or knuckle-bone. This early ancestor of today's dice was a squarish bone taken from the ankles of sheep or deer, solid and without marrow, and so hard as to be virtually indestructible. Astragali have surfaced in archaeological digs in many parts of the world. Egyptian tomb paintings picture games played with astragali dating from 3500 BC, and Greek vases show young men tossing the bones into a circle. Although Egypt punished compulsive gamblers by forcing them to hone stones for the pyramids, excavations show that the pharoahs were not above using loaded dice in their own games. Craps, an American invention, derives from various dice games brought into Europe via the Crusades. Those games were generally referred to as "hazard", from al zahr, the Arabic word for dice.

Card games developed in Asia from ancient forms of fortune telling, but they did not become popular in Europe until the invention of printing. Cards originally were large and square, with no identifying figures or pips in the corners. Court cards were printed with only one head instead of double-headed, which meant that players often had to identify them from the feet - turning the cards around would reveal a holding of court cards. Square corners made cheating easy for players who could turn down a tiny part of the corner to identify cards in the deck later on. Double-headed court cards and cards with rounded corners came into use only in the nineteenth century.

Like craps, poker is an American variation on an older form - the game is only about 150 years old. David Hayano has described poker as "Secret ploys, monumental deceptions, calculated strategies, and fervent beliefs [with] deep, invisible structures……A game to experience rather than to observe." According to Hayano, about forty million Americans play poker regularly, all confident of their ability to outwit their opponents.

Date Posted: 04-Jan-1999

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