Where did it come from? The origins of 5 famous casino items

The CasinoPlay crew are famous for two things: 1) our love of online casinos and casino games and 2) our undying curiosity about everything around us.

Our ‘jobs’ are all about finding, testing, and reviewing online casinos and online casino games (and mobile casinos and games!). It’s a little more than a job in that it really is the perfect union of our passions and the thing we get paid for. So, yay! But, and this is a big but we cannot lie, our secondary obsession sometimes leads down some odd paths – especially on the Interwebs.

We’re sure that most people are the same. You start out looking for a specific thing and then find yourself clicking on links, exploring new sites, and discovering facts and information that you never knew you needed in your life. And then suddenly it’s dark outside and you’ve still got a slot game review for CasinoPlay to write!

 Anyway, recently our writers were working on various tasks and throwing factoids around the office when someone mentioned the meanings behind the figures on the face cards of a deck. Which led to someone else mentioning roulette wheels. And so, we started exploring the origins of the five most famous pieces of casino equipment around the world.

And after hours of digging into the dark corners of the Internet, well, here we are, our work forgotten but our knowledge expanded.

What are the “most famous” pieces of casino equipment?

Our search began with deciding what the most famous or most ubiquitous pieces of casino equipment were. Which was super easy because anyone who has ever visited a South African casino (land-based or online) would immediately see them: slot machines, roulette wheels, cards, dice, and chips.

These are the staples found in any land-based casino, and – apart from the chips – in most full-service premium online and mobile casinos like PlayLive and Jackpot.co.za as well.

So, where did these items start? How long ago? And where?

Slot machines

Slot machines are probably the first thing anything thinks of when picturing a casino. They are the basis of the casino industry and the biggest money earners.

The forerunner of the modern slot machine (and online slots games) was a gambling machine invented and designed by Sittman and Pitt of Brooklyn, New York in 1891. This machine used five drums to display fifty playing cards and was based on poker. A player pulled the lever, the drums spun, and the cards that were shown indicated a win or loss based on poker rules. Winnings were paid out in free beer or a meal rather than cash.

Between 1887 and 1895, Charles Fey of San Francisco, California simplified the machine by cutting the drums down to three and replacing the cards with the famous horseshoes, diamonds, spades, hearts, and Liberty Bell symbols. He patented this system, named it the “Liberty Bell”, and the rest is history.

This simpler machine allowed for easier reading of winning lines and the development of a payment system that could pay out winnings in coins. As technology progressed, so did the complexity of the slot machine. Video screens replaced the drums. Computer boards replaced the cog and lever mechanism. Token replaced coins and were, in turn, replaced by credits. And we now have slots games that are completely run by Random Number Generator software and computer programmes, that can be accessed from anywhere in the world by anyone with a desktop or mobile device and a stable and secure Wi-Fi connection.

All thanks to Sittman and Pitt and the “father” of slot machines – Charles Fey.

Casino chips

Casino chips are such a feature of casino table games that we would struggle to picture any other way of playing and betting at the roulette, blackjack, poker, or baccarat tables.

But where did they come from? What did people do before chips were around?

You may think that it’s as easy as playing for real money like you do around the kitchen table during a Friday night Hold’em game with your tjommies. But in a busy and frantic casino environment, trying to work out who is betting what, when and how much is just not feasible.

In the days before chips, most gambling games did use actual physical cash or even substitutes like gold dust or gold nuggets (in the old Gold Rush days of the Americas) or tokens like pieces of ivory or bone to represent their stake. These tokens could, however, be easily forged.

Casinos needed a standardised symbol that would be recognised and tamper-proof.

Back in the 1700s, Quadrille (a French card game) used different coloured tokens to differentiate the different players and make tallying up wins and losses at the end of the game easier. These were the basis of the modern casino chips we now know.

By the late 1800s a combination of the Quadrille system and the use of tokens to denote value led to casinos adopting the standardised shape and function of chips and not much has changed since then. While the colour and value of chips are different between each and every casino, they are all made from plastic, metal, ceramic, or clay. Clay chips are the most prestigious and are seen as the ‘proper’ chips to play with and their composition and construction is a closely guarded trade secret.

Chips have made the lives of dealers and pit bosses that much easier because their uniform shape and the different colours and numbers that indicate their value are easy to sort and stack. They also help to stop any dodgy players trying to scam the casino with fake chips. 

Did you know: chips are not only valuable because the stand for a specific monetary value, but they are also highly sought-after collectibles. Numismatists (collectors of currency including coins, notes, tokens, medals, etc.) collect, trade, and sell chips and they can often reach values of up to $100,000 per chip for rare examples. Also, because chips are essentially tokens that stand for a monetary value, casinos can create chips for any value they like. Some really high-end casinos like the big names in Las Vegas and Macau even have chips for amounts up to $5 million! These are usually special rectangular chips called plaques.

Playing cards

The omnipresent deck of player cards is recognised throughout the world as a tool for games of fun and chance. South African gamblers can see them at table games like blackjack, baccarat, and poker, and most people will have a deck around the house for those days when they want to have a friendly game around the kitchen table – whether it’s a game of poker with the mates, a game of snap with the kids, or a game of Solitaire while you wait for something else to happen.

The history of cards goes all the way back to the invention of paper and printing in ancient China (around the 9th century Tang dynasty). It’s incredible that as soon as a new technology hit the world, the gamblers used it to create something fun and thrilling almost immediately. Not much has changed if we look at how gambling has used digital innovations like the World Wide Web, software, web cams, and RNGs to take gambling out of the casinos and into our homes and pockets with online and mobile casinos.

The first ever mention of ‘playing cards’ was in a 9th century manuscript called Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang where a Princess Tongchang was playing the ‘Leaf Game’ (interestingly, the ‘Leaf Game’ is also thought to have involved early dice!).

From China, the concept of playing cards spread through Asia and the Middle East into North Africa and eventually into Europe with the Mamluk and Moorish soldiers and traders.

Our modern version of playing cards featuring the hearts, diamonds, spades, and clubs symbols, and the face cards of Jack, Queen, and King were based on three different versions from Europe: the German deck, the French deck, and the Latin deck. It seems that the modern deck was finally standardised by Royal decree by the “Mistery of Makers of Playing Cards of the City of London” in 1628 (a company that is still around today under the name the Worshipful Company of Makers of playing Cards).

Interesting fact: even though playing cards first appeared in China around 868, the Portuguese introduced them to Japan in the mid 16th century. From China, all the way to Europe, only to make the journey all the way back to Japan!

Dice

Dice go back way before written history so finding an exact time for when they appeared on the scene is pretty much impossible. We surmise that dice can from the ancient practices of divination and fortune-telling where bones were thrown to predict things like weather or the fortunes of war or the wishes of the gods.

We do know that there were examples of early dice uncovered in archaeological digs that show early examples from as far back as 3,000 BCE (that’s over 5,000 years ago!).

Senet, a game from Egypt played before 3,000 BCE, used a flat two-sided throwing stick to show the number of squares a player could move. Bone dice have been found in Skara Bare, a Neolithic settlement on the Orkney Islands, that have been dated to between 3100 – 2400 BCE. Terracotta dice from 2500 – 1900 BCE have been unearthed at Mohenjo-daro, an Indus Valley settlement in modern day Pakistan.

Whatever the origin of dice, we can clearly see that they have been around for a long, long time.

The dice as we know them have not changed in the slightest from their beginnings. While we all know the casino 6-sided dice from games like craps and sic bo (the only two games that use dice in a casino apart from specialist games like Monopoly Live), there are a huge number of different shapes that reflect different versions of dice. The two-sided throwing stick from Egypt mentioned above is theorised to be an early die even though it’s more of a coin toss than throwing the bones. We have 3-sided dice, 4-sided dice, all the way up to 120-sided dice (known as a disdyakis triacontahedron – try saying that after a tequila or three).

And, for all you Dungeons & Dragons players out there: a 20-sided die was found that dates back to Ptolemaic Egypt – around 305 BCE.

But no matter when they first appeared, they have always been used to predict, foretell, or play at chance. From the Ancient Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans to the players that gather around the craps table at Monte Casino this weekend or hit up PlayLive or Jackpot.co.za for some Live Dealer Sic Bo, those little cubes have made or lost fortunes over the millennia.

Roulette Wheel

Possibly the most interesting origin story on our list is that of the “little wheel”. Roulette is another one of those casino games that is a staple in any reputable online or land-based casino. It’s always been seen as quite an elegant game, a game for the sophisticated, probably because it was first made popular in the salons of Europe and the laarnies that played there.

Roulette may have been based on an Italian game called Biribi where players chose numbers from 1 to 70 and marked their bets on a board. The banker has a bag with all the numbers in it from which is drawn one number. If a player has bet on that number, he or she wins 64 times their stake. The banker wins all the rest.

However, or so rumour goes, this was changed by a very famous French mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and theologian (damn, these olden days people were over-achievers) named Blaise Pascal.

Pascal was, apparently, trying to design or invent a perpetual motion machine (a machine that can work infinitely without an external energy source). While he wasn’t successful (see our continued reliance on fossil fuels) he did invent the system that became the roulette wheel as we know it today.

Whether or not this is true is up for debate but we do know that Pascal had a finger in a lot of different science-y pies, roulette was invented around the time he was active, he was French and roulette came from France, and we just like the thought that one of our most popular casino games came from the mind of the man who invented the hydraulic press, the syringe, and whose name is used to describe the unit of pressure.

To all our South African online and mobile gamblers: we hope you enjoyed our little detour through the world of casino equipment. To all our international fans: a tjommie is a friend, a laarnie is a fancy-pants.

To everyone: play responsibly, set limits to your budget and your time, and HAVE FUN!

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