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History of gambling

The UK boasts a long gambling history. To this day, gambling remains one of the top money-making markets in the UK, having a net worth of about £14.5 billion. The industry has had to go through high and lows to get to where it is today.


In this article, we’ll look at the history of gambling, from its earliest origins to where it is today. Let’s get started.

The First Evidence

The earliest evidence of gambling comes from Ancient China. In the years 2300 BC, tiles were used as a form of lottery. These tiles are believed to have formed a basic game of chance. In the ”Books of Songs”, ‘the drawing of wood’ appears to reference these tiles and their use for gambling.

Keno is believed to also originate from the Chinese. Nicknamed ‘baige piao’, that loosely translates to white pigeon ticket, Keno is linked to homing pigeons.

On top of that, the Chinese also used Keno slips, around 200 BC, to fund some country projects, probably even the Great Wall of China.

In the years that followed, lotteries financed more state efforts. Harvard and Yale, two of the world’s leading education institutions, also came into being largely due to lottery funds. To this date, lotteries continue to play an important role in civic projects.

Greeks & Romans

The Greeks and Romans also contributed to the growth of gambling. Sophocles, a Greek poet, stated in writing that a mythological hero invented the dice during the Trojan war. Sophocles’ writing, however, contradicts with what scientists believe to be the real origins of the dice. His writings are from around 500 BC, but dice existed in Egypt before then. Dice were discovered in an Egyptian tomb made around 3000 BC.

That said, it’s well known that Greeks and Romans were huge gambling enthusiasts. They gambled with almost anything they could get their hands on. The problem, however, was that any form of gambling was banned within ancient Rome, and the consequences were severe. Punishment and fines of the gambling offenders were four times the size of their bets.

The Romans had to find a way to avoid such fines. They came up with a system that allowed them to gamble while abiding by the law – they made gambling chips. When caught, they’d claim the chips were worthless and were not worth real money.

Cards in China

According to scholars, playing cards were part of the Chinese culture in the 9th century. Opinions on how the Chinese played with the cards is still divided. Some scholars believe they played the cards similarly to how children play trading card games today – with cards making up both the wager and the game. Others claim the cards were used to play some of the Chinese dominoes.

Gambling in the UK

While Gambling had already become a pastime in various countries, it didn’t catch up in the UK until later on.

The Royals and Betting

King Henry VIII, renowned for his 6 marriages, banned gambling in the UK. To the king, gambling distracted his soldiers who spent more time betting than they did fighting for their country. Although he denounced gambling in public, he still participated in it in private.

Queen Elizabeth I, his daughter, had different beliefs. She saw gambling as a shrewd way of getting funds, running the first-ever lottery in the UK in 1569. Following her example, many other future monarchs introduced lotteries to fund state projects.

But at this time, though, gambling was still a private pastime for the wealthy – ordinary people weren’t participating in gambling. It was in the following century that everyone could access betting houses.

Introducing Horseracing

The first records of UK horseracing can be traced back to the 1100s. But betting on organized races didn’t materialize until the 1600s. While Oliver Cromwell outlawed wagering on races and any other gambling activities, Charles II legalized all of them again when he got into power.

It was also in the 17th century that betting also shifted to alternative sports like cockfighting. Gambling dens also cropped up, giving UK gamblers designated places to play a variety of games for money. Scholars consider these dens to be the forerunners to modern-day casinos.

UK’s first-ever thoroughbred horserace happened in 1512 at the Chester Cup. Another similar race occurred in Doncaster and after that horserace events increased yearly. Horseracing, during those years, was very simple – only two horses raced and people wagered mainly through match betting.

Commercial gaming houses emerged in the 17th century. While it was no longer an activity for the monarchs, gambling was still widely run by the elite. The original was Whites back in 1652, that quickly transitioned to a Tory Club, accessible by only the wealthy and the elite.

During this time, some games seemed to gain popularity faster than others, and a variety of games spread to different parts of the world. While horse betting was the main form of gambling in 17th century in the UK, Blackjack had already made its way to America and became a favourite. The French carried the game to the US through the ocean.

Over the years, Blackjack has added more betting options, and you can now access it in any modern-casino.

Harry Ogden Introduces Bookmarking

Harry Ogden, a Lancashire native, was among the first-ever bookmarkers in England. In the 1790s, he established a pitch near Britain’s oldest racecourse. Accompanied by punters, he positioned himself close enough to watch the race, but far enough to avoid getting in trouble with the course owners.

Harry soon realized, though, that some horses were more likely to win than others. Instead of setting the same price for all horses, he decided to price each horse differently. Punters now had to wager tactically to win their bets. They had to choose between security and bigger winnings — security from betting on the favourites and bigger winnings from backing the underdogs. Naturally, the favourites returned less money but had a better chance of winning.

Realizing the potential of his pricing method, Harry Ogden added a profit margin to all his odds. The prices always never reflected the real-life probability of a result happening. He’d fix his odds to make sure he always walked away with some profit.

While other bookmarkers may have existed before him, Harry Ogden is the first one recorded in the history books. His legacy continues as bookmarking continues to play a major role even in today’s gambling age.

Horseracing Gets Serious

The 18th century saw a further increase in horse racing events. The Derby, Oaks and St. Ledger races cropped up at around this time and are still running to date. The UK’s most famous steeplechase race, the Grand National, also surfaced in 1839.

18th Century

State lotteries were successful in the 1700s. Queen Anne lotteries of 1710s paved the way for other lotteries that quickly made up for the majority of UK’s gambling in the 18th century. These lotteries were popular as they were beneficial. Firstly, nobody could fix their outcomes, unlike horse racing. Secondly, losers weren’t throwing fits, unlike cards. Lastly, they fetched huge profits to the treasury, funding several wars and state projects.

During Queen Anne’s reign, the Government earned a total of £9,000,000, subtracting the £2,734,000 given to winners. Increasing wars led to increased lotteries. Bigger lotteries were held between 1775 and 1783 to finance the American War.

Even uninterested people ended up spending some money in lotteries. This was because of the glamorizing of these lotteries. People who bought tickets were referred to as ”adventurers”. These adventurers were known to inform just about everyone on their possible, future fortunes. They’d constantly fantasize about the large sums of money they’d possibly win.

Advertisements for lotteries were strategically placed in newspapers, and they helped fund the print publications. The results of the winners further helped sell newspaper copies. Slowly, the UK fell victim to ”gambling mania”.

The Battle of Waterloo, in 1815, marked Napoleon’s loss and Britain’s century of peace. During this time, lotteries decreased, as there were no wars to fund. Eleven years later, in 1826, state lotteries were outlawed.

In the 1700s, gambling wasn’t just for lotteries. People still participated in the activity in their homes and gambling houses. Gambling was different between the rich, middle class, and the poor. The rich mostly gambled with their family fortunes and wagered high. They convened in peaceful, private clubs that helped set a gambling atmosphere – violence was highly discouraged.

Charles James Fox, a prominent British politician, was among the elite notorious for their gambling habits. He accumulated losses of up to £120,000 in just 3 years during his 20s. Luckily, he was influential and most of his political friends helped cover his gambling losses. In the same vein, his political enemies regularly ridiculed him for his heavy gambling losses.

The middle class was more business-minded than the upper class. Their gambling happened at home and in moderation. It was more recreational than the elite’s gambling, aiming to build friendships through happy, nice conversations. People in the middle class renounced blood sports and loved music, enjoyable conversations, and card games. They also encouraged the youth to gamble, believing the activity could help them learn accountability at a young age.

Gambling drove a wedge between the wealthy and the poor. It was common for the poor to transform their lives completely through gambling. They’d win some money from card games, apply for rewarding jobs, and flee the slums where they originally came from. In the same vein, the rich could easily ruin their lives through gambling. They’d make over-the-top bets, lose their money, and quickly move into the vacated slums.

Gin and betting were declared as the chief vices of the 1700s. Gambling clubs quickly acquired the name ”hells” and their counterparts, gambling slums, renamed ”lower hells.” It was also during this time that a basic form of stock market emerged. People started betting on the market, and the results were often disastrous.

Prohibition of Gambling in the UK

The increase of independent bookmarkers such as Harry Ogden caused various problems. Firstly, there were no regulations. This means that the UK lacked laws that ensured that bookies compensated punters correctly. Sore losers often lynched bookmarkers away from the horserace courses.

Written contracts often accompanied bets, filling up courts with cases of debt settlements. Tired of the gambling misconducts, the government now decided to deny punters any legal protection. In their view, if you were daft enough to make a wager, then you didn’t deserve any protection.

Secondly, the lack of gambling tax didn’t sit right with the government. At that time, people’s pleasures, like smoking and promiscuity, incurred higher taxes.

Gaming Act of 1845

The belief that gambling was damaging society’s morality continued to spread in the 19th century. In response, a committee in the House of Lords was created. The committee was tasked with coming up with recommendations to help minimize gambling. In 1845, the parliament devised its first betting legislation, aiming to control gambling.

The gaming act intended to discourage gambling rather than making it illegal. People received no legal protection when making wagers. This means either bookies or punters could easily make away with betting money, with no legal consequences.

The Act allowed the police to have more control over the poor. The wealthy, on the other hand, could still take part in gambling activities with minimal fuss.

Section 17 and 18 of the gaming act remained in effect until 2007. Cheating was deemed illegal and attracted a severe punishment — a two-year jail term and a fine of £200. Also, from the government’s point of view, any betting contracts were meaningless. Bookies, if guilty of accepting wagers, would be arrested, so a few of them moved from the racetracks.

The Gaming Act, however, didn’t affect gambling as the government had expected. Only racetracks felt the pinch. Gambling Dens continued to operate like the Act never existed.

1853 Betting Act

Even after the 1845 act, gambling houses continued to spring up. As Charles Dickens points out, a betting den had emerged in almost every street.

The 1853 Act then followed, banning the use of any property that was meant for gambling. Coupled with the 1845 act, this legislation aimed to outlaw any off-track gambling. The reality, however, was that on-street betting increased rapidly.

Betting in the 20th Century and Beyond

During the Victorian era, gambling acts seemed to be counterproductive. As the parliament increased legislation, people continued to bet and a huge underground gambling scene emerged. In response, the parliament passed the Street Betting Act of 1906. Again, the act failed, and underground gambling continued to thrive.

Realizing that their restrictions were fruitless, the government legalized gambling dens in 1960. This legislation was meant to reduce crime rates and boost tax revenue, in a time when living standards were on the rise, and the middle class was prospering.

Shortly after, the Gaming Board was formed to help control casinos and betting arcades. Strict regulations were put in place, as the shops could only advertise using very small print.

Growth of Casinos

It didn’t take long after the 1906 Betting Act for casinos to spring up. George Alfred, popularly known as ”Father of UK casinos”, launched Casino Port Talbot in 1961. The casino was originally for members only and had a bar, dance floor, restaurant and gaming room. The room featured popular games like Blackjack, Baccarat and Slots. Although George Alfred had to run his casino under an ‘equal chance’ license, according to the betting act rules, he remained confident he’d make some profit.

By the following year, George had already started to enlarge his casino empire. He established The Golden Horseshoe, Prince of Wales Casino, and Kingsway Casino. His casinos mostly featured business people and professional people. While he couldn’t profit from the Roulette wheel or the slots, he’d get the majority of his revenue from the drinks, food, and entertainment the casinos offered.

At the time, The Kingsway Casino stood out from any other betting shops. Featuring occasional visits from influential people, it was one-of-a-kind. From time to time, well-known musicians would perform at the casino, bringing popularity to the thriving betting shop. George’s casino’s empire continued to flourish until his demise in 1976.

George Alfred’s influence on gambling is cemented in history. Without his entrepreneurship and casino legalization act of 1960, the gambling world would probably have been completely different today – maybe casinos wouldn’t be a thing. Now casinos are part of a multi-billion industry and play a huge role in the UK’s modern society.

The continuous revisions to UK’s laws on gambling have given rise to new, exciting table games and other casino innovations. Even in 1988, the government tried to raise funds for the National Health Service through a state lottery. The idea, however, never saw the light because of a variety of reasons.

Casino Gaming Goes Online

Microgaming, a then-emerging software developer, launched Gaming Club — the first-ever online casino in 1994. While today’s casino players know the Microgaming name, it wasn’t always the powerhouse it is today. It was the first software developer to get into the online sphere, supplying virtual forms of roulette, blackjack, and slots.

Shortly after the launch of Gaming Club, more software providers started to come on the scene, with Cryptologic emerging in 1995. Playtech and Net Entertainment soon followed, changing the landscape of online gambling.

InterCasino was the first internet casino that accommodated casino gamblers. Launched in 1996, the online casino was provided by Cryptologic’s secondary brand, Wagerlogic. Gamblers in the UK were beyond excited to play in the new internet casino — although InterCasino featured only 18 games, players couldn’t get enough of the variety.

Today, new online casinos feature hundreds of games ranging from table games, online slots, progressive jackpots, and live casino games. These games are supplied by some of the biggest software developers like NetEnt, Evolution Gaming, Playtech, and Novomatic.

While Microgaming was the only software developer in 1995, the online gaming industry now boasts of heaps of software suppliers. From 15 online games in 1966 to around 200 the following year, the casino industry saw a surge in popularity across different countries. To this date, casino gaming continues to grow in popularity as hundreds of games launch daily.

Mobile Gambling

As technology has advanced, so has online gaming. Gamblers don’t have to take a trip to their favourite land-based casino. These days, they can log into their casino accounts and start playing, from the comforts of their own homes.

Research suggests that internet users prefer accessing the internet using their handheld devices rather than their desktops. Online casino sites have recognized this change and are now making more casino games for mobile users, taking convenience to another level. Gamblers can make wagers on the move, from wherever they are, given they have a reliable internet connection.

Social networking has also entered the online gaming scene. Using mobile phones, players can now interact with other players, all while playing casino games. Casino mobile apps come with all the features desktop users are enjoying, and sometimes even more. Downloading an app only takes a few minutes, and after that, players can enjoy hundreds of games and features.

The Future of UK Gambling

Predicting the future of Gambling in the UK is just as difficult as tracing its past. But by looking into the current trends, we can try to forecast what the future holds for the UK’s betting scene.

Virtual reality seems to be the next big thing in online gaming. Everyone’s talking about it as it’s been creating opportunities in military, gaming, and health systems. In gaming, VR allows you to travel to another fascinating, virtual world, where you can control your avatar. In Poker, you’ll be able to handle chips and message competitors, just as you would in a land-based casino. You can compete with strangers from different corners of the globe, but feel like you’re in the same room as them.

With the advancements in technology, we’ll see more new and exciting gambling applications in the coming years.