It's fairly difficult to give an exact date when gambling began. Dice-like objects have been found in Paleolithic excavations suggesting that gambling traces back long before the written word and paper currencies. Given the prevalence of gambling in human societies, it should come as no surprise that games of chance were one of humanity's first entertainment options.
First Definitive Evidence
In Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq, 6-sided dice have been uncovered during archaeology digs. The Ancient Greeks passed laws prohibiting gambling. That this was codified into the law suggests that gambling was widespread among the Greeks. The excavations of Greek soldiers have turned up examples of dice.
China and Rome: Gambling Develops
China and Rome are where gambling seems to become a more organised affair. The Chinese used keno-like slips in a lottery around 200 BCE. It is speculated that proceeds from this lottery may have been used to finance the Great Wall of China. The precursors of games like poker, blackjack, and mahjong are thought to have roots in early Chinese games.
The Romans would usher in a form of gambling that we are familiar with today - sports betting. The Romans combined gambling with gladiator and chariot races and, in turn, created the first known sports betting. However, with evidence of gambling tracing back tens of thousands of years before the Romans, it seems unlikely that they were the first actually to bet on sports. More likely, the Romans were simply the first to document such betting in detail.
Gambling continued throughout the Middle Ages. In particular, card games from the present-day middle east began to make their way to Europe. In particular, As-Nas, the direct precursor to poker, made its way to Europe via the Moorish inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula. Whether or not As-Nas has roots in China is debatable, but poker most certainly was derived directly from this Arabian game.
In Europe, in particular, the lottery became widespread and possible. In Europe, the early lotteries were used to pay for a city's infrastructure and social welfare programs to help the poor. For many state lotteries, the beneficiaries have remained nearly unchanged for nearly 700 years. Although, when we mention medieval infrastructure, we are talking about walls and fortification rather than roads and schools.
Early Modern History
Without a doubt, lotteries continued to dominate during the Renaissance era. The Ridotto, site of the present-day Hotel Danieli in Venice, Italy, what would be recognised as the world's first casino was opened.
Their most popular attraction was a card game called "Bassetta", similar to the modern baccarat.
The major difference between the casinos of yesteryear was the significant house edge that the early casinos enjoyed. Lacking sufficient regulation, the casinos returned just enough profits to keep players coming back.
It is estimated that the Ridotto enjoyed a 10% house edge on bassetta. In these early days, hosting games was so lucrative that the French monarchy passed laws that only the sons of noblemen could serve as "bankers", considering the quick fortunes a banker could accumulate.
While casinos and lotteries continued their development, the major change to gambling in modern times is mechanisation. The 1890s saw the advent of the first mechanical gambling machines. Over time, these were upgraded to include electronic circuitry.
In 1976, the first video slot requiring no mechanical components to spin the reels was introduced. Following a couple of years of modifications to defeat potential cheaters, the Nevada State Gaming Commission approved the fully digital machines. They began showing up at Las Vegas casinos in 1978.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, gambling regulators began accounting for online play. In the 25 years since its inception, online gambling is now a 60 billion dollar industry and growing. Because of the lack of mechanical devices, and the game's code not limited to the capabilities of a stand-alone machine, the possibilities in terms of the types of games continues to grow each year.
The Future of Gambling
Undoubtedly, online gaming will continue to be the largest growth sector for some time. With developing markets just now getting widespread internet connectivity, the number of potential players will continue to increase.
There's always going to be a home for land-based casinos, but these ground operations must increasingly offer more entertainment and food options to attract clientele. Land-based casinos are hard-pressed to compete with online games on just the technology, so they need to offer up perks that an online provider simply cannot supply.
At some point, we'll even have our first casino away from this planet, perhaps on the moon. "Houston, we have a straight flush."