The History & Origins of Roulette

Roulette is one of the oldest and most popular games in the casino. It’s especially popular among women. The history of the game is fascinating in itself.

Some historians say that Blaise Pascal invented roulette in 1655, and players first got to enjoy the game at a makeshift Parisian casino.

Others say a now-nameless French monk invented the game because of the ennui inherent in the monastic lifestyle.

And still more historians claim that roulette is based on an ancient Chinese game where players tried to arrange 37 animal statuettes into a magic square of 666. (These historians don’t have details of how this game was supposed to have been played, though.) According to this latter theory, the game moved from China to Tibet to France via Dominican monks. One of these monks changed the statues to numbers and arranged them on a wheel from 0 to 36. But even the earliest French roulette wheels had both a 0 and a 00, so that latter theory might be unlikely.

The History of Roulette Wheels

According to some game historians, the first roulette wheels in French casinos were identical to the wheels used in today’s casinos. This is incorrect. The American Hoyle, which was published in the mid 19th century, contains detailed rules, including the design of the wheel and layouts as used in both France and the United States at the time. Both American and French roulette at the time differed significantly from the modern versions.

The Historical American Roulette Wheel

Until the latter part of the 19th century (around 1890), American roulette wheels used a design different from that of the European wheels. These early American roulette wheels used 31 numbers and symbols. The numbers were from 1 to 28, 0 and 00, and a picture of an American eagle. (The picture of the eagle was, in effect, a “000”.)

The casino won all bets on the layout except for a bet on the winning symbol. These winning single number bets paid off at 27 to 1. Bets were also available on red or black, both of which paid off at even money. The game also had four “columns” bets, each of which consisted of a bet on 7 numbers and which paid off at 3 to 1.

The casino had a larger house edge on this early version of the game. Here is the house edge for each of those wagers:

  • Single number bet: 12.9%
  • Red of black bet: 9.68%
  • The columns bet: 9.68%

Roulette was not especially popular in the United States at the time, and given the high house edge, it’s not hard to understand why.

Early French Roulette Wheels

French roulette wheels at that time resembled modern American roulette wheels. They had a 0 and 00, but they only had 36 numbers total instead of 38. The casino paid off at 34 to 1 on a single number bet.

Another difference in these wheels is the colors on the 0 and the 00. The 0 was black, while the 00 was red. All color bets on the 0 or 00 were considered “bars”. Those bets were neither won nor lost.

Modern Roulette Wheels

Modern American roulette wheels have 38 numbers from 1-36, a 0, and a 00. Half the numbers are black. The other half are red. The exceptions are the 0 and the 00, which are green. On a modern American roulette table, the green bets are lost on all even money bets.

Modern French/European wheels have 37 numbers. They’ve eliminated the 00, but other than that, the wheels are much the same as modern American roulette wheels. This cuts the house edge in half, just by virtue of having fewer zeros.

Why Has Roulette Changed So Much?

The changes to roulette represent the growing frustration of gamblers who sustain big losses at the roulette tables. Eventually anyone will begin to realize how bad the odds are stacked against them, and casinos make adjustments to their games to find a balance between a house edge that’s high enough to make the game profitable while also being low enough to attract lots of players.

In America, we’ve seen the table eliminate the eagle, so that there are only the 0 and the 00. The next step in that progression will be to eliminate the 00, too, which has already happened at some live casinos. And almost all online casinos offer a single zero version of roulette.

Roulette Anecdotes

Roulette players have won and lost fortunes on the so-called Devil’s Wheel. A Mexican businessman is said to have won $67,500 at Caesars Palace. The casino allowed him to wager $500 on straight, split, corner, street, and line bets. He wagered $500 on the 4, and he also made four $500 split bets and four $500 corner bets. When the ball landed on the 4, he won $67,500.

I read about a woman who lost over $3 million over the course of five years playing roulette at various casinos. (Her husband was quite wealthy.)

The Popularity of Roulette

Roulette has historically always been more popular in European and Latin American casinos. The game is found in most legal and regulated brick and mortar casinos in the United States, and it’s also a popular game on the Internet. Women are particularly attracted to roulette because of its air of glamour and sophistication. It is a beautiful and colorful game. It’s also easy to play.

Newer versions of roulette include electronic versions and games with multiple spinning balls. The future probably holds additional innovations for the game, but only time will tell