Casino History Part I: Europe & the Birth of the Casino

Gambling is about as old as time itself and you could easily imagine the first cavemen making bets on who would get squished while out Mastodon hunting next. As a species, we love elements of chance and opportunity. The idea that if you take a chance you might just come out on top. Of course, there is always the chance of losing everything including your shirt on a roll of the dice, but that’s all part of the fun of living. As Jim Morrison once famously said, “No one here gets out alive” (although he probably stole it from someone else).

Original Casino

The Birth of The Casino

Most of us know what a casino is and what goes on inside of one, but how many know where the casino actually comes from? At some point, you’ve probably asked yourself that question, maybe even while contemplating your next move at the roulette or blackjack table.

Well, did you know, for example, that the word ‘casino’ is actually an Italian word originally? In Italian, the word ‘casa’ means ‘house’. By adding the ‘-ino’ part to it, a description for a small house, usually built on the grounds of a much larger palazzo or villa, was created. In other words, ‘casino’ simply referred to a small country villa or summerhouse. In some circles, the word also referred to a social club of sorts. However, during the 19th century, more and more people began to use the word in reference to actual ‘houses of pleasure’ that were open to the public. These pleasures included a range of social activities such as dancing, drinking, listening to music and gambling. This is pretty much what we do today, except that they wore ball gowns and tuxedos and funny shoes.

Fun Fact: Not all casinos were created for the purpose of gambling. The Copenhagen Casino for example, was a well-known theatre in the Danish capital and was a popular meeting place for planning the 1848 revolution which led to Denmark becoming a constitutional monarchy. It remained a popular theatre all the way up until 1937. The Hanko Casino, located in Hanko Finland, is another example of a casino not used for gambling. The Hanko Casino was in fact a banquet hall used by the Russian nobility when visiting the local spa resort of Hanko during the 19th century.

The World’s First Real Gambling House & Casino

The Ridotto

Interestingly, the first recorded evidence of a gambling house (the term ‘casino’ would only come later) was in 1638 in Venice, Italy. The gambling house was ostensibly set up by the Great Council of Venice in a bid to provide its citizens with a bit of government-controlled (legal) gambling during the famous Venice Spring Carnival season. The house was known as the Ridotto(the Private Room in Italian) and resided in a closed-off wing of the San Moisè Palace. The Ridotto lasted for over a century until it was eventually shut down in 1774 when the Venetian authorities decided that gambling was having too much of a negative effect on its citizens.

The Casino di Venezia

In parallel, the Casino di Venezia is the city’s oldest casino that is still operating to this day. In fact, the Casino di Venezia is the oldest functioning casino in the world at 400 years and is located within the Ca’ Vendramin Calergi on the Grand Canal and was built in 1509. However, it only became a casino in 1638. The casino is a major tourist attraction, with thousands of visitors visiting the grand old dame, not just for gambling, but to absorb some of the most beautiful examples of Renaissance architecture ever created.

The Casino di Venezia

For many, Casino di Venezia represents the pinnacle of European casino gambling and is a must for all true casino gaming aficionados. The casino offers traditionally French casino games including Chemin de Fer, Roulette and Trente et Quarante. The more modern side of the Casino di Venezia accommodates American casino games including Caribbean Stud Poker and Texas Hold’em Poker. Blackjack is also available and there are around 600 slot machines located on the premises. The opulence and elegance of the Casino di Venezia cannot be overstated enough, one feels inspired, not just by the games, the tradition and the breathtaking Renaissance architecture, but also by the sheer scale of the interior, complete with a substantial collection of period sculptures and paintings and incredible, iridescent chandeliers.

Not so Fun Fact: Sadly, the great classical composer Richard Wagner died in the Casino di Venezia, at the age of 69. The famous composer collapsed apparently of apparently sudden heart failure. The casino houses a very interesting museum in his honour, the Museo Wagner (Wagner Museum). The museum contains a large collection of personal manuscripts, letters, and a number of other personal artifacts.

When Life Imitates Art

In a scene plucked straight out of the Italian Job, a group of balaclava-wearing robbers made off with over 100,000 Euros during a daring raid at the Casino di Venezia in 2010. What makes this even more daring and even more like a scene from a heist movie was the fact that the robbers ditched their getaway car in the sea before continuing their escape on a speedboat!

Other Famous & Historic European Casinos

The Casino de Monte Carlo

This establishment was built in 1856 and for many; it’s the ultimate idea of a casino. It’s opulent, glamorous, and the place to be seen if you’re rich and famous. Apart from this, it was originally commissioned by Princess Caroline of the House of Grimaldi as a way to keep her family from ending up in the poor house.

Casino Baden-Baden

Originally a spa known as the “Kurhaus” or “cure house”, the building that would later house one of the most famous casinos in all of Europe was built on the edge of the Black Forest in South-West Germany in 1766. The Casino Baden-Baden took off after France banned gambling in the early 1800s. As a result, many of Europe’s aristocracy visited the spa town to gamble and have fun.

Fun Fact: Casino Baden-Baden was the inspiration for Dostoyevsky’s novel The Gambler, one of the most famous novels that feature casino themes as a central theme.

Casino Baden-Baden

Crockford’s Club

Not to be outdone by their mainland European cousins, casino gambling in the United Kingdom thrived during the same period. One of the more famous casinos was a place called Crockford’s Club which was established in 1826. Casino gambling in Britain was the preserve of the wealthy upper classes and was referred to as clubs and not casinos at that time. Crockford’s Club was established by William Crockford with support from the Duke of Wellington as a safe place for the elite of society to gamble only. Entry was by membership only and not everyone qualified to become a member.

Casino History Part II: America & the Modern Era

No country in the world has played a more prominent role in promoting casino gambling in the modern world like the USA has. This has as much to do with natural American entrepreneurial spirit as it does the Hollywood movie machine. As a direct result of both of these elements, people all over the world know that fortunes and futures can be made overnight if you visit Atlantic City in the east or Las Vegas in the west. These are the twin cities of American casino gambling and both offer opportunities beyond your wildest dreams. Moreover, both share a similar history of overcoming the odds, a chequered history with organised crime, and a new and modern expansion based on corporate investment.

Impress Your Friends: Here’s a cool fact that you can impress your friends with the next time you play poker, blackjack, or any other card game. The very first set of playing cards that were machine printed in Europe came from the printing press of none other than Johannes Gutenberg. Yip, the same guy that printed the word’s first printed edition of the bible printed playing cards for the gambling industry first! Not too sure how that’s going to go down with your local clergy.

The Seeds of American Casino Gambling

Some may find it surprising, but actual casino gambling took a while to take root in America. The first forms of gambling that existed, particularly in major cities like Chicago, San Francisco, St Louis and New Orleans, took place in saloons or bars. This was where everyone went to unwind, have a few drinks and play a few hands of poker. However, gambling was banned during the early part of the twentieth century, as a new moral movement swept through the country. It wasn’t until 1931, that the state of Nevada legalized gambling, paving the way for America’s first real casinos.

Gambling USA 1930s

Las Vegas, Nevada

No other city is as famous as Las Vegas when it comes to gambling, having fun. Also known as Sin City, Las Vegas is a place where anything is possible and anything can, and does, happen.

The First Casino in Las Vegas – The Golden Gate Casino

Not many people are aware of this, but the first actual casino to open its doors in Las Vegas was not the Tropicana or The Sands. The first casino in Las Vegas was the Golden Gate Casino, opening in 1906 and still operating today. This was long before legalized gambling, back when the West was still pretty wild.

Fun Fact:The name Las Vegas actually comes from a Spanish phrase meaning “The Meadows”. Apparently the name came about during the 1800s, when traders moving goods from Mexico to Los Angeles would use that specific area as a watering hole.

Las Vegas

Atlantic City, New Jersey – “The World’s Playground”

If Las Vegas was the Wild West, then Atlantic City was the Wild East. Originally established as a health resort by a doctor Jonathan Pitney, the town quickly expanded into a seaside holiday resort on the East Coast.

Boardwalk Empire

In 2010, HBO released a show about Atlantic City called Boardwalk Empire. The show became a hit and was loosely based around a real-life person named Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson (renamed Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson in the show). While much of the show is fabricated for dramatic effect, a lot is also based on facts. Atlantic City flouted federal prohibition laws during the 1920’s and 30’s and it became a haven for those that wanted to drink, party and gamble. While Atlantic City did experience a steady decline during the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s, the city bounced back, and is now one of the leading destinations for casino gambling. The city is home to many famous casinos including the Golden Nugget, Tropicana Atlantic City, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and many others.

If you’re looking to visit a land-based casino but can’t venture all the way to the USA, try visiting one of these local casinos in New Zealand.

Why Our Love for Casinos Will Never Die

The story of the modern casino is not only fascinating and entertaining; it also teaches us a lot about human nature. It shows us about the need to share and socialize with other of a like mind, and test your skills and bravado in games where the odds are usually stacked against you. If you have enough ‘chutzpah’ and, if you’re in good with Lady Luck, you could change your life forever. At least that is the hope and dream of most casino gamers around the world.

Lottery Game

The idea of changing your fortune in an instant is nothing new; there are countless stories across many cultures of ordinary men and women who changed their fortune (and consequently their future) by taking a risk, seemingly against the odds. We all love watching people win millions in slots or lottery games because, there is always some small part of us that automatically puts ourselves in their shoes. That ‘what if’ fantasy, where fortune could smile on you with equal measure, if you just play your cards right.

In medieval times, alchemists would experiment with all sorts of chemicals in the hope of turning led to gold. We can’t seem to let go of this idea and it’s what motivates many to take a small amount of their money, take their chances on the tables or the slots, and hope to turn their modest amount into a king’s ransom.

Casinos are deeply embedded in our pop culture and have been for decades. There are hundreds of Hollywood movies that feature casino scenes to a greater or lesser degree. In fact, some movies revolve completely around the casino industry, in both good and bad ways. From mob movies and heist movies, to rom-coms and feel good rags to riches stories, casinos are often the heart that drives the narrative forward.

Today, we live in an incredible age where you don’t even have to live anywhere near a casino in order to experience what it’s all about. Online casinos NZ are the modern version of the old Las Vegas dream, and it can be experienced down under. As long as you have a fairly decent computer and a reliable internet connection, you have just as much of a shot at millions than anyone that is actually in a Las Vegas casino. Heck, these days you don’t even need to use your computer anymore. Thanks to mind blowing advances in mobile technology, you can play virtually any online casino game directly on our mobile device, anywhere, anytime.

Last Updated: August 26, 2021