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).

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, but in 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 Danish capital and was a popular meeting place for planning the 1848 revolution which led 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.

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 Trenteet 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 Venzia, at the age of 69. The famous composer collapsed apparently of apparently sudden heart failure. The casino houses a very interesting museum in his honor, 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 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 in 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 “kurhause” 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 1800’s. 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.

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 were 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.

See casino history part 2

Last Updated: May 20, 2019