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Roll Those Knuckle Bones

Games of chance go all the way back to the ancient world

Roll Those Knuckle Bones

In writing about casinos for nearly 40 years, I’ve become something of a student of gambling history. (And of writing, in fact—I started out on a manual typewriter. But I digress.)

My overall concentration on slot machines means I know more about their history than anything else: As we all know, pioneer Jeremiah Slot carved his “Slot’s Machine” out of a tree, with wooden wheels that would entice settlers to…

No, that’s not right. Slot machines started out as bartop mechanical machines on which spools would spin to reveal card hands from 50-card decks—important cards were usually missing, so I’m guessing you couldn’t call these games “loose.” Winners were often paid in drinks, which meant if they ever did get on a hot streak, they’d be hammered before they finished collecting. They’d wake up the next day trying to remember if they finished collecting, what they were trying to collect, and why they slept in a drainage ditch.

Then, of course, German immigrant Charles Fey changed everything with his invention of the three-reel slot machine in the 1890s. After that, a whole bunch of stuff happened, and here we are with multiline penny slots. (Did I leave anything out?)

But it turns out that there are other types of gambling than slot machines. (Imagine that.) Anyone who’s studied the origins of gambling knows that games of chance go all the way back to the ancient world.

I’m talking pre-iPhone here.

If you look at the works of Homer, there are references to gambling in ancient Greece. The ancient Greeks played something called “knuckle bones,” a precursor to modern dice made from animal bones. According to The Greek Reporter, “While the rules of many of these ancient games have been lost to time, scholars are capable of guessing and estimating some rules based on ancient sources.”

“By Zeus and Aphrodite, ee-oh eleven!” was common to hear on a crowded craps table back then.

“Come on, Tyche, Daddy needs a new pair of sandals!”

Tyche was the Greek goddess of chance. Now you know.

By the way, Aphrodite, the mythical Greek goddess of love (and songs by Cream), also showed up in ancient Roman gambling. In Rome, there was something called “Aphrodite’s throw,” which involved throwing four knuckle bones at once. You won if each of the dice landed on a different number.

In my continuing quest to gain new knowledge of the gambling world, I decided to try Aphrodite’s throw on a craps table. One of the dice landed in a lady’s gin-and-tonic, two landed on the floor, and the other one hit the stickman in the eye. Then, they threw me out of the casino. (No respect for historical research.)

And of course, if you understood that reference to a Cream song, you’re old. Look it up, whippersnapper!

They say Roman Emperor Augustus loved throwing knuckle bones. But he couldn’t resist betting the hardways and the field, so he lost a lot, and threw more than a couple of dealers to the lions. (OK, I made the last part up. But just the last part. Augustus really was a degenerate gambler. I think he even was top-tier in the players club.)

Ancient Egypt also had its share of games of chance. Archeologists have uncovered a variety of gambling artifacts that show gambling to have been quite a popular part of Egyptian culture. In fact, if you’re an expert at translating hieroglyphics, you’ll find promotions offering match play, comped Nile cruises and meet-and-greets with Nefertiti.

(OK, I may have made that up too.)

Finally, we all know gambling has always been a central cog in Chinese culture. According to The World of Chinese, when Huangfu Hui, a soldier during the Five Dynasties period (907-960), gambled at a table in a military camp and lost his shirt (or tang suit or whatever they wore back then—someone should look that up), he took a drastic step: He kidnapped his general and forced him to start a rebellion against the emperor.

According to The World, “After Emperor Li Cunxu sent his adoptive brother Li Siyuan to suppress the rebellion, Li Siyuan instead joined the rebel forces and claimed the throne. After the rebel army attacked the capital and killed the emperor, Huangfu became a provincial official.”

Wow. Just think. If Huangfu Hui would have just been issued a marker, the whole of Chinese history could have been different.

According to the article, normal, non-military types preferred gambling on dog races and cockfights to the ancient table games.

Yeah, nothing like a good cockfight to light up the gaming entertainment. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the knuckle bones wait.