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Reviewed by:
  • Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling
  • William R. Childs
David G. Schwartz. Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling. New York: Gotham Books, 2006. xix + 570 pp. ISBN 1-592-40208-9, $30.00 (hardcover).

David Schwartz appears to be the perfect author to take on a global history of gambling: he was born in Atlantic City, has worked in and written about the gaming industry, received a PhD in history from UCLA, and is the director of the Center for Gaming Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Roll the Bones is an encyclopedic narrative of gambling, covering six continents from the earliest times to the present. While it holds many fascinating details for the devotee and the novice, its author does not develop overall themes that would connect sheep hucklebones (the ancestors of dice) in the Roman era to internet gambling in the early twenty-first century. Based mainly on secondary sources, the book vaguely suggests that gambling has been central to human development.

Part One, “The Discovery of Gambling,” takes the reader through the ancient world and the medieval period. Schwartz cites (but does not sustain a focus on) the work of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, who argues, first, that cultures develop attitudes towards gambling (tolerate or ignore) and eventually adapt to its existence and, two, that no one game identifies particular cultures. Part One presents fascinating details of ancient and medieval cultures that tolerated or ignored and always adapted to gambling within: six-sided dice in Mesopotamia; religious connections to gambling in India; Native Americans playing guessing and dice games; losers in the Roman empire suing for losses; gambling in the Bible; and, the persistence of gambling in Islamic culture despite its prohibition. An entire chapter is devoted to the emergence of card games, with a fair amount of space devoted to the Chinese and Italians.

Part Two, “Gambling Becomes a Science,” focuses mainly on Western Europe, with particular attention given to Italy and France. Once probabilities were understood, social gambling of earlier times gave way to ‘mercantile,’ or professional gambling. Galileo, Pascal, and [End Page 366] others make appearances, and from their work sprang forth civic and private lotteries, which were widespread in Europe by the sixteenth century. Gambling houses appeared first in northern Italy and from the mid-seventeenth century to 1800 or so, a gambling mania not seen before or since spread across Europe.

Part Three, “Gambling Takes to the Sea,” focuses on England and the American colonies. Schwartz suggests a similarity between commercial capitalism’s stock markets and gambling, but he could have gone further. Bath’s various spas and gambling establishments attracted Europeans, but changing English policies led to the region’s demise by the mid-eighteenth century; English gamblers simply traveled to European gambling establishments. In Chapter 7, Schwartz makes a bold statement: “Americans fused several traditions—European, Native American, and African—into a larger gambling culture that, with advances in transportation and communications, would spread throughout the world” (134). Generally, the rest of the book supports this bias, but Schwartz does not clearly develop it.

In Part Four, “Europeans Gamble at Home and Abroad,” Schwartz reveals the transformation of health spas into wild gambling establishments for the wealthy. He also surveys the effects of European imperialism on the spread of gambling around the world, with special focus on horse racing and the Chinese game of Mah-Jongg.

Parts Five through Nine, covering nearly half of the book, focus on the spread of gambling in the United States, with one chapter on the French Riviera and another on the late twentieth century. Schwartz covers gambling in New Orleans and on the Mississippi River and its spread west, as well as the urban developments during the nineteenth century. Slot machines appeared in the late nineteenth century and became ubiquitous in the twentieth. Sports betting began in the United States with a British import—pedestrianism. Schwartz notes the similarities between the rise of big manufacturing businesses and gambling syndicates, but does not push the connection too far. Nevada, of course, looms large in the American story. By the 1960s, many states had followed Nevada’s lead, discovering that gambling...