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'Roll the Bones,' a Gambling History


Gambling is one of the world's oldest pastimes. Now author David Schwartz has a new book called Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling. He sat down with NPR's Tony Cox to chat about the book, chance and the meaning of the book's title.

Mr. DAVID SCHWARTZ (Author, Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling): Literally, they were bones. They were the anklebones of sheep and goats that were filed down and rolled originally by priests for stuff like fortune telling, and then eventually it crossed over and it was used for purely secular amusement.

TONY COX: Really? You know, the book says that there's no way to really tell when gambling first began. So how early can you go back to identify when gambling existed?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, they've done studies on some of the primates like monkeys and chimpanzees and found that they exhibit behaviors that are like gambling, where they will take a risk to try to get a bigger reward; so they'll take the risky option that might not get them anything, it might get them a lot, over the safe option. So it seems to go back at least that far. It seems in human societies, since it's pretty much everywhere like language, it seems to have been around from the dawn of humanity. The idea of casting lots, which you will find in the Bible, is a way of saying this decision is beyond human intelligence. Let's ask God. So we'll roll a die or cast lots, we'll draw things out of the basket or do something. So that idea kind of transcends just amusement.

COX: Now at one point that developed into cards, didn't it? Things like tarot cards, is that a sort of a form of gambling?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. It's really interesting because cards first developed in Asia, probably in Korea or China around the year 1000. They're just ceremonial and they are thrown and drawn for divination, and eventually they turned into playing cards.

Now the tarot was a special deck of playing cards with a series of trumps or special cards that could beat other cards. About 300 years after the tarot deck was invented, a French man takes the stack and says you know what? This really isn't just a game. It's actually a secret form of Egyptian mysticism that was preserved thousands of years ago, which was complete nonsense because cards weren't invited until a millennia later in China.

But people believed this and they started to believe that the tarot had some kind of mystical significance. And today it'd be hard to find people who would know that the tarot was originally just a game.

COX: Well, let's talk about the United States now. And in the book you talked about how the Indians sort of got their revenge, if I can put it that way, in terms of how gambling began and has now evolved to where Indian casinos are a major part of the gambling phenomenon.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: This is one of the ironies that I wanted to get into the book. And one of the major themes that I have in the book is that gambling can reverse things. I start the book with the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay marching through the Connecticut woods on their way to destroy the Pequot Indians.

But 350 years later, I have Americans driving to Foxwoods, which is in Ledyard, Connecticut, which is the reconstituted Pequot reservation, to gamble their monies. A couple of centuries later, everybody is lining up to play slot machines.

COX: And give their money away. That's true. There is another story that you've mentioned in the book that I'd like you talk about briefly, if you would. And that's the story of Denmark Vesey and how the lottery played a role in his release as a slave.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah. This is fascinating. This is something - most people know the story of Denmark Vesey, who led a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1822. What they don't know is how he acquired his freedom.

He was born in West Africa and he was owned by a sea captain. And in 1800, he won a lottery and he won $1,500 and he bought his freedom with that. And he started to build a very successful career and he got a lot of influence and became a local leader. And eventually of course he would have led the uprising but he was betrayed and executed. And it's stuff like this that got a lot of the authorities nervous, the fact that gambling and lotteries and that could really upset the social order.

COX: In a black community there has been historically a certain kind of gambling known as the numbers, and it was really a big thing in the, you know, ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s and such. And my question is do individual groups, individual communities, come up with their own forms of gambling like the numbers?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Yeah, they do. The numbers started in Harlem in the 1920s and it was mostly a group of West Indian entrepreneurial immigrants who came here and started this game. There had been earlier games like the numbers, but in the 1920s they started again. This is a time when lotteries were banned in the United States. There weren't any lotteries. And it was a way for people to gamble with relatively little money and to have a good time and sometimes get a hit and make a little bit of money.

COX: There also has been an explosion, technologically speaking, with regard to how gambling takes place. We have hi-tech casinos, there's online gambling, there's all of these things now. What's been the impact of that on gambling and what do you see its impact being going forward?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Well, this is something really interesting because one thing that I found doing research for the book was that every time you have a new technology, there's a new form of gambling. When you have - humans are working with stone and bone and things like that, they are using stones and bones and wood to make gambling devices. When humans start working with paper, they invent playing cards, and they use playing cards. When they invent the Internet, they use the Internet to gamble. So what I found is that no matter what kind of technology you invent, people are going to use it to gamble in some way.

COX: Is gambling - is that in human nature? Is it an innate thing that we do?

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Back when humans were hunting and gathering, they were hunters and gatherers, the ones who didn't take risks, who stayed in one place, would probably have died out. The ones who took risks and went around forging for food would live. So it seems to me that maybe this is something that's hardwired into the human brain.

Today, most people, they don't have this opportunity for this kind of risky behavior, this gambling, so they do it with money. And maybe that's one of the challenges, is how do we adopt this innate human need which is within us and which a lot of people do to an age when you have credit cards and things like that.

COX: David, thank you very much.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Thank you very much, Tony.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with David Schwartz, author of Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling.

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CHIDEYA: Thanks for sharing your time with us. We'll be back tomorrow. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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