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Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling

Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling

by David G. Schwartz

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In Roll the Bones, historian David G. Schwartz tells the epic story of gambling, beginning with its early emergence from divination rituals and ending with today's global gaming culture. In a sweeping, rollicking narrative, Schwartz looks at the betting games people have played since the dawn of history, and argues convincingly that gambling has always been a


In Roll the Bones, historian David G. Schwartz tells the epic story of gambling, beginning with its early emergence from divination rituals and ending with today's global gaming culture. In a sweeping, rollicking narrative, Schwartz looks at the betting games people have played since the dawn of history, and argues convincingly that gambling has always been a crucial part of the human experience.

The book begins with the rolling of knucklebones in prehistoric times, progresses through the casting of lots portrayed in the Bible and sacred Hindu writings, and traces gaming through the heights of the Greek and Roman civilizations. Schwartz continues through the Middle Ages, investigating the mysterious invention of playing cards in twelfth-century China, the birth of the casino and table games such as baccarat in Venice, and the British Empire's work in spreading gambling throughout the world. Schwartz describes how lotteries financed some of the first American colonies, how gambling prospered in the Civil War and the Old West, how organized crime exploded in the twentieth century by running illegal gambling operations, and how gambling dollars transformed Las Vegas into the world's number-one tourist destination. Packed with colorful characters from Julius Caesar to Casanova, George Washington to Steve Wynn, Roll the Bones is an all-in history of humanity's fascination with chance.

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
Mr. Schwartz,…takes his assignment seriously. He begins even before the beginning, with the great wagers described in ancient religious texts, where even the gods gambled furiously…Having rooted his narrative, rather grandly, in the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia, China and India…Mr. Schwartz sets out on a quick global march that takes the reader from the gambling dens of Pompeii to the slots at Caesars Palace.
—The New York Times
Wayne Curtis
… Schwartz, the author of two previous books on gambling culture, does manage to accomplish something remarkable: He's made Las Vegas seem like a vast repository of history, not a crash site of implosion, rebuilding and reinvention.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This comprehensive and often entertaining history of gambling begins with the origins of odds and evens as an ancient divination "game" and ends with the 21st-century Internet gambling phenomenon. Schwartz, a historian at the University of Nevada's Center for Gaming Research, gets credit not only for his thoroughness in describing the development of gambling in Western Europe and the U.S., but also for including gambling in Native American, Chinese and other non-Western cultures. Similarly inclusive is his examination of the doctrinal attitudes of each of the world's major religions toward the human penchant for gambling. Schwartz adds interesting anecdotes, even if likely apocryphal: aces, for instance, supposedly became superior to kings as a result of 18th-century French revolutionary fervor. But this thoroughness leads Schwartz to devote too much space to the rules of archaic games of chance and to the exploits of famous and not- so-famous gamblers. Although he doesn't ignore the underside-such as compulsive gambling and cheating-this aspect is underdeveloped. Also, a more in-depth inquiry into why people gamble and the societal impact of government-sponsored gambling, such as lotteries, would have made this encyclopedic effort even more complete. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Schwartz (director, Ctr. for Gaming Research, Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas; Suburban Xanadu: The Casino Resort on the Las Vegas Strip and Beyond) broadens his horizons for a global history of gambling, from prehistoric times to current Las Vegas trends. The premise is certainly engaging enough: it seems most of the earth's cultures have encountered organized risk and found it to their taste. The rise and fall of many historical figures, fortunes, and governments are shown to be tied to gambling, with mentions of notables from Galileo to Voltaire to William Fisk Harrah. Schwartz's whirlwind tour can be disconcerting as his topical chapters jump back and forth in time, but the overall effect is fascinating. Most intriguing, he posits that we have entered a global gambling era, similar to the European gambling boom of the 17th through 19th centuries. Well researched and highly readable, this is recommended for all libraries where interest warrants. Elizabeth Morris, formerly of the Illinois Fire Svc. Inst. Lib., Champaign Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Man's unending thirst for the jackpot, from primitive dice games in early antiquity to the current online poker craze. Schwartz (Suburban Xanadu, 2003), a Las Vegas resident and gambling scholar, provides a study on gambling's deep-rooted place in history, and compelling proof that gambling comes as naturally to humankind as eating. He also demonstrates that gambling can come in many forms. In 2004, Hong Kong police arrested 115 people after breaking up an insect-fighting ring, seizing nearly 200 fighting crickets. In the Philippines, gamblers can go online to bet on cockfights. In Japan, bettors wager millions on bicycle races at any one of 50 bike tracks. Schwartz guides us through the origins of dice (originally cut from the knuckle bones of animals), playing cards (the modern 52-card deck can be traced to the Italian Renaissance) and the lottery (the first was held in 1444 in Flanders). There are fascinating tidbits on well-known historical figures and their forays into gambling. Galileo and Blaise Pascal made early studies of gambling probability. Voltaire outsmarted the 18th-century French lottery and won nine-million francs. Casanova helped institute the first Italian lottery and got rich operating a lottery sales office. Less lucky were Russian gamblers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the latter of whom, author of the brilliant short novel The Gambler, went broke repeatedly at the German gambling resort in Baden-Baden. Schwartz's tome bogs down when he insists on providing the playing rules for a score of obscure and long-defunct card and dice games, detours that aren't helped by the author's dry, textbook-like prose. Still, the history of gambling has more than enough color tokeep readers satisfied, from the gambling saloons of the Wild West to the black-tie baccarat parlors of Monte Carlo to the unlikely evolution of the gilded Las Vegas "mega-casino."The thick historical detail may amount to overkill for the average reader, but it's a winning hand for the true student of gambling.

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.74(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.39(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

David G. Schwartz was born in Atlantic City, where he has worked in casino security and surveillance. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he earned his Ph.D. in United States history from UCLA. He is the director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV, and is the author of the academic books Cutting the Wire and Suburban Xanadu. He is also a consultant and frequent commentator on gambling and related issues.

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