July 22, 2024

Hankering for History

Hanker: To have a strong, often restless desire, in this case for–you guessed it–history!

What is History but a Gamble?

3 min read

history-gambling On more than one occasion, I have used the following expressions (and in no relation to cards or gambling).

  • When the chips are down
  • Forcing someone’s hand
  • Hitting the jackpot
  • All bets are off
  • The deck is stacked
  • A few cards short a deck

These terms, which originated as expressions associated with gambling, are now part of our common vernacular.

If you think about it, some of the most historical decisions made were gambles.


I am sure that the early Native Americans saw the Pilgrims land and thought to themselves:

“Do we help these new settlers?”

Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler both made an “all in” bet when they asked:

“Do we invade Russia?”

Those gambles did not work out so well.

There were, however, some gambles that equated with “hitting the jackpot.”

Thomas Jefferson did not know he would make such a great investment when he gambled with France:

“Is the investment of this Louisiana land beneficial to the United States?”

Harry Truman probably asked his Cabinet more than once:

“Do we drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

If you think about it…when aren’t we gambling?

Almost every decision we make, no matter how small or large, is a gamble. And each gamble will change our history, hopefully for the better.

Do I have time to stop in for coffee on my way to work? Gamble!
Can I make it through this yellow light without getting a ticket? Gamble!
Tesla Motors is taking the world by storm, should I invest? Gamble!
I love the woman I am with, but she refuses to sign a prenup…Gamble!

It really isn’t much of a surprise to me that the online casino gaming industry is such big business, gambling has deep roots going back to the beginning of civilization.

Terminalia bellirica nuts
Terminalia Bellirica Nuts

The ancient Indian text of Arthashastra, written by Chāṇakya (c. 350–283 BC), provides an early reference to gambling. However, possibly one of the most interesting Indian texts—regarding gambling—is the Gambler’s Lament. The Gambler’s Lament was hymn found in the Rigveda (The Knowledge of Verses). The Rigveda is the oldest book in any Indo-European language and dates back between 1700–1100 BC. Historian Arthur Llewellyn Basham believed that the poem was originally written to serve as a spell to ensure victory in the game of dice.

But let’s face it, when your gambling dice are constructed from Terminalia bellirica nuts, your odds are not that great…

The historical sources that may surprise you the most, though, are religious texts.

The Bible, the bestselling book in all of history, includes references to gambling in both the Old and New Testaments.

Joshua 18:10— Joshua then cast lots for them in Shiloh in the presence of the LORD, and there he distributed the la “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another.

John 19:24— “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” So this is what the soldiers did.

dreidel In elementary school, my teachers deemed it appropriate that we should partake in all of the winter holiday festivities—this included Hanukkah. We learned about the story of the oil that lasted eight days, ate delicious latke potato pancakes, and played dreidel. It was not until later in life that it dawned on me that the game of dreidel was gambling.

As mentioned in a previous article on this site, the game of poker has its own lengthy history. Starting with the invention of playing cards in China, during the Tang Dynasty (from 618 AD to 907 AD), to the published works of Edmond Hoyle, poker has continually changed. From painted leaves and dice crafted from Terminalia bellirica nuts, to playing online poker, the face of gambling continues to change for the better.

One might say that gambling makes brave men heroic and great nations thrive. It will be for the history books to decide.

Robert Kennedy Deep in Thought

1 thought on “What is History but a Gamble?

  1. Most of the expressions you cite are pretty staright forward in meaning.

    But there’s a nuance for “all bets are off.” It comes from craps and is not literally referring to “all” bets.

    Most folks know that craps has the Pass/Don’t Pass bet, which is whether or not the roller will either win on the first roll with 7 or 11, or make the number he is rolling for before losing with a 7 roll. This bet is placed before the first roll and so is a purely speculative bet. This bet cannot ever be withdrawn.

    But, once the roll is made, and assuming it is not an automatic win or loss, then before each subsequent roll you can place “side” bets. For example, that a six and/or eight will show up before the roller wins or loses.

    These side bets remain on the table until the person who placed them decides, before another roll, that he wants to withdraw them. If he has multiple side bets and decides he wants to withdraw all of them, he just says “all bets are off” and all the side bet chips he placed are returned.
    Any Pass/Don’t Pass bets he made remain.

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