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Gambling: Pain, Pleasure and Play

The Letter, Issue 16, Summer 1999, Pages 9 - 26


Franziska Huber

Introduction: The Passion for Gambling

Last Wednesday was the official start of the Football World Cup 1998 - different nations such as England, Italy, Brazil, France, Germany, Argentina, Holland (just to name a few of them) are in a state of excitement. Statistics, theories, speculations, hopes and guesses are circulating: who is going to make it this time? This is the heyday of calculating and betting - not only via the official football pools, but also in innumerable private bets and estimating contests. These days, homo ludens forcefully displays an old and universal passion, the passion for gambling.

As a matter of fact, hardly any other cultural activity can boast such a long tradition as can gaming and gambling. Board games already existed at the time of the First Dynasty in Egypt, at about 3500 B.C. At around the same time the first dice were introduced, also in Egypt. Predecessor of the die was the astragalus, the heelbone of a deer, dog or sheep. Already prehistoric cavemen kept collections of coloured pebbles and astragali, which may have been used for some kind of primitive counting and as toys.[1] Rolling the dice, throwing sticks, pebbles or stones - all these were ancient means of organising chance events. Such 'games of chance', as they would be classified today, were not only played for pleasure and recreation, but also served as means of divination. Men invented mechanical random devices to consult the gods. For instance, in some primitive cultures the guilty were detected by drawing marked pieces of wood or straws of unequal length; the drawing of lots was also part of the religious rites amongst early Teutonic tribes - the origin of our lotteries today.[2]

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