Gambling, in all its forms, has been around since the dawn of time, with many modern games based on games from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. There are even several online casino games that can claim some sort of ancestry to the games of old, such as bingo or baccarat. But this is not about the history of gambling around the world as much as it is about looking towards the East and exploring the history of gambling in Asia.
How Old Is Gambling in the East?
Despite it often being socially, morally and even legally taboo, gambling has been a part of many Asian cultures for much of their history. Here’s a brief look at the origins and current state of gambling in a few major countries in Asia.
In China, board games are mentioned as far back as 2,100 BC, while objects resembling dice have been unearthed and dated as far back as 3,000 BC. By 1,000 BC, China had become the home of many types of gambling, from putting money on the outcome of animals fighting to a game of mahjong, lotteries and more.
Despite its strong cultural roots, you may be surprised to find out that every form of gambling is illegal in modern China. That said, China does allow its citizens to take part in gambling under specific circumstances. For example, Chinese gamblers can visit Hong Kong or Macau to gamble at casinos or participate in state-run lotteries. The ban on gambling has also led to a vibrant underground gambling scene, including online casinos and brick-and-mortar casinos that operate illegally.
The Hindu religion, the primary religion in India, speaks strongly against gambling, but India also has a long history of betting on games of chance. Betting games are spoken about in the Ramayana and the Mahābhārata, two major works of Sanskrit writings from ancient India that date back to approximately 400 BCE and 300 BCE, respectively. As with many other cultures, India developed dice games, betting on sports with animals and also indulged in betting on cricket matches once the British brought the sport to the country in the 18th century.
Modern India has allowed each of its states to decide on whether to legalize gambling or not. This means that the majority of states have banned gambling outright, while three have legalized certain aspects of gambling, such as horse racing and lotteries. Goa is one of the three states which has legal casinos, but they are only legally accessible to those from outside of the state.
In Japan, gambling was first mentioned in 635 AD, when Emperor Temmu played sugo-roku (double sixes.) Once his daughter took over as reigning monarch, gambling was frowned upon. But despite the empress’s decree outlawing the pastime, it grew exponentially and the populace was soon betting on the outcome of cockfights, horse races, tile games, a dice game called cho-han and more.
Today, Japan has an almost outright ban on gambling, with a few exceptions, such as betting on horse racing and motorsports and lotteries. But this ban has led to the rise of pachinko parlors, a game that is legally not classified as a gambling game despite the fact that they are seen by many as the Japanese equivalent of slot machines. Players can exchange their winnings from a game of Pachinko for prizes and then take those prizes to another shop outside of the Pachinko store to exchange them for cash. This loophole means that, despite the ban on gambling, Pachinko parlors can be found all over Japan.
Asia’s Relationship With Gambling and Luck and Its Influence on Casino Games
In most Eastern countries, gambling is considered an activity that is influenced by luck rather than strategy. This is why serious gambling is often frowned upon and even illegal in many parts of Asia. That said, it’s not uncommon to see some sort of gambling at festivals, funerals or weddings, where good fortune is thought to be in abundance.
With such a strong cultural emphasis on luck, it’s not surprising that many Asian-themed slot games that appear in the West also feature Asian-influenced slot symbols, icons and colors that are synonymous with good fortune, such as dragons and tigers or gold and jade. These themes come out strongly in online slots such as Tiger 7s, Jade Tiger and The Treasures of Lion City. Other slot games that use themes associated with wealth and good fortune are Imperial Wealth and Long and Happy Life.
Some of the Most Popular Gambling Games in Asia
Many gambling games originated in the East, including Asian table games, dice games and tile games. Here are some of the most popular games.
A game enjoyed by the Japanese, which has made it into the 21st century, is pachinko. It’s best described as a vertical version of pinball. The player uses a handle to launch balls into the field of play, with the handle launching the balls harder the more you turn it. The aim is to try to control the force of the balls so that they drop into the “start chucker” (a special area on the pachinko board.) If you get it right, you “win” the ball! At the end of the game, your total number of winning balls is calculated and you get to exchange them for a prize. Pachinko is enjoyed by some 50 million Japanese players in one form or another and has spread to New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the USA.
There are also several versions that are going the way of online slot machines, making this game even more accessible around the globe.
Mahjong is also one of the better-known gaming exports from the East, making it to America in the early 20th century. It was adopted by many other cultures as a way of cementing relationships and building communities. According to the games scholar, historian and translator, David Parlett, rummy and conquian share some common ancestry with mahjong since all three feature the concept of making groups and runs of similar tiles or cards. When it comes to betting on a game of mahjong, players put money on the outcome of the entire game, which means no one wins until the very end.
Keno – the Asian Variant of Bingo
One of the world’s best casino games is bingo and keno is the Asian variant. It’s said that the game came about during a war in which money was needed and used to save a city and assist in building the Great Wall of China.
Play this casino game by choosing 20 of the 80 numbers given to you on a card. Take the card to the keno writer to place your bet and then all you have to do is wait for Lady Luck to (hopefully) make it happen.
If you want to try an accessible casino table game from Asia, then take a look at sic-bo which, much like roulette, gives you betting options across the table. However, that’s where the similarities end because, according to experts, “the casino’s edge varies based on which bet you take. The best thing to do, mathematically, is to always take the bet with the lowest house edge.”
What the Western world knows as dominoes, the East knows as pai gow. The name, which literally translates into “make nine,” was first mentioned in documents relating to the Song Dynasty.
Fan tan is a variant of rummy where the entire deck is dealt and all the players work towards getting rid of their cards before their opponents do — but they can only start laying down cards once the seven of the suit has been placed.
Mainstream Gambling Hubs
Initially, Shanghai was the gamblers’ home away from home in the East and was visited by many Asians, specifically the Chinese. However, with the implementation of communist rule in China came the end of commercial gaming and the gambling laurels were passed onto Macau in 1961, which was under Portuguese control at the time. This autonomous region of China is located across the Pearl River delta from Hong Kong and is known as the Monte Carlo of the East. Indeed, Macau is the region’s biggest casino revenue generator.
Macau is still the East’s favorite place to dance with Lady Luck. It’s a great venue for the baccarat casino game as well as blackjack and roulette. These more Western games are nestled in between the best casino games in the East, fan tan and pai gow and tourists from all over the world regularly try their hand at them.
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