How Card Games Influenced Early Roulette

By Sarah Thomas
April 23, 2024

In the history of roulette, it’s widely accepted that the Italian game Biribi was one of the first to use the game’s mechanics. It was played on a single piece of card, while actual playing cards were also used for the obscure English game Ace of Hearts. When Blaise Pascal invented the wheel mechanism, both games contributed to the roulette we enjoy today.


The Invention of Roulette

While the specifics of roulette’s invention are murky, we know that mathematician Blaise Pascal tried to create a perpetual motion wheel in the 1600s. Roulette as a game then emerged in the 1700s, using the same technology that Pascal had pioneered. Since then, the iconic wheel has changed a lot. Today, it’s possible to play roulette without even touching a wheel thanks to the internet. Through iGaming, casino classics like roulette have become more widely accessible than they were in the past. There’s no shortage of roulette games to play, with both digital wheels or real-life playing tables that are live-streamed to a playing audience. Today, those playing roulette don’t need to visit the wheel, or the wheel itself may be a digital emulation.

Roulette is well-known for having its French and American versions, where the difference is how many zeroes it has. However, other mechanical wheels emerged in places like England at the same time. The games Roly Poly and Even/Odds (or EO) were played in the 1700s, for example. These are thought to have been copies of roulette, using the same tech that Pascal was known to work with for inventions like the first digital calculator or his attempted perpetual motion machine. However, there are Italian and English card games that established roulette’s rules before the wheel was ever invented.

roulette wheel

The Italian Game Biribi

Biribi is a well-documented game played in the mid-1700s, mostly in Italy. We know this because the famous Venetian libertine Giacomo Casanova played the game, writing about it in the 1760s. It was played elsewhere in Europe, going by the name Cavagnole in countries like France.

As for how it was played, the game used a single card as a board. This playing tableau was marked with a grid, with each space numbered from 1 to 70. After players wagered, the dealer pulled a small card from his bag at random. If there’s a winner, they could receive up to 64x their wager.

It’s easy to see why historians point to this game as one of roulette’s earliest precursors. It combines known practices at the time like lottery-style draws, but its similar to the betting grid at a roulette table. There were no outside bets, that would come later with roulette and EO.

The English Game Ace of Hearts

A more obscure English game sometimes gets a mention when outlining the history of roulette. That would be Ace of Hearts, also known as Fair Chance. While Biribi translated into roulette when applied to a mechanical wheel, Ace of Hearts resembled a poor man’s version of Roly Poly or roulette.

We know it was played in the 1700s thanks to a later, English edition of Christiaan Huygens’ De Ratiociniis in Ludo Aleae. That version includes an addition by John Ham, where he describes the game as “a table, on which is painted a select number of cards, generally 31 or 25, or between those numbers.” A small machine called a worm is used in place of a full wheel, lined with pockets for the ball to fall into. It fulfilled the same function, though wasn’t as elaborate as roulette.

The main difference here is the focus on cards, which are either painted or placed around the worm. Players bet on the card and, if the ball lands on the corresponding space, they win. The use of cards instead of simple numbers here is unique among other wheel games of the time, demonstrating that iconic French-suited playing cards influenced some of the earliest ways that roulette was played.



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Sarah Thomas poker author
Written By.

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas is a content writer for entertainment websites. In her free time she enjoys playing all sorts of games, both live and online.

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