The history of casinos goes back several thousands of years. The mentions of gambling can be found in the ancient literature of the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians, and other cultures.
Archeologists have found crude dice and cave drawing depicting gambling in excavations of civilizations that date back over 40,000 years.
In China, there’s been evidence found of tile games used for gambling that dates back to the 22nd century BC.
In Thebes, Egypt, dice dating back to the 14th century BC have been found in excavations.
In ancient Europe, soldiers in both the Greek and Roman armies would wager their earnings on dice games between battles. Evidence exists that Roman children were required by law to learn dice games and know how to gamble.
As for casinos, they’ve been around for many centuries as well. Gambling houses have been mentioned in ancient writings in Greek, Roman, Chinese, and Indian culture, just to name a few.
In medieval times, these “gambling houses” were created as a way for the governments at the time to limit where the activity could take place.
Over the centuries, as society grew, the gambling industry grew. As both workers and aristocrats had money to spend, they used it in a gambling house to try and increase their purses.
Few of these gambling houses have survived to today. However, a few have made it.
1- Casinò di Venezia
The Casinò di Venezia or Casino of Venice is the oldest active casino in the world. The building was constructed in 1509 for Venetian nobles. The Renaissance style building started “gambling house” operations in 1638.
The gambling houses (known to Italians as Ridotto/Ridotti or “private rooms”) were established by the Great Council of Venice to provide “controlled gambling” during carnival season. The Casinò di Venezia was one of about 20 established at the time.
In those times, it was common for patrons to go to gamble during intermissions from theatrical or operatic performances. Thus, originally, the Casinò di Venezia was only a wing of the building, while the rest housed other entertainment of the time
The casino building is truly a work of art. The interior is adorned with meticulously carved images in both wood and marble. Columns and pillars that resemble those of the ancient Romans and Greeks highlight huge rooms that now house dining and casino areas in the building. Room accents such as the chandeliers and sculptures create an atmosphere of walking into the past that players can enjoy as they walk into the casino.
The building is really a castle which sits on the Grand Canal in the Cannaregio quarter of Venice.
The casino also perfectly represents Venice’s nickname “the City of Canals” as the best way to get to the casino is by gondola or water taxi and has been the best method to reach the casino since its opening.
The casino is also the home of a museum dedicated to German composer Richard Wagner. Wagner was a frequent visitor to Venice and lived in the casino building for a period of time. The museum houses the largest private collection of Wagner’s memorabilia outside of Germany. The casino is part of many events each year featuring Wagner, including exhibitions, publications, conferences, roundtables discussions, and concerts.
Today the Casinò di Venezia is actually in 2 locations, the original is at the Ca’ Vendramin Calgary estate and a new second casino was opened in 1999 at Ca’ Noghera.
The Ca’ Vendramin currently houses over 600 slot machines and dozens of table games. Among the table games you can enjoy at the Casinò di Venezia are:
- French Roulette
- Chemin de Fer
- Punto Banco
- Fair Roulette
- Black Jack
- Caribbean Stud Poker
- Ultimate Texas Hold ’Em Poker
The Casinò di Venezia is known for its tournaments. One of these tournaments is in association with the reason the casino was invented, the Venice Carnival. The World Poker Tour at the Casinò di Venezia is held annually during the carnival and is sponsored by one of Italy’s largest online gaming companies.
But they have other tournaments too. The casino houses a number of proprietary tournaments. One of the biggest tournaments is the annual Italian Chemin de Fer Championships hosted by the casino. This has been ongoing since 2004. They also have a variety of one night tournaments including a Punto Banco 2000 Touch Tournament, blackjack tournaments, and baccarat tournaments.
In addition to the gambling facilities, the Ca’ Vendramin Calgary estate houses the Wagner Restaurant. The restaurant provides diners with classic Venetian cuisine surrounded by painting and frescoes of famous classic Italian artists.
2- Casino Wiesbaden
Casino Wiesbaden was originally built as a Kurhaus or “cure house” in 1810. The concept of the Kurhaus had been around since Roman times. A Kurhaus is essential a spa. The thermal spring in the city was said to have a curative effect on those that bathed in them. Therefore, an industry was born.
The Casino Wiesbaden story starts 30 years before construction was started. At that time, Prince Charles of Nassau-Usingen issued the first permit for gambling featuring popular card games of the era.
Construction of the facility started in 1807 and was completed in 1810. The original games played in the casino were the card games permitted by Prince Charles (who had died in 1777). In 1821, roulette was introduced to the casino. The addition of the game combined with the spas in the area drove tens of thousands to the casino over the following few years, including nobility, dignitaries, writers, musicians, artists, and many more.
In 1863, Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky made a trip to the Casino Wiesbaden. Over the next few months, he gambled away most of his fortune. This would later become the basis for his 1866 novel The Gambler.
Today the 38,000 square foot casino features 14 table games, 24 touch bet electronic games, and nearly 200 slot machines. The casino also features 8 poker tables.
Among the table games that players can take advantage of are American roulette, French roulette, and blackjack.
In addition to slot machines, guests can also play can number of electronic games including roulette, bingo, and video poker.
For poker enthusiasts, the casino offers no-limit Texas hold ‘em and Omaha.
For those who’re adventurous, the casino has monthly slots tournaments with prizes of €10,000 without any stake on the gambler’s part. Winners of the monthly tournaments can qualify for a championship tournament worth €43,000.
In addition to the casino, the casino has a restaurant and a bar. The restaurant, Joker’s, has traditional German foods such as schnitzels. They also have a bar in the slots area called the K1 Bar. They serve drinks along with a limited “bar food” menu.
3- Casino de Monte Carlo
Monaco and Monte Carlo, in particular, are known for gambling. But before the 1850s it was not. The Monte Carlo of the 1850s lacked decent roads out of the city, hotel accommodations, and a lack of amenities such as restaurants to satisfy visitors.
Monaco was ruled by Prince Florestan I and Princess Caroline of the House Grimaldi at the time. The principality was on the verge of bankruptcy. They had recently lost tax revenue when 2 other cities broke away from the principality. Princess Caroline came up with the idea of building a casino.
The couple’s son, Prince Charles, commissioned a team to design a resort which would include a casino, spa, and several villas. The team initially set up a temporary location in 1856.
Due to the lack of resources and a lack of promotion of the casino by the team Charles commissioned, the casino failed. The rights to run the casino were passed through a few people over the next few years.
At this time, Princess Caroline became frustrated with the direction of the casino and proceeded to try and recruit known casino operator François Blanc to run the casino. After 4 years of convincing, Blanc agreed.
In 1863, while the casino was still in operation, a new site for the casino was found and ground was broken on the site. Blanc used his resources to raise 15 million francs ($163 million by today’s standard in US dollars). Among the investors were the Bishop of Monaco and the future Pope Leo XIII.
Blanc was the largest shareholder and negotiated a 50-year license from the Grimaldis. The casino name was changed to make it sound more pleasing to prospective visitors. The name chosen was Monte Carlo after Prince Charles.
The years 1878-1880 would see a massive expansion of the casino. At first, a concert hall on the side of the casino was added. Then private gaming rooms and public spaces were created. These were created near the Hôtel de Paris Monte-Carlo and the Café de Paris were located to tie in food and lodging into the casino. Finally, the Trente-et-Quarante Gaming Room was added to the east side of the existing Moorish Room.
In later years, the Trente-et-Quarante Gaming Room would be remodeled and renamed the Salle des Américains.
As the 19th century closed, the casino was remodeled once again, this time it was the Salle Garnier. This was the performance hall in the facility. The hall was remodeled to accommodate opera and ballet performances.
Through all the remodels, the casino has maintained a Beaux Arts style. The Beaux Arts style includes a combination of both French and Baroque styles (which is appropriate seeing that Monaco borders both France and Italy). Among the features of the style are:
- A flat roof
- A first story that stands out from the higher stories of the building
- Grand entrances and staircases
- Arched windows and doors
- Statues, sculptures, murals, and other artwork is woven into both the outside and inside of the building
- Ornate decorations on the facade, staircases, and balconies including pillars, wreathes, and geometric designs
Among the interesting stories that have come out of the casino is that of Joseph Jagger. After having some financial issues in his home country of England, Jagger with his son and nephew traveled to Monte Carlo.
He borrowed money from family members to try and seek new opportunities in Europe.
Jagger spent a lot of time in the Casino de Monte Carlo. He took a particular interest in roulette. He noticed that some numbers would come up more often than others.
With his textile background, he understood that (at the time) that no wheel could be perfectly balanced. He and his family studied the wheels for weeks. They wrote down the numbers from each spin to find out which numbers came up most often.
He then put his plan into action and started placing bets. In 2 days’ time, he had won over 2 million francs. In today’s money that’s the equivalent of US$9.5 million.
When he went to cash in, the money owed to him was more than the casino had on hand. Thus the term “breaking the bank” was coined.
After this incident, roulette manufacturers built wheels with movable partitions so that the numbers could be moved to different positions on the wheel, preventing anyone from duplicating Jagger’s methods.
In 1921, the casino gardens hosted the first Women’s Olympics.
Today the 108,000 square foot casino floor has over 1,000 slot machines, dozens of video poker machines, and 56 table games.
Among the table games you can play at the Casino de Monte Carlo are:
- Ultimate Texas Hold ‘Em
- Electronic Blackjack
- European Roulette
- American Roulette
- Punto Banco
- Trente et Quarante
The casino houses a total of 5 restaurants and bars. These are located conveniently around the building. The restaurants and bars are:
- Le Salon Rose
- Le Train Bleu
- Café de la Rotonde
- Lounge Bar Salle Europe
- Le Bar Salle Blanche
4- Kurhaus of Baden-Baden
Much like its neighbor the Casino Wiesbaden, the Kurhaus of Baden-Baden was built of the reputation of the thermal springs in the area.
Construction on the original portion of the building was completed in 1824. Friedrich Weinbrenner, a designer and the city planner for Baden-Baden designed the building in the classical style and created it to fit in with other buildings he designed in the city including the Stadtkirche (Protestant church in the city), the City Hall, and the road that led to the prince’s palace. His type of classical architecture became known as the Weinbrenner Style.
The casino and Kurhaus started gaining popularity in the 1830s. This was due to laws that went into effect in France outlawing gambling. Because of this, French gamblers crossed the border into Germany and would patronize the casino in Baden-Baden as well as other areas close to the border.
Among the famous patrons of the casino were Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich would state that the Kurhaus of Baden-Baden was “the most beautiful casino in the world”.
The casino continued to flourish until the First World War Because of the politics of the war and the changes that took place in Europe, tourism slumped. It made some recovery after the war, but the advent of World War II would put a huge strain on the casino and would take several years to recover.
Some notable events that took place in the Kurhaus of Baden-Baden include:
1925 – From April 16 to May 14, the International Chess Master Tournament took place at the Kurhaus. This was a tournament held over many sites and each site was a “step” in the tournament. Baden-Baden was the 20th step in that year’s tournament.
1981 – In September, the 11th Olympic Congress and the 84th session of the International Olympic Committee took place at the Kurhaus of Baden-Baden. The site was chosen because the IOC was looking to expand the input of participating countries. During the meeting, the committee selected the sites for the 1988 Winter and Summer Olympics. Calgary, Alberta, Canada won the bid for the Winter Olympics and Seoul, South Korea won the bid for the Summer Olympics. The meeting would encompass nearly 150 countries and 26 international sports federations.
2009 – On April 3, 2009, the Kurhaus of Baden-Baden hosted an event for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It was the first official event of the 2009 Strasbourg-Kehl summit. The event consisted of 28 leaders of NATO countries. It was one of the first such events that was webcast live, which allowed the classic features of the casino to be seen live, around the world.
Currently, the casino features a 2,200 square foot gaming floor with 150 slot machines, 20 gaming tables, and a poker room.
Games in the casino include:
- Video Poker
- Electronic Keno
- Electronic Roulette
- American Roulette
- Electronic Bingo
- French Roulette
The Kurhaus of Baden-Baden features a restaurant called The Grille and a bar called the Bernstein Club.
5- Casino de Spa
The Casino de Spa bills itself as the world’s oldest casino. And that may be technically true as Casinò di Venezia was technically a gambling house originally.
The casino opened in 1763 and is known as the Casino de Spa because it is in the city of Spa, Belgium. The city is aptly named due to the cold springs in the city.
The casino was constructed at the behest of the city government to encourage the rich and nobility to come to the area.
The casino thrived until the Liege revolution of 1789. When this happened, laws banning gaming and several fires related to the revolution occurred. Even though these events occurred, the business continued.
During World War I, the casino experienced a fire which destroyed most of the structure. The city rebuilt on the same site and a decade later, the casino reopened.
In the early 1980s, the casino went through a complete renovation to restore it to new condition.
In 2003 the casino was sold to the Belgian Circus.
The casino has over 100 slot machines, 9 gaming tables, and 2 poker tables. The casino features:
- Caribbean Stud Poker
- Sic Bo
- Casino Hold ‘Em Poker
- Dice Jack
- Electronic Roulette
- No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em
The casino has a restaurant that had recently been refurbished called La Brasserie du Casino as well as having several restaurants within a block of the casino. Entertainment options such as a theater, ballroom, and a cultural center are all just around the corner from the casino.
While mentions of gambling houses date back a few thousand years, none have survived that long. The oldest around today is only 400 years old.
But the fact that they were mentioned 2 millennia or more ago in writings show that the human race has always had a desire to gamble and be social.
And the casinos that have lasted over the last few centuries have been a template for today’s casino resorts. Places where people can stay the night, gamble, catch an entertaining show, enjoy a spa or bath, and take advantage of the city’s attractions. This is exactly what casinos like Casino Wiesbaden and Kurhaus Baden-Baden did 2 centuries ago and that’s what modern casinos like the Bellagio or the MGM do now. They create a one-stop shop for all the patrons.
I wonder if in 500 hundred years we will be looking at some Las Vegas or Macau casino as the oldest in the world. It could be possible.