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High Rollers of History

February 1, 2019

History shows us that gambling has been an exciting pastime for all walks of life: rulers, scientists, artists, authors and more—each living a different experience but sharing an appreciation for games of chance.

Here are a few historical figures—from ancient Roman Emperors to modern-day philanthropists—who you may be surprised to learn have a famous connection to gambling:

Roman Rollers

Ancient Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, imparted us with a classic quote that showed his love for dice. According to Roman Historian Suetonis, as Caesar led his legion across the Rubicon towards Rome for his most famous battle, he declared“Alea jacta est,” meaning “The die is cast,” making clear to his troops that there would be no turning back. Ironically, “crossing the Rubicon” has since become a more common metaphor for passing a point of no return, overshadowing Caesar’s original quote.

Ruling the Roman Empire for over a decade, Emperor Claudius was also famed for his love of games. While he did much to expand the popularity of public entertainment like races, his personal game of choice was dice. In fact, Claudius was such an avid gamer that he commissioned a custom carriage, to make it easy to play games on long journeys. In response, Suetonius satirically surmised that Claudius was cursed to spend his afterlife to forever rolling his cherished dice, in a box with no bottom.

Betting Brits

John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, loved to play cards. So much in fact, that to him, taking a break to eat seemed like an unbearable chore. Tired of putting his games on hold, the Earl asked his servants to bring him meat between two slices of bread so that he could eat while playing, and still keep his hands clean. His friends thought this was a great idea and started asking for “the same as sandwich!” Over 250 years later, the Earl’s invention still lives on to this day. And while we’ll happily take the Earl’s advice on what to eat, we’re less inclined to take his advice on how to play(it’s always a good idea to take breaks between games—especially if you’re hungry!).

Henry the VIII was famous for his wives but might have had his greatest love in gambling. Among his favourites were “tables,” an ancestor of backgammon, and “bragg,” a three-card version of what would eventually become poker. Hemay have led the way in card games, but Henry is no example to follow when it comes to playing smart: he once bet the bells of St. Paul’s Cathedral on a roll of the dice!

Authors and Artists

Acclaimed author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, loved to frequent casinos from Moscow to Monaco. His novel The Gambler, is one of the most extensive writings of life from the lens of a gambler. This cautionary tale tells the risks of playing without the knowledge and awareness of how to keep gambling fun.

In 1891, an artist named Claude Monet won the equivalent of nearly $15,000 in a French Lottery, giving him the freedom to wander the French countryside. Years later, art lovers world-wide would stare in awe at his famous “Water Lilies” series; approximately 250 beautiful works of art that might not have been created, were it not for the revered Impressionist’s unpredictable luck.

The Wild West

When we picture the Wild West, it’s hard not to imagine saloons, riverboats, and the gamblers that frequented them. Games of chance were simply a part of life in the Wild West, with gambling halls forming the centre of communities—serving as places where locals could fetch their mail, get a hair cut, and even vote (in addition to gambling). So, it’s not surprising that some of the most iconic high rollers come from this place and time.

“Wild Bill” Hickock, the most famous gambler of the West, was murdered playing his favourite game. Hickock played poker at every given opportunity, eventually becoming known as one of the most skilled poker players in America. The last hand he held before his assassination was a pair of black aces and eights—a combination we now know fittingly as “The Dead Man’s Hand”.

“Doc” Holliday, known for the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, practiced as a dentist before he discovered his skills at the poker table were more profitable. He eventually worked at casinos  as a Faro dealer, a French card game popular in the 19th century, because of its fast-paced style and relatively high odds of winning. Holliday often travelled accompanied by his close friend and O.K. Corral companion, Wyatt Earp—another famous gambler of the old American West.

The Real Queen of Cards

Annie Duke helped prove to the world that high stakes gambling is not just for men. As a University of Pennsylvania-educated psychologist, she used her incredible intellect to excel as a professional poker player.  Duke is respected for her level-headed and almost academic approach to playing, and for her philanthropic works with actor Don Cheadle. In 2006, she helped host the Ante Up for Africa tournament to raise funds and awareness for charities working throughout Africa. Using her love for poker to champion a successful charity—especially in a male-dominant environment—makes Annie Duke a true Queen of Cards.

These are only a few examples of famous gamblers from our past—each playing the games they loved most. The fun these figures enjoyed is still available today, but with all new games of chance, and ever-evolving versions of old favourites.

Want to see which of today’s games best suits you? Take our quiz.