Man's unending thirst for the jackpot, from primitive dice games in early antiquity to the current online poker craze.
Schwartz (Suburban Xanadu, 2003), a Las Vegas resident and gambling scholar, provides a study on gambling's deep-rooted place in history, and compelling proof that gambling comes as naturally to humankind as eating. He also demonstrates that gambling can come in many forms. In 2004, Hong Kong police arrested 115 people after breaking up an insect-fighting ring, seizing nearly 200 fighting crickets. In the Philippines, gamblers can go online to bet on cockfights. In Japan, bettors wager millions on bicycle races at any one of 50 bike tracks. Schwartz guides us through the origins of dice (originally cut from the knuckle bones of animals), playing cards (the modern 52-card deck can be traced to the Italian Renaissance) and the lottery (the first was held in 1444 in Flanders). There are fascinating tidbits on well-known historical figures and their forays into gambling. Galileo and Blaise Pascal made early studies of gambling probability. Voltaire outsmarted the 18th-century French lottery and won nine-million francs. Casanova helped institute the first Italian lottery and got rich operating a lottery sales office. Less lucky were Russian gamblers Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, the latter of whom, author of the brilliant short novel The Gambler, went broke repeatedly at the German gambling resort in Baden-Baden. Schwartz's tome bogs down when he insists on providing the playing rules for a score of obscure and long-defunct card and dice games, detours that aren't helped by the author's dry, textbook-like prose. Still, the history of gambling has more than enough color to keep readers satisfied, from the gambling saloons of the Wild West to the black-tie baccarat parlors of Monte Carlo to the unlikely evolution of the gilded Las Vegas “mega-casino.”
The thick historical detail may amount to overkill for the average reader, but it's a winning hand for the true student of gambling.