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Turning the Tables - Section I: The French Connection

First, we’re going to give you a bit of a history lesson. Yes, we realize you’re probably yawning in pre-emptive boredom, and frankly, we’d spare you if we could. But the fact is, understanding roulette’s long history—longer than even the ‘ole U.S. of A.’s—will help you choose the best wheel for your betting strategy. This is because not all wheels are created equal. And the story of how this came about begins nearly 300 years ago in France:

Before the 18th century, there were plenty of wagers for folks to lose their hard earned dinero on. But, if you dig even a little, you’ll find the English games Roly-Poly, Ace of Hearts and E.O. and the Italian games Hoca and Biribi headed the shortlist of Europe’s most popular pastimes. What happened sometime after 1700 is, a few anonymous French aficionados decided to merge these five favorites into one super game that included a ball, a betting layout and a spinning wheelhead (or rotating centerpiece). For lack of a better name, they called it “roulette” (meaning “little wheel”), and the coinage stuck.

By the time the French Revolution rolled around, roulette had basically taken on its modern form. We know this because French writer Jacques Lablee was so inspired by the game that he penned a whole novel about it, “La Roulette ou le Jour,” in 1796. In the book, he describes the game as having “exactly two slots reserved for the bank, whence it derives its sole mathematical advantage.” This type of wheel, we now know, would eventually become the standard Double-Zero wheel we have in America. The layout, however, was still a little different, essentially being the precursor to the modern French Roulette board.

As for how these two components ended up on opposite sides of the Atlantic, it began nearly 50 years later when French speculators François and Louis Blanc realized more people would play roulette if it had better odds. Until that time, folks had been playing on the same wheel described in Lablee’s novel, which gave the house a 5.26 percent advantage. This percentage edge had slowly but surely undercut roulette’s popularity because the new Industrial-era middle class was smart enough to recognize bad odds when it saw them. So when the Blancs opened a new casino in Homburg, Germany in 1843, they reinvented the wheel so it had only one zero and stocked their gaming floor with it. Doing so cut the house advantage in half to a mere 2.7 percent, but the two entrepreneurs weren’t perturbed. Their newfangled form of roulette was drawing people in droves and quickly becoming en vogue for every casino looking to stay afloat. Naturally, this left Double-Zero wheel manufacturers with a surplus of unwanted product. And where better to ship it to, they reasoned, than that backwater known as America.

No doubt, American gamblers couldn’t have asked for a luckier instance of European snobbery. While everyone else had been sweating the Double-Zero wheel’s 5.26-percent advantage, they'd had to deal with an even nuttier form of the game that included three house pockets: a zero, a double zero and an eagle symbol. While super patriotic, this version gave the house a 12.9-percent advantage over the player, making it little more than a torture device. So when the runoff of the Blanc’s roulette coup d’état reached the French-Creole wharfs of New Orleans, the new wheels spread like bayou-born malaria. Soon every gambling joint and speakeasy from Boston to San Francisco had one. And while houses were still gaffing them to hell and back, at least American players were winning sometimes.

American Roulette—as Double-Zero Roulette came to be called—reached its finished form with a few additional betting options and a layout dubbed entirely in English. French Roulette, meanwhile, went through some minor changes to perfect its number sequence. Today’s wheels maintain these historical distinctions, and if you play in Monte Carlo, you'll necessarily have better odds than if you play in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. But since we expect you, as novice roulette aces, not to take even our word at face value, we’ve packed the next several sections with every detail you’ll need to distinguish between these two variants.

Read Section II: What're the Odds?

- Phill Provance


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