Editorial: History of betting


We've already covered the history of gambling, but many of our readers may wonder about the origins of specific gambling concepts like betting. War in itself could be considered the earliest and largest wager—entire kingdoms won or lost based on the smarter of two tactical calculations. Indeed, the oldest definition of gambling is not to wager money but to take a risk. The beginning of betting, then, also marks the beginning of modern money-based gambling. Betting in general dates back much farther than any of today's popular casino games. In the beginning, wherever there was a competition or sport, there was betting. In some cases, competitions were created for the sole purpose of giving royalty and other wealthy gamblers another opportunity to bet.

BettingUnlike the crazy proposition bets we hear so much about today, the first bets were placed on classic tests of skill and speed like cock fighting, Grecian wrestling and early horse racing. The first horse races weren't the sprints we see at racetracks today but were instead endurance races held in the Middle Eastern deserts. European royalty took note of these competitions and started acquiring some of their own desert-bred racing Arabians. These Arabians were crossed on existing European stock to create the most popular modern horse racing breed—Thoroughbreds. The races were shortened to keep the interest of fickle European crowds, and by the early 17th Century the first track races were being held, and subsequently the first track bets were being taken.

For centuries, most bets were simple matters—wagers made between friends and acquaintances. Texts from the Middle Ages have made mention of organized betting, but game historians have little to no concrete evidence of when bookmakers first came about. We know that the first gambling halls and casinos started to appear in Europe in the late 16th Century, and that taxed bets were offered at the tracks that were built in both Europe and America in the years that followed, but off-track betting wasn't legalized in Europe until 1961, making it hard to trace earlier betting shops.

Heathorn (now owned by Jennings Bet) was perhaps most famous for claiming to be the first British bookie, but William Hill has a documented history of gambling industry involvement dating back more than 70 years. Likewise, the legalization of gambling in Nevada in 1931 set the stage for a large number of betting opportunities. The first Las Vegas sportsbook is rumored to be the Stardust Casino which opened in 1958. With organized betting came organized betting crimes. Races and games were fixed, and dozens of respected athletes (most notably the 1919 “Black Sox”) were fined and even lost titles when their involvement in betting schemes was revealed. These days, most professional sports have a ban on bets made by athletes.

For a long time, betting shop options were pretty traditional, but William Hill became notorious for taking strange bets on everything from alien invasions to celebrity divorces to personal time of death. When bookmakers started to appear online in the late 1990s, the resulting boom in sports betting inspired bookies to look for new betting opportunities. Today, betting incorporates anything and everything. While classic sports like football, baseball, basketball, horse racing, car racing and boxing remain the most popular betting venues, some sportsbooks will offer odds on virtually anything with a variable outcome.