As the oldest of all the current-day casino games, roulette boasts a rich history with plenty of folklore attached. From its accidental birth as a by-product of the search for perpetual motion, to the men who broke the bank at Monte Carlo, and its standing as a symbol of style and extravagance – the roulette story is loaded with tales, tradition and a few twists, too. Not least among these is the origins of its nickname, ‘the Devil’s Wheel’.
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Number of the Beast
So, why do people refer to roulette’s main apparatus as the Devil’s Wheel? Because all the numbers, from one to 36, add up to 666. This isn’t just an old wives’ tale – do the maths yourself, it checks out.
The figure 666 has for centuries been associated with the anti-Christ, due to its appearance in the Holy Bible. In Revelation 13, John describes a vision of two great beasts – a seven-headed monster that rises up from the sea, and a dragon-like demon that cracks through the earth. The passage ends with this little brain-teaser: “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six.”
Many biblical scholars believe the number 666 and at least one of the beasts represent Nero, Emperor of Rome, from 54 to 68 AD. Nero was said to have persecuted Christians severely during the latter part of his reign, and so he doesn’t get a great review in scripture (to put it mildly). The reason Nero in particular is singled out, though, is that when his Greek name (Nron Qsr) is translated into Hebrew, the total value of the letters adds up to exactly 666.
The creation of the roulette wheel was a serendipitous mistake on the part of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French physicist (better known for Pascal’s Triangle and the invention of the mechanical calculator, among many other achievements). Like many scientists before and since, Pascal tried (and failed) to unlock the secrets of perpetual motion – the idea that an object could move continuously and constantly without any external energy source. One of his experiments on the subject spawned what we now know as the roulette wheel. The great irony is that had Pascal’s perpetual motion machine worked, the game of roulette could not exist, as the wheel would spin endlessly and the ball would never come to rest.
Once he realised he could not achieve perpetual motion, Pascal toyed with his creation and saw its potential as an exercise in probability. Although the make-up of the roulette wheel would vary wildly in the decades after his death, it has been suggested that Pascal himself came up with the modern-day arrangement of pockets way back in the 1600s – the numbers one to 36, all adding up to 666.
The Brothers Blanc
In 1843, Francois and Louis Blanc revolutionised the game of roulette in an attempt to lure gamblers to their casino in Homburg, Germany. By getting rid of the traditional double-zero pocket and thus improving the player’s odds, they created the single-zero format used in European and French layouts to this very day. Francois would later take the game to Monaco upon gaining control of the Monte Carlo Casino, and the rest is history.
Legend has it that there was a dark secret behind the Blanc brothers’ success. The story goes that Francois was up late one night racking his brains over how to make his roulette games the best in all the land, when who should appear but Satan himself. The ruler of the damned knew Blanc’s plight and offered him a trade: his living soul in exchange for all the secrets of the Devil’s Wheel. It is said that Francois took the deal gleefully and thus bargained away his afterlife for the fleeting glamour of mortal prosperity.
Thank The Devil
The game of roulette, as we know it today, has a thoroughly intriguing history, and if not for Blaise Pascal and Francois and Louis Blanc, we may never have been privy to the iconic spinning wheel, and the rush we get when watching that white ball move. But let’s not forget to thank the devil either, for his numbers have given us a lifetime of entertainment.