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A New Deal: Bruges Burghers and Venetian Merchants Invent Mercantile Gambling
By David G. Schwartz
XIV International Economic History Congress (2006)
Introduction: Today, professional gambling — lotteries, bingo, race and sports betting, and casinos — take in over $1 trillion worldwide each year. Though gambling is as old as humanity, until the 15th century social gambling — games played among peers at equal odds — predominated. But around that time, paralleling the emergence of banks and modern finance, a new type of gambling emerged: mercantile gambling. Mercantile gamblers offered their customers games that featured a built-in discrepancy between true odds and payouts — a statistical imbalance that favored the house. These mercantile games (also known as bank games) started with the lottery but soon grew to include card and dice games. The pioneers of mercantile gambling unleashed a two-fold revolution: they made possible the pursuit of gambling as an honest profession, and they set the stage for public interest gambling, in which a portion of gambling revenues are redirected towards the public good. With the increasing growth — and government reliance on — gambling revenues, it is a particularly apt time to rediscover the origins of mercantile gambling.