Gambling in Europe

by James Carter on February 19th 2015.

Gambling is a popular form of entertainment in countries across modern-day Europe. From the Casino de Monte-Carlo with its grand adjacent opera house and centuries of gaming history to the 200 year-old Baden-Baden Casino in Germany, Europe is home to some of the world’s best-known gambling venues.

It’s hard to lump together all of Europe’s diverse nations and customs. Europe proper is made up of fifty countries stretching from Russia in the East to Portugal in the West, and from Norway in the North to Malta in the South.

European citizens live within reach of a number of different gambling hotspots thanks to easily-accessible mass transit and inexpensive air travel. The French Riviera, particularly the city of Nice, is the traditional home of roulette. Italy’s island of Lido (and the area around Venice in general) is another haven for European gamblers – appropriate, since the world’s first “casino”, in the sense that we understand it, was built near Venice in the mid-17th Century. The UK is best-known as a hotbed of sports and race betting.

The History of Gambling in Europe

Though people native to modern-day Europe have been gambling for thousands of years, the first recognizable forms of wagering that happened on European soil involved simple dice contests. These games spread during the medieval period and became so popular that King Richard had to issue a royal order in the year 1190 to curtail his soldiers’ gambling.

Betting on cock fights became commonplace throughout the West over the next three hundred years, as did wagers on bird races and chess matches. In parts of the UK, particularly England, a modern-day obsession with sports and race bets has its roots in this aspect of 14th Century Euro culture.

While the English were finding new animal contests to place bets on, Continental Europeans were discovering and creating altogether new ways to gamble. Sets of playing cards, invented in the Far East, made their way through Russia and then Eastern Europe. These new tools of the trade caught on quickly, and dice games like Hazard waned in popularity in most of Europe. Dice remained somewhat more popular in France – the French love for a home-spun dice game called crapaud ensured a permanent place for dice in the casino world. You may know crapaud as “craps.”

Casino-style gambling, in forms recognized by today’s gamblers, didn’t begin in earnest until the late 18th Century, with some properties from those early days still open and operating. The Casino de Spa in Belgium opened for business in 1769 and is still operating, though obviously the games played today are quite different than those of the mid-18th Century.

Types of Gambling

As a melting pot of cultures from the East and the West, Europe is home to many different people from many different traditions. The coming together of so many divergent peoples is what led to the variety of games in any Vegas casino today – our canon of gambling contests was put together over time mostly by European cultures. In modern Europe, every type of gambling popular elsewhere in the world is available, though not all games are played (and not all are legal) across the continent. Here’s a breakdown of Europe’s favorite ways to wager.

Casino Gambling – European taste for gaming varies depending on what region and sometimes even what country a bettor finds himself in. In France, the birthplace of roulette, that game is still very much a highlight of any gaming floor. Bettors in Monte Carlo prefer their game Punto Banco over any of the other Continental imports. Chemin de fer is the game of choice for some in Central Europe. Game variety in Europe creates a much livelier atmosphere than in hotspots like Las Vegas, where most casinos offer the same games. Casino gambling isn’t legal in every European country, and laws sometimes depend on an even more complex municipal or regional code than national law. In parts of Europe where casino play is permitted, it is a major pastime.

Lotteries – The world’s first lotteries weren’t in Europe – they were in parts of Asia and the Arab world – but some countries in Europe latched onto this type of gambling more ferociously than in the lands where the game was born. The first European lotteries took place in the Middle Ages sometime during the 15th Century. Like in their land of origin, and every land that legalized lotto games afterwards, these early lottery drawings were designed as fundraisers for church or municipal projects, or in some cases to raise a standing army or fund a far-off war. Lottery games continue to be popular across Europe – some ten dozen different lottery game providers operate within Europe’s fifty countries, a testament to the widespread appeal of these simple wagers.

Sports & Race Betting – Since Europe is the traditional home of so many forms of gambling, it should be no surprise that it is also a traditional haven for sports and race betting as well. Some parts of Europe are absolutely mad for sportsbook and racebook action – the UK is the leading example. Great sport and race betting traditions can be found in nine European countries, each with their own distinct history. The nations of Poland, Great Britain, the Czech Republic, Belgium, France, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, and Holland all have plentiful race courses and a cultural heritage of gambling on races and sporting events.

Private Betting – No doubt social (sometimes called “private”) betting takes place in Europe as often as it does anywhere in the world – perhaps more often given the generally-liberal gambling regulations found in European countries. Visitors to Europe interested in participating in private poker tournaments or charity raffles using games of chance and skill can consult local law to determine if the game is operating legally. The law varies so much from one European destination to another, it is difficult to give an overall picture of the amount of private betting that goes on or the legality of those bets.

Internet Gambling – Much like private gambling, laws in Europe regarding online gambling vary so much that it is difficult to make any blanket statements. Most Europeans are allowed to place bets online, play in online poker rooms, or pull the virtual levers of Internet slots. We’ll discuss the legalities of online gaming in general a little further down.

European Gaming Laws

Compared to the United States, for example, European governments are generally more relaxed about gambling, from sports and horse race wagers to bets on casino table games and card tournaments. That doesn’t mean that every square mile of European land is a gambler’s paradise. Here are a couple of examples of European countries that do not allow some popular forms of gambling.

Germany, a country with many land-based casinos, is downright brutal when it comes to Internet betting. Twelve of Germany’s thirteen states have outlawed Internet-based games of chance (allowing Germans to play certain card games and place sports and race bets online), with the holdout state in a legal bind because of its decision to allow this type of gambling. It’s unusual for a country with otherwise loose gaming laws to crack down so hard on Web-based gambling.

Norway is another oddity in the world of Europe’s varied gambling laws. It’s a country that’s politically liberal but has very nearly outlawed all forms of betting. The government of Norway is now considering a total ban on Internet gambling, to go with their ban on casino-style gaming and sports betting. Norwegians are allowed to bet on races, but with just two race courses in the entire country, it’s not nearly as popular as in other parts of Europe.

Legal Online Gambling in Europe

Online gambling is another area in which it is difficult to generalize about the entire continent of Europe. Again, in general, European countries are more lenient when it comes to licensing and regulating legal online gaming than in Australia, the United States, or Canada. Essentially, the legality of online casino, poker, and sports betting in Europe comes in three categories.

Open – In many European countries, online gambling is legal provided the bettor is of a certain age (18-21 for the most part) and that the operator of the games has proper licensure and is regulated by a recognized licensing jurisdiction. This includes the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and most other Euro nations.

Geographically-restricted – In some parts of Europe, people can only place online bets through sites licensed and regulated by their own national authorities. Currently, Norway is an example, though online betting is so restricted there as to be non-existent. Another example is Portugal, where only sites explicitly licensed and regulated by Portuguese authorities are legal.

Illegal – The Netherlands is now the best example of a European nation that has outright banned online gaming in all forms. In the Netherlands, placing wagers on any game of chance or skill, whether it is a horse race, a football match, or the spin of a roulette wheel, is fully illegal.

Modern casino gambling was essentially born throughout Europe. In the West, the traditions of race and sports betting and even lottery tickets can be traced back through this diverse continent. Though the legal landscape in Europe is ever-changing, it can be said that in general this continent is among the friendliest to gamblers of all stripes of any part of the world.