The Shadowy History and Origins of Russian Roulette

Russian Roulette image
Russian Roulette. Image Credit: Shutterstock

There isn’t a single game that is more dangerous and deadly to play in the entire history of gambling than Russian Roulette, where the players literally gamble with their lives.

Imagine loading a gun with a single bullet, spinning the chamber, placing the barrel of that very same gun against your temple, and pulling the trigger.  For most of us, this might sound like sheer madness.  Although in Russia, where this extreme form of gambling first emerged, it was seen as a macho way of squaring off with an adversary.

The Origins of Russian Roulette

We’ve all heard of French, European, and American roulettes. Each version has its specific risks and rewards. But everyone knows the diciest little wheel of all is the one rotating in the middle of a revolver.

While nobody knows the actual origin of Russian roulette, some say it was first used by callous guards in Russian prisons during the 19th century. Guards would force convicts to play Russian roulette with one other, and, sadistically, they would place bets on the outcome of such duels.

The game’s name is not solely linked to the fact that it was first ‘played’ in Russia. The revolving motion of the chamber and the single bullet mimic the wheel rotation and a ball used in casino roulette.

Mainstream Versions of Russian Roulette

There are two basic versions of Russian roulette: beginner and hardcore.

In the beginner version, a single bullet is loaded into a chamber of a revolver. The remaining compartments are left empty, which means there’s a one in six chance of blowing your brains out with each pull of the trigger. The punters would spin the chamber, place the gun to their temples, and pull the trigger.

If there is a click without the bang, the gun is passed to the next player, who spins it again.  The spinning of the chamber affords each punter an equal chance during each round. Hypothetically, the game could go on indefinitely, although it seldom does.

There is no spinning between the rounds in the hardcore version, and somebody is sure to die within six pulls of the trigger. Moreover, the likelihood of death increases with each round.

Alternative Versions of Russian Roulette

Just as the French roulette evolved over time, so too did the Russian one. If you think the no-spin style of Russian roulette is hardcore, think again. In the 1990s, the Chechen insurgents came up with their own version of the game during the Chechen Civil War in Russia, known as the Chechen, or Caucasian, roulette.

The Chechens didn’t waste time playing with one bullet.  Instead, they competed with only a single empty chamber by forcing their prisoners of war to play the game. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for one to lose a game of Chechen roulette.

Ultimately, whatever version is played, somebody always dies. Equipment-wise, a revolver is used exclusively in Russian roulette because the spinning chamber is the only way you can get odds in the game. If somebody placed an automatic pistol to their head, they would be playing a version for dimwits known as idiot roulette and would automatically qualify for a Darwin Award!

Russian Roulette Drinking Game

The Russian roulette drinking game emerged on the back of a dark sense of humour and irony. No guns are used in the game, and the only thing Russian are the vodka shots.

A non-player fills five shot glasses with water and one shot glass with vodka. Players gather around a table, and each one chooses a shot glass in turn. The loser is the player who gets the shot of vodka.

Another similar drinking game is Beer Hunter. Named after the film The Deer Hunter, Beer Hunter is a Russian Roulette-style drinking game that uses beer instead of vodka. To begin, a six-pack of beers is split between the players. However, one of the cans is vigorously shaken beforehand, after which the cans are rearranged to conceal the shaken one.

Following this, everyone grabs a can and opens it under their nose, with the one who picked the shaken beer getting a real schnozzle full. The remaining players get to drink their beers and chuckle at the soggy loser.

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