When Betting What Does the Minus Mean?

Many a gambler has heard the expression ‘playing with house odds’. Nowadays, the phrase has passed into everyday usage, denoting a bet where the house advantage, or edge, is factored into the wagers. But did you know that in some parts of the world, the opposite is the case? There, a ‘plus’ rather than a ‘minus’ is used to represent the house edge! Let’s explore the history of this unlikely linguistic quirk, and how it all squares with commonwealth vs. colonial rumbles in Asia.

House Advantage Meant ‘Plus’ In the Days of the Panda[Blog article]:

House Advantage Meant ‘Plus’ In the Days of the Panda

If you’re a fan of Asian history, you may know that the region was once home to some of the greatest gamblers the world has ever seen. They were credited with inventing many of the rules we use in modern gaming, including the concept of playing with ‘house odds’ (which means ‘plus’ in some Asian tongues). Of course, the downfall of the Chinese empire saw the end of this glorious era of gambling, but it didn’t take long for people to start bettingting again, this time using the tools of mathematics to devise systems that could beat the house. One of the greatest mathematicians of the ancient world was Zhang Yi, who lived from AD 80 to 140. He is best remembered for devising the first system of conjoining moves, which is considered a milestone in the history of both gambling and strategy. The rules of Chinese Casino Chess are largely credited to him. Zhang Yi is also famous for formulating a rule that determined the outcome of a game by the order in which the moves were made.

In modern times, the concept of playing with house odds has made its way back into mainstream popular culture. The 2009 movie, House of Gucci, is based on the real-life exploits of the famous designer, Gucci. The film centers on a group of college students who set up a scavenger hunt for a fashion competition, with a $10,000 prize at stake. They are joined by two brothers, George and Francis Gucci, played by actors Ben Affleck and Robert Redford, who are the sons of the designer. The boys become obsessed with perfecting a strategy to beat the house, and the film explores their quest, as well as that of the other participants in the hunt, for mathematical supremacy. The students learn that in the days of the Panda, a ‘minus’ was used to represent the house edge and a ‘plus’ was the player’s edge.

Gambling In China During The Period Of The Panda

During the height of the Chinese empire, from the third to the tenth centuries AD, the country was one of the greatest economic powers in the world. They produced exquisite works of art and literature, and exported goods from the far reaches of the empire. But the economic prosperity that defined the era came with a dark side: Gambling became a way of life for the wealthy, and the practice was even considered fashionable. The first written reference to gambling in China comes from the Buddhist monk, Lu Kun (AD 847-901), who, in his diary, records losing a bet to the Shah of Khorasan, Abu al-Qasim al-Saffah (AD 866-928). The monk laments that he is “deprived of all things” and “condemned to idleness” because of his addiction to gambling, which he blames on his overly active lifestyle. It wasn’t just monks who were plagued by gambling addiction during this time. Even the emperors got in on the act, as recorded in the Book of Games of the scholar, Guo Taiji (1260-1327), who wrote: “The courtiers at the palace and commoners in the village both lost their tempers and became reckless due to the passion for gaming.”

It is estimated that during this time, there were up to sixty thousand gaming establishments in China, catering to the rich and famous, as well as commoners seeking a cheap thrill. The games played at these venues were typically based on Chinese Chess and Go, with many varieties of dice being used. The stakes were usually high, with the biggest game having a prize cap of several million ounces of silver.

However, the golden era of Chinese gambling came to an end when the country was split into two separate empires: the northern Yuan and the southern Tang. The Yuan carried on much of the economic and cultural legacy of the old empire, while the Tang focused on planting rice paddies and building dams to harness the power of the Mekong and Yangtze rivers. In time, these regions would form the basis of the new China, with the Yuan eventually giving rise to the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the Tang to the modern day.

Rumble In The Colonial Era: ‘Minus’ For The British In The Far East

At the end of the eighteenth century, European powers started to encroach on Asian territories, establishing trading posts and small colonies in the region. One of the first to do so was the British, who set up home in China in AD 1793. The country became a vital part of the early European development of the ‘Silk Road’, an important trade route linking Europe to Asia through central Asia. This was the start of what is known as the ‘Colonial Era’, which lasted until the middle of the twentieth century.

It was in this context that the concept of playing with house odds changed. The British found gambling to be anathema to their new status as imperialists, seeing it as a symptom of their own decadence. They sought to stamp it out, along with many other ‘savage’ customs, in their effort to modernize and civilize the Chinese. They also tried to introduce a more mathematically-sound approach to gambling, replacing the use of lucky cats, dogs, and wooden spoons with roulette, dice, and cards. They even went so far as to change the names of certain Chinese games to make them easier to understand for Europeaners. So what happened to the concept of using ‘plus’ signs in the place of ‘minuses’ in China?

The British did introduce some changes to gambling in China, including the banning of certain games and practices, such as the use of a golden spoon in Portuguese card games, which the Chinese considered to be a lucky talisman. But because of their emphasis on numbers and rationality, they favored games of chance, such as roulette and dice, over games of skill, such as chess and Go. This is why the first example of a game with house odds that we encounter in the colony is a type of lottery, known as the Chinese ‘Picks and Shovels’. In this game, participants choose a team of five, with two players on each team. A handful of ‘Picks and Shovels’ tickets, each with a different combination of team names and player numbers, are placed on a podium. When the draw is made, the participants use their numbers to identify their teams. The team that is selected is based on the numbers drawn, and the match is over once the five players have placed their wagers. Since the odds are heavily in favor of the house, this is one game that the British sought to eradicate, as it was considered to be an insult to the intellect of the Chinese, who were considered to be the most intelligent people in the world. In time, this would lead to the downfall of the British Empire in Asia, as the nationalists revolted against their rule.

A Unique Linguistic Coincidence

“Minus”, as a term for the house edge, has existed in English since the early 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that it started being used in the context of playing with house odds. As with many other words and phrases that originated in China, the meaning was adopted by the English speaking world, and it continues to be used to this day. So, if you ever find yourself in an Asian gambling venue, be sure to ask for a game with ‘plus’ signs instead of ‘minuses’! You may find that the folks behind the counter aren’t used to dealing with questions about mathematics, however, you’ll most likely end up educating them anyway, creating a small lesson out of thin air.