Gambling and Gaming in the Holy Land: Chess, Dice and Other Games in the Sources of the Crusades

Gambling and Gaming in the Holy Land: Chess, Dice and Other Games in the Sources of the Crusades

By Elizabeth Lapina

Crusades, Vol.12 (2013)

medieval chess players

Abstract: Relying primarily on Latin chronicles, but also referring to other types of evidence such as archaeological finds or manuscript illuminations, the article examines representations of gambling in the Middle East, particularly in the Latin States, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gambling (defined here as playing dice, chess or other games with money or property changing hands as a result) transcended many boundaries, and the ranks of gamblers included both laymen and clerics; rich and poor; men and women; Muslims and Christians. The article demonstrates that, for the Latin chroniclers, the most serious problem of gambling in the context of the crusades was its tendency to distract from the war effort. Fondness for gambling also accompanied other – more serious – vices such as lust, which could equally detract from one’s ability to fulfill one’s military duties. As an “entry vice,”  gambling was hardly compatible with the perceived need of the crusaders as milites Christi to adhere to higher moral standards. As a result, there were attempts to impose limitations on gambling, in terms of who could play, which games, and when.

Introduction: Boredom during downtime is an experience familiar to soldiers throughout history. From early on, games of the type which, to quote a thirteenth-century Spanish manual of games, “are played while sitting” were one of the most common ways for combatants to fill free time. It is not by accident that, from Antiquity on, myths connected the invention of specific games with warfare. According to Sophocles, for instance, Palamedes invented dice during the siege of Troy. The propensity of soldiers to play games has survived till modern time, with recent news featuring video games being sent to coalition soldiers in Afghanistan.

The crusaders and settlers in the Latin States – most of whom, in common with inhabitants of any frontier society, had direct experience of military conflict – were no exception, and the sources contain a number of references to them playing games, which usually involved dice. In fact, tradition connected “hazard,” the most famous medieval game involving dice, directly to the crusades; according to the French translation of William of Tyre, it was invented by crusaders during the siege of a Syrian castle of the same name. Crusaders were also familiar with chess, although references to the game are less common than to dice. Archaeological evidence paints a picture somewhat different from the written sources: there is no trace of chess having been played, but thirteen game boards for Nine Men’s Morris (a strategy game related to tic-tac-toe) were found in various locations. In the Middle Ages, playing games – including chess – tended to imply property changing hands as a result of the outcome, which is the basic definition of gambling. Gaming and gambling on the crusades transcended a number of social boundaries: the ranks of players included the rich and the poor, clergy and laymen, men and women. The sources of the crusades also depict Muslims playing games, predominantly chess.

Click here to read this article from Elizabeth Lapina’s website

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