Why Do Roulette Wheels Have Compasses?

It’s funny how small details can escape even the most cunning gambler’s attention!

For devoted Roulette aficionados, it’s not at all uncommon to bring top-quality attention to the finer aspects of gaming.

After all, it’s not only that a lapse in attention at the wrong moment can result in big losses… or, just as crushing, in missing out on the opportunity for a massive win! It’s also that making sure that you play at the right casinos, as well as the right tables (keeping in mind that small differences in payouts, table rules, and bonus lists can have massive consequences over the long term) is essential to roulette success!

Yet somehow, with this fierce attention to detail, sometimes more obvious elements of the game can go virtually unnoticed.

For example… have you ever wondered why so many roulette wheels have compasses on them?

I mean, really, what’s the deal here? It’s not as if gamblers are lost in the desert, trying to find their way back to civilization! In an industry where interest in efficiency and cutting out unnecessary expenses can border on the fanatical, why go to the trouble of installing a totally unrelated device on the wheel itself?

As it happens, the answer to this question invokes some of the wildest origin stories in the history of the game itself!

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Your Cheating Heart

your-cheating-heartIt’s no secret that regulation is a hot topic in the modern online gambling industry. In today’s globalized market, the question of where and how one can safely play – while standing firmly within the legal guidelines of local laws and making sure that your lobby of choice is reputable) – is of great interest to every fan of casino action.

The funny truth, though, is that keeping the action on the up and up has been a matter of tremendous concern throughout the history of Roulette!

The house has always worried about players trying to cheat them.

And with some of the wild schemes out there, it’s hard to hold that against them! Since the very beginning of the game, in the late 18th century, unscrupulous gamers have been trying to gain an unfair advantage, by any means necessary.

What’s more, though, players have also been concerned about the house honoring their own rules!

Remember that the modern model of casino gambling, where the world’s top casinos are owned and operated by massive, multi-national corporations, is a massive aberration. The rise of international wagering capitals like Las Vegas and Macau has historically been tied to some very unseemly characters, organized crime, and other extralegal operators.

One of the most famous films of all time, Casablanca, even features a scene where Humphrey Bogart, playing a gentleman named Rick who operates a small establishment, seemingly effortlessly conspires with his croupier to ensure a win for a customer in deep need. The scene is treated as a way to show Rick’s outstanding character…

… yet no one ever bothers to ask just how he manipulated the outcome of his own Roulette table!

The reason? It was commonly assumed that operators had ways to control their own tables – in other words, to cheat – when it suited their interests.

Obviously, this would discourage potential players from trying their luck.

Why bother placing big bets if the house can just decide to separate you from your bankroll whenever they choose?

As such, it made good business sense for both the house and players to encourage transparency at the tables.

How do to this in the days before Random Number Generators and outside auditors, however?

That’s where the magnet came in.

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Animal Magnetism

animal-magnetismAs history shows, there are no limits to the ways people can try to defraud each-other of funds on the gaming floor.

However, one possible, relatively low-tech way to cheat at Roulette would be to use magnets and/or altered balls to influence the winning number(s).

(For those readers (and certain writers) who didn’t pay attention in high school science class, compasses detect the Earth’s natural magnetic fields – that’s why the needle on a compass always points towards magnetic North.)

As such, if a magnet were to be used near a compass, the needle would immediately move. By watching the compass, both players and floor managers can be sure that no undue magnetism is being deployed at the tables.

Now, this might seem like a silly gesture. After all, a compass won’t stop players from attempting to cheat by grabbing chips, collaborating with dealers, or any other plots or schemes… to say nothing of semi-legal means of gaining an advantage over the house, such as edge sorting, counting cards, or secretly working in teams.

Likewise, if the house were determined to cheat at its own game, surely it could install a faulty compass as well!

There’s a (rather strong) case to be made that in the era of the eye-in-the-sky and large corporate casinos, it’s pointless for either party to spend their energy cheating the other. After all, why would the house cheat, when they will always win over time without any underhanded dealings?

Nonetheless, the presence of the compass has a kind of ceremonial value.

Like raising glasses for a toast, where simultaneous drinking was originally intended to show that no poison was present, or a handshake, where both parties could demonstrate that they were unarmed, the presence of the compass acts as a kind of statement of mutual good faith: it suggests that no cheating will be present at this particular table, on either side.

It’s a signal that the game is a clean one.

Even if it’s outmoded, even if it’s technologically centuries (!) behind, there’s still something classy and strangely beautiful about it.

So the next time you see a compass on a Roulette table, know that the Boy Scouts of America aren’t intending to take that particular game on a hike anytime soon!

Rather, there is a kind of care and elegance to the gesture… even if it’s purely ceremonial.