Russian Roulette History, Origins and Stories

The nature of maximizing equity over probability space is a fundamental skill that gamblers take years to master. But what about when the risk is no longer about money. The Russian roulette history is dark and gruesome. It is a game that originated amongst soldiers in the 20th century, and involves the risk of a fatal gunshot wound to the head should the chamber containing the bullet be active when the hammer strikes. Throughout this article we’ll get into the dark details of this game and see how it remains an urban legend. We’ll also discuss some folk-tales that revolve around famous games of Russian roulette.
A woman holding a gun to her head.
Published on: 20 October 2019

When Did Russian Roulette First Emerge?

The game of Russian roulette has origins in the mid-nineteenth century. This was a time when the revolver handgun was first invented and went into heavy production. Russia at this time remained a relatively cut-off corner of the world, and the first evidence we have of the lethal game being played is from the letters of early adventurers describing this deadly game of chance. During the early 20th century Russia entered a period of civil war – according to the Swiss writer and adventurer Georges Schulz – Tsarist officers were known to randomly pull out their pistol, remove all but one cartridge, then spin the cylinder and pull the trigger with the barrel pressed against the side of the head.

If you’re not in the mood to put your life on the line but want to enjoy the much safer and legal version – check out online roulette games we have reviewed. If you are worried about risking your money on the game, you can also check out our beginners’ guide to roulette rules, or our roulette strategy tips.

The early days of Russian roulette were played by just removing one cartridge from the cylinder. Obviously this does not give a very good chance of survival, around 83.5% chance of blowing your brains out in fact. The game was altered as it spread through contemporary Europe. A lower chance of death means increased playing time for the daredevils and lunatics brave or crazy enough to even participate, thus giving more excitement. The “safer” version is what remained, and eventually gripped American popular culture, popping up in fictionally literature, Hollywood movies and music immediately after the Second World War.

A gun pointing at the viewer, next to a white lily.

Notable Appearances of Russian Roulette in Pop Culture

Once the American public became aware of the brutality of the Second World War, pitching a dark folklore tale around the game of Russian Roulette became a lot easier. In those days people were hungry for a good tale, a bit of excitement, and the seeming craziness and sinister nature of this game enticed people in the early days. Film directors and producers were smart enough to latch onto this sentiment and quickly set to work dramatizing and bringing this undiscovered concept to the big screen. With the game becoming an integral part of American popular culture, it has been portrayed across a variety of mediums. From art-works, cartoons, poetry, literature and music the game began being referenced: but the most significant impact was in Hollywood on the big screen, below are some worthy titles featuring Russian Roulette.

  • Smiles of a Summer Night (1955)
  • Mirage (1965)
  • El Topo (1970)
  • The Street Fighter (1974)
  • The Deer Hunter (1978)
  • Malcolm X (1992)
  • Leon: The Professional (1994)
  • One Eight Seven (1997)
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005)
  • The Art of Negative Thinking (2006)
  • American Pie Presents: Beta House (2007)
  • Irrational Man (2015)

Whether it be sinister, comedic or factual depictions of the lethal game, Russian roulette history is deeply rooted in the plot lines of all the above movies. The game plays on the compulsive gambling urges that many punters will know all too well. The only difference is the opportunity cost of this game is your life. This fascination with the risk involved has claimed the lives of many, and the true death toll attributed to Russian roulette may never be fully known. In the following section, we’ll talk about the well-known incidents that resulted in Russian roulette ending in fatality.

A roulette wheel, with the white ball landing in a pocket labelled not with a number but with a skull.

Notable Fatalities in Russian Roulette History

Russian Roulette has sadly claimed the lives of several public figures over the past century. Although it is sometimes difficult to attribute the death as Russian Roulette or suicide, there have been some high-profile deaths unequivocally determined to be from bad luck in a game of Russian Roulette. It is estimated that there have been around 2200 deaths in America alone from Russian Roulette in the last 80 years. There are also isolated occurrences in the UK, like the story of a teenager who died playing the game in 2018. Below, we discuss some of the more well-known incidents.

Ana Julia Lima Clemente

One of the most recent incidents in the public is the death of Brazilian teenager Ana Julia Lima Clemente, 15. In 2007 the young girl was tragically killed by playing Russian roulette with her uncles .38 revolver. According to her friend and eyewitness, Clemente held the gun to her head and pulled the trigger twice, before fatally shooting herself on the third attempt.

Terry Kath

The founding member and lead guitarist of the rock-band Chicago tragically died in 1978 whilst fooling around with guns at a party. The Rockstar apparently picked up an unloaded revolver, put it to his head and pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. Then trying to replicate the trick with a semi-automatic pistol that turned out to have a live round in the chamber, he died instantly. Kath’s last words to his wife were “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.”

Ivan Cole

Successful MMA fighter Ivan Cole died in 2016 reportedly playing Russian roulette. The fighter was found dead in his Dallas apartment by police in a scene that appeared he was playing Russian roulette. The fighter left behind his wife and a four-year-old daughter.

Final Thoughts

Russian roulette is clearly a game that shouldn’t be played by anyone. It stems from deep pain and disregard for the longevity of life and we obviously deplore anyone glamourizing this sickening act. Nonetheless, public attention has romanticized the act for several decades, and it remains an area of fascination amongst historians and popular culture critics. There have been many insane gambles throughout history beside the deadly game of Russian roulette – discover here the craziest bets made by gamblers.

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