Who would load a revolver with 1 bullet, spin the chamber, put the gun to their own head, and pull the trigger? Russians, apparently. In the most deadly gambling activity in the world, playing a round of Russian roulette is literally gambling with your life. File under ‘Don’t try this at home!’

The Origin of Russian Roulette

We’ve all heard of French roulette (they invented the casino’s ‘little wheel’), European roulette, and American roulette. Each version has its own unique risks and rewards. But everyone knows the riskiest little wheel of all is the one spinning around in the middle of a revolver.

While nobody knows the exact date and origin of Russian roulette, some say it was first used by sadistic guards in Russian prisons in the 19th century. They would force prisoners to play Russian roulette with each other. Naturally, they would place bets on the outcome.

There are 2 basic versions of Russian roulette: beginner and hard core. In the ‘beginner’ version, one bullet is loaded into a chamber of a 6-shooter, aka a revolver. The remaining chambers are empty, which means there’s a 1 in 6 chance of blowing one’s brains out with each pull of the trigger. The poor punters would spin the chamber, place the gun to the temple, and pull the trigger. If there is only a click and no BANG, the gun is passed to the next person, who spins it again.

In the hard core version, there is no spinning between rounds. Somebody is definitely going to die within 6 pulls of the trigger. The probability of death increases with every round. In the ‘easy’ version, spinning the chamber each time gives each punter an equal risk during each round. Technically, the game could go on indefinitely. But it usually doesn’t.

The game got its name not only because it was first ‘played’ in Russia. The spinning motion of the chamber and the single bullet were reminiscent of the rotating action and single ball used in casino roulette.

Other Versions of Russian Roulette

Just as the French roulette wheel underwent changes over time, resulting in different versions, so did Russian roulette. If you think the no-spin version of Russian roulette is hard core, think again. The Chechens came up with their own version during the Chechen Wars in Russia: Chechen roulette, aka Caucasian roulette.

Think of this version of the polar opposite of Russian roulette. The Chechens didn’t play with 1 bullet; they played with only 1 empty chamber. Chechen terrorists apparently forced their prisoners to play the game. Needless to say, it did not take very long to find a loser (or 5) in Chechen roulette.

Whatever version was played, somebody always died. But a revolver is the only type of pistol used in Russian roulette. The spinning chamber is the only way to get odds in the game. If somebody placed an automatic pistol like a .45 to their head, they would be playing the special version known as idiot roulette.

Other sudden death versions of Russian roulette: using machine guns or shotguns instead of a revolver. Players of these versions would receive a posthumous Darwin Award.

Russian Roulette in Pop Culture

Who would have thought Russian roulette would be such a pop culture hit? There are several songs with the name, and dozens of films and television shows featuring the deadly game. The movie with the most intense Russian roulette scene was also responsible for spreading the news (and characters’ brains): The Deer Hunter, the 1978 Vietnam War epic starring Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken, is famous for its Russian roulette prison scene.

Our heroes are held in a POW camp in the Vietnam jungle. When they were not being submerged in cages up to their necks in leech-infested water, the sadistic Vietcong guards sat them around a table at gunpoint and forced them to play Russian roulette. The VC gambled feverishly. After surviving a few rounds and watching his comrades die in the most graphic way, De Niro started losing his mind.

Then he announced with a big grin that he wanted 3 bullets! His captors were immediately excited by the new betting odds suggested by the crazy American, so they obliged him and loaded 3 bullets into the chamber. With a crazed grin, De Niro placed the pistol to his head – then quickly turned it on his 3 captors, shooting them all. Crazy like a fox!

Dozens of other films and TV shows feature the deadly game of Russian roulette. The high drama and tension of these scenes makes a lasting impression on viewers. Sadly, the wrong type of impression was made on some impressionable teen viewers. After The Deer Hunter film release, several cases of teens dying while playing Russian roulette popped up in the news.

Russian Roulette: the Drinking Game

The safest versions of Russian roulette don’t involve guns or bullets at all. The Russian roulette drinking game evolved from a dark sense of humor and irony. No guns were used, and the ‘Russian’ in this form of roulette is a vodka shot.

A non-player secretly fills 5 shot glasses with water and 1 shot glass with vodka. Players sit around a table and each choose a shot glass in turn. The ‘loser’ is the player who gets the vodka shot.

For some strange reason, drinking games are seen as punishment to some people. But in order to make the loser really feel the burn, the lowest quality vodka is used. And it is served room temperature.

Another drinking game really punishes the loser: Beer Hunter. Named after the movie The Deer Hunter, Beer Hunter is a version of Russian roulette-style drinking games – with beer instead of vodka. A 6-pack of beer is divided among players. One of the cans is vigorously shaken, and the cans are shuffled around to hide the shaken one.

Hilarity ensues. Everyone grabs a beer and opens it under their noses. The one with the shaken beer gets a real snoot full. The rest of the players get to drink their beers and laugh at the soggy loser.

Infamous Games of Russian Roulette

Malcolm X

The influential black activist Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography that he played an especially hard core version of Russian roulette when he was along for the ride on a burglary in his younger days. He placed a revolver to his head and fired 3 times to show his partners in crime that he was not afraid to die.

It was later revealed that Malcolm X palmed the round instead of loading it into the gun. Sadly, his fictional flirtation with guns was destined to come back to haunt him. He was shot and killed at age 39 while giving a speech.

Jon-Erik Hexum

On the set of a television show in 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum played a mock game of Russian roulette using only blanks. Thinking that blanks were harmless, he placed the .44 magnum gun to his gun and fired. The close-range flash and explosion from the blank cartridge drove shards of the actor’s skull into his brain. He died in the hospital from his tragic prank.

Graham Greene

Author Graham Greene revealed in his autobiography that he played Russian roulette alone as a teenager. While most of us are aware that writers often have tortured souls, most of them have the good sense to choose alcohol over guns.

John Hinckley, Jr.

The man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, John Hinckley, Jr., was known to have played Russian roulette alone as well. In 1980, the year before he shot (but did not kill) Reagan, he posed for a picture of himself with a gun to his head.

The Safest Type of Roulette: Playing Online

While you can still lose money playing roulette online, it’s much safer than the Russian variety for obvious reasons. Playing online roulette is done from the safety of your own home.

And if you really want a risk-free roulette session, play online roulette for free. However, the thrill and the rewards are much greater when there’s a little risk involved.


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Jean Carter is from Oakland, California and studied jewelry design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco, California. After graduation, and pining for a warmer climate, Jean relocated to the Tule Springs suburb of Las Vegas, where she owns and operates her own online jewelry boutique incorporating traditional native American styles with her own unique designs. A true fan of the sophistication and glamor of Las Vegas casino life, Jean is also a freelance blogger specializing in all things suave and fashionable surrounding the casino lifestyle.