Russian Roulette: The Ultimate Game of Chance

In today’s world, the game of Russian roulette is generally considered to be a metaphor for taking crazy chances: a “game” in which one is almost guaranteed to eventually face disastrous results. But Russian roulette has a very real history, and has been played on numerous occasions throughout the world. Let’s take a look at just what this game is, where it comes from, and how it has played out in some rather notable real-life circumstances.

History of Russian Roulette

In classic Russian roulette, a group of people – or even one person – used a real revolver and a single round of ammunition. One player placed that single round into the cylinder, made it spin, snapped the cylinder into place, and then placed the revolver to their own head. That’s when they would take fate into their own hands by pulling the trigger and seeing what happened next. We can imagine this game probably seemed a lot more clever after drinking a few bottles of bathtub vodka back in  the day; it’s hard to imagine anyone sane and sober thinking this was a great idea.

Russian roulette
The game of Russian roulette is somewhat mythical in its aura, but has had some horrifying outcomes throughout history (Image: Nomad Capitalist)

The game of Russian roulette in its essence was obviously one of risk and pressing one’s luck. In a six-chamber revolver, one would have a one-in-six chance of firing off the bullet each time they pulled the trigger. If the cylinder was spun before every shot, those odds remained the same in every round; but if players were required to continue firing the revolver after every shot without respinning, then the odds of the chamber with the bullet coming up “improved” with every shot taken. Some gun experts also note that the odds could be affected somewhat by gravity: if the cylinder was allowed to stop spinning on its own, the bullet was more likely to land at the bottom of the cylinder due to the fact that the chamber with the bullet would have weighed more than the empty chambers.

How It All Began

Nobody knows for how long people have played games like Russian roulette, but it seems very likely that some variation could date back to far before the term itself came into usage. The term “Russian roulette” was first mentioned in a short story by Georges Surdez, a French-Swiss author of adventure stories. One of his tales – titled Russian Roulette – was run in Collier’s Illustrated Weekly in 1937. It described a game played by Russian officers (supposedly around 1917) in Romania where they would put a bullet in a revolver, spin the cylinder, snap it into place and take a shot to their own head.

The Deer Hunter Russian roulette Christopher Walken
Russian roulette entered mainstream consciousness with the 1978 film “The Deer Hunter”; here , the famous scene with Christopher Walken.

However, the term may have more expansively entered the popular consciousness in 1978 with the release of the film The Deer Hunter. In that movie, three captured soldiers during the Vietnam War are forced to play a game of Russian roulette while their captors bet on who will survive. The sequence was controversial – as there were absolutely no reported instances of POWs or anyone else being forced to play Russian roulette during the Vietnam War – but it was also powerful, with many prominent critics saying it was an excellent metaphor for the random and senseless violence often seen in times of war.

Russian Roulette in the Real World

By now, in movies and television shows over the years, Russian roulette has evolved into something of a cliché over the years. But what about in the real world? What kind of people would actually play Russian roulette, with its built-in chance of suicide?

After The Deer Hunter was released, there were a number of deaths that were attributed to individuals recreating the infamous Russian roulette scene from that movie. While it’s impossible to know how many – if any – of these deaths really had anything to do with the movie, it’s clear that at least some of the deaths were the result of Russian roulette-like games being played by individuals or groups.

Malcolm X Russian roulette
1960s civil rights activist Malcom X purportedly played Russian roulette, but put the odds in his favor by palming the bullet (Image: Malcolm X website)

Several famous figures have claimed that they played Russian roulette during their lives. English writer Graham Greene wrote in his first autobiography that he had played Russian roulette by himself on a few occasions as a teenager – an experience he obviously survived. African-American activist Malcolm X also wrote in his own autobiography about having played the game during his days as a criminal, as a way to show his partners that he was not afraid of death. However, Malcolm appears to have played the game with a very smart strategy in mind – according to writer Alex Haley, Malcolm told him that he palmed the bullet before firing the gun.

Magicians’ Attempts at the Game

Over the years, several magicians have incorporated Russian roulette as a part of their act. For instance, British illusionist Darren Brown appeared to play the game on British television in 2003, though police would later say they were informed about how it would work and were convinced that nobody was in danger of being harmed.

Darren Brown Russian roulette
British illusionist Darren Brown appeared to toy with death when he did  this on live TV; but police later said he had arranged it so the danger was only an illusion. Other magicians have not been so lucky.

Other magicians who have played Russian roulette were not so lucky, however; proving that even for a skilled technician, things can go horribly wrong. In 1976, such was the case for Finnish magician Aimo Leikas. One of the highlights of his act had been pulling six bullets out of a box that included both live and dummy ammunition, then playing the game on himself. He claimed to use telepathy in order to select only the dummy bullets, which were unmarked. But a stunned crowd saw him kill himself when he pulled the trigger with live ammunition in the next chamber. Leikas had been performing the stunt for about a year with no incidents until that time; apparently his telepathic skills were off-kilter for one day in a “no-bad-day-allowed” line of work.

Deadliest Game

In some cases, players of Russian roulette have been killed in unexpected ways: a reminder that even professionals dealing with blanks can be killed by the unknown. In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum took part in a stunt that involved a revolver filled with blanks – presumably removing the danger from playing the game. Unfortunately, the discharge of the blank from such close range still managed to propel the round’s wadding into his skull, shattering it and causing severe brain trauma. Hexum would be declared brain-dead and taken off of life support less than a week later.

Jon-Erik Hexum Russian roulette
Studly actor Jon-Erik Hexum died at just 26 when, during filming of a movie scene, a blank round of ammunition caused irreversible brain injury.

That danger may have been difficult to see, but others seem more obvious in hindsight. In 2000, a man from Houston, Texas died in a game of Russian roulette where he never had a chance. The man tried to play the game with a semi-automatic pistol – meaning that every time the gun was cocked, a cartridge was automatically inserted into the firing chamber. Given the 100 percent chance that he would have a live round fired when he pulled the trigger, the man was named as a runner-up for a “Darwin Award” in 2000, an award designed to “commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.”

All kidding aside, firing anything at close range next to your head is a pretty risky proposition, and not one that anyone who understands the impact this can have on the skull and brain would recommend, no matter what kind of “ammunition” may be in use.

A Less Deadly Way to Play

In “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga famously declares that “Russian roulette is not the same without a gun.” That may be true, but there are less gruesome and potentially deadly ways to simulate the experience without the chance that you may not survive to tell your friends all about it.

In reality, any random element can be used to simulate the concept of Russian roulette. You can pull marbles out of a bag or roll dice to see who gets the “live bullet” – and if you’re intent on playing Russian roulette, that at least promises  the cops won’t need to be called at any point during the game.

Russian roulette water balloon roulette
Less potentially lethal versions of this crazy game include this “gun” that blows up balloons instead of shooting bullets; your eardrums could still be ruined, however (Image: blessthisstuff)

Of course, there are products out there that simulate the action of the game without the likelihood of killing anyone; which doesn’t mean they couldn’t cause grave harm in the right circumstances. One such product looks like a revolver, but uses balloons, with each pull of the trigger putting more air in and threatening to pop the balloon at any time. As the product description says, it’s less “bang bang you’re dead,” and more “boing, pop, you’re slightly deaf.”

Russian roulette
Just a friendly reminder that this is a game with potentially lethal consequences, and we do not recommend playing it for any reason.

If you’re in any way considering  playing this reckless game with some friends, remember that many (if not most) jurisdictions look at Russian roulette as a genuine risk to life – and the living members of a Russian roulette game can and have been convicted of murder when someone dies during a game. At the end of the day, whether you call it a “game” or not, Russian roulette is a potentially lethal exercise, and you might want to stick with something less risky, like Monopoly.

**Editors’ note: This article is for entertainment purposes only; the editors do not condone trying anything mentioned herein**