Father of Russian Roulette: The Rise & The Demise

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Reading time: 4 mins

While there are rumours floating around the Internet about the inventor of Roulette killing himself, they seem to be a stretch to say the least. The Roulette we know today started simply as a science experiment.

However, there is another form of the game, far more sinister, that has made it to the popular culture and remained deeply ingrained. You must have heard of Russian Roulette, I’m sure.

Roulette, in general, is a game famous for being impossible to predict or cheat. The odds are stacked sky high and just the money is enough to make most people’s hearts flutter with adrenaline.

But who would consider making a bet that would take – literally – all you have? To answer that, we’d have to go back to Tsarist Russia, but our story is going to start – out of all places – in Switzerland.

Georges Arthur Surdez did not invent Russian Roulette. The suicidal game had been around for a long time, however, it was the Swiss who coined the name and introduced it to American culture.

It’s not easy to make an impact like that, but then again, he wasn’t exactly trying to do that. Nor would he have predicted that his creation would eventually be responsible for the death of more than a thousand Americans.

But let’s go back and connect the dots here. We’re in Switzerland, Biel (Bienne for francophones), and it’s the year 1900. Georges is born to what seems a perfectly average family – but Tolstoy said it the best “<…>; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”.

The Surdez lot suffered from unrequited dreams and lots of adultery, and eventually, that would decide George’s fate.

His father Eugene, a watchmaker, had spent a few years in New York as a young man, and his return to Switzerland was tainted with those memories. A thirst to return, to prosper, and a deep regret meant that Eugene drank, and cheated.

Years went by, the family kept moving, Georges was raised by reading all he could get his hands on, and that was that, it seemed.

However, eventually his adult sisters decided to emigrate to America. Then came something no one had anticipated – George’s mother Marie, perhaps hoping to put a stop to the cheating, and the boozing, suggested they all pack up and move. The boy was 12 when the Surdez came to New York.

As an outsider, a stranger, George had a very rough time in the States. Of course, his love for books ultimately shaped his character, and with the rise of pulp fiction, it became clear to him that writing would ultimately become his calling. So, that gives you a hint where the Russian Roulette came from.

To be honest with you, there isn’t that much of a rise when it comes to George. The pulp fiction industry had boomed, he had a comfortable life and then in the 1930s, the economy had busted. Suddenly, freelancing for these second-grade publishers wasn’t as profitable, and the competition became even worse.

Many would have opted for a different career – and many did – but not George. He kept on writing, and he managed to achieve some level of success with his few works, but nothing notable. Then, on 30th of January in 1937, Collier’s Illustrated Weekly published “Russian Roulette”, a 1,600-word tale about adventure, gambling, and death.

Thus, Russian Roulette had been given a name. Sadly – although perhaps you could view it as a kind of a blessing – it’s unlikely George Surdez would ever become aware of how popular the term became. But then, he wouldn’t be aware of multiple deaths that followed its fame.

So this a story about a forgotten man who invented something of a legend. The world of pulp fiction was often exaggerated and exotic, and Russian Roulette is a prime example of the gore and the adrenaline it loved. The modern Casino seems tame in comparison – but then again, we’re not living in pulp fiction. Are we?