Russian roulette

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Russian roulette (Russian: русская рулетка, russkaya ruletka) is a potentially deadly game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against the head or body (the opponent or themselves), and pulls the trigger. If the loaded chamber aligns with the barrel, the weapon will fire, killing or severely injuring the player.

Russian refers to the supposed country of origin, and roulette to the element of risk-taking and the spinning of the revolver's cylinder, similar to a roulette wheel.


According to Andrew Clarke, the first trace of Russian roulette can be found in the story "The Fatalist" of 1840, part of the collection A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, a Russian poet and writer.[1] In the story the protagonist, Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, says there is no predestination and proposes a bet emptying about twenty gold pieces onto the table. A lieutenant of the dragoons of the tsar, of Serbian origin, Vulič, with a passion for gambling, accepts the challenge and randomly takes one of the various-caliber pistols from its nail, cocks it and pours powder on the shelf. Nobody knows if the pistol is loaded or not. Vulič asks: "Gentlemen! Who will pay 20 gold pieces for me?", putting the muzzle of the pistol to his forehead. Then he asks Grigory to throw a card in the air and when this card touches the ground, he shoots. Nothing happens, because the blow fails, but when Vulič cocks the pistol again, and aims it at the service cap hanging over the window, a shot rings out and smoke fills the room.[2]


The term Russian roulette was possibly first used in a 1937 short story of the same name by Georges Surdez:

'Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?' When I said I had not, he told me all about it. When he was with the Russian army in Rumania [sic], around 1917, and things were cracking up, so that their officers felt that they were not only losing prestige, money, family, and country, but were being also dishonored before their colleagues of the Allied armies, some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, in a café, at a gathering of friends, remove a cartridge from the cylinder, spin the cylinder, snap it back in place, put it to his head and pull the trigger. There were five chances to one that the hammer would set off a live cartridge and blow his brains all over the place.[3]


The game is commonly associated with six-shot revolvers.

Variant: re-spun after each trigger pull[edit]

With this variant, it is crucial at which point it is your turn, because the probability of dying decreases with each turn.

Regarding only each single trial (pull) the probability is everytime .

Regarding the whole game, however, it looks different, because the second player only comes into play if the first player has caught an empty chamber. So his probability is reduced to . The third player only comes into play if both players before him caught an empty chamber. So his probability is already reduced to , for the fourth player to , for the fifth player to and for the sixth to only . More generally for the -th pull: . And for a revolver with chambers: .

The probability of it having fired after six pulls at least one time is , or about 66.5%. More generally, if a revolver has chambers, the probability that the revolver have fired at least one time after pulls is , as this would be an instance of a geometric distribution where the success probability is .

The average number of pulls for the gun to fire would be pulls (6 pulls for a six-shot revolver) in this variant.

Variant: only spun once at the start[edit]

With this variant, it does not matter when it is your turn, because the probability of dying remains the same for each player.

Regarding only each single pull, however, it is different. For the first player the probability of it firing is (16.7%). For the following players the knowledge that the bullet is not in any of the chambers previously fired increases the probability that it will be in one of the subsequent chambers. So the second player knows that there are just five remaining chambers and one bullet. So his probability of it firing is (20%). On the third pull or for the third player the probability is (25%), followed by (33%) on the fourth pull and (50%) on the fifth pull. So if the revolver fails to fire 5 times it comes to the final sixth pull with a probability of (100%) .[4] More generally, if a revolver has chambers and the gun has already been fired times without a bullet coming out, the probability that the bullet will be in the next chamber is (regarding only each single pull).

Regarding the whole game, however, all players have an equal chance regardless of when it is their turn: The second player only comes into play if the first player caught an empty chamber. So his probability is also just . The third only comes into play if both before him caught an empty chamber so his probability is also just and for the sixth too .

The probability of it having fired after six pulls is or 100% in this variant. And more generally: after pulls it is .

The average number of pulls for the gun to fire would be (3.5 pulls for a six-shot revolver) in this variant.

Notable incidents[edit]

  • In a 1946 U.S. legal case, Commonwealth v. Malone, 47 A.2d 445 (1946), a Pennsylvania teenager's conviction for murder in the second degree as a result of shooting a friend was upheld by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In this case, the teenagers involved played a modified version of Russian roulette, called Russian poker, in which they took turns aiming and pulling the trigger of the revolver at each other, rather than at their own heads. The court ruled that "When an individual commits an act of gross recklessness without regard to the probability that death to another is likely to result, that individual exhibits the state of mind required to uphold a conviction of manslaughter even if the individual did not intend for death to ensue."[5]
  • In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X recalls an incident during his burglary career when he once played Russian roulette, pulling the trigger three times in a row to convince his partners in crime that he was not afraid to die. In the epilogue to the book, Alex Haley states that Malcolm X revealed to him that he palmed the round.[6] The incident is portrayed in the 1992 film adaptation of the autobiography.
  • On December 25, 1954, American blues musician Johnny Ace killed himself in Texas, after a gun he pointed at his own head discharged. A report in The Washington Post attributed this to Russian roulette.[7]
  • Graham Greene relates in his first autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), that he played Russian roulette, alone, a few times as a teenager.
  • On July 24, 1973, Dallas Police Officer Darrell L. Cain murdered Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old Mexican-American child, while interrogating him and his brother about a burglary. Cain shot Rodriguez while conducting Russian roulette on the brothers in an attempt to force a confession from them.
  • On September 10, 1976, Finnish magician Aimo Leikas [fi] killed himself in front of a crowd while performing his Russian roulette act in Hartola. He had been performing the act for about a year, selecting six bullets from a box of assorted live and dummy ammunition.[8][9]
  • John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was known to have played Russian roulette, alone, on two occasions.[10] Hinckley also took a picture of himself in 1980, pointing a gun at his head.[11]
  • The 1978 film The Deer Hunter depicts captured South Vietnamese and American soldiers being forced to play Russian roulette as their Viet Cong captors bet on who will survive. Several teen deaths following the movie's release caused both police and the media to accuse the film of inspiring the youths.[12]
  • On October 12, 1984, while waiting for filming to resume on Cover Up (1985), actor Jon-Erik Hexum played Russian roulette with a .44 Magnum revolver loaded with a blank. The blast fractured his skull and caused massive cerebral hemorrhaging when bone fragments were forced through his brain. He was rushed to Beverly Hills Medical Center, where he was pronounced brain dead.[13]
  • PBS claims that William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, had attempted suicide by playing a solo game of Russian roulette.[14]
  • On October 5, 2003, psychological illusionist Derren Brown appeared to take part in a game of Russian roulette live on UK television. Two days later, a statement by the police said they had been informed of the arrangements in advance, and were satisfied that "There was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk."[15]
  • The BBC program Who Do You Think You Are?, on 13 September 2010, featured the actor Alan Cumming investigating his grandfather Tommy Darling, whom he discovered had died playing Russian roulette while serving as a police officer in British Malaya. The family had previously believed he had died accidentally while cleaning his gun.[16]
  • On June 11, 2016, MMA fighter Ivan "JP" Cole apparently killed himself by playing Russian roulette.[17]

Drinking games[edit]

There is a drinking game based on Russian roulette. The game involves six shot glasses filled by a non-player. Five are filled with water, the sixth with vodka. Among some groups, low quality vodka is preferred as it makes the glass representing the filled chamber less desirable. The glasses are arranged in a circle, and players take turns choosing a glass to take a shot from at random.[18]

There is also a game called "Beer Hunter" (titled after the Russian roulette scenes in the film The Deer Hunter). In this game, six cans of beer are placed between the participants. One can is vigorously shaken, and the cans are scrambled. The participants take turns opening the cans of beer right under their noses; the person who opens the shaken can (and sprays beer up their nose) is deemed the loser.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Deer Hunter Roberto Leoni Movie Reviews". YouTube. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
  2. ^ "The Fatalist. Mikhail Lermontov. English Translation". 18 October 2017. Retrieved 13 October 2019.
  3. ^ Surdez, Georges (30 January 1937). Chenery, William L. (ed.). "Russian Roulette" (PDF). Collier's. Crowell Publishing Company. pp. 16, 57. Archived (PDF) from the original on 1 October 2018. Retrieved 16 July 2019.
  4. ^ "Abnormal risks". Statistical Ideas. 1 June 2015. Archived from the original on 6 November 2019. Retrieved 21 June 2017.
  5. ^ "Commonwealth v. Malone". Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  6. ^ Rothstein, Edward (19 May 2005). "The Personal Evolution of a Civil Rights Giant". Retrieved 21 June 2017 – via
  7. ^ Himes, Geoffrey (25 December 1998). "Really Old School". Washington Post.
  8. ^ "In Memoriam" (PDF). The Circus Report. Vol. 5 no. 38. 20 September 1976. p. 2. Archived from the original (PDF) on 3 September 2012. Retrieved 3 June 2013.
  9. ^ "Russian Roulette Act Misfires, Finnish Circus Performer Killed". Toledo Blade. 10 September 1976. p. 11. Retrieved 21 June 2017 – via Google News.
  10. ^ Garbus, Martin (17 September 2002) [2002]. Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law (hardcover ed.). Times Books. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-8050-6918-1.
  11. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 22 November 2008. Retrieved 11 December 2008.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  12. ^ "The Deer Hunter Suicides". Snopes. 16 August 2007. Retrieved 26 April 2013.
  13. ^ "Jon-Erik Hexum's Fatal Joke". Entertainment Weekly. 14 October 1994. Retrieved 5 February 2013.
  14. ^ Transistorized!, Public Broadcasting Service, 1999.
  15. ^ "Roulette gun stunt 'a hoax'". BBC News. 7 October 2003. Retrieved 2 September 2007.
  16. ^ BBC1 13 September 2010.
  17. ^ Boult, Adam (13 June 2016). "MMA fighter 'killed himself playing Russian roulette'". The Telegraph. Retrieved 13 June 2016.
  18. ^ "Drinking Roulette Fun Game". Retrieved 21 June 2017.
  19. ^ "The Beer Hunter". Modern Drunkard Magazine. Archived from the original on 9 December 2014.