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Russian roulette (Russian: Русская рулетка) is a lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against their head, and pulls the trigger. "Russian" refers to the supposed country of origin, and roulette to the element of risk-taking and the spinning of the revolver's cylinder, which is reminiscent of a spinning roulette wheel.
Because only one chamber is loaded, the player has a one in x chance of being shot; x is the number of chambers in the cylinder. So, for instance, if a revolver holds six rounds, the chance is one in six. That assumes that each chamber is equally likely to come to rest in the "correct" position. However, due to gravity, in a properly maintained weapon with a single round inside the cylinder, the full chamber, which weighs more than the empty chambers, will usually end up near the bottom of the cylinder when its axis is not vertical, altering the odds in favor of the player. This only applies to swing-out cylinder type revolvers, and only if the cylinder is spun outside of the revolver and allowed to come to a complete stop before locked back in. The number of pulls of the trigger before a round is expected to discharge is 3.5 (without spinning between the pulls) or 6 (with spinning between the pulls).
In Mikhail Lermontov's "The Fatalist" (1840), one of five novellas comprising his A Hero of Our Time, a minor character places a gun with an unknown number of bullets to his head, pulls the trigger and survives. However, the term "Russian roulette" does not appear in the story.
The term "Russian roulette" was possibly first used in an eponymous 1937 short story by Georges Surdez. However, the story describes using a gun with one empty chamber out of six, instead of five empty chambers out of six:
- 'Did you ever hear of Russian Roulette?' ... with the Russian army in Romania, around 1917... some officer would suddenly pull out his revolver, anywhere, at the table, 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.
- 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." However, it has not yet been established whether simply participating in a game of Russian roulette in which another participant kills himself by his own hand would constitute manslaughter or some lesser form of conspiracy or homicide.
- 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. The incident is portrayed in the 1992 film adaptation of the autobiography.
- On December 25, 1954, the American blues musician Johnny Ace killed himself in Texas, after a gun he pointed at his own head discharged. Sources including The Washington Post attribute this to Russian roulette, but some believe it was only an accident.
- Graham Greene relates in his first autobiography, A Sort of Life (1971), that he played Russian roulette, alone, a few times as a teenager.
- In 1976, Finnish magician Aimo Leikas killed himself in front of a crowd while performing his Russian roulette act. He had been performing the act for about a year, selecting six bullets from a box of assorted live and dummy ammunition.
- John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was known to have played Russian roulette, alone, on two occasions. Hinckley also took a picture of himself in 1980, pointing a gun at his head.
- 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.
- 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."
- The BBC program Who Do You Think You Are?, on 13 September 2010, featured the actor Alan Cumming investigating his grandfather Tommy Darling, who he discovered had died playing Russian roulette while serving as a police officer in Malaya. The family had previously believed he had died accidentally while cleaning his gun.
- On June 11, 2016, MMA fighter Ivan "JP" Cole apparently killed himself by playing Russian roulette.
In popular culture
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.
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.
Arts and entertainment
Russian roulette has been portrayed in many different works of modern culture.
- In the 1973 Stephen Sondheim musical A Little Night Music the character of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm challenges the character of Fredrik Egerman to a game of Russian Roulette to settle a romantic feud. A nervous Fredrik accidently shoots himself in the ear, and Carl-Magnus declares himself the winner.
- The 1978 film The Deer Hunter features three US soldiers who are captured during the Vietnam War and forced to play Russian roulette as their captors gamble on the results. Their captors demand an especially brutal variation of the game: the game is played until all but one contestant is killed. The game takes place in a bamboo room above where the other prisoners are held, so that the losers' blood drips down on future contestants. Several teen deaths following the movie's release caused police and the media to blame the film's depiction of Russian roulette, saying that it inspired the youths.
- In 2001, in their debut album Ompa til du dør, Norwegian band Kaizers Orchestra included numerable references to Russian roulette, most notably in the songs "Rulett", "Fra sjåfør til passasjer", and "Resistansen".
- In the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, Sam Shepard playing Garrison says of his local informant, "You know, the last one of these guys shot himself in the head playing Russian-Roulette in a bar".
- During the third season of television series 24, which aired in 2004, main character Jack Bauer is forced to play Russian roulette during a prison riot.
- In 2010, the video game Call of Duty: Black Ops featured characters being forced to play Russian roulette, heavily inspired by the scene from The Deer Hunter.
- MAD Magazine once showed Russian "Russian Roulette"[when?] in which six men play the game without spinning the chamber of a revolver between turns. When the last (and doomed) man gets the gun he fires it back through the heads of the other five.
- In Hinterland season 2, episode 2 (2014), Bell and DCI Mathias each play one round of Russian roulette.
- In the film Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Robert Downey, Jr.'s character uses Russian roulette to intimidate a criminal, by pointing a six-shot revolver containing one round at the criminal's head. He pulls the trigger and the gun fires, killing the criminal instantly. Upon being asked why he used a live round in the chamber rather than a blank, he says that he believed there to be only a "6 percent" chance of a discharge, rather than 16.667%.
- In Peaky Blinders, series 3, episode 4, Duchess Tatiana Petrovna plays Russian roulette with Tommy's gun, to his horror and dismay, and she unsuccessfully urges him to play, too, advising him it's exhilarating. When the gun does not fire, she says it's God's will.
- In the episode "Venezuela" of Banged Up Abroad, James Miles and Paul Loseby voice their utter shock and horror when they discover the prisoners playing Russian roulette. After having his appeal refused and facing a 10-year sentence, as well as due to the harshness of the prison life and complete lack of self-esteem, James eventually participated in the game.
- The Fatalist (1840) Lermontov, Mikhail. English translation.
- Georges Surdez, "Russian Roulette," Collier's Illustrated Weekly 30 January, 1937; "Russian roulette n.", Oxford English Dictionary.
- "Commonwealth v. Malone". casebriefs.com. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
- "Really Old School", The Washington Post, December 25, 1998.
- RealBluesMagazine.com Obit of Curtis Tillmann, who witnessed the death
- GoogleNews: Toledo,Ohio, Sept 10, 1976
- Garbus, Martin (2002-09-17) . Courting Disaster: The Supreme Court and the Unmaking of American Law (hardcover ed.). Times Books. ISBN 978-0-8050-6918-1.
- Transistorized!, Public Broadcasting Service, 1999.
- "Roulette gun stunt 'a hoax'". BBC News. 2003-10-07. Retrieved 2007-09-02.
- BBC1 13 September 2010.
- "MMA fighter 'killed himself playing Russian roulette'". Retrieved 13 June 2016.
- "The Beer Hunter". Modern Drunkard Magazine.
- "The Deer Hunter Suicides". Snopes. August 16, 2007. Retrieved April 26, 2013.
- "/ "Kaizers Orchestra album lyrics - Ompa til du Dør". Retrieved 22 September 2014.
- Quotes for Garrison (Character) at the Internet Movie Database
- Stuart, Keith (November 9, 2010). "Call of Duty: Black Ops – review". The Guardian. Retrieved May 15, 2013.
- Sergio Aragones, genius cartoonist of Mad Magazine
- "hinterland-y-gwylls-richard-harrington-everybody-around-me-sounded-like-pingu". The Guardian. September 11, 2015.
- "Peaky Blinders Recap Series Three, Episode 4, Sickeningly Good". The Guardian. May 26, 2016.
- Debnath, Neela (May 26, 2016). "Peaky Blinders series 3, episode 4 review: A terrifying, unpredictable rollercoasterepisode 4 review: A terrifying, unpredictable rollercoaster". Express.
- Series 2, episode 1 - "Venezuela"