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, fatally (or seriously) 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. 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.
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.
The game is commonly associated with six-shot revolvers. In this case, mathematically, the average number of consecutive pulls of the trigger before the gun discharges is 3.5. If the cylinder is re-spun after each trigger pull, the probability of firing remains 1 in 6 on each occasion, and the probability of it having fired after six pulls is , or about 66.5%. If instead the gun is only spun once at the start of the game rather than repeating after each trigger pull, the probability of it firing is 1⁄6, followed by 1⁄5 on the second pull, 1⁄4 on the third pull and so on, until if it fails to fire 5 times, the probability is 1⁄1 (=1) on the final pull.
- 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."
- 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. 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
- On June 11, 2016, MMA fighter Ivan "JP" Cole apparently killed himself by playing Russian roulette.
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.
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