Portrayals of the game differ as to whether the chamber is spun after each "firing" - if it is, the game can continue indefinitely with a 1 in 6 chance each time. If not, there's a maximum of 5 chances to not die.
History: The game was allegedly invented by the Russians either during World War One or by those assigned to Siberia. If the latter, to deal with the extreme boredom, as their assignment was often referred to as 'counting trees', while the former was to try and get out of the extremely bloody and inglorious war. There are no indication however that this is true (and such outlandish behaviour would have most likely been recorded as suicides and duels were usually described in length) as the first mention of this game (as well as the name 'Russian roulette' itself) appears in a 1937 short story of the same title by Georges Sundez, a Frenchman.
Today, it's seen as the one of the more manly stunts available because of the risks involved, reduced somewhat by the common one-round-six-chambers setup. Perfect for proving you're not afraid to (or want to) die, you're a real man, or you're just Too Dumb to Live.
It can also be used to scare information out of prisoners, as a form of psychological torture.
Need we say it: Don't Try This at Home. Besides the risk to your life if you lose, if you play with others you can be charged with murder if someone dies (at least in common-law jurisdictions, under the theory of depraved-heart/grossly reckless murder—see for instance the Pennsylvania case Commonwealth v. Malone), and in some jurisdictions you can be tried for attempted murder even if everyone lives.
Also can be played with semi-automatics for the notoriously "badass". If you're not a gun nut, here's the explanation: a semi-auto pistol has only one chamber, and if it's loaded, the pistol will fire with 100% probability (okay, 99% to 0% depending on its condition, but usually 99%).
According to Cecil Adams, the original version of Russian Roulette might have been completely made up by an American in 1937; the original version may also have been one empty chamber, rather than one bullet.
This trope is often invoked for the British chocolate Revels. Each packet has a mix of flavors, and you can't tell which one is which. A recent advert parodied The Deer Hunter by having a guy face off against a Vietnamese opponent Russian Roulette-style. He gets orange flavor, to the joy of his opponents, but it is revealed that he "likes orange" and smiles as his opponent screams in agony as he gets a coffee sweet.
Possibly inspired by the stand-up comic Jasper Carrott, who had a line in his routine about how the other kids at school made him play a very similar version of this game after they found out he was allergic to peanuts. (He was probably making it up. I hope.)
In Gunsmith Cats, Rally Vincent uses an extreme version to intimidate a captive: she sticks the gun in the poor schmuck's face and pulls the trigger not once, but five times - fast. She explains that she can time the spin so it stops just as the loaded chamber passes the hammer.
Her record is twelve straight spins. Wanna help her break it? KLIK-KLIK-KLIK-KLIK-KLIK!
"Russian Roulette" was the opening theme for the Dirty Pair TV series. Oddly appropriate that (Hero Insurance), you MIGHT get to keep your planet.
In Yu-Gi-Oh!, we are shown that after his humiliating loss to Pegasus, "Bandit" Keith's life went straight down the toilet, and he fell to gambling to survive. One panel shows him playing Russian Roulette with an utterly insane look on his face. In addition to that, his flagship monster, Revolver Dragon, attacks by playing Russian roulette... pointed at the enemy monsters, of course.
Earlier, at the very beginning of the "Death T" arc, Mokuba plays "Russian Roulette Buffet" with Yugi and Joey. A spinning table, and six plates of food, two of which have poison; to which only Mokuba has the antidote. It is, of course, rigged by Mokuba, and Joey gets poison on his first plate. Yugi beats Mokuba by attaching the Puzzle to the spinning table, causing Mokuba to break the syrup bottle which was the secret control for the table; and then the final spin gives Mokuba the poison.
Dartz has Twin Bow Centaur, which would randomly fire an arrow at either your monster or your opponent's monster.
Kiryu has Infernity Reloader, which fires 500 damage at either you or your opponent. His Infernity Death Gunman is a straight up Shout Out to Dirty Harry.
In the Black Cat manga vol. 1, Train dares Sven (who just recently got a free chest carving from Eve) to shoot him in the hand to see if he's still daring enough to go out in his condition. Sven picks the right bullet, but Train doesn't feel any pain, since he "tampered" with the bullet before loading it.
In an early chapter of Katekyo Hitman Reborn!, Reborn suggests Tsuna and Kyoko play Russian Roulette with a party bullet. He then switches it out with a Dying Will Bullet, and Kyoko gets hit.
A Monster Clown challenges Elf and Zwolf to a game of Russian Roulette in Battle Angel Alita: Last Order. He cheats by swapping the gun for a fully loaded one.
An episode of the second Sakura Wars OAV has Maria, having gotten an enemy at her mercy, pretend to put one bullet in her gun while actually leaving it unloaded, spin the chambers, and essentially ask the guy if he's feeling lucky (he isn't). Not quite how the game is normally played, but close enough that one can practically hear the writers saying "It's like Russian Roulette! Because she's Russian, get it?"
Liar Game has a less-fatal variant with "24-Shot Russian Roulette", where the gun is loaded with six caps (out of 24) and if you shoot yourself, you lose several million yen. This being Liar Game, the heroes figure out how to fix it in their favour.
In one chapter of Dance in the Vampire Bund, Akira runs across some vampires playing Russian Roulette, although the losers generally heal from the injuries they suffer. When pressed into a game, Akira (taking a page from Rally above) spins the chambers, puts the barrel to his heart (a part that generally wouldn't grow back on a vampire) and pulls the trigger five times, then presents the pistol to his opponent.
In Gun X Sword, the first villain uses this to show off his incredible luck, by playing with two pistols at once and surviving five pulls.
One of the Snake Princess's servants in Dragon Ball Z plays this for fun, as she shows Goku. She promptly loses.
Goku: Personally, given the choice, I'd rather play checkers.
In one Lucky Luke comic, a Russian archduke on visit to the wild west challenges a gambler into a game of Russian roulette, and the gambler bails out when the gun is fired. Later, the duke challenges a Cavalry captain, and the gun goes off on him. The round is a blank, and he shouts "failed" in Russian, a running gag during the story, as a Russian assassin says the word every time his plans fail, but it isn't translated.
In another story, Luke is being held in jail and suggests to his jailer, a compulsive gambler, that they play Russian roulette to pass time. The jailer plays first, is lucky, then gives his gun to Luke, who, of course, points it at him and orders him to let him out.
Jailer: And here I thought it was impossible to cheat at this game!
In the animated movie La Ballade des Dalton, a retired poker cheater who has become a preacher is on the Dalton's killing list. He insists on ending his life with a last game, which turns to be the Russian roulette, and shoots himself in the head. Of course, being a compulsive cheater, he loaded the gun with a blank.
Guy Smith, Mister Sensitive / The Orphan from X-Force played it alone on the regular (that is, every day) because of depression stemming from the fact that his parents never wanted him. Every day for three years, he kept getting lucky. Someone tried to kill him once by filling the other chambers, but because of his powers, he could feel the extra 5 bullets in the gun.
Batman once hunted a villain who was using a rigged gun. The villain would challenge rich men to Russian Roulette, after both men playing had made out a will leaving everything to the victor. The gun had an extra safety that wasn't visible when playing, so the villain could never lose. Batman won despite the gun being full. (This particular game of Russian Roulette involved adding a bullet to the gun each time the two men lived.)
There's an old MAD comic of a line of six people passing the gun to each other. When the man sixth in line gets it, he shoots the gun, and the bullet goes through the heads of all the others.
A suicidally depressed Twitch does this with a temporarily de-powered Spawn after his son is lost to vampires. Al decides he's had enough and throws Twitch off the building, but not before getting a bullet in the shoulder.
Daphne De Carter: Why, certainly. I used to play it all the time with my father.
Alfred: I doubt that you played Russian Roulette all the time with your father!
Daphne De Carter: Oh, I most certainly did. You play it with two decks of cards, and...
Alfred: That's Russian Bank. Russian Roulette's a very different amusement which I can only wish your father had played continuously before he had you!
The movie Intacto, which has a premise of luck as a real and transferable property, has two very lucky people playing a form of Russian Roulette. They play with one chamber empty.
The Spanish comedy film Airbag has a scene with a Russian omelette. Five people bringing 15 million pesetas each, five omelettes, four of them made with poison mushrooms, one of them with regular ones. The one left alive walks away with all the money, except the small percentage given to the organisers. (It was a scam, though. The organisers thought nobody would be as stupid as to actually follow with that setup.)
The climactic scene of the 1988 movie La Boca del Lobo (The Mouth of the Wolf). The protagonist challenges his army superior, who'd been sent to their remote Peruvian village after he killed a fellow officer in a game of Russian Roulette over a woman. In the end they're down to the last chamber, which they know contains the bullet — the man holding the gun has to either back down in disgrace or blow his brains out. He is unable to pull the trigger.
At the start of the Russian film Burnt By The Sun the protagonist (a secret policemen who's been ordered to arrest a general and his wife — a former Love Interest) does this with a seven-shot Nagant revolver. He survives, and so carries out his order, killing himself at the end of the movie via the more reliable method of slitting his wrists while in the bathtub.
Live! parodies Reality TV by having an American TV executive use this as part of the ultimate ratings winning game show where ordinary people literally gamble their lives for a huge cash prize.
In Sonatine, Murakawa plays a forced game with two reluctant Yakuza underlings. When it comes to Murakawa's turn on the final chamber, he just smiles and begins to pull the trigger. It turns out to be empty.
In The Way of the Gun, Abner plays a version of this as a way of possibly committing suicide. He's filled a pillowcase with revolvers and randomly selects one to use in the game, but he gets interrupted before firing.
In The Boondock Saints: All Saints Day, Il Duce combines this with Mexican Standoff and uses it as an interrogation technique. Earlier, the MacManus brothers use this to determine whether or not to let a bad guy go.
13 Tzameti features an underground game in which desperate men are recruited to play a modified version of Russian Roulette while rich gangsters bet on who survives, like a horse race. The players arrange themselves in a circle and hold their revolvers up to the head of the man in front of them. When a light bulb turns on, they all fire.
Pirates of the Caribbean IV: On Stranger Tides has a variant; six pistols, four unloaded, two loaded and Jack is ordered to shoot his love interest with them. Instead, he takes the other option and jumps off the nearby cliff.
Bollywood movie Dhoom 2 has a sexually charged one where Mr A (Hrithik Roshan) forces Sunheri (Aishwarya Rai) to play after finding out that she had betrayed him. Only it turned out to be False Roulette and ended in one hell of a kiss.
Malcolm X features Malcolm playing it with a couple of other hoodlums to determine who would be the leader of their group. In a later scene he admits to a friend that he palmed the bullet so the gun was unloaded.
Erast Fandorin plays different variations of it throughout the novels and always wins (obviously), because he is just Born Lucky.
Notably, the game is referred to as "American Roulette" in the beginning. One prominent player even tells his opponent "I'm telling you, because of me and you they will rename it "Russian Roulette"".
In the Fighting Fantasy book The Citadel of Chaos, the player can at one point play Russian Roulette with daggers: the player stabs himself with a dagger picked at random from a set of six, with 5 being "trick daggers" whose blade retracts into the hilt and a real dagger. And the prize is an item that is virtually required to finish the book.
The City of Thieves features another version, with pills: five harmless, one poisonous. The reward is simply a respectable amount of gold.
Quiller Balalaika by Adam Hall. A Russian Mafia boss forces Quiller to play this game (after he's already witnessed one of his mooks get killed this way) with one bullet and six spins of the chamber. The boss is stunned when Quiller actually survives, and so he orders Quiller to be taken to the forest and shot the traditional way.
As noted in the Straight Dope article linked to above, the 19th century Russian novel A Hero Of Our Time has a proto-example of this. A fatalistic Russian officer makes a bet to prove his philosophy, which he does by putting a single-shot pistol to his head and pulling the trigger, and it proceeds to click harmlessly. He then points it to the wall and again pulls the trigger, and this time, it fires.
Ed McBain's short story "The Last Spin" has two Gang Bangers playing Russian Roulette to the death as a minimum-casualty solution to avert a war. They realise they're Not So Different just before one loses.
Jack Bauer was once captured by some criminals while breaking into a prison. The criminals made Jack and his accomplice, a druglord Bauer was breaking out of jail play Russian Roulette at gunpoint. Jack successfully guesses which chamber contains the bullet, and shoots one of his captors rather than put the gun to his head.
Minutes before the Jack and Salazar example above, Jack is forced to play Russian Roulette with one of the prison guards. The guard, who gets the first shot, is crying and scared to pick up the gun until Jack convices him to play along, at which point the guard picks up the gun, points it at his own head and pulls the trigger. He dies.
In Heroes, Doyle uses his People Puppets power to force Claire, her birth mother Meredith, and her adoptive mother Sandra to play a variation of this, crossed with Spin the Bottle: he places the gun on the center of the table and spins it. The first time, it points at Claire, so she has to choose which mommy to fire at. She refuses to choose, so he makes her shoot at Meredith - and gets one of the empty chambers. The second time, he spins it twice - once to decide who will fire it, the second one to decide who it's fired at. This leads to Sandra pointing the gun at Claire, which is what really makes the scene unique: she takes this opportunity to try to fire it until she gets the bullet, which kills Claire, freeing her from Doyle's control and allowing her to take him out.
Wiseguy. Mad arms dealer Mel Profitt does this with undercover agent Vinnie Terranova when he finds out Vinnie is sleeping with his sister (whom Mel has his own incestuous relationship with). The gun turns out to be empty. Vinnie pulls out his own revolver which has an empty chamber under the hammer and challenges Mel to his own version, with only a one-in-six chance to live. Mel calls his bluff and Vinnie has to shoot the bullet into the wall.
Farscape episode "Taking The Stone" featured a tribe of thrillseeking kids that play Russian Roulette... with fungi! The mushroom in question grows in clusters of four: three of them get you high, one of them will kill you, and there's no real way to tell which one.
Leverage has Elliot flashbacking to being tied up playing this. He was the only one playing. Apparently it was still better than going to one of Sophie's plays.
Carnivàle. When one of their own is murdered, the carnies tell the killer to pick a number between one and six. When he cautiously picks "3", three bullets are loaded into a revolver, with three pulls of the trigger. He survives, incredibly enough, and Samson orders the others to let him go despite their protests. Samson does kill him later though.
The X-Files. At the climax of "Pusher" a criminal with mind control powers forces Fox Mulder to join him in a game. Mulder is made to "shoot" the criminal, then himself, then is about to shoot Scully when she triggers the fire alarm, distracting the criminal so Mulder can turn the gun on him instead. It turns out that chamber was loaded.
Cowards, a rather dark BBC comedy show, featured a sketch that had a group of people playing this at a dinner party. The first five survive but the sixth claims that they have been playing it wrong and they should have spun the chambers before each trigger pull. He is argued down, with hilarious consequences...
Criminal Minds: in the episode 'Revelations', an unsub - well, one of the three personalities of an unsub suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder - kidnaps FBI Special Agent Spencer Reid and tortures him, then adds to the torture with a game of Russian Roulette. Three times, Reid lucks out. The fourth time, as he's standing knee-deep in the grave he's just been forced to dig for himself, he gets the gun away from Hankel and shoots him, without checking to see if the bullet is chambered first. It is.
Castle: played with in the episode "Hedge Fund Homeboys", in which a group of drunk high schoolers liked pretending to play this, with a real revolver that didn't have any bullets loaded. Except one of them snuck a bullet into the right chamber, to kill another one and make it look like a tragic accident.
In the Tales from the Crypt episode "Cutting Cards," two gamblers loathe each other so much that they're willing to play a game of Russian Roulette just for the possibility of the other person dying. They both survive because the round turns out to be a dud.
NUMB3RS featured an episode involving a group of gamblers holding a live webcast that featured a tournament of Russian Roulette and people online can bet on who wins. Turns out that the game had been rigged.
Luther forces a Villainous Breakdown from a former special forces soldier who is killing police officers, but then has an Oh Crap moment when the man empties all but one bullet from his snubnose revolver and starts putting it to their heads and pulling the trigger. Eventually the killer is down to the last chamber and it's his turn — Luther decks him when he puts the gun to his head to commit suicide.
Alien Nation. In episode 10, a Russian Roulette-style game with salt water once played on the slave ship resurfaces and plagues the Newcomer society, forcing George to confront his past.
The City Hunter: Jin-pyo uses this as an interrogation method, pulling the trigger each time the subject gives an answer that annoys him (and using up five turns before he gets a real answer).
A Pogo comic book-style story, probably created as supplementary material for a book collection, features the cast as Russian scientists working for the Soviet space program. In the opening scene they are playing Russian Roulette. Churchy gets the bullet, but survives because he "missed". (A case of Too Dumb To Die, perhaps?)
Revolver Ocelot plays Russian Roulette with three guns juggled simultaneously in Metal Gear Solid 3.
Also, Ocelot's Russian Roulette shows up in The Last Days of Foxhound when the characters revisit his memories of the scene from the game. Later, he demonstrates the technique to Psycho Mantis, who is frustrated at not being able to figure out which chamber has the bullet — understandably so, because The Boss chose correctly during the events of MGS3.
The protagonist of Illusion of Gaia has to play a game similar to Russian Roulette with a set of wine glasses, one of which is poisoned, in order to get the necessary funds to buy desert transportation. Played with, since the protagonist has Psychic Powers, and the other player was suicidal.
The Flash game "Pico vs. Uberkids" on Newgrounds has Pico suggesting a game of "Rock Paper Scissors Roulette" to compete against the titular Uberkids. As you might expect, it combines Rock Paper Scissors with Russian Roulette, with the loser of the Rock Paper Scissors match having to try their luck with the revolver. The chamber is not re-spun between turns, so the chance of getting the fatal bullet increases as the game goes on, and if five chambers come up empty during a given round, The Grim Reaper appears over the loser of the next Rock Paper Scissors match. If Pico loses a Rock Paper Scissors match, he pulls the trigger twice, because Pico is crazy.
Killer7 has a climactic game of Russian Roulette between school principal Benjamin Keane and Bad Ass assassin Garcian Smith. It doubles as Garcian's Crowning Moment of Awesome, as well: the gun is passed back and forth between Keane and Garcian, Keane growing constantly more frantic and Garcian remaining calm as ever, until 5 chambers have come up empty; it's the 6th chamber, and Garcian's turn. As Keane starts laughing, Garcian calmly puts the gun to his head, and pulls the trigger... and nothing happens.
Garcian: This gun holds seven bullets. I'm a professional. You can't fool me, old man.
It has a rather weird beginning though. Keane promises if Garcian wins, Keane will tell him his secret to picking up any woman in the world. If he loses, Garcian has to kill the President. Think about that for a minute. Hint: Keane doesn't keep his end of the bargain.
Keep in mind that in Killer7, dead people seem to have a habit of not staying dead. And Keane does say the secret. It's just that....Well.....
Keane: Oh, and by the way, women are all the same! *Bang*
Call of Duty: Black Ops features a game of Russian Roulette of the 1 round, 5 empty chambers variant between the player character and his friend Sgt. Woods. Forced to play at gunpoint by their Vietcong captors (in an almost shot by shot recreation of the aforementioned scene in The Deer Hunter), Woods successfully manages to survive one round (complete with a loud exclamation of "FUCK!" before pulling the trigger), before passing the gun to you while telling you "one chance". Your character, Mason, takes the gun, raises it, and promptly shoots the guard forcing them to play, takes his pistol, and shoots the other guards, all in one swift move.
In Final Fantasy X-2, the revolver toting henchman of LeBlanc will instead play this with status effects, and it's always pointed at his enemy. The name of the attack is "Russian Roulette", but the attack is a spun barrel, then shot at one of the people he is facing, giving a random status effect.
The Flash game Orange Roulette is a parody of The Deer Hunter (in movies) involving men with oranges for heads playing against each other. You can choose to try to shoot the opponent on your turn, but if you fail to kill them, you have to take a shot - and you're one pull closer to the bullet. You can also spin the chamber again once a game.
In the climax of part 4 of the Newgrounds video Mystic Island, the protagonist Sam is facing down Norm on a cliff, and threatens to shoot him with the gun that they set aside for "Russian Roulette" if their coconut supplies ran out. Unfortunately, the gun only has one bullet, forcing Sam to squeeze the trigger until the bullet reaches the chamber. When it does, Norm takes the gun away and fatally shoots him, but he gets better.
Family Guy did this when deciding which guy would get their newly-won trophy.
Peter: Alright, three bullets, last man standing gets the trophy. *puts gun to his head* Me first. No, wait, this is crazy... *gives gun to Cleveland* You first.
Another episode has a cutaway gag in which Carter forces Meg to play this in the car.
Looney Tunes: "Ballot Box Bunny" ends with Bugs Bunny proposing a game of Russian roulette to Yosemite Sam after both of them lose a local election. Sam goes first, then Bugs, who puts the gun to his head as the picture irises out; a shot is then heard, after which the picture irises in again to reveal that Bugs missed and shot Sam. (Sam: "Ah hate that rabbit.") Perhaps unsurprisingly, this ending is rarely if ever included when the short is aired on TV.
Maybe in the USA, but it was shown in Israel at least as early as the nineties.
In "Barbary Coast Bunny", Bugs is running Nasty Canasta's casino out of business by winning at everything. A fed up Canasta pulls a revolver and suggests this; only for Bugs to spin the barrel and somehow cause coins to spill from the gun.
Dale: I was at the gun club, playing Russian Roulette.
Nancy: Did you win?
Dale: You're not really familiar with the game, are you?
Dale: Yes, yes I won.
Archer has Malory claim that she blacks out and does foolish things when drinking absinthe. We then see a flashback where she plays one-on-one Russian Roulette in a dive bar somewhere in Asia while swigging from a bottle. "All right, you yellow bastards! Let's dance!"
In The Oblongs, when Pickles became addicted to performing crazy stunts, Milo enticed her with a game of Russian Roulette with bullets in all the chambers in order to get her to an intervention.
There's also the drinking game version of this, where the bartender sets six glasses on the bar — one has vodka, the rest are water. Which result constitutes "winning" depends entirely on your perspective.
I guess you could play this in reverse in order to choose your designated driver.
There is also the drinking game known as "The beer hunter" start with a six-pack (with one can shaken). Take turns opening a can (under your nose). If it doesn't blow up, chug. If it does, you have to chug the rest of the pack (the book this came out of rated this the highest possible on the "you will toss your cookies" scale).
Not that Americans are any better, some owners of Nerf revolvers such as the Maverick or the Spectre are occasionally known to play a nonlethal version of Russian Roulette where the loser gets "shot" with a Nerf bullet.
There has been at least one case of this in which the harmless Nerf darts have been modified to be not so harmless...
You'd have to do a little extra modifying to hide the visible darts in a Nerf Maverick's cylinder, though. The point being that, unlike "Kaba Kick!," Nerf doesn't make their toy guns for the express purpose of playing Russian Roulette.
Thus amply demonstrating both meanings of the term "mentalist".
It was fake though, seeing how they contacted the police and said it wan't any risk involved.
Derren has since publicly confirmed that the gun was holding a blank round. He has also pointed out that by pressing the barrel right against his temple and firing point blank, he WAS still in danger of being extremely badly hurt - possibly even killed, under rare circumstances - by the discharge.
He was not the first: it's a classic magic (or mentalism) trick. By the way there where many accidents.
There are many less deadly variations. The most know is the "spike" which is knowed for have failed many time (DON'T type "spike magic trick failed" in google!)
In 1954 R&B singer Johnny Ace shot himself playing Russian Roulette backstage between sets of a Christmas Eve show in Houston. He died in the hospital on Christmas Day.
The reverse of the Russian Roulette is the Josephus Permutation, according to legend, the Jewish historian Josephus found himself with 40 other Jewish rebels at the Seige of Yodfat. Right before their position was about to be overrun by the Romans, they decided to kill themselves via a elaborate suicide pact: everyone stood in a circle, and every third person gets killed (suicide is considered immoral in Judaism). This goes on until everyone's dead. The idea is to position yourself such that you are the last person left.
In the Roman Army, mutinous or cowardly soldiers were rounded up and executed by "decimation", in which every tenth soldier was killed by his comrades, determined by drawing straws. Roman roulette?