Casino Games and the History of Gambling
Where the law permits, casino games such as Blackjack, Roulette, Baccarat, Craps, Poker, Pai Gow Poker and Slots such as the ever popular Video Poker are commonly available in gaming establishments around the world.
Casino games allow players to gamble on various outcomes. Ultimately, the casino will enjoy a long term predictable advantage on all it’s casino games called the House Edge or House Advantage.
Some casino games do offer an element of skill to give the player some level of considered choice to lower or combat the house advantage.
Gambling is not a science, just mathematical odds and the willingness to take risks in the hope of substantial gain, an integral part of human nature.
Casino Games and the Origins of Chance
There can be little surprise then, that various forms of gambling evolved from prehistoric times and spread to every corner of the planet.
The dice, cards and spinning wheels seen in modern casinos today are the direct descendants of “casino” games played for goods and property thousands of years ago in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
To explain the workings of the world, the earliest humans referred to unseen powers that controlled everything from the weather to why certain mountains or seas existed.
In one ancient Greek myth, the Olympian gods Zeus, Hades and Poseidon were said to throw dice to decide how to split up the Universe, using chance to determine who would rule heaven, hell and the seas.
Early civilizations made sense of Life’s outcomes, good or bad, by giving credit or blame to ruling deities.
Among the many ancient cultures that looked to gods and goddesses for luck and good fortune were the Aztecs, whose god Yacatecuhtli determined commercial success or failure.
Others included the Chinese (Cai Shen), Egyptians (Bes), Hindus (Lakshmi), and early tribes of Africa (Ikenga).
In Norse mythology, Freya was the goddess associated with runes, the wheel of fortune and other forms of divination. The Japanese worshiped Kichijōten, the goddess of beauty, merit, and luck.
Greeks called upon the blessings of the goddess Tyche, while Romans prayed for assistance from the goddesses Fortuna and Abundantia, with their powers to bestow fortune and abundance upon supplicants.
It is interesting to note that the majority of these entities were female, perhaps owing to the perceived feminine qualities of chance—the ability to nourish, protect and relieve, while often being fickle and changeable in nature. Even today, gamblers still refer to “Lady Luck.”
Given the uncertainty of the world, it followed that mankind’s earliest “tools of chance” were used for divination, rather than play. For example, bundles of sacred tamarisk twigs were used by the Magi of Babylonia.
In ancient Assyria, divining rods were employed. The Parsis of India had predictive tools called baresma. And Celtic Rune Stones used to foretell events have existed from around 500 B.C.
Even earlier than that, Christian literature makes frequent references to the “casting of lots”—a solemn appeal to God to decide a matter supernaturally.
One of the oldest such recorded instances is how lots were cast by sailors around 800 B.C. to discover who was responsible for a great storm, causing a shipmate named Jonah to be thrown overboard.
Let the “Casino Games” Begin
There is physical evidence that gambling as it is known today—playing games of chance for money—may be as old as 10,000 years.
Archeological digs in the Near East and Mediterranean area have unearthed four-sided sheep hucklebones known as astragali, which were originally thought to be used in a fortune-telling practice called “throwing bones.”
But the astragali have been discovered in such great quantity, accompanied by small coloured stones that could have been used as counters, that leading experts are now claiming the relics were also recreational, not just religious.
It is quite certain that the astragali were being used for gambling by 7,000 B.C. in Mesopotamia—what is present-day Iraq. Between then and 3,000 B.C., the practice began of filing the bones into cubes to make them roll more smoothly.
And because the bone density was uneven, more appropriate materials were being used to make the cubes, such as ivory and wood. That’s how six-sided dice were born.
Ironically, dice are actually older than numbers. Six-sided dice with pips (dots) marking their faces became common around 1,300 B.C., predating the development of the Hindu-Arabic number system by at least six centuries.
The Mesopotamians also developed four-sided pyramid-shaped dice that they used with game boards. Rolling the dice determined how pieces were moved on the board’s surface.
These boards were later adopted by Romans legions using two six-sided dice in a game they called “Duodecim Scriptorum” (or “twelve writer”).
By 300 B.C., that game evolved into another, more popular version called “Tabula” (or “tables”), which gradually spread to Arabia as “Nard,” to Iceland as “Ad Elta Stelpur,” England as “Taefle and Fayles,” France as “Tourne-case,” and Spain as “Sixe-Ace.”
Today, the game endures worldwide as “Backgammon.”
Like other great cultures, the Chinese had oracles they consulted for divine assistance. For guidance with major decisions, they shuffled pieces of engraved turtle shell and animal bones upon which characters had been written.
Black and white stones cast on a board to create patterns on a grid of lines were also used to predict the outcome of events.
By 2300 B.C., the Chinese had developed games of chance based on these tools, some using marked tiles and others based on the black and white stone patterns. One game called Wei-qi has been played in virtually the same form as it was originally conceived for nearly 4,000 years.
Another evolved into the Japanese board game “I-Go.” Others would eventually lead to “Mahjong” “Fan-Tan” and “Pai Gow.” And still another became the game known today as “Dominoes.”
But the biggest contribution of China to gambling was the invention of modern paper making during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25~220 C.E.). Sturdy, lightweight paper could be used to replace heavy tiles and stones.
By 1000 C.E., dominoes were being made out of stiff paper, which led to new methods of shuffling, new designs and, in turn, new games, many of which were influenced by “fighting tablet” games created in Korea in the 6th century.
The use of “dotted playing cards” became widespread between 1120 and 1131. Decks contained as few as 25~30 cards.
Marco Polo may have come across such playing cards when he visited China in 1269, but he did not record seeing them in his journals, nor was he the one who brought them to Europe. Instead, decks traveled through Persia and India, where they were modified to become localised games.
According to legend, the wife of a maharajah in India devised a game called “Ganjifa,” which used an elaborately illustrated deck of circular cards with eight, ten or twelve different suits of twelve cards each.
Persian variations were rectangular in shape with four suits of 13 cards each, but no pictures, only patterns. Venetian traders encountered both types, and some eight decades after the famous explorer’s China trip, they brought them to Italy.
The Italians were responsible for taking the best attributes of Chinese, Persian and Indian playing cards and combining them with their own unique contribution: court cards—the king, knight and foot soldier.
The knight was later replaced by a queen, and the modern 52-card deck was born.
But playing cards were hardly the biggest contribution made by China to the world of gambling. Not by a long shot.
The same papermaking that made it possible to replace heavy tiles with dotted cards also allowed bulky metal coins to be replaced by a new form of currency—paper money.
Betting on the Beasts
India’s role in the history of gambling is also manifold. Throughout the Vedic Period (1700~500 B.C.), dice games were played there using five-sided nuts from the vibhitaka tree. These were often replicated in wood, ivory, terracotta, silver and gold.
Today, gambling with dice is still considered a ritual of mystical importance during the celebration of Dewali, or “the festival of lights”—said to be a good time for gambling.
In fact, by tradition, those who fail to gamble on this special day are in danger of being reincarnated as donkeys!
Indeed, animals are especially significant with regard to gambling in India. Elephants, horses, serpents and cattle appeared on the earliest Indian playing cards, which were considered a vehicle for perpetuating Hindu heritage, religion and folklore.
And the people of India were among the first to embrace contests involving animals, upon which bets could be placed.
Cockfighting, in particular, was popular in India, where it thrived from about 2000 B.C. onward. Fowl were specifically bred for battle, as were other animals. The beasts that fought were often the prizes as well as the contestants.
There were chariot races during the Vedic Era, too, with cattle going to the winner.
The idea of pitting animals against each other may appall many today, but humankind’s use of lesser species for wagering has by no means been limited to India.
Early Greeks staged chariot races and horse races. Bull fighting—bull against bull—has been around in Asia for thousands of years.
In the 18th century, “blood sports” such as bear fighting and dog fighting were hugely popular in England, as was bull-baiting and bear-baiting (dogs against bulls or bears), until outlawed in 1835.
In the 19th century, cockfighting was celebrated all over the world. It still continues as a tradition in parts of Asia, Africa and South America.
And, of course, races held among animals, including elephants, camels and even pigeons, have long been popular, with wagers tossed in to make the contests more interesting.
Let the Best Man Win (the Bet)
Greece, the home of the Olympic Games, deserves considerable credit for linking gambling with sports.
Thousands of years ago, at annual contests held in Olympus, Corinth, Delphi and Nemea, athletes would compete in footraces, hurling the discus, long jumping, and throwing the javelin, often dressed in full armour.
They also went against each other in wrestling, boxing and a form of free-style fighting. Winners might get prize money, statues erected in their honor and odes written about them.
But the biggest winnings were to be found among the spectators, who vigourously wagered on the outcomes, gaining and losing fortunes on a single turn of events.
If the Greeks were big sports bettors, the Romans who conquered them were even more so. In the 1st century, Pliny the Elder wrote, “We are so much at the mercy of chance that Chance is our god.”
To Romans, gambling was a metaphor for Life. They spread their proclivity for it far and wide, so that long after the Roman Empire collapsed, wagering on games of chance and sports were manifest everywhere they had been.
By the Middle Ages, some nations, such as England under Richard II, were trying to outlaw gambling, but with little success. When the King directed his subjects to turn their attention to archery, for example, wagering on archery matches became common.
In Italy, there was betting on a form of lawn bowling called bocce. In Germany, folks bet on skittles (ninepin bowling) and quoits (a game like horseshoes).
Not even warfare was exempt from the desire to profit from match-ups. Bets were placed heavily on who would win mock conflicts, such as jousting and skullball (a forerunner of rugby).
And when there were no battles to be fought, there was always something to bet on. As Dr. David Schwartz, director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Studies has put it, “When nature or society did not present opportunities for a bet, Englishmen invented them.”
During the Renaissance, for example, festivals, fairs and traveling carnivals offered patrons not only the opportunity to gamble on archery, but also on a game called “shin kicking.”
Participants would kick each other’s shins to determine who had the greater physical prowess and ability to withstand pain.
Another fascinating betting opportunity popular in 18th and 19th century England was “pedestrianism.” Participants would wager on how long it would take to walk, run or hop a certain distance. The bets soon became larger as the distances became longer.
For example, an Irish lad won £20,000 in 1789 by walking to Constantinople (Istanbul) and back in less than a year. An English baronet won a bet that he could travel to Lapland and return in a certain time, bringing back two women and a pair of reindeer.
Jules Verne’s 1872 novel, “Around the World in 80 Days,” was based upon this popular craze.
Sadly, perhaps, such innovative wagering gave way in the 20th century to betting on organised professional sports, from tennis and golf to football and cricket.
But it is certainly still possible to find people in England and elsewhere who will take bets on almost anything—as long as the odds are in their favor.
From Art to Science
Oddsmaking is an important aspect of gambling. Even the earliest dice players could figure out that the probability of a six being thrown on cube-shaped die was 1-in-6, or perhaps slightly higher or lower if the die were lopsided.
But how did 14th century bet-takers calculate 10-to-1 odds on the acquittal of King Henry VIII’s wife, Anne Boleyn, and her brother when they were put on trial for treason and incest?
Until the 16th century, predicting the likelihood of events was much more of an art than a science. Mathematics had yet to catch up.
In the mid-1500s, an eccentric Italian gambler named Girolamo Cardano wrote several treatises on probability as it applies to games of chance, covering dice, cards, backgammon and even astragali.
Between 1613 and 1623, astronomer Galileo Galilei was commissioned by his Tuscan patron to write a paper on the odds related to throwing three dice.
Later in the 17th century, mathematical giants no less than Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat (the inventor of calculus) would turn their genius to solving problems concerning dice and coin flips.
In less than a century, mankind’s study of probability theory erupted into a full-blown science. Luminaries from the Netherland’s top physicist Christiaan Huygens to France’s math scholar Pierre Rémond de Montmort and Switzerland’s numbers maven Jakob Bernoulli leapt at the opportunity to pen books on games of chance.
And a hungry public lapped them up, particularly “professional” gamblers who, until the 17th century, had been largely “going with gut instinct” when wagering.
With new math to show the way to winnings, mercantile gambling emerged. Unlike social gambling, it was a serious business, conducted for profit, not just for fun.
Using the newly available knowledge of gaming odds, an enterprising fellow could set up a table with some dice, draw a crowd, offer odds, and expect to walk away with more money than he started out with, almost every single time.
On a larger scale, organisations could make use of the new understanding of odds, too. Lotteries had been around since Roman times, but in the 16th and 17th centuries, they proliferated. Suddenly churches were using prize drawings to raise funds.
In Belgian, Holland, and northern France, money, gold and jewelry were offered in lottery draws.
In Italy, in particular, merchants saw lotteries as an opportunity to get more for their goods. Why sell a carpet for several hundred ducats, when a thousand potential buyers could be found to part with one ducat each for a chance at winning it?
The Rialto district of Venice quickly went mad for these types of drawings, which in turn led to another modern aspect of gambling—government regulation.
First House of Cards
The Venetian authorities stepped in, initially to bring order to the lottery craze, and then to conduct their own drawings. They raffled off everything from cash and real estate to official jobs and commissions, while stifling the competition.
Bringing lotteries under government control was done for the good of the people, of course. A percentage of the income derived from them went to feeding the poor and ransoming hostages held in foreign lands.
Despite such intervention, Venice remained enamoured of gambling. When attempts were made to ban them, the dice and card games that occurred spontaneously on street corners simply fled indoors to private chambers known as “ridotto.”
Particularly among the aristocracy, the ridotto flourished. The favourite pastime in the 16th and 17th century was called “Basset,” a card game played against a banker that allowed winnings to ride and multiply—a wager known as paroli, or “parlay.”
In 1638, realizing that a gambling prohibition was futile, the Great Council of Venice had an epiphany. During the city’s spring Carnival, they converted a four-story building in the San Moisé Palace to use for legal gaming.
They named it “The Ridotto.” Thus was Europe’s first, state-sanctioned casino born.
One of the regulations for gambling at the Ridotto was that all players except nobility had to wear Carnival masks. Refreshments were sold for a profit and stakes were high enough that the government reaped handsome revenues.
Hours were extended so that players could wager till midnight under huge candlelit chandeliers. By 1768, the Ridotto was expanded and a second legal gambling house was opened at the San Cassian Theatre.
The games enjoyed at the Ridotto back then were not the casino games played now. Basset, for example, very quickly gave way to Faro, while the Italian card game called panfil disappeared completely.
Another popular Ridotto game known as biribisso used a leather sack from which numbers were blindly drawn; it could only be thought of as a most distant cousin to roulette.
The most popular casino table games today—blackjack, baccarat and roulette—all owe their origins to France, where a wave of gambling fervor swept across the country between 1650 and 1800.
From King Henry III to King Louis XIV, games of chance were an integral part of court life. The French infatuation with gambling survived even the country’s Revolution.
The French Connection
The Ridotto closed in 1774, and less than two dozen years later, the entire city of Venice would fall to Napoleon.
By the turn of the 19th century, Italy was no longer the center of gambling sophistication. That honor would eventually fall to France, although the French did not pick up that mantle easily.
Between 1663 and 1777, 32 separate decrees were issued, making gambling illegal in the France, but the practice could not be stamped out.
In 1785, Louis Philippe Joseph I turned the four-story Palais Royale into a commercial establishment, with apartments on the upper floors and shops on the ground level.
In the basement, he rented out space to restaurants and social clubs, many of which focused their socialising on games of chance. One estimate put the number of rooms devoted to gambling at more than 100.
The Directorate that governed France in the wake of the Revolution neither legalised nor banned gambling. Instead, a blind eye was turned to the five major game rooms of the Palais Royale, leaving Parisians an unbothered place to play.
The Directorate did make one major change, however, symbolic of their triumph over the monarchy: they ordered that the “one” or “ace” in a deck of playing cards be ranked higher than the King, creating the so-called “French deck” now used in casinos the world over.
In the meantime, another European city was having no trouble whatsoever adopting gambling to its lifestyle—Monte Carlo. Back in 1655, French mathematician Blaise Pascal had been trying to create a perpetual motion machine with no success.
One of his failures was a wheel that spun so smoothly, it was adopted by the gaming houses of Monte Carlo for an instant lottery-type attraction. By the late 18th century, “Roulette” had become the undisputed “King of Casino Games.”
In 1796, the French rediscovered their invention and roulette wheels started turning in Paris. The original Parisian wheel had 38 numbered slots, or pockets. Those included 18 red and 18 black numbers, plus a zero and a double zero that gave the house its advantage over players.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, this wheel was exported to French-influenced New Orleans. From there, it traveled up the Mississippi River to the “Wild West,” where the roulette wheel became a gambling hall institution.
While the European wheel would evolve in Germany to a single zero layout in the late 19th century, the unchanged original would remain in the United States to become known as “American Roulette.”
A New Deal
Gambling was legal in the western U.S. throughout the 19th century. In addition to roulette, the most popular table game on the frontier in the 1830s was Faro, the same game that fascinated Venetians at the Ridotto. In fact, Faro was so widespread that newspapers took to calling it “The Game that Won the West.”
Another steadfast gambling hall activity evolved from the astragali of old. During the Crusades, William of Tyre and other soldiers allegedly created a dice game to pass the time, which they called “Hazard,” perhaps after the castle town of Hazarth, or maybe a derivation of the Arabic words for “the dice”—al zar.
Hazard became wildly popular in Britain, before crossing to France. In French Hazard, players throw against the house. In the English version, they throw against other players. In both types, the two and the three are called “crabs,” and any player who roles them “crabs out.”
In New Orleans in 1813, Bernard de Mandeville is said to have adapted a new form of the game, “Craps,” that permitted only “field” and “come” bets. Craps is most likely corruption of “crabs,” or the French word for a pair of ones.
Another game with a French pedigree was also making its way across the Atlantic in the 19th century—vingt-et-un or “twenty-one.” The object was to draw cards whose combined values were higher than the dealer’s, but without going over 21.
The game did not catch on quickly in America, so it was made more enticing by offering 10-to-1 payouts for the ace of spades drawn with a jack of clubs or spades on the first two cards.
This new game of “Blackjack” rapidly became a challenger to Faro on the riverboats and in the private gaming parlours of the West.
One other French-influenced game grabbed Americans fancy. It was said that French soldiers learned the five-card game called “As Nas” from Persians in the 17th century.
They modified it to include some bluffing and called the new version poque. French settlers brought it to the Louisiana Territory, where it became the game known today as “Poker.”
Meanwhile, Back in England
The British contribution to gambling history is considerably less than that of the French or Italians, or even the Americans, at least in terms of the number of inventions played today.
The very term “gambling” (from the French gamen, “to play”) did not enter the English vocabulary until the mid-1600s. Gambling houses would close almost as quickly as they opened.
One problem was that cheating was rampant in Britain in the 18th century. But that does not mean Britain has been without its important influences.
Games such as Hazard and Bragg had their days of glory, especially in the eight decades following 1660. Unfortunately, in 1740, antigambling legislation forced serious players completely out of the town of Bath, while communities elsewhere strove to shut down organised games of chance.
As the number of gambling houses declined, players gradually moved their games to taverns, coffeehouses and chocolate shops, typically in “back rooms” separate from the dining facilities.
In 1765, one of those shops, White’s of London, hosted John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, who played there for 24 hours straight. Unable to pull himself away from his game for a meal, Montagu ordered a waiter to bring him a piece of meat between two slices of bread.
Other players followed suit, asking for “the same as Sandwich,” giving birth to the ubiquitous “sandwich” and arguably the concept of fast food.
But apart from this curiosity, Britain’s primary impact on gambling was the rise of the bookmaker, a term with an interesting history.
When betting on team sports and horse racing became the rage in the mid-19th century, those who ran gambling clubs and back rooms would record all the wagers in books.
The phrase “betting a book” came into vogue, and from there it was a short leap of language to “bookmaker,” which yielded the term “bookie” in 1885.
The Sport of Kings
Horse racing is no more an English invention than playing cards are Italian. But there can be little doubt that the sport was elevated to a lofty level in Britain.
On April 6, 1680, the household of King Charles II traveled by carriage and saddle horse to Newmarket Downs, about 60 miles northeast of London.
Their purpose, according to historian J.P. Hore writing in 1886, was to attend a singular event, a race “between Major Astan’s Horse and another Gentleman’s (on a) six-mile course, for £500 each.”
Hore went on to say that “a great number of Gentlemen….have laid very considerable sums of money on both sides; but ‘tis supposed the odds will lie on the Major’s side.” Thus did the “Sport of Kings” (and handicapping) begin—the precursor to today’s thoroughbred racing.
The rise of horse racing and wagering in England is well documented and a history unto itself. Jockey clubs sprang up in the 18th century to coordinate races and betting.
Suffice it to say the trend quickly spread to the European continent and the colonies of America and Australia, where it became equally popular. By the 1840s, it was also embraced in Hong Kong
Oddly enough, when the British brought betting on horse races to Calcutta in the mid-1850s, it was the Indians who abhorred the sport. Many opposed it on religious grounds, saying it violated Islamic and Hindu laws.
Mahatma Gandhi himself said wagering on horse races was an evil worse than drinking alcohol. But it managed to survive, even after the British withdrew in 1949.
One other lasting contribution to the practice of betting on races came to the world from Britain by way of Australia. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a sport known as “coursing” was popular in England, using lures to guide dogs around a competitive course.
The Aussies added a twist in 1868, introducing wallabies as the “bait” for greyhounds. But the new sport didn’t catch on until five years later, when rabbits were substituted as the lures. By 1916, greyhound racing found its way to the United States, where it is alive and thriving today.
Gambling and Morality
Throughout history, societies have treated gambling with ambivalence—a kind of love-hate relationship. Kings, queens, emperors and presidents have all, at one time or other, tried to prohibit gambling, just as the same leaders have all intermittently used it as a revenue source, holding lotteries and taxing winnings.
Even major religions don’t know quite what to make of the human desire to wager. In the 14th century, Francesco Petrarca, the Italian father of Humanism, argued that gambling is a wholly unprofitable endeavour.
He reasoned that winning meant someone else must lose, and that today’s winner was certain to be a loser tomorrow. He never, however, called for gambling to be banned.
In the 15th century, rabbinical edicts attempted to keep the Jewish population of Europe from gambling, but they permitted it on certain minor holidays.
The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, condemned those who profited from gambling as “thieves before God,” yet he never denounced specific games, and his followers were allowed to play cards and dice for small stakes.
In the 16th century, the Swiss reformer John Calvin railed against gambling amongst the impoverished and those who wagered in excess, but he never proposed prohibition.
Even the Catholic Church, which forbade its clergy to gamble, relaxed sanctions during the Christmas season. It seems that whenever antigambling forces have gathered, it has rarely been for moral reasons. More often, the cause has been a practical one: to stop cheats and thieves.
It’s a Crime
In the early 19th century, gambling was ostensibly illegal in most of the United States, causing vice districts to spring up in major cities, pairing gambling with prostitution.
Especially in the South, gangs of swindlers ruled the betting trade in Vicksburg, Memphis, Mobile and other towns.
Outside of state jurisdictions, steamboats all along the Mississippi River region featured on-board gambling, with New Orleans as their base. City fathers tried in vain to outlaw cards and dice, but by 1850, the number of gambling houses in “The Big Easy” alone reached more than 500.
The United States Civil War (1861-65) brought a temporary hiatus to gambling in the South, as conquering Union troops closed most of the halls and heavily taxed the rest.
But as the riverboats faded in importance, the railroads grew, and commercial gambling soon became prevalent along the routes to the West Coast, both underground and above.
Gambling thrived in the wide open, anything-goes atmosphere of the American West.
Games like three-card Monte, faro, poker and roulette drew crowds from the dusty wood-floored card rooms of Tombstone and Dodge City to the elaborately decorated, totally legal gambling houses of San Francisco. At the same time, on the backstreets of Chinatown, Fan Tan and Mahjong survived.
In 1885, widespread political corruption caused the California legislature to take a strict stance against games of chance, with the unintended consequence of spreading professional gambling far and wide.
Local operators moved east to the cow towns of Denver, Cheyenne, Wichita and Santa Fe, as well as mining centers like Deadwood, Cripple Creek, and Leadville.
New Trends in Gambling
Meanwhile, east of the Mississippi, the British betting fad had taken hold, and horse racing bloomed anew. Maryland’s Pimlico Racecourse opened in 1870, followed by Kentucky’s Churchill Downs in 1875—the homes of the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby.
Bookmaking soon became almost as popular in New England as it was in Old England.
Farther south, in Florida, the “Faro King” of New York, John Morrissey, set about opening private “club houses” where non-resident Sarasota vacationers could play undisturbed.
By 1871, he was grossing more than $250,000 a year, causing imitators to pop up all around the small city.
Morrissey’s success prompted Richard Canfield, the “Prince of Gamblers,” to set up shop, not only in Sarasota, but in New York, too. His Madison Square Club, modeled after the elegant casinos of Monte Carlo, opened in 1888 and soon grew into America’s top gambling spot.
By the turn of the century, Canfield had become the wealthiest casino promoter in the country, worth more than $13 million.
In the 1880’s, a poker-playing passion infected the nation. It was followed by a brief interest in British pedestrianism. But little could prepare the American public for the next gambling sensation. It was taking shape in a San Francisco electrical shop in 1898—the slot machine.
Three German mechanics—Theodore Holtz, Gustav Schultze, and Charles Fey—developed a new wheel-mechanism based upon an 1891 poker machine that dispensed cigars to winners.
Their invention was called “Horseshoes,” and it paid out two nickels (10¢) whenever one of ten horseshoes came up on a line out of 25 possible symbols. Fey later perfected the device with three wheels and called it the “Liberty Bell.”
By the time of the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, the city was earning an annual six-figure tax income off revenues from thousands of installed “slot machines,” so-named for the orifice in which a nickel was inserted to trigger the reels.
The machines were declared illegal in 1909, but by then they were a fixture in casinos across the country.
Taking a Gamble on Gambling
The love-hate relationship of America with gambling continued throughout the early part of the 20th century. In New Jersey, for example, “gambling resorts” cropped up along the Hudson River across from their beloved clientele in New York City.
Most of these operations were run by illegal crime syndicates, who reaped millions of dollars in profits to finance other activities, such as bootlegging, hijacking, prostitution, gun running and drug dealing.
Yet the local authourities had little interest in seeing the resorts closed. In 1908, the sheriff of Atlantic County confidently declared that gaming was “a boon to the tourist trade.”
Europe and the rest of the world looked on, having already dealt, by and large, with this angst over legality. Britain’s Parliament, for example, had ended state lotteries by 1826 and then drove gaming out of public houses with strict sanctions against professional gambling in 1845, largely to eliminate cheating.
Social clubs were allowed to continue with their games, but betting houses were closed in 1853, and bookmakers were corralled at racecourses where they could be scrutinised.
It is quite likely that King Edward VII’s own love of thoroughbreds prevented the tracks from being closed altogether.
The Chinese government decided to tolerate the casinos established by Portugal in Macau in the 1850s as well as the racetrack created in Hong Kong’s Happy Valley, but they decried the playing of Mahjong for money within their own boundaries as “culturally degrading.”
Australia waffled on the legalisation of bookmaking and lotteries in the 19th century, before eventually giving them an official okay under a very watchful eye.
On the Continent, most countries, like Italy, Germany and France, used laws to keep cheaters at bay and organised gambling under control, without going after the games themselves or their players.
Monte Carlo, by contrast, never had a crisis of conscience and cemented itself as the capital of European gaming, which it remains to this day.
So it was that Nevada, a “Wild West” state if ever there was one, declared gambling illegal in 1910, looking to clear out unsavoury elements.
Then 21 years later, the state reversed its decision, looking to the jobs and revenues that casinos could bring as a way out of the Great Depression. Little could the Nevadans of that time have known what was in store for their progeny.
Viva Las Vegas
Both Reno and Las Vegas benefited greatly from Nevada’s legalisation of gambling in 1931. Like cities in New Jersey and Florida, they openly welcomed cards, dice, slot machines, roulette wheels and tourist dollars.
In particular, its proximity to a huge public works project—the construction of Boulder (Hoover) Dam—and location on the railroad between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City made Las Vegas the perfect Depression-era jumping off point, not only for visitors, but also for the operators of casinos elsewhere.
Mob bosses like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel already knew how to fleece customers illegally. Nevada had opened the door for them to do so with the state’s blessing.
Apart from table games, the bosses focused their attention on race and sports betting, setting up “wires” (telegraph connections) to relay results from tracks and stadiums across the country to bookmaking operations attached to the casinos.
This enabled remote betting of a sort previously inconceivable. The result was the creation of a virtual monopoly on race and sports wagering nationwide.
For nearly two decades, Las Vegas developed largely through financing from the criminal syndicates, some from the East Coast and others fleeing ever-tighter California laws.
Then in 1950~61, investigations by the U.S. government, first under Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and later under Attorney General Robert Kennedy, exposed “organised crime in interstate commerce,” effectively forcing gangsters to divest themselves of interests in the Las Vegas casinos or else face prosecution.
The latter half of the 20th century would see casino after grand casino built in Nevada’s desert city—from the fabulous Flamingo to the Sahara, Tropicana, Caesar’s Palace, the Desert Inn, Harrah’s, the MGM…and so many, many more.
Famous names, from Howard Hughes to Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, would become forever linked with Las Vegas. It would assume the crown once worn by Venice, Paris and Monte Carlo as the gambling capital of the world.
Toward the 21st Century
If anything is constant in the history of gambling, it is change, and the pace of that change just keeps getting faster. By the time a new millennium was about to begin, Las Vegas already had competition for its title from several quarters.
Throughout the United States, nations of Native Americans began taking advantage of their independence from state governments to establish lavish casinos of their own on tribal lands.
The opening of the magnificent Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut in 1986 gave East Coast gamblers a reason to stay close to home. By 2005, there would be 55 Native American-run casinos in California alone, each giving Las Vegas a run for its money.
Of course, gambling via computer has become wildly popular, too, starting in the mid-1990s. If it were not for U.S. restrictions on Internet gaming that keep Americans from freely playing online, Las Vegas and bricks and mortar casinos might be feeling the pinch even more. Elsewhere in the world, revenues generated by virtual gaming are soaring.
And Macau, having reverted to Chinese ownership in 1999, has been adding gambling resorts with the same ferocity seen in “Sin City” a few decades earlier. Modern casino gambling has long been part of life in Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
If the Chinese open the floodgates, there can be little doubt that the crown will eventually head across the Pacific.
Today, the variety of legal gaming opportunities is almost boundless. The Irish Sweepstakes is no longer the only place to make a small fortune off a small bet.
From bingo halls and poker rooms to financial spread betting and wagers on the outcomes of reality television shows, players willing to risk a little can gain a lot.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball or an abacus to predict that gambling is here to stay. Just as clearly, wondrous innovations will mark its future.