History of gambling in the United States

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The History of gambling in the United States covers gambling and gaming since the colonial period


Games of chance came to the British American colonies with the first settlers.[1] Attitudes on gambling varied greatly from community to community, but there were no large-scale restrictions on the practice.

By the 1680s in Virginia an emerging colonial elite, the gentry who owned the richest land, ensured their solidarity through very heavy gambling on horse racing. The heavy bets demonstrated their courage and skill and promoted a sense of shared values and consciousness among the gentry. The gentry made elaborate rules, establish in formal codes of how much to bet, and marginalized the role of the non-gentry. They developed a code of honor regarding acquisitiveness, individualism, materialism, personal relationships, and their right to be rulers. Not until the mid-18th century, with the emergence of Baptists and Methodists who denounced gambling as sinful, was there any challenge to the social, political, and economic dominance of the Virginia elite.[2]

Historian Neal Millikan using newspaper advertisements in the colonial era found at least 392 lotteries were held in the 13 colonies.[3]

Lotteries were used not only as a form of entertainment but as a source of revenue to help fund each of the 13 original colonies. The financiers of Jamestown, Virginia, for instance, funded lotteries to raise money to support their colony.[4] These lotteries were quite sophisticated for the time period and even included instant winners. A 1769 restriction on lotteries by the British crown became one of many issues which fueled tensions between the Colonies and Britain prior to the American Revolution.[5]

Early national[edit]

Lotteries continued to be used at the state and federal level in the early United States. Gambling businesses slowly developed in various communities. New Orleans emerging as the nation's leading gambling center. A wave of hostility against the sinfulness of gambling emerged in the religious revivals that comprised the Second Great Awakening and the Third Great Awakening. The moralist concentrated on state legislatures, passing laws to restrict gambling, pleasure halls, horse racing, and violations of the Sabbath by doing business or engaging in sports on Sundays. Local judge Jacob Rush told jurors that not all sports were banned, only those associated with gambling. Unadulterated amusement was permissible, but Rush explained gambling was immoral because it "tyrannises" the people beyond their control, reducing them to "poverty and wretchedness." "The mind is deeply contaminated; and sentiments, the most hostile to its final peace and happiness, are harboured and indulged."[6]

Gambling went underground or found safe havens like New Orleans and especially the riverboats, When the captain was the only law in force. Anti-gambling movements closed down lotteries. As railroads replaced riverboat travel, another venue closed down . The increasing legal pressures on gambling gradually created opportunities for illegal operations.[1]


During the California Gold Rush starting in 1849, the new El Dorado was filled with ambitious young men, to whom prospecting for gold and gambling away were two sides of their manliness.[7] San Francisco became a World--famous city flush with aspiring prospectors. By the 1850s, the new city had overtaken New Orleans as the gambling capital of the U.S. However, as respectability set in, California gradually strengthened its laws and its policing of gambling; the games went underground.[1]

Gambling was popular on the frontier during the settlement of the West; nearly everyone participated in games of chance. Towns at the end of the cattle trails such as Deadwood, South Dakota or Dodge City, Kansas, and major railway hubs such as History of Kansas City and Denver were famous for their many lavish gambling houses. Frontier gamblers were the local elite. At the top of the line where the riverboat gamblers dressed smartly, wore expensive jewelry, and exuded refined respectability.[8]

Late 19th century[edit]

Horse racing was an expensive hobby for the very rich, especially in the South, but the Civil War destroyed the affluence it rested upon. The sport made a come back in the Northeast, under the leadership of elite jockey clubs that operated the most prestigious racetracks. As a spectator sport, the races attracted an affluent audience, as well as less affluent addicted gamblers. The racetracks closely controlled the situation, to prove prevent fraud and keep the sport honest. Off-track bookmakers, relying on the telegraph and their own system of runners, attracted a much wider audience. However the bookmakers paid off the odds that were actually set in an honest fashion at the racetrack.[9]


In Chicago, like other rapidly growing industrial centers with large immigrant working-class neighborhoods, gambling was a major issue. The city's elite upper-class had private clubs and closely supervised horse racing tracks. The middle-class reformers focused on the workers, who discovered freedom and independence in gambling that was a world apart from their closely supervised factory jobs. They gambled to validate risk-taking aspect of masculinity, betting heavily on dice, card games, policy, and cock fights. Already by the 1850s hundreds of saloons offered gambling opportunities, including off-track betting on the horses.[10][11] Historian Mark Holler argues that organized crime provided upward mobility to ambitious ethnics. The high-income, high-visibility vice lords and racketeers built their careers and profits in ghetto neighborhoods, often branching into local politics to protect their domains.[12] For example, in 1868-1888, Chicagoan Michael C. McDonald-- "The Gambler King of Clark Street" -- kept numerous Democratic machine politicians on expense account to protect his gambling empire and keep the goo-goo reformers at bay.[13]

In larger cities illegal businesses Such as gambling and prostitution were typically contained in this geographically segregated red light districts. The business owners made regularly scheduled payments to police and politicians, which they treated as a licensing expense. The informal rates became standardized. For example in Chicago in 1912 they ranged from $20 a month for a cheap brothel ro $1000 a month for luxurious operations. Reform element never accepted the segregated vice districts – they wanted them all destroyed –-but in large cities the political system was powerful enough to keep the reformers at bay. Finally, around 1900-1910, the reformers grew politically strong enough to shut down the system of vice segregation and the survivors went underground.[14]

20th century[edit]

Numbers racket[edit]

Ethnic neighborhoods in larger cities starting in the late 19th century were the scene of numerous underground "numbers game", Typically controlled by criminals who paid off the local police, they operated out of inconspicuous "policy shops" --Usually a saloon-- where bettors choose numbers. In 1875, a report of a select committee of the New York State Assembly stated that "the lowest, meanest, worst form ... [that] gambling takes in the city of New York, is what is known as policy playing". The game was also popular in Italian neighborhoods known as the Italian lottery, and it was known in Cuban communities as bolita ("little ball").[15] By the early 20th century, the game was associated with big city slums, and could be played for pennies. The bookies would even extend credit, and there were no deductions for taxes.[16]


Moralistic reformers led by evangelical Protestants succeeded passing state laws that closed nearly all the race tracks by 1917. The progressive movement 1900-1920 Two and nearly all legal betting. However, slot machines, gambling houses, betting parlors, and policy games flourished just as illegal alcohol did in the prohibition years.[17] Prohibition of liquor was an even more important reform for the moralists, but it was so discredited in the 1920s that they lost much of their influence. The horses made their comeback in the 1920s, as state Governments legalized on-track betting as a popular source for state revenue. Illegal off-track betting regained its popularity.[18] Illegal gambling, having the same organizers and support system as illegal whiskey in the 1920s, leading to powerful criminal syndicates in most large cities.[19]

The Great Depression saw the legalization of some forms of gambling such as bingo in some cities to allow churches and charities to raise money, but most gambling remained illegal. In the 1930s, 21 states opened race tracks.[20]


Some cities such as Miami, the "Free State of Galveston in Texas," and Hot Springs, Arkansas, became regional gambling centers, attracting gamblers from more prudish rural areas.[21]

New York City[edit]

At the turn-of-the-century in 1900, gambling was illegal but widespread in New York City. The favorite activities included games of chance such as cards, dice and numbers, and betting on sports events, chiefly horse racing. In the upper class, gambling was handled discreetly in the expensive private clubs, the most famous of which was operated by Richard Canfield who operated the Saratoga Club.[22] Prominent players included Reggie Vanderbilt and John Bet-a-Million Gates. The chief competitor to Canfield was the "Bronze Door," operated 1891-1917 by syndicate of gamblers closely linked to the Democratic machine represented by Tammany Hall.[23] These elite establishments were illegal, and paid off the police and politicians as needed. The working-class was served by hundreds of neighborhood gambling parlors, featuring faro card games, and the omnipresent policy shops where poor folks could bet a few pennies on the daily numbers, and be quickly paid off so they could gamble again. Betting on horse racing was allowed only at the tracks themselves, where the controls were tight. The most famous venue was Belmont Park a complex of five race courses, a 12,000 seat grandstand and multiple stables, centered around a lavish clubhouse. Middle-class gamblers could frequent the city's race tracks, but the center of middle-class moral gravity was strongly opposed to all forms of gambling. The reform movements was strongest in the 1890s. It was led by men such as the Reverend Charles H. Parkhurst, the leading Presbyterian pastor and president of the New York Society for the Prevention of Crime;[24] reform mayor William L. Strong, and his police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. Reformers passed laws in the state legislature against any emerging gambling venue. Such laws were enforced and most of the small towns and rural areas, but not in New York's larger cities, where political machines controlled the police and the courts.[25]

Saratoga Spring NY[edit]

Saratoga Springs, New York after 1870 became the nation's top upscale resort relying on natural mineral springs, horse racing, gambling, and luxury hotels. World War II imposed severe travel restrictions which financially ruined the tourist industry. Since 1970 there has been a revival a with a renovated racetrack, a 28-day exclusive racing season, a new interstate, winter sports emphasis, and an influx of young professionals.[26]

Cleveland Ohio[edit]

Horse racing has a long history in the city, as elites by the 1860s worked to keep gamblers and criminals at bay.[27]

The Mayfield Road Mob, based in the Little Italy district, became a powerful local crime syndicate in the 1920s and 1930s through bootlegging and illegal gambling. Local gangsters worked a deal with the Jewish-Cleveland Syndicate (see Louis Rothkopf) which operated laundries, casinos, and nightclubs. Both groups profited from illegal gambling, bookmaking, loan sharking, and labor rackets in northern Ohio.[28]

The "Harvard Club" (named after its Harvard street location in the Cleveland suburbs) operated in 1930-41 as one of the largest gambling operations attracting customers from his far as New York and Chicago. It moved to different locations on Harvard Street, which accommodated 500-1,000 gamblers who came to shoot craps and to play the slot machines, roulette, and all-night poker. It defied numerous raids until it was finally shut down by Frank Lausche in 1941.[29]

Eliot Ness, after building a crime-fighting national reputation in Chicago, took on Cleveland, 1934-1942. He tried to suppressed labor-union protection rackets, illegal liquor suppliers, and gambling, but his reputation suffered.[30]

Legalization in states[edit]

The Las Vegas Strip became the nation's casino capital.

To overcome the Great Depression Nevada legalized of gambling as a way to bring economic relief.[31] In 1931, Nevada legalized most forms of gambling when Assembly Bill 98 was signed into law, providing a source of revenue for the state.[32] Interest in development in the state was slow at first as the state itself had a limited population. After 1945, enforcement of gambling laws became more strict in most places and the resort town of Las Vegas became an attractive target for investment by crime figures such as New York's Bugsy Siegel. The town rapidly developed during the 1950s dooming some illegal gambling venues such as Galveston. Thanks to cheap air travel and auto access from California, Nevada, and Las Vegas in particular, became the center of gambling in the U.S. In the 1960s Howard Hughes and other legitimate investors purchased many of the most important hotels and casinos in the city gradually eliminating the city's connections to organized crime.[33]

Southern Maryland became popular for its slot machines which operated legally there between 1949 (1943 in some places) and 1968. In 1977, New Jersey legalized gambling in Atlantic City. The city rapidly grew into a significant tourist destination, briefly revitalizing what was previously largely a run-down slum community. In 1979, the Seminole tribe opened the first reservation-based commercial gambling beginning a trend that would be followed by other reservations.[34] Gradually, lotteries and some types of parimutuel betting were legalized in other areas of the country.

In the 1990s, riverboat casinos were legalized in Louisiana and Illinois in addition to other states.[35] In 1996, Michigan legalized gambling in the city of Detroit creating an economic center for potential casino growth. In an attempt to curb the ill effects of the rapid rise in gambling on sporting events, the Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992.[36] This was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2018, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional for the federal government to prohibit states from legalizing it under state law.[36]

In the early 21st century, Internet gambling grew rapidly in popularity worldwide Global Internet gambling reaching US $34 billion in 2011. This is higher than worldwide movie box office revenues and represents 9% of the international gambling market.[37] However, interstate and international transactions remained illegal under the Federal Wire Act of 1961, with additional penalties added by the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "History of Gambling in the United States". Gambling in California. California State Library. March 1997. Archived from the original on 2009-10-08. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  2. ^ Timothy H. Breen, "Horses and gentlemen: The cultural significance of gambling among the gentry of Virginia." William and Mary Quarterly (1977): 239-257. online
  3. ^ Neal Millikan, Neal (2011). Lotteries in Colonial America. Routledge. p. 2.
  4. ^ Roger Dunstan (January 1997). "History of Gambling in the United States". Archived from the original on September 10, 2010. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)
  5. ^ Daniels, Bruce Colin (1995). Puritans at play: leisure and recreation in colonial New England. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 182. ISBN 978-0-312-12500-4.
  6. ^ J. Thomas Jable, "Aspects of Moral Reform in Early Nineteenth-Century Pennsylvania." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 102.3 (1978): 344-363. pp 346-47.
  7. ^ Christopher Herbert, "'Life's Prizes Are by Labor Got': Risk, Reward, and White Manliness in the California Gold Rush." Pacific Historical Review 80.3 (2011): 339-368. online
  8. ^ G. R. Williamson (2012). Frontier Gambling. p. 87.
  9. ^ Steven Riess, "The Cyclical History of Horse Racing: The USA's Oldest and (Sometimes) Most Popular Spectator Sport" International Journal of the History of Sport (2014) 31#1 pp 29-54
  10. ^ See Christopher Thale, "Gambling" Encyclopedia of Chicago (2004)
  11. ^ Richard C. Lindberg, Chicago by Gaslight: A History of Chicago's Netherworld: 1880-1920 (2005) excerpt
  12. ^ Mark H. Haller, "Organized Crime in Urban Society: Chicago in the Twentieth Century" Journal of Social History (1971) 5#2 pp. 210-234 Online
  13. ^ Richard C. Lindberg (2009). The Gambler King of Clark Street: Michael C. McDonald and the Rise of Chicago's Democratic Machine. SIU Press. pp. 2–7.
  14. ^ Perry Duis, The Saloon: Public Drinking in Chicago and Boston, 1880-1920 (1983) pp 230-73.
  15. ^ Holice and Debbie, Our Police Protectors: History of New York Police Chapter 13, Part 1 Archived 2008-06-04 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed on 4/2/2005
  16. ^ St. Clair Drake; Horace R. Cayton (1945). Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. pp. 470–94. also online free to borrow
  17. ^ David G. Schwartz (2005). Cutting The Wire: Gaming Prohibition And The Internet. Uof Nevada Press. pp. 26–27.
  18. ^ Riess, "The Cyclical History of Horse Racing."
  19. ^ John Burnham, Bad Habits (1993) pp 63-66
  20. ^ Schwartz, Cutting The Wire pp 26–27.
  21. ^ Dombrink, John; Thompson, William Norman (1990). The last resort: success and failure in campaigns for casinos. U of Nevada Press. p. 176.
  22. ^ Asbury (1938). Sucker’s Progress. pp. 419–69.
  23. ^ Luc Sante (2003). Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. p. 172.
  24. ^ Warren Sloat, A Battle for the Soul of New York: Tammany Hall, Police Corruption, Vice and Reverend Charles Parkhurst's Crusade Againist Them,1892-1895 (2002) review
  25. ^ Mike Wallace, Greater Gotham: A history of New York City from 1898 to 1919 (Oxford U, 2017), pp 615-618
  26. ^ Janet Nyberg Paraschos, "Saratoga Springs" American Preservation (1978) 2#1 pp 59-72.
  27. ^ See "Horse Racing" Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History
  28. ^ See "Mayfield Rd. Mob Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History
  29. ^ "Harvard Club" Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History online
  30. ^ See "Ness, Eliot" Encyclopedia Of Cleveland History
  31. ^ "Top 5 online slots for 2016". gamblinginfo.com. Retrieved 2019-06-12.
  32. ^ "Gambling History, from the beginning". Gambling Info. Archived from the original on 2011-06-12. Retrieved 2011-06-23. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)
  33. ^ Nicholas Pileggi, Casino: The Rise and Fall of the Mob in Las Vegas (2001).
  34. ^ Johansen, Bruce. The Praeger Handbook on Contemporary Issues in Native America, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007.
  35. ^ Zimmerman, Joseph Francis (2004). Interstate economic relations. p. 164.
  36. ^ a b Liptak, Adam; Draper, Kevin (May 14, 2018). "Supreme Court Ruling Favors Sports Betting". New York Times.
  37. ^ Sally Gainsbury (2012). Internet Gambling: Current Research Findings and Implications. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 2.

Further reading[edit]

  • Abt, Vicki, James F. Smith, and Eugene Martin Christiansen, eds. The business of risk: Commercial gambling in mainstream America (University Press of Kansas, 1985).
  • Bernhard, Bo J., Robert Futrell, and Andrew Harper. "Shots from the Pulpit:An Ethnographic Content Analysis of United States Anti-Gambling Social Movement Documents from 1816-2010." UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal 14.2 (2010): 2. Online
  • Burnham, John C., ed. Bad Habits: Drinking, smoking, taking drugs, gambling, sexual misbehavior and swearing in American History (NYU Press, 1992).
  • Chafetz, Henry. Play the Devil: A History of Gambling in the United States from 1492 to 1955 (1960), popular history.
  • Davis, James A., and Lloyd E. Hudman. "The history of Indian gaming law and casino development in the western United States." in Alan A. Lew, ed., Tourism and gaming on American Indian land (1998): 82-92.
  • Fabian, Ann. Card Sharps, Dream Books, and Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th Century America. (Cornell University Press, 1990).
  • Ferentzy, Peter, and Nigel Turner. "Gambling and organized crime-A review of the literature." Journal of Gambling Issues 23 (2009): 111-155. Online
  • Findlay, John M. People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas (Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • Goodman, Robert. The luck business (Simon and Schuster, 1996), attacks the business
  • Haller, Mark H. "The changing structure of American gambling in the twentieth century." Journal of Social Issues 35.3 (1979): 87-114.
  • Lears, Jackson. Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003).
  • Lang, Arne K. Sports betting and bookmaking: An American history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
  • Meyer-Arendt, Klaus, And Rudi Hartmann, eds. ''Casino Gambling in America: Origins, Trends, and Impacts (1998)
  • O'Brien, Timothy L. Bad Bet: The Inside Story of the Glamour, Glitz, and Danger of America's Gambling Industry (1998).
  • Sallaz, Jeff. The labor of luck: Casino capitalism in the United States and South Africa (U of California Press, 2009).* Longstreet, Stephen. Win or Lose: A Social History of Gambling in America (1977)
  • Schwartz, David G. Roll The Bones: The History of Gambling (2006), scholarly history with global perspective; covers U.S. in chapters 7, 11, 12, 15-18.
  • Thompson, William N. Gambling in America: An encyclopedia of history, issues, and society (Abc-Clio, 2001).

State and local[edit]

  • Asbury, Herbert. Sucker's Progress: An Informal History of Gambling in America (1938), covers numerous cities
  • Cunningham, Gary L. "Chance, Culture and Compulsion: The Gambling Games of the Kansas Cattle Towns." Nevada Historical Society Quarterly (1983) 26: 255-271.
  • Dasgupta, Anisha S. "Public Finance and the Fortunes of the Early American Lottery." QLR 24 (2005): 227+. Online
  • Henricks, Kasey and David G. Embrick. ed. State Looteries Historical Continuity, Rearticulations of Racism, and American Taxation (2016) Online
  • Karmel, James R. Gambling on the American dream: Atlantic City and the casino era (2015).
  • Peck, Gunther. “Manly Gambles: The Politics of Risk on the Comstock Lode, 1860–1880,” Journal of Social History 26 (1993)
  • Riess, Steven A. The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime: Horse Racing, Politics, and Organized Crime in New York 1865–1913 (Syracuse UP, 2011).
  • Royer, Jennifer Baugh. "A dark side of Dixie: Illegal gambling in Northern Kentucky, 1790–2000" (PhD dissertation, Texas Christian University, 2009) Online.
  • Taylor, Troy (2010). Wicked New Orleans: The Dark Side of the Big Easy. Arcadia Publishing.
  • Weaver, Karol K. "“It's the Union Man That Holds the Winning Hand”: Gambling in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Region." Pennsylvania History 80.3 (2013): 401-419. Online
  • Williamson, Ron. Frontier Gambling: The Games, the Gamblers, & the Great Gambling Halls of the Old West (2011). excerpt


  • Clotfelter, Charles T., and Philip J. Cook. Selling hope: State lotteries in America (Harvard UP, 1991).
  • Dasgupta, Anisha S. "Public Finance and the Fortunes of the Early American Lottery." QLR 24 (2005): 227+ Online
  • Ezell, John. Fortune’s Merry Wheel: The Lottery In America (1960). online free to borrow
  • Goodman, Robert. The luck business (Simon and Schuster, 1996), attacks gambling.
  • Neal Millikan, Neal (2011). Lotteries in Colonial America. Routledge. p. 2.
  • Munting, Roger. An economic and social history of gambling in Britain and the USA (Manchester UP, 1996). excerpts
  • Watson, Alan D. "The Lottery in Early North Carolina." North Carolina Historical Review 69.4 (1992): 365-387. Online

External links[edit]