The Evolution of Gambling in America

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A Brief History

On November 8, 2018, we take a look at the evolution of gambling in the United States, with the ultimate result of the advent of Online Casino Gambling. (In 1994, Antigua and Barbuda passed the Free Trade & Processing Act, allowing licenses to be granted to organizations applying to open online casinos opening the door to Online Casino Gambling becoming available for Americans.)  Also known as “Internet Casinos” or “Virtual Casinos,” the online variety of casino makes casino style gaming available to almost everyone, even those that cannot travel to casino resorts destinations and even those that are basically housebound. America has a long history of gambling games, as gambling has thrived in the US in many forms, gradually becoming mainstream and accepted, even welcomed, in many locations including a cornucopia of State Lotteries.

Digging Deeper

The original colonies that became the United States were settled mostly by people from the British Isles and from other parts of Europe, and these people often brought various games of chance and games of skill with them. Some communities had no hesitation at accepting such recreational activity. The colonies and then later the states even held lotteries to help fund higher education.

The thirteen colonies (shown in red) in 1775.

Gambling continued to be a big part of recreation in the United States in the 19th Century, with riverboat gambling developing into quite an industry. New Orleans and other Mississippi River ports became gambling meccas. Some states continued the tradition of holding lotteries as well. Later in the 19th Century religious zealots campaigned for an end to public gambling, starting in the Northeast part of the country and working its way across the states. Most of the US was a no gambling zone by the end of the 19th Century. The proliferation of railroads helped sink the once thriving riverboat gambling industry, as river travel became less and less important for moving passengers.

During the 1800’s the heart of gambling in the US had moved Westward, with frontier towns and boomtowns often featuring local casinos to give miners that scored valuable finds an outlet for their new found riches. The California Gold Rush of 1848-1855 turned San Francisco into the American gambling center. The post-Civil War era (Reconstruction) saw some states briefly bring back lotteries in the cash starved South.  Prohibition brought “Speakeasy” casinos to a high level of sophistication.

The Mayflower Club, an upmarket speakeasy in Washington, D.C. It offered liquor and gambling.

At the Turn of the Century, Nevada was a sparsely populated state, large in size and few in population (only 42,335 people!). Las Vegas, a city that would boast a metropolitan population of 1.8 million by 2005 had a miniscule population of only about 25 people in 1900. Today, pretty much thanks to the gambling industry that developed in Las Vegas after World War II, more than 80% of Nevadans live in or near Las Vegas. The Nevada city of Reno had previously been the American gambling capital prior to the rise of Las Vegas, and though nothing of the scope of today’s Las Vegas, Reno is still a thriving casino town.

In the latter half of the 20th Century, American public views about gambling became more in tune to their private views. Americans had always found ways to gamble, whether in smoky rooms behind closed doors, at legal race tracks, sports betting, poker between friends, church sponsored Bingo and Casino Nights, or traveling to Las Vegas or points in foreign countries where gambling casinos were major resorts. Cruise ships held casino games while at sea, unfettered by archaic state laws, and states began to establish lotteries, often with proceeds earmarked for education. Indian reservations became hot spots for the building of casinos, and Atlantic City, New Jersey developers made a big effort to create an East Coast Las Vegas gambling destination. Off Track Betting on horse races upped the gambling presence in the United States, and many states passed laws allowing the establishment of a limited amount of casinos.

The Borgata is Atlantic City’s highest grossing casino.

With the advent of the Internet, it was only a matter of (not much!) time before gambling hit the World Wide Web, including free slots online. Online gambling inevitably developed, including widespread proliferation of Fantasy Sports being played for entertainment purposes, as well as online poker and the like. As stated above, in 1994 Antigua and Barbuda passed the Free Trade & Processing Act and Online Casinos became mainstream. With the gambling industry generating nearly $100 billion in annual revenue in the United States, the internet could not possibly be excluded from this part of the modern economy. The ultimate peak (so far) in the evolution of gambling, Online Casinos and internet gambling comes in several forms, including Web Based Online Casinos, Virtual Online Casinos, and Live Dealer Online Casinos. There are also downloadable Online Casino software available for gamers. Virtually all casino type games are available to play online, with all sorts of prizes offered.

Another alternative to online gambling are social casinos. A social casino is meant for pure entertainment purposes only. Players are able to spend in-game virtual currency which can be purchased with real money. This virtual currency can only be used to play the game and cannot be exchanged for real world items or money. Free slots online are the most common form of virtual gambling because of their simplicity and does not require much learning curve. They come in many different styles and can be enjoyed by a wide variety of people.

Las Vegas slot machines

The legality of Online Casinos and gambling varies from country to country, and for the most part is legal in the United States with some restrictions based on certain state laws. Virtually all forms of Online Casino card games and the like is legal in the US. Certain betting on sporting events may be limited, so be sure to check on the individual case by case events. Some countries claim a government monopoly on gambling, including Online Casinos, so if you are from outside the United States, be sure to check your national laws.

Gambling has become an enormous part of the American culture, as evidence by the $1.6 billion Mega Millions of October 2018. Although gambling and gaming has always been a major recreational activity for Americans, today is surely the acme of the legitimate gambling industry, with Online Casinos being the highest form of the evolution of gambling so far.

This image is a logo for Mega Millions.

Questions for Students (and Others): Have you played Online Casino games? Do you know people who play Online Casino games? Do you buy lottery tickets? Do you believe gambling revenue is important to state and local government finances?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Durham, Steve and Kathryn Hashimoto.  The History of Gambling in America.  Pearson, 2009.

The History of Gambling in America (Paperback)


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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.