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 American Gambling History 

American Casino History

U.S. Casino History - Part 1 (Pre-1930)

Part 1 (Pre-1930) :: Part 2 (Post-1930)

Given America?s rich and diverse migrant history, one cannot consider its Casino History without first understanding the original foundations of what has become an inherent part of the American Dream.

The earliest record of gambling was written by the Chinese during 2300 B.C. and its practice was believed to be present in every succeeding civilization. Gambling has played a vital role in human history as witnessed by the countless stories that have been passed from generation to generation.

Although it was primarily for entertainment purposes, gambling was also used a means to settle disputes among people in the community. From the Grecian to the Roman Empires to Napoleon?s France and Elizabethan England, gambling was decisive to some changes in the course of events. At the height of the Holy Roman Empire a law was passed mandating all children to learn the art of throwing dice. One Roman Emperor even had his carriage designed to accommodate his gambling sessions while travelling to perform his official duties! Playing cards were invented by the French in 1387, while it was a German, Johann Gutenberg, who printed the first full deck of cards in 1440.

Most of the Casino games played today have their roots from ancient versions. For instance, the French bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century became skilful Roulette players, a game invented by the Egyptians, while Napoleon was an adroit player of the card game Vingt-et-Un, which is more popularly referred to today as Blackjack or Twenty-One. It is also believed that the dice game Craps had its origin from the English version called ?Hazard?, whereas influences from Persia, Italy, and Britain were the known beginnings of the modern Poker games. The French influenced further modifications to Poker such as in the betting techniques, while the idea of bluffing was created by the British.

All of these gambling passions were brought to the shores of New England by the huge influx of European immigrants, despite the best efforts of the Puritans and other missionary groups!

The one imported gambling pursuit that America decidedly created in its own image was the game of Poker. For some almost peculiar reason it seemed to capture the imagination of the early settlers. English actor Joseph Crowell described the game as played in New Orleans in 1829 with a deck of 20 cards, with four players betting on which player's hand of cards was the most valuable. The same French settlers in New Orleans continued to manifest hybrid versions of the European original from the Three Card Monte to the 5 or 7 Card Stud, to the 13 Card Pai Gaw leading to today?s many varieties including perhaps the most well-known version: Texas Hold?Em. But Poker was not confined for long in New Orleans!

Jonathan H. Green's book, An Exposure of the Arts and Miseries of Gambling (G. B. Zieber, Philadelphia, 1843) described the spread of the game from there to the rest of the country by Mississippi riverboats, on which gambling was a common pastime.

Evidently, it was during these riverboat journeys that the flush became possible with a full 52 card deck. The additions of Draw Poker, Stud Poker and the Straight became common at around the time of the American Civil War. Further variations such as the Wild Card, Lowball and Split-pot Poker all arrived in the last decades of the 19th century. From these small beginnings on the riverboats, the American version of what in Italy were called ?casinis? began its infant journey.

Although gambling had found a haven in the state of Nevada, the first actual land casinos in America were established during the early 1800s at the bank of the Mississippi River in the state of New Orleans. These Casinos were set-up beside the river, and attracted its patrons from the traffic of commuters and merchants at the port. Passengers would pass the time by setting up impromptu gambling sessions. Lurking at these places were ?sharps? or professional gamblers waiting for rich passengers to swindle.

Keeping pace with the march of progress, the Casino industry found its way to the West by the expansion of the railroads, and flourished during the California Gold Rush and the Nevada Silver Era. The most popular Casino games of this post-World War One period mainly reflected their European counterparts, including: Blackjack, Poker, Craps, Roulette and Slots. Baccarat was to come later in the 1950s. And with all these games America created its own ?brand? (for example, the Double Zero in Roulette known as the ?American Wheel?).

Interestingly the game of Slots was uniquely an American invention. It was Charles Fey who invented the first slot machine way back in 1895. He went on to perfect his initial innovation in 1907, when he teamed with Mills Novelty Company who manufactured the "Mills Liberty Bell." The Liberty Bell featured a cast iron case and originally had cast iron feet with toes. In later models the toes were scrapped and replaced with ornate decorated feet.

The era of cast iron machines ended in 1915, when Mills introduced slot machines with less expensive wood cabinets. In the early 1930s, the Mills Novelty Company designed its machines to be much quieter. Later the double jackpot was introduced, giving players the possibility to win twice in quick succession.

To make its machines memorable and enticing to players, Mills introduced a series of cabinet designs that were striking and colourful, each with its own theme. The first in early 1931 was the Lion Head. In late 1931, it was the War Eagle and in 1933, it was the Castle Front.

With the Wall Street Crash in 1929 and a severe economic downturn in the early 1930s under President Herbert Hoover, the scene was hardly set for Americans, their gaze across the Atlantic on a troubled Europe, to go out and spend their hard-saved earnings. Nevertheless, given the historical context, somewhat miraculously, it was around this time that the beginning of modern American Casino History as we know it today began to take shape.

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