Why Do Some States Require Casinos to be on Boats?

Isle of Capri Riverboat Casino

Riverboat gaming in the United States has a long and storied history. Few images ignite American gamblers’ curiosity and romantic nature like that of our grizzled forefathers, drink in hand, pistol on their hip, and poker chips on the table.

But nowadays, most things have progressed tremendously. Why do some states require casinos to be on boats?

The Wild Midwest

Riverboat gambling was initially a byproduct of spare time and excess money meeting on long trips. Well, to do merchants would spend extended periods of time traveling the country searching for new business opportunities.

In the 1800s, much of this travel was done over the extensive waterways across the eastern seaboard to the midwest. Merchants with time on their hands and money in their pockets were eager to find some relief from their mounting boredom.

Gambling became the preferred method for passing the hours of passengers on the riverboats.

Vintage Riverboat Photo

It wasn’t long before professional gamblers began making a home in the riverboats. At the time, gambling was becoming illegal in nearly every new municipality that sprung up, and lynch mobs were known to handle any alleged cheats with extreme prejudice.

With the law on one side of the road and angry hordes of losing gamblers on the other, it makes sense to get out of the road. So, they did and hopped on the waterways.

Legendary card sharps could be found on many boats headed up and down the Mississippi river. The characters on these trips inspired music and literature of the time.

In fact, the lore surrounding these colorful men and women continue to inspire. You’ll not have to look too far to find them portrayed in film and on television.

Unfortunately, the expansion of the railroad and the Civil War saw riverboats become outdated for all involved. Rail is a much more viable method of transportation.

However, the 1980s began to see the riverboat gambler’s resurrection. States looked west and saw the revenue Nevada gambling was pouring into the coffers from taxes on gambling.

States on the Mississippi River began to pass laws allowing games of chance on their waterways and created the legal framework for taxing the casinos.

Modern Riverboat Casinos

The fact is that most riverboat casinos today are no more a boat than a wooden door. Perhaps the only thing they have in common with boats at all is that they’re on the water and seem to float. However, I wouldn’t test this.

When the first legal riverboat casinos came into existence, they were incredibly restrictive. Most had small $5 limits on bet size and would have restrictions on how much a guest could lose in 1 trip.

The 1990s saw these laws relax quite a bit and the revenue streams became wide open for not only the casino operators but also the states.

Today, you can find these riverboat casinos in six states. These six include Louisiana, Mississippi, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, and Illinois.

Each of these states has unique guidelines for how and where their casinos may operate. For example, in Louisiana, casinos must replicate the look of old paddleboats, complete with a functioning means of propulsion.

I have had many opportunities to visit some of the more extensive riverboat casino operations in Louisiana and Mississippi. It’s a strange sensation to wake up in the morning and look down on the waters below your hotel room and see these massive “boats” perched on the water below.

The novelty has still not worn off for me. If you’ve ever had the chance to get out on the water to gamble for yourself, you likely haven’t lost that feeling of intrigue either.

Not all of the states with headwaters on the Mississippi have joined the party. These states include Kentucky, Arkansas, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

So, while it’s easy to see the tremendous benefits of offering gaming licenses, some states have opted to let history remain just that.

Perhaps they feel that the limited geographical impact is too much for the possible social ramifications. Or maybe the voters in these states aren’t impressed by the significant tax revenue.

Boosting Local Economies and State Budgets

Riverboat gambling has an incredible impact on the state and local budgets where they operate.

In Indiana, the casinos are levied with 20% in state and local taxes. A whopping 15% goes to the state, and 5% remains in the local community.

That translates to nearly $400 million in state taxes and another $80 million locally. This amount of money has a tremendous impact on social programs and civil projects.

Louisiana sees more tax money flow in from their riverboat gambling than any other industry.

Winstar World Casino at Night

It’s more than just tax money. These “floating” casinos create jobs. Any of the riverboat casinos are going to need to hire dealers, accountants, security, management, and a host of hospitality workers.

Many of these workers are pulled from their respective communities. This pumps millions of additional dollars into local economies.

WinStar World Casino is the largest casino in the world, and while it isn’t spread over the Red River, I do want to draw an example from it here.

WinStar is located in Thackerville, OK. Before WinStar came onto the scene, Thackerville was nothing more than your standard river basin. Miles of flat prairie with trees dotting the landscape with few inhabitants.

It was the type of place people couldn’t wait to graduate high school and get away from, few prospects. That changed drastically, thanks to the casino.

Suddenly, Thackerville, OK, was a destination. Not only does the casino draw tourists from surrounding states, but it put thousands of people to work.

I know people as far away as Dallas, TX (84 miles) that were thrilled to be hired as blackjack dealers or security at the casino.

The significant project also blessed the surrounding small towns. Suddenly, there became a wealth of new jobs for anyone willing to work.

The waterborne casinos along the Mississippi have had similar effects on the local economies where they operate.

My Favorite Riverboat Casinos

Sam’s Town – Shreveport, LA

Sam’s Town is probably familiar to Las Vegas casino gamblers. Sam’s Town has been a staple in the Nevada desert for decades.

Sam’s Town decided to roll the dice and open up shop on the muddy Mississippi. All of the luxurious amenities you’d expect to receive in Las Vegas have made the trip south.

Sam's Town Casino Riverboat

Are you feeling a little worn out from a late night at the progressive slots?

Head down to Spa Blu and let your troubles fade away while being pampered in luxury.

Speaking of progressive slots, every slot machine at Sam’s Town is part of a progressive jackpot. That means with every spin of the reels, and you could be hitting the jackpot worth over $80,000.

Casino Queen Marquette – Marquette, IA

If you are searching for a VIP experience on a working man’s wage, look no further. The Casino Queen is a relatively small operation on the Mississippi River.

The Casino Queen offers a humble eight table games that pale compared to even the smallest casinos on The Strip. However, slots are the name of the game here, and you’ll have over 1100 to choose from on the Casino Queen.

The Casino Queen places emphasis on its staff. Even the long time Vegas veterans will be impressed at the level of service you’ll receive from the moment you step aboard.

Casino Queen Marquette Riverboat

The Grand Victoria Casino – Elgin, IL

A short 40-mile drive west of Chicago sits the Grand Victoria Casino Elgin. The casino boasts over 36 table games and a bank of 1100 slots.

That’s not what the casino is most well known for, though. The casino is renowned in the state for the emphasis it puts on community outreach.

The highest-grossing casino in Illinois gives significantly to non-profits in the surrounding communities.

So, if you want to feel good about where your entertainment dollars are going, make the trip to Elgin. If you happen to win, don’t feel bad the Grand Victoria is doing just fine.


You may not find all of the luxury and opulence on a riverboat as you would at some of the fantastic Las Vegas casinos, but that’s part of the charm.

These nods to the past have a way of transforming you back to a simpler time when things moved at the river’s gentle pace. Today, much like the railroad locomotives that replaced the riverboats, life tends to go full speed ahead with no stops for miles.

If you’re looking for an entertaining experience in a welcoming atmosphere, check out one of these unique casinos on the water for yourself.