A Brief History of Gambling in the United States

In the early years of American history, gambling was quite popular in the colonies, as America was known as at that time, being part of Great Britain prior to the American revolution.

While the extent of gambling back then differed by region, with some locales embracing it more than others, there was no large scale prohibition of it. If a certain area wanted gambling it prospered, and if another didn’t, that was fine as well.

Lotteries in particular were quite popular back then, and the proceeds from them helped the public infrastructure of this young country grow, particularly in expanding the school system.

The British sought to limit these lotteries, and the will to escape such restrictions contributed in part to the impetus to break free of their reign and see America achieve independence from British rule.

After the Revolution, gambling continued to prosper in the United States during the eighteenth century. In the mid 18th century, we started to see movements against gambling arise, which for instance created the riverboat gambling scene on the Mississippi, where gambling operators were driven to provide their entertainment over water to seek to escape the growing opposition to it on land.

Around this time, the anti gambling movement got a strong foothold in the Northeast, and soon even lotteries disappeared from the scene. Gambling became more and more driven underground, as the demand for it persisted even in the face of laws against it.

Even the widespread gambling in California brought about as a result of the gold rush was met by government interference, as the tide mounted against it. It didn’t go away though, it continued to operate and flourish, but outside the law.

The American Frontier was a bastion of legal gambling, who had a much more tolerant attitude toward gamblers, and even saw professional gambling as a respectable trade. Gambling houses were frequent, and at least during this time, it was very well tolerated.

During the Reconstruction movement after the conclusion of the Civil War, gambling proliferated in the South, and experienced a revival for a time. Proceeds of lotteries were used to help rebuild this area to help these states recover from the damage that the war had wrought.

Gambling In The 20th Century in the U.S.

By the time the 20th century arrived, gambling became widely prohibited country wide, and given that it was now illegal, the business became turned over to the criminals, and organized crime elements were quick to capitalize on this, as they did during the Prohibition area in taking over the sale and distribution of alcoholic beverages.

Certain areas with more tolerance towards gambling such as Miami, Florida and Galveston, Texas became hotbeds for illegal gambling during this time, although it did flourish quite well in the country overall, as did drinking alcohol.

The failure of alcohol prohibition is widely accepted, but we’ve been less prone to accept the failure of gambling prohibition, although the two fail for exactly the same reasons, as fairly unpopular laws don’t succeed very well.

In the early 1930’s, the state of Nevada fell upon hard economic times and made the decision to legalize gambling, which was the first wave of a tide that has been growing since, albeit quite slowly. Southern Maryland had legalized slot machines during the 50’s and part of the 60’s, and Atlantic City opened up to gambling in 1977.

More and more states started offering lotteries, and the coming of Indian casinos greatly expanded the land based gambling centers in many areas of the country. Several states legalized riverboat casinos again, and soon afterward the requirement that they be located over water was abolished.

This land based expansion continues on into the 21st century, and has now spilled over into the internet frontier, with three states now embracing regulated online gambling and several more in the process of debating it.

The New Frontier For Gambling in the U.S.

As far as the law is concerned, there are many countries that legislate gambling at the federal level, but the United States is not one of them. This is a state run affair, and prior to telecommunication, it used to be an entirely state run affair, and it’s only since information has been transmitted across state lines that the federal government has even become involved.

Many of today’s anti gambling statutes at the state level were fashioned during these earlier years of gambling prohibition, and many haven’t even been updated since. Some of these statutes compile a list of prohibited gambling games and some of them haven’t been played for over a hundred years.

In particular, the laws have been crafted to deal exclusively with land based gambling, that which occurs exclusively at a physical location within the state’s boundaries, like a gambling hall.

Contrary to what many believe, laws can prohibit gambling without specifically referencing a certain form of it, even though laws often do specify a list of prohibited games. Depending on how the law is written, it usually does not matter whether a certain form, like placing wagers on a computer, is specified as being illegal or not, as the prohibitions can and often do take a general form.

For instance the law may specify that placing a wager on any game of chance, or even stronger, placing a bet on any contingent event, meaning that the outcome is uncertain at the time of the wager, is a crime, and this can often be read to prohibit all forms of wagering that are not specifically authorized by law.

The coming of the internet and internet wagering did certainly change the landscape of gambling law significantly though, on several fronts, and together with the gambling market moving toward more tolerance and acceptance, this has created a very interesting dynamic already, with many interesting issues emerging and more set to come as the situation continues to evolve.