The history of casinos and their most popular games
Accessing our favorite casino games is becoming so much easier than it used to be.
With more and more US states legalizing gambling in some form, new and ever more innovative casinos are springing up daily – while the more established resorts, such as Las Vegas and New Jersey, are managing to hang on through the adverse conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many casinos have moved online to enable gamers to play amid social distancing regulations, giving rise to a veritable ‘boom’ in the industry. These are exciting times for slots aficionados and fans of live dealer action!
However, it hasn’t always been this way, and the history of the casino industry in the US has been fraught with issues since as far back as the 19th century, when gambling began to emerge publicly from being a ‘behind locked doors’ pastime.
Let’s take a trip through time to follow the history of casino gambling and remind ourselves how privileged we are to be able to openly enjoy this well-loved pursuit.
Saloon doors in full swing (late 1800s)
Of course, casinos haven’t always been the way that we know them today. The first real ‘gaming establishments’ to emerge were the saloons of the Old West.
You will have seen them in the old Western movies – the guy playing the piano, the beers slid along the bar, and the wild fistfights between cowboys that could rapidly turn into a fast-draw duel when things got really heated.
Then came prohibition – in 1920 – and this kind of ruined things for everyone.
Viva Las Vegas (1931)
The infamous Wall Street Crash of 1929, followed by the years of the Great Depression, left many state chiefs looking to plug a serious hole in their finances.
Gambling had moved underground, giving rise to a number of illegal establishments. This spurred officials in Nevada to come up with an ingenious idea: how about legalizing gambling, and taxing both players and operators for the privilege?
The concept of the casino was born and, as the city of Las Vegas welcomed the appearance of more and more gaming houses, an influx of workers drafted in for the Hoover Dam project helped to develop Sin City into a thriving mini-economy that would establish it on the map.
The casino games background can also be traced back to this period, with both American roulette (the wheel with two ‘zero’ pockets) and the newly named ‘blackjack’ welcomed to the scene.
The resort boom (1960s)
As the financial situation improved both in the US and beyond, people began to feel more cash in their pockets, and they looked for ways to enjoy the fruits of a more liberal society.
Capitalizing on a growing trend for both domestic and international tourism, entrepreneurs began building resorts that incorporated casinos along with hotels, restaurants and other entertainment venues. Howard Hughes, a well-known name, was at the forefront of this revolution.
Even the presence of the Mafia wasn’t enough to put off guests, and the ‘mob’ was actually responsible for drawing in some of the biggest musical icons of the 1950s – the likes of Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and others – to perform.
Before long, Vegas was not just the gambling center of the world, but it was also becoming revered as the entertainment capital.
Hanging out in the Garden State (1976)
New Jersey watched the growth of the Nevada gaming industry with envy as the former capitalized on the most liberal attitudes towards gambling across the whole of the US.
Now heralded as the birthplace of horse racing wagering and lottery gaming, in 1974 New Jersey pushed to legalize all forms of gambling across the state. While this motion was initially voted down, Atlantic City – a purpose-designed resort to accommodate the growing demand for casino action – was established within just a few years.
Resorts Atlantic City was the first NJ casino to open its doors in 1978, and this drew a number of billionaires – including Donald Trump – to the city.
Before long, Atlantic City became viewed as the East’s answer to Vegas, with the construction of sprawling gaming resorts that also introduced many high-profile boxing and other sporting events.
Going online (1994)
When was online gambling legalized? The answer to this question is that it varies from state to state. However, it was actually in the mid-1990s that this sub-industry really began to thrive.
Software houses such as Playtech and Microgaming had been working on technology to enable gamers to stake real money on the most popular online casino games. This represented a massive shift, even though internet technology was still in the early stages of development.
By the turn of the millennium, the online casino industry was worth billions of dollars. In 1999, the US Senate tried to push through the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, but this was voted down and new states began to legalize ‘digital wagering’.
Today, smartphones and tablets enable us to bet on the go at the tap of a screen, and states such as New York and North Carolina are also thought to be considering the legalization of online wagering. In short, the industry has never been in better shape.
The history of roulette
While the origins of some casino games are difficult to pinpoint precisely, roulette history does not require much untangling.
The roulette wheel was developed as a scientific experiment, rather than as a gambling vehicle. French physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal set out (but failed) to create the first perpetual motion machine.
While in 1665, the idea of a wheel spinning without any force being applied seemed plausible, it took two more centuries for it to be developed as a gambling tool.
When it was introduced to French gaming houses in the 1840s, Charles III, Prince of Monaco ordered his courtiers to add a green ‘zero’ to the red and black numbers that were already printed on the roulette wheel. This was the origin of the ‘house edge’ and it made him a very rich man indeed.
From there, the game of roulette spread across the world, with casinos in the US adding a ‘double zero’ pocket to increase their edge still further.
The history of blackjack
The history of casino games is somewhat convoluted, and no more so than with blackjack.
Nobody knows for sure when the card game was first played, with some historians claiming that it originated in the French casinos of the early 1600s, due to its mention in the well-known Cervantes novel Don Quixote. A game that is very similar to today’s blackjack, known as ‘Vingt-et-Un’ ( ‘21’ in English), was popular at the time.
Meanwhile, other theories center on the Spanish version ‘Veintiuna’ (21) – or the French game ‘Trente-un’ (from 1570), in which players had to score 31 points with three cards – as the modern game’s inspiration.
The name ‘blackjack’ was actually coined in America. During the 1930s, the ‘blackjack special’ was appearing in casinos, which paid out odds of 10:1 for a hand comprising the ace of spades and a picture card from the clubs or spades suits.
The history of slots
It is well known that modern slot machines take their cue from the old ‘one-armed bandit’ games that appeared in the late 1900s, including the hugely popular Liberty Bell machine created by Charles Fey.
Players would pull the lever to spin the mechanized reels and reveal whether they had matched the winning symbols on their payline. The later electronic versions offered strategies such as ‘nudge’ and ‘hold’ to further enhance their gameplay.
It was in 1976 that the first video slot game was created, by the Las Vegas-based company Fortune Coin. Today, this has become the staple of legalized online casino gaming across the US and beyond.