Blackjack Lineage: The sorted history of casino gambling in Las Vegas, Nevada.
When Nevada became America’s 36th state in 1864, gambling
was legal throughout the western United States. San
Francisco had grown into the nation’s epicenter for casino gaming, while
small gambling halls cropped up in just about every mining camp and settlement
throughout the Sierra-Nevada region, including Reno
and Virginia City.
The most popular game back then was Faro – a card game so
widespread that newspapers took to calling it “The Game that Won the West.” Other
gambling activities of growing interest in the late 19th century were
three-card Monte, poker, roulette, craps and a new fad called Blackjack, based
upon the French card game known as vingt-et-un
From Prohibition to Permission
In 1885, widespread political corruption caused the California legislature
to take a strict stand against games of chance, closing the Bay Area casinos
and pushing gambling activities underground or out of state. Initially, Nevada was among the
beneficiaries of this gambling prohibition, as local operators fled the
restrictive state to the unbridled freedom of their “Wild West” neighbor. But
by 1910, Nevadans were fed up with the “unsavory elements” that had migrated
east and passed their own law declaring gambling illegal.
Over the next 21 years, gambling existed in Nevada primarily as an
underground activity, tacitly recognized as illegal but generally tolerated by
local law enforcement. Then, as the entire nation tumbled into the Great
lawmakers began to see the advantages of legalization as a potential solution
for local economic woes. On March 19, 1931, the 1910 gambling prohibition was
repealed, opening the way for casinos and gaming halls to begin operations in
the Silver State once again.
At first, it seemed that Reno
would be Nevada’s
nexus of gambling activity. The civic leaders of Las Vegas were trying to position their town
as a tourist hub for visitors to the new Boulder Dam. By 1939, gaming licenses
issued and tax revenues collected by ‘The Biggest
Little City in the World” far surpassed those of the southern rail stop
that would one day become the world’s “Entertainment Capital.”
A Winning Combination
In the 1940s, several circumstances set Nevada
— and Las Vegas
in particular — on course to become synonymous with gambling. One was the
allocation of federal highway funds to create an improved thoroughfare between Los Angeles and Las
Vegas, now known as Interstate 15. That gave Southern Californians easy access to the burgeoning “resort-casinos”
popping up along the so-called “Strip.”
Another contributing factor was World War II. It brought young men by the thousands for training at the U.S. Air Base on the outskirts of Las Vegas – a literal army of payroll recipients looking for opportunities to have fun and spend money. And if the combination of Californians and conscripts wasn’t enough to spur the desert town to embrace its destiny as a gambling powerhouse, there were some “boys out East” who would be happy to take on the challenge.
Specifically, mob bosses like Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Meyer
Lansky and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, who already knew how to fleece customers
illegally, saw Nevada
as a golden opportunity to go about their business with the state’s blessing.
In addition to table games and slot machines, they focused on race and sports
betting, setting up “wires” (telegraph connections) to relay results from
tracks and stadiums across the country to bookmaking operations attached to the
casinos. This made possible remote betting of a kind that had previously been impossible
and resulting in a virtual monopoly on race and sports wagering nationwide.
Gambling Business Goes Legit
For nearly two decades, gambling in Nevada flourished thanks to financing from the criminal syndicates. But in 1950~61, investigations by Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver and then Attorney General Robert Kennedy exposed “organized crime in interstate commerce,” forcing mobsters to divest their stakes in Silver State gambling enterprises or else face prosecution.
Into the void of casino and sportsbook ownership stepped
corporate investors, with TWA’s Howard Hughes and MGM’s Kirk Kerkorian being among
of the most noteworthy. The latter half of the 20th century would
see one huge casino after another built in Nevada, placing it among history’s most
significant locations in the world for gambling.
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