Casino History: From Mesopotamia to the Internet
If you love gambling, you can fulfill your desire legally in a growing number of US states. That wasn’t true for your parents or their parents. Until recently, American gamblers had to visit Las Vegas or Atlantic City to scratch the casino itch.
That’s all changed in recent years. Legal barriers at the state and federal level have created confusion, but the spread of legal gambling has proceeded inexorably.
Casino history in the United States stretches back to the 18th century, when… Wait. Let’s start at the beginning.
The Earliest Casinos
Archaeological evidence shows that our ancestors were already gambling at the birth of civilization. Dice made of wood, stone, seeds, and animal bones have been carbon-dated to 40,000 BCE.
Five thousand years ago, the Bronze Age dawned over new civilizations in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas. Wherever people gathered, archaeologists have found evidence of gambling.
Who invented gambling? It appears everyone did. The Chinese carved their dice of stone, while the Egyptians preferred ivory. Dice are mentioned in India’s Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata. Before Columbus, native Americans gambled on stadium games and rolled dice carved of nuts and seeds.
That is not to say that the practice was universally accepted. Gambling was illegal in Ancient Greece, but it’s easy to find traces of game boards carved into the stone floors of their homes. Among the Greeks who documented the history of gambling were the poet Sophocles, who said dice were invented during the siege of Troy, and the historian Herodotus, who believed the Lydians played dice before the war during the reign of King Atys.
Gambling was outlawed in Ancient Rome, but the prohibition was widely ignored. The rules of two popular dice games, tali and tesserae, have survived along with elaborately decorated dice cups and marble playing boards adorned with gold and jewels.
The invention of paper and the subsequent introduction of playing cards helped make gambling a popular practice in China more than 2,000 years ago.
Gambling in the Modern Era
Any official history of gambling must take note of the West’s first legal casino: Venice’s exclusive Il Ridotto opened in 1638 as an exclusive gambling hotspot that added merriment to the annual Carnevale. Carnival masks were required and high table stakes relegated all but the wealthy to observer status. Among the most popular gambling attractions was an early poker game called basetta.
It is no coincidence that the English word “casino” has Italian roots. It comes from the Italian root word for “house” – probably because people gathered in private homes to gamble before the first legal gaming houses were established.
Meanwhile, gambling was popular but illegal in France. The history of the casino includes open gambling at the Transylvanie, Gesvres, Soissons, and Tresmes mansions in Paris, but the first legal casino did not open until 1765. It was insanely popular because it introduced roulette, which became a craze all over Europe. Roulette’s popularity helped fund the construction of grand casinos in Germany, Belgium, and Monaco. Monte Carlo’s Grand Casino, officially known today as Casino de Monte-Carlo, was built in 1856 as one of the city’s most prestigious gaming houses.
Regardless of the enormous popularity of casinos among well-off Europeans, casino history by the end of the 19th century saw most European gambling houses closed due to church-inspired legislation. While a few casinos survived – notably in Monte Carlo – it was time for the gambling business to move across the Atlantic to the new world.
Gambling in the New World
At the beginning of the 19th century, most of America’s casinos existed on waterways, especially the Mississippi River. Large paddlewheel boats offered cruises up and down the Mississippi, and their onboard casinos served as an introduction to gambling for many Americans. They are known in the history of gambling in the US as riverboat casinos.
Riverboat gambling operations largely ignored gambling laws that applied on land. As a result, they became notorious for cheating and scamming passengers. By the end of the 19th century, riverboat casinos were banned along the Mississippi.
The stage was now set for the golden age of gambling in America, the rise of extravagant, big-money casinos in a sleepy desert town whose only real asset was that it lay within driving distance of Hollywood. Las Vegas is almost ready for its closeup.
Let’s take a look at the Las Vegas casino history timeline.
Nevada was part of Mexico until 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ceded it to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War. The territory was largely unpopulated except for a few small towns where travelers stopped to rest their horses. Laws against gambling weren’t enforced in the sleepy villages of the American West.
Nevada achieved statehood in 1864, and in 1869 a forward-thinking state legislature voted to legalize gambling. State law criminalized gambling in 1909, but it barely affected gambling houses, which just ignored the laws.
It was Reno, casino history shows, that was the undisputed gambling capital of Nevada during this period. The city saw a steady influx of travelers because it lay on the route from eastern states to San Francisco. Starting in 1869, the transcontinental railroad took California-bound travelers through downtown Reno and its casinos. It was after an overnight stay in Reno that they caught a train to take them over the Sierra Nevada mountains into Sacramento.
Reno was demoted to Nevada’s second-biggest gambling town after Nevada legalized gambling for good in 1931. That was just in time to empty the pockets of 21,000 construction workers who streamed into the state to work on Boulder Dam and other New Deal public works projects.
The history of gambling in the US tells us that the workers stayed in government housing in Boulder City, which the government quickly erected on federal land. Gambling wasn’t allowed in Boulder City, but a few miles away was a small town, a former water stop for wagon trains, that was home to a handful of small gambling houses.
That sleepy little town had become home to the first casino in the United States when the Golden Gate Hotel and Casino opened in 1906. The casino stopped operating in 1909 when the Nevada legislature criminalized gambling, then reopened in 1931. The Golden Gate is known not just as the first, but also as the longest-running gambling establishment in Las Vegas casino history, with the original building still standing today.
No history of the casino industry in Las Vegas would be complete without mention of the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. The Flamingo was established in 1946 as the first luxury resort in the city, and culture-watchers say its inauguration transformed Las Vegas from a sleepy little desert town built around an oasis on the Colorado River into an internationally known resort destination. The Flamingo “combined the sophisticated ambience of a Monte Carlo casino with the exotic luxury of a Miami Beach-Caribbean resort,” says history professor Eugene Moehrin of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. It is difficult to overstate the importance and the impact of the Flamingo casino on the history of 20th century Las Vegas.
Every employee at the Flamingo wore a tuxedo – including janitors. Colored lights turned indoor waterfalls into light shows. The dining rooms featured sterling silver place settings. Everything about the property was attuned to the colorful excesses of high rollers.
The casino’s provenance is just as colorful. It was owned by mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. A gangster by trade and an associate of Al Capone, Siegel left New York when bootlegging profits dried up at the end of Prohibition.
Siegel was killed a few months after the Flamingo opened, leaving the Las Vegas Strip a legacy of extravagance, excess, and mob money.
The curious place of Casino Royale in the history of Las Vegas is worth mentioning. The fictitious casino was invented as a setting in the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. In the book and the subsequent movie, the casino was set in Royale-les-Eaux, a fictional locale in northern France. The story celebrated casinos as glamorous, romantic settings, and the movie marked a first major collaboration between Hollywood and Vegas. Many movies romanticizing gambling, casinos, and Las Vegas followed. They all served to promote the idea of Las Vegas as a fantasy destination while boosting tourism from nearby southern California.
Now we must examine the role of the Lady Luck Casino in Las Vegas history. Opened in 1964, the Lady Luck was initially named Honest Johns. It started with 20 slot machines and a few pinball machines. In 1972, it started expanding. Soon the rechristened Lady Luck swamped an entire city block as a full-fledged casino mall with restaurants and shops. In 1986, the first hotel tower was built, with the second following in 1989. Renamed the Downtown Grand, the casino now encompasses 30,000 square feet of gaming space, 800 slots and video poker machines, 30 table games, 1,124 hotel rooms, nine restaurants, and a 35,000 square foot rooftop pool and bar.
Fans of casino history should note that gambling helped keep Las Vegas atop fastest-growing-city charts for decades.
A turning point came in 1969 when Nevada passed the Corporate Gaming Act, which made it legal for public companies to own gambling establishments. Prosperous casinos expanded by going public. Big hospitality and entertainment companies entered the market. Billions of dollars poured into building up Las Vegas casinos and promoting the city as a recreational destination.
And it is here, in the glitzy, hyped, moneyed gambling environment of the Vegas Strip, that Vegas World Casino history begins.
The story begins in 1974, when poker pro Bob Stupak opened the World Famous Million-Dollar Historic Gambling Museum and Casino. The casino was destroyed in a fire the same year, but Stupak wasn’t to be denied. In 1979, he opened his outer-space-themed Vegas World Casino on the same property.
Vegas World offered gamblers the world’s first quarter-million and million-dollar slot-machine jackpots, the world’s largest Big Six wheel, the world’s largest mural, and the world’s largest exterior sign.
Las Vegas has remained the capital city of the gambling world despite the entry of New Jersey’s Atlantic City into casino history.
New Jersey legalized gambling in 1976, and a decade later there were a dozen casinos in the Garden State. Most were sisters of successful Las Vegas casinos. Atlantic City gambling is still growing quickly, but it has a long way to go. Las Vegas currently reports annual gaming revenues of $7.3 billion.
Gambling Goes Online
The internet has introduced a complete novelty to the casino industry – online casinos. Trying your luck from the comfort of your home and accessing a favorite game via computer or mobile phone have become very popular. Both computerized gaming and long-distance live gaming have their fans. Where and how did the history of online gambling begin?
The internet’s rapid raise spurred the growth of online gambling. Industry watchers credit two essential technical achievements as critical for the growth of online gambling:
- Creation of gambling software by Microgaming in 1994
- Development of encrypted communication protocols by CryptoLogic in 1995
Microgaming pioneered the now-universal practice of setting up casino websites as frameworks to hold plug-in games from third-party developers. CryptoLogic focused on secure, error-free financial transactions for online gambling.
The first gambling websites offered free betting games – sites that let you play blackjack with value-free tokens, for instance. The appetite for these games made it inevitable that real money gambling would happen online.
In the beginning of online casino history, these websites were based in Caribbean and Central American countries that provided little or no government oversight of the casino industry.
Launched in 1994, Microgaming’s Gaming Club may be history’s first fully functional online casino. Their site’s success has made entrepreneurs and the management of brick-and-mortar casinos sit up and take notice. Online gambling is on a rapid rise that shows no sign of slowing down.
Our story has focused on the rise of casino gambling, but there is an equally compelling tale to be told about the history of sports gambling. Some of today’s most popular betting websites are named after iconic figures who ran illegal bookmaking operations that let members of England’s upper classes place discreet bets on horse races.
Until recently, Americans who wanted to bet on sports had to deal with criminal bookies or offshore bookmakers. Las Vegas legalized sports betting in its brick-and-mortar casinos, and that fueled enthusiasm for the field. Today, betting websites of unresolved legality take bets and pay out winnings in service to American betting enthusiasts. The sites are poised to serve many more bettors in America and around the world when the legal questions are resolved.
The history of illegal online gambling in the US is still being written. In 2019, the US Department of Justice published an opinion that all forms of online gambling are illegal in the United States if money is electronically transferred across state lines to another state or country. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other states have established online casinos with geolocation features to ensure that players are within state borders. Meanwhile, online casinos in other countries openly court Americans.
Big-Time Casino Wins
Now that we’ve covered the history of gambling institutions in America and around the world, and we’ve taken a look at the probable effects of legalizing online gambling, it’s time to identify candidates for the biggest casino win in history. Winning money is not only the least likely outcome in gambling, but the whole point. Here are some of the big historical wins in gambling games.
- $39.7 million: An anonymous 25-year-old player slipped $100 into a video slot machine at the Excalibur Casino in Las Vegas and got history’s biggest jackpot with a single pull. He opted to take the payout in 25 annual payments of $1.5 million.
- $34.95 million: A 37-year-old Las Vegas cocktail waitress named Cynthia Jay-Brennan visited the Desert Inn and took a seat at the Megabucks slot machine. On her ninth pull, she won a jackpot of $34.96 million. In one of the saddest stories in the history of casinos, her car was rear-ended three weeks later by a drunk driver. Jay-Brennan’s sister was killed in the accident, and she was left paralyzed.
- $26 million: In 1997, Australian billionaire Kerry Packer enjoyed a great run of luck at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Playing six hands of blackjack simultaneously at $200,000 per hand, he won $26 million in six days. Packer reportedly tipped his cocktail waitress, a single mother, $130,000.
- $17 million: A down-on-his-luck poker player named Archie Karas was down to his last $50 when he borrowed $10,000 from a friend at the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas. Karas built his stake up to $30,000, gave $20,000 to his friend, and kept playing. Karas built his stake to more than $17 million playing pool and poker over the next six months.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the first casino ever?
We’ll probably never know. The official history of casinos begins in Venice, where Il Ridotto opened in 1638 with the intention of entertaining prosperous visitors during the city’s world-famous carnevale week. Designed by architect Mauro Codussi, the building also served as an Italian royal residence and it was a home away from home to opera composer Richard Wagner in the 19th century.
Il Ridotto remains open today. If you decide to try your luck in this casino, you can play slots, video poker, roulette, blackjack, baccarat, and poker with a minimum bet of $10. An important detail in the history of the casino is that some World Poker Tour events are hosted there.
What is the history of gambling?
Prehistoric artifacts show that gambling is as old as humanity itself. From antiquity to the internet era, gambling has been debated, outlawed, legalized, regulated, condemned, and enjoyed by every civilization on every continent.
Some of the earliest evidence of gambling activity dates back to ancient China, Mesoamerica, north Africa, and Greece. Baccarat, played in Italy and France, is one of the oldest casino games in the history of gambling.
Where does casino money come from?
Casinos make money through a house edge that is part of every game. The edge is a small percentage, but with hundreds of millions of bets placed every month, the advantage earns casinos enough to maintain their luxurious trappings.
In America, the casino edge is regulated by law and it varies from state to state. In general, you get the best odds in Las Vegas casinos. Online, reputable casino operators publish their return-to-player percentages, which detail the portion of each game’s take that is paid out as winnings to players.
What does casino mean?
In 16th-century Italy, the birthplace of casino history, members of the upper class gambled in private houses hosted by aristocrats. The establishments were called ridotti (which means atrium or foyer) at first. Later, illicit gambling establishments were situated in private homes and referred to as casinos. Casino means brothel or shooting lodge in Italian.