A Brief History of Legalized Gambling

Gambling has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. But in America, the twentieth century saw new calls for making gambling illegal.

Last year the Supreme Court ruling in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association opened the door for states to expand sports-betting access, and the results are already apparent, with states across the nation moving forward on legalizing various forms of sports betting. As the country heads into this brave new world of online gambling, you may be wondering how we got here, and what the history of legalized gambling looks like.

Before we get into that, we should make clear that gambling addiction is a real problem, and if you suspect that you may be struggling with it, you should find the resources you need to start tackling the problem.

And now let’s (briefly) tackle the history of legalized gambling!

Legalized gambling: origins

So how did legalized gambling gets started anyway? A more accurate question would be: When did illegal gambling get started?

“Legalized gambling was the default, and was very mainstream in many societies,” explained Michael Josem (@MichaelJosem), a global expert in online gambling security and safety. “It has never been illegal in Western societies to gamble privately (eg, ‘I bet you $10 that I can beat you to the end of the street’) but there have been some limitations around some forms of offering gambling as a business.”

As Josem said, humans have likely been making informal bets with each other since shortly after they were able to communicate. Some of the earliest dice have been found in Egyptian tombs that are thousands of years old.

Formalized gambling systems weren’t far behind. There are records of lotteries being held in China as far back as 200 BC to fund government projects. Gambling was very popular in both Ancient Greece and throughout the Roman Empire.

So popular, in fact, that the government had to step in and ban it in many instances, introducing one of the earlier examples of gambling regulation. Roman gamblers began using chips in place of money so they could have an excuse if they were caught. Many Roman emperors were also known to partake, though they likely didn’t have to worry too much about pretenses.

The first casinos

While many people associate gambling with casinos and their colorful wheels and snappy card dealers, they are actually a relatively recent phenomenon in gambling’s long history.

“The first formal ‘casino’ (recognizable to modern sensibilities) opened in Venice in the 1600s, with a huge amount of gambling pre-dating this,” Josem told us.

Known as the Casino de Venezia, it was technically open to the public, but it was mostly nobles who could afford to actually play. Two of the earliest games offered were biribi and basseta. Biribi was a sort-of mix between roulette and bingo. Basseta is a card game that seems kind of confusing, so feel free to look up the rules on your own and host a vintage “poker” night with your friends!

Gambling in the United States

The history of gambling in America, like so many other aspects of American society, reflects the contradictions of a nation that has valued puritanism and freedom in varying measures.

Through most of American history, legalized gambling existed in different forms, in different states. In 1984, Charles Fey of San Francisco created the modern slot machine, easily one of the most iconic gambling devices which can still be seen in casinos and on mobile phones around the world.

In 1910, the more puritanical aspects won the fight over gambling and nearly all forms of gambling were banned across the country. The victory was short-lived, however, as the Great Depression would hit at the end of the next decade. Eager for income, some states chose to remove gambling restrictions, Nevada chief among them.

Over the years, other states and territories would also explore different forms of legalized gambling, with Puerto Rico and later New Hampshire taking a page from the Ancient Chinese handbook with revenue-generating lotteries.

The first Native American casino opened in Florida in 1979, operated by members of the Seminole Tribe. These casinos are established on reservation land and are therefore subjected to less state regulation. There are currently around 460 tribe-run casinos within the borders of the United States. Generally, the trend for the last century has been towards a loosening of gambling regulations.

“In the USA, only Hawaii and Utah have banned gambling, with various forms of gambling permitted in the other 48 states,” offered Josem.

Today, many of the legal battles being fought are over online gambling. As with so many other industries, the internet has upended the standard gambling model as it has existed for thousands of years. Whether it’s online poker or the aforementioned sports betting, it’s clear there will be a lot more gambling regulation news to come.

Will it be in favor of more gambling regulation, or less? Who knows?! Let’s just say we’re not making any bets right now! If you enjoyed this piece, check out these related posts and articles from OppLoans:

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Michael Josem (@MichaelJosem) is a global expert in online gambling security and safety. As a consumer advocate, he played a key role in uncovering a $20 million fraud against online poker players and has subsequently worked in safety, security, and communications for a variety of online gambling brands including PokerStars, 138.com, Full Tilt and CoinPoker.


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