- Historic Sites
Nation Of Gamblers
Once seen as a vice and now as a public panacea, the national passion that got Thomas Jefferson in trouble has been expanding for two centuries
September 1994 | Volume 45, Issue 5
Even as the telegraph, the parimutuel system, and the slot machine were promising stunning growth for gambling, the frontier was closing, as far as gambling law was concerned. By 1907 Arizona and New Mexico were far more interested in obtaining the respectability of statehood than in continuing to entertain a demimonde. Arizona Territory outlawed gambling that year with a law that inventoried the trade, banning “Faro, monte, roulette, lansquenet, rouge-et-noir, rondo, fantan, poker, seven-and-a-half, twenty-one, chuck-a-luck, slot machine or any banking or percentage game, or any other kind of game played with cards, dice or any device.” It was a brash move for Arizona, which derived most of its education budget from its tax on casinos. Aside from that, the reform proscribed a certain way of life in both territories. “Oh, this place is dead now,” said a young Arizona man in 1908. “Sleeping has become one of our principal industries.”
Nevada held out, until 1913, as the last state to allow open gambling. It had fewer farms than any other state in the Union, though it had more than the District of Columbia. It had fewer manufacturing companies than any other state or the District of Columbia. It had the smallest population of any state or the District; in fact, during the decade 1910-20, it was one of only three states to lose population, and it lost the most—5.5 percent. The entire state depended on mineral production, a good business, but one in decline. This was the Nevada that banned gambling in 1913.
Many Westerners, newly fenced in on the gambling issue, blamed their plight on what one youth called “undesirable Puritans from the East.” As a matter of fact, these discontented young men should have gone East, where casinos were a thriving tradition in such towns as Newport, Rhode Island; Saratoga, New York; Palm Beach, Florida; Hot Springs, Arkansas; and Aiken, South Carolina. Such enclaves catered to the upperclass bettor, and since most patrons were from out of town, local officials could be especially tolerant. The casinos were often run by colorful independent operators, like Richard Canfield, of New York and Saratoga, or Col. E. R. Bradley, who not only controlled the casino at Palm Beach but saw four of his horses win the Kentucky Derby.
The quintessential plunger, John (“Bet-a-Million”) Gates represented the type of gambler who frequented resort casinos. Starting out as a barbedwire salesman, he worked his way into a fifty-million-dollar fortune. Andrew Carnegie referred to him as “a broken-down gambler,” but then Carnegie was a rare specimen among millionaires in that he never forgot the value of a dollar. Gates did. On one occasion his train stopped at Memphis, where members of the Chickasaw Guards Club had amassed a stake with which they hoped to entice Bet-a-Million into a poker game. He declined and explained that his train was leaving in an hour’s time. The emissary from the club mentioned that the stake was thirty-five thousand dollars. “Fm sorry, gentlemen, I can’t stay, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” Gates replied, obviously tempted. “I’ll match you heads or tails for it.”
He won the bet and caught the train.
For Gates, that was the value of a dollar, or thirty-five thousand of them: a moment’s distraction from some sort of boredom. On one night during the month-long season at the casino in Palm Beach in 1913, a reporter counted ninety-one millionaires at the gaming tables, winning thousands, and still , according to the reporter, looking notably bored.
In 1934 an East Coast numbers syndicate issued a case study on one of its regular customers, “Mrs. Average Player” (the syndicate provided or sold such information for use by subordinates). “Mrs. Average Player” earned $7 a week, plus carfare, as a domestic, supporting two young children and an unemployed husband. She bet an average of 211/2 cents per day, or $146.42 for 681 days, during which time she won twice: for a two-cent bet on the 366th day and for a penny on the 402d day. At 600:1, and with the runner’s commission taken out, she won $16.60, accounting for an overall loss of $126.62.
When millionaires bet thousands, it can be vexing at worst, but throughout American history the idea that a “Mrs. Average Player” hands over a fifth of her wages to a game that is stacked against her has understandably outraged moralists. At the end of the twenties, the last great moral debate over gambling erupted when Bishop James Cannon, a Methodist, disclosed in August 1929 that he did speculate actively in the stock market but that since he used careful consideration in making choices, it was not risky, and it was not the same as gambling, which he rejected.
“It seems to me that the Bishop is trying to say that it is sinful to follow a bad tip and virtuous to follow a good one,” responded Heywood Broun in The Nation . “The late Arnold Rothstein was just as eager as the Methodist leader to eliminate the evil factor of chance from his transactions …”