- 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
The Strip’s founding fathers made sure Las Vegas had nothing, but everything, to do with America.
In 1980 New York State paid one of its most unsavory elements the compliment of imitation, instituting a numbers game just like “policy.” A thousand numbers runners reacted by staging a protest in front of the governor’s office. They needn’t have worried, however, because most accounts show that the state’s games of chance, including Off-Track Betting, have not cut into the illegal business. They have, however, helped bring gambling as a way of life to a greater population than ever before.
About five years ago the example set by Nevada combined with the popularity of state lotteries to obscure gambling’s long history of causing problems. A new era began. In the old one gambling was one of the vices, but in the new one it has been recast as “gaming,” an amusement, and it doesn’t cause problems but solves them: relatively recent problems, like unbalanced state budgets, and longterm ones, like the economic displacement of Indian tribes.
For states the new era in gambling began in 1989, when Deadwood, South Dakota, opened its streets to casinos. It was an experiment that soared, pulling in $90 million in betting revenues the first year. Other states followed South Dakota’s formula, lured by the instant economic boost and a piece of the handle. Though states have taken part in parimutuel revenues for decades, one of the most fervent issues surrounding gambling today is the morality of a government’s augmenting straightforward taxes with gambling money, the losses of its citizens.
Gaming on Indian reservations picked up a string, in law, that was left by the churches that established charity bingo in the 1930s. In 1988 Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. In any state where games of chance (including bingo) were allowed for church, temple, or veterans’ and other groups, the same games had to be allowed, by compact, at Indian reservations. Many of the tribes that have embraced gaming have been wildly successful, especially since they are not subject to standard taxation, being sovereign nations. Within the Indian community some individuals and tribes regard the exploitation of others—whatever the rewards—as profane and contrary to traditional Indian ways. Bitterness on this issue has led to a breach in the more than fourhundred-year-old Iroquois Confederacy, wherein two of the six nations now operate casinos.
Although a majority of states now feature some form of legalized gambling, illegal operations are still thriving. Legal gambling has even been accused of incubating new gamblers who later graduate to illegal avenues, where big wins are not reported to the Internal Revenue Service; where credit is easily extended (on varying terms), and where payoffs in numbers and horseracing are nearly always better than those in state lottery operations and Off-Track Betting. Equally important, a bookie or a syndicate will also handle sports betting, which generates far more revenue overall than any other form of wagering.
Gambling is a lot of fun—especially when one is winning. Unfortunately, though, a percentage of people find it just as satisfying, in some sad way, to lose. A number of people are simply inept at games, and a number happen to be born without a whit of luck. The issue of gambling as a temptation has been around before, but in our time the unpredictability and the risk have been multiplied by a grand factor: nearly the whole country. George Washington didn’t worry when he himself lost at whist but, rather, when his whole army was throwing halfpennies in the air.