The History of Gambling in The USA

Gambling has a huge presence in the USA. From high-end casinos in Las Vegas, big-shot gamblers in Hollywood movies to cowboys playing cards in the Wild West lore, gambling is everywhere. But few people know that the games of chance have gone through an incredible journey of transformation to earn their place in America.

The Founding of America

To realize the role of gambling in the USA, you have to go back to the founding of the nation. In 1776, the Continental Congress rebelled against the King of England. This year saw the Continental army eating up a lot of funding to continue the war, so the Congress mainly used raffles to raise money for the army until the French helped out a year later. In this sense, gambling can be said to have contributed to the creation of the USA.

Early Gambling in the United States

In the early stages of the new and freedom-loving country, Americans enjoyed gambling without much interference from the government. Popular games include lotteries, raffles, faro, blackjack, dice games, etc. Sports betting had also taken shape with horse racing, dog racing, and cockfights.

Early Poker Variants

It is believed that the first poker games in the US happened in the early 1800s. In 1803, poker was influenced by French colonists and new settlers, eventually giving birth to many familiar variants that can be recognized today.

card playing sign

In fact, by 1834, the rule of poker was that each player is dealt a hand of 5 cards from a deck of 52 – this is similar to the Cantrell draw variation of today. Most of the scoring system is identical to modern poker.

Riverboat Gambling

Also in the early 1800s, many settlements were built along the Mississippi River, the American frontier at the time. Since riverboats are the main way to get to the Mississippi River delta, riverboat gambling became a part of the American culture.

Basically, casinos were being built on riverboats because some states didn’t allow gambling on land. But riverboat gambling soon got a bad reputation due to criminal involvement in this scene. It was so bad that the Mississippi residents lynched 5 professional gamblers in the 1830s. However, riverboat gambling was at its peak from 1840 to 1860.

Lotteries Became Illegal

In the 1830s, USA president Andrew Jackson, as well as the majority of American people, were determined to eradicate corruption in all areas of society, including manipulation in lottery results. And New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania became the pioneers in outlawing lotteries and by 1840, all other states had followed suit.

The Invention of Slot Machines

slot machines

Slot machines were invented by Charles Fey, a German immigrant in the 1890s. The first one was called the Liberty Bell machine, which could be found in saloons and paid out money. However, this became illegal so instead, the prizes were switched to gum or fruit – this explained the fruit and bell symbols on many traditional slot machines.

Las Vegas

After Teddy Roosevelt became president in 1901, there were many social reform movements in the US and a prohibition was passed to ban gambling across all states. Only state-sponsored lotteries and bingo were used to fund important causes, the rest were driven underground.

Nevada, of course, had to follow the rules and outlaw gambling but because this was during the Great Depression, the state experienced incredible financial pressures. These ranged from the stock market crash to the expensive building of the Hoover Dam. All these elements pushed Nevada to find a way to bounce back.

As a result, Nevada lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 98, which made gambling legal across the state in 1931, with the exception of sports betting. The creation of the Hoover Dam also significantly increased the population in the city’s surrounding area. By the 1940s, the large-scale building of casinos sprang up in Las Vegas to meet the needs of the growing gambling community.

las vegas from air

After the Great Depression and World War II, Americans got back to work and the economy was gradually better. Eventually, they had enough money for leisure and vacations. Las Vegas became a favorite destination for both celebrities and ordinary people.

In Las Vegas, players enjoyed a wide array of games: blackjack, roulette, poker, etc. Interestingly, slot machines of that era didn’t enjoy the popularity they have today. Las Vegas casinos would pay large money to host a full-on show for their customers, boasting household names like Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

Online Gambling

In the early days of the Internet, online gambling was introduced to America and it soon reached amazing popularity. Towards the mid-1990s, software developers like Microgaming and Playtech were designing games that would enable Americans to gamble online. These games, packaged in the first online casinos, were released in 1996, 1997, and 1998.

online casino gambling

In addition, it was in this period that poker tournaments enjoyed heavy success being aired on TV. Gambling was becoming more accessible and popular than ever in America yet the whole industry took a huge hit when the Us Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. This caused most online casinos and poker rooms to find their market elsewhere.

Good News for Online Gambling

In 2018, the US Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which banned all states other than Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana from regulating sports betting. Even though 97% of the bets were done illegally anyway, this decision by the Supreme Court was very optimistic for online gambling in general.

Immediately after the news, many sportsbooks and online gambling entities started to expand into the US market. Since each state was left on its own to regulate online gambling (or not), many chose to follow Nevada and legalized online gambling altogether. 

New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are just some of the states where you can gamble online. However, this list is constantly expanding with more and more states deciding to legalize online gambling. 


Gambling in the United States has gone through many ups and downs, from being a significant part of the American culture to being outlawed completely. Presently, although it is still illegal in some states, the prospect of gambling in the USA has never looked more optimistic.

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