A Brief History of Gambling in the United States

Updated: 13 hours ago

by Marissa Thompson, CCPRD Project Associate


Gambling has been a source of entertainment, revenue, and a tradition in many cultures for millennia. Six-sided dice dating back to 3000 BCE have been linked to ancient Mesopotamia and playing cards originating from China have been dated from the 9th century BC. One could pick any year in written history and it's almost guaranteed that people were gathered together to gamble (Cormack, 2018). Today gambling is a 400 billion dollar industry, and those who struggle with gambling addiction are often stigmatized. Understanding American history can be a useful tool to see why. Let's take a look at a few notable historical events related to gambling in the United States to see its roots and to understand how they shape public perspectives today.


The United States in particular has a storied history with gambling, with an equally long amount of time spent suppressing the activity as well as outlawing it. Traditionally, some indigenous communities in America practiced “hand games,” surprising settlers who were familiar with other forms of gambling in Europe and the American colonies. In many Native communities, gambling was a form of trading and a cultural practice steeped in sharing resources. To the Native people, gambling was more about the experience than the outcome of the game (Encyclopedia.com, 2020).


In the nation’s beginning in 1774, the Continental Congress of the North American Colonies denounced gambling, urging colonists “...discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of games, cockfighting, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments” (Encyclopedia.com, 2020).


Soon after, table games like roulette were brought over to the Americas by French settlers, making a lasting impact on gambling culture. The Mississippi Riverboats became the go-to venue for wealthy farmers and businessmen in the 19th century (Encyclopedia.com, 2020). This new booming industry based on sports betting and table games did not come without controversy.


In the 19th century, Evangelical Christian leaders condemned gambling, considering the activity to be a sin and dangerous to society. At that time, religion was a powerful tool for social and political influence. Many churches warned against participating in gambling as it promoted one of the deadly sins, greed. During this time, casino halls were also known for their laissez-faire attitudes towards prostitution and alcohol consumption, making them an easy target for religious and government leaders. This reputation followed gambling halls and casinos throughout the American expansion, leading many to believe gambling was for sinners.


Later on, gambling in the 1920s was made illegal alongside alcohol prohibition, leading to the rise in profits of mob groups and gangs. It wasn’t until the 1970s that gambling was expanding across the United States, as opposed to conglomerated in Las Vegas, Nevada. This was a result of post-WWII and the end of prohibition. After WWII, American optimism and spending money were at an all-time high, while mob members used their funding to expand into casinos and gambling halls. This expansion included Native American reservations, using bingo halls to raise money for their local schools and other tribal operations.


However, state governments have taken issue with reservations being allowed to conduct gambling services. One example is the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians in 1987. This decision found that gambling activities conducted on tribal lands did not fall within the legal jurisdiction of the state, giving reservations the right to use their gambling halls as they saw fit.


Today, gambling is still often seen in a negative light. Problem gambling, like any other addictive behavior, is often seen as a personal failure or weakness. In the United States, personal success and value are often closely tied to wealth or how well a person is with money. This makes gambling disorders a particular target for stigma in a capitalist society.


Although gambling has become a normalized part of American culture (including mini-casinos, lottery games, community fundraisers, fantasy football, etc.) people who experience problematic gambling are often stigmatized by the general public as selfish, greedy, irresponsible, and impulsive. These negative misconceptions can lead to a variety of harms, including shame that prevents affected individuals from seeking help.


Research indicates that many people who struggle with a gambling problem, gamble for emotional fulfillment-usually a phenomenon exhibited in women and elderly folks-a new observation that breaks many of the preconceived ideas of what a problem gambler looks like (Griffiths, 2006). Additionally, gambling is often a comorbid disorder that is usually seen coupled with a form of substance use or other mental health problems.


The good news is, help for addictive-behaviors has become more accessible in recent years. Research shows that most addictive behaviors, including gambling, can be treated successfully with a combination of therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments. It is never too early, or too late, to reach out for help.


Sources

"Gambling: What's at Stake? Encyclopedia.com. 16 Oct. 2020. (2020, November 07). Retrieved November 09, 2020, from https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/social-sciences-magazines/gambling-united-states-overview


Cormack, R. (2018, October 31). A Brief History of Gambling. Retrieved November 09, 2020, from https://medium.com/edgefund/a-brief-history-of-gambling-a7f46dbf4403


Jazaeri, S. A., & Habil, M. H. (2012). Reviewing Two Types of Addiction − Pathological Gambling and Substance Use. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 34(1), 5-11. doi:10.4103/0253-7176.96147


Melinda. (n.d.). Gambling Addiction and Problem Gambling. Retrieved November 09, 2020, from https://www.helpguide.org/articles/addictions/gambling-addiction-and-problem-gambling.htm


Resources

Looking for support with a gambling problem? Visit We Know the Feeling for 24/7 online support, or call 1-800-GAMBLER.


Learn more about problem gambling by visiting the Help Guide or Kenneth Young Center’s SMART Recovery Group.


For Recovery Resources aimed towards the Native American Community, visit White Bison: Wellbriety Resource Guide.


Read more from our team:

Problem Gambling and Gambling Addictions: An Introduction


Sticks and Stones… A Look at How Language Can Change Stigma


Faces of Recovery: African Americans & Substance Use


Substance Use, Recovery, and the LGBTQ+ Community



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