The great depression led to a much greater legalization of gambling. The antigambling mood changed as tremendous financial distress gripped the country, especially after the stock market crash of 1929. Legalized gambling was looked upon as a way to stimulate the economy. Massachusetts decriminalized bingo in 1931 in an attempt to help churches and charitable organizations raise money. Bingo was legal in 11 states by the 1950s, usually only for charity purposes.
Horse racing and parimutuel wagering began to make a comeback. In 1933, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, and California legalized parimutuel betting. The California Legislature adopted a statute in 1933 referred to as the Horse Racing Act. The statutes took effect upon adoption by the voters of an amendment to the Constitution in June of 1933. During the 1930’s, 21 states brought back racetracks. New laws and automated systems made horse racing much more honest than during the 1800s.
Coincident with resurgence of legal gambling was a crackdown on illegal gambling, in part because illegal gambling had become so prevalent. A backlash developed and reform candidates were swept into office in New York where Fiorella La Guardia replaced Jimmy Walker and in Chicago where Anton Cermak pushed out “Big” Bill Thompson. Theater-goers were treated to newsreels of Mayor La Guardia taking a sledge hammer to slot machines and pushing them off the barge into the city’s ocean dump. District Attorney Thomas Dewey ran an aggressive campaign against mobsters who were involved in gambling.
Crackdown on Organized Crime Sent Mobsters to California. The crackdown in the east had implications for California. Because of the pressure from law enforcement agencies, New York mobsters, including the infamous Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, moved to the West Coast. His role was to expand gaming and bookmaking operations for organized crime. Eventually, publicity was directed on him during an investigation of mob ties with the film unions, forcing him to move to Las Vegas.
At the same time, scrutiny also resulted in the closing of the floating casinos. The most famous was the Rex, a floating casino operated by organized crime that was anchored just outside the three-mile limit of state jurisdiction. Gamblers were taken out to Rex in excursion boats. The Rex and some gaming ships that operated out of San Francisco Bay were eventually closed down by law enforcement authorities.
Nevada Legalized Most Forms of Gambling in the State in 1931. The Nevada Legislature was motivated to build on the tourism boom that was expected in the wake of the completion of Boulder, now Hoover, Dam. Nevada had a flourishing, albeit illegal, gambling industry prior to the legalization. The move for making gambling legal also grew out of concerns that the flourishing illegal gambling was corrupting law enforcement and prohibition was unenforceable.23 Gaming in Nevada struggled from its inception until after World War II, when the prosperity of post-war America started a boom in the fledgling industry.
The Nevada gaming industry was helped by events in California. As stated, the gambling ships that used to leave from California ports were shut down. Municipal reform in Los Angeles kicked out many of the thriving illegal gambling businesses. These establishments were run by organized crime who moved to Nevada where their skills were desperately needed to launch the new legal gambling industry.
Organized Crime Syndicates Were Early Supporters of Gaming and Invested Heavily. Many casinos in Nevada were financed by mobsters. Most notable perhaps was Las Vegas’ Flamingo which was opened in 1947 by Bugsy Siegel. Even though he had an extensive and violent criminal record, Bugsy Siegel was able to get a gaming license. Most notable of his criminal exploits was his role in arranging the murder of New York mobster “Dutch” Schultz by the infamous “Murder Inc.” Today, even the hint of any such activity would be sufficient to deny a license.
Part of the reason for Mr. Siegel’s success was due to his connection to the underworld. Wartime shortages did not slow down his plans because of his ties to the black market and his political connections.24
Senate Investigated Mob Influence in Casinos. During the 1950s, the Senate Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce held a number of hearings on criminal influence in the casino industry. The committee was chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver, and the committee is also known by his name. The committee found widespread evidence of skimming, which sheltered gambling profits from taxes. The prevalence of crime left gaming once again on the verge of a national prohibition.25 The result of the committee’s findings was a crackdown on criminal influence and a cleansing of the casino industry. Eventually, the mob sold their casino interests to lawful individuals and publicly-traded companies
Lotteries Begin Their Resurgence. From 1894 to 1964, there were no legal government-sponsored lotteries operating in the United States. This ban led to a paradox: lotteries were widely played, but always illegal. One of the most well known was the Irish sweepstakes which began in 1930 for the purpose of raising money for hospitals in Ireland. Although it was not legal to sell tickets in the U.S. or to ship them here, they were smuggled into the country. Participation was high with about 13 percent of the country having ever bought a ticket.27
Another prominent form of lottery was the illegal “numbers” game. Despite the illegality, numbers was quite popular. One author claimed that the amount being wagered on numbers was $5 billion in 1960.28 Another estimate shows that the numbers game was grossing $20 million annually in Chicago alone during the early 1970s and the total handle was $1.1 billion.29
In 1978, New Jersey became the second state to legalize casino gambling in an attempt to revitalize the rundown resort area of Atlantic City. The legalization was restricted only to Atlantic City. In the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, Atlantic City was a popular resort town, boosted by the new rail service which linked the Northeast. Day trips to the Jersey shore were now possible and affordable. But its popularity dwindled when air travel became easily accessible. Upscale tourists chose beach resorts in Florida, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean over Atlantic City. Visitors to Atlantic City in the 1960’s and 1970’s were generally elderly and/or poor. Casino gaming was expected to be a way for Atlantic City to become a popular tourist destination once again.
What happens if a sports hero is more interested in winning a bet than a game?