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Gaming In America

Sen. Huey Long told a radio audience in Louisiana in May 1935, “I‘m dad-gum disgusted at trying to police every half-square and every half-house. You can’t close gambling nowhere where the people want to gamble.” Dozens of casinos in St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes reopened the next day, after a nearly five-month hiatus.

In California, Santa Anita Race Track was in the midst of its second season in the summer of 1935. As sleek as a luxury ocean liner, it brought horseracing to the West Coast, whereupon a network of bookmakers brought it to the neighborhoods. “1 had a wedding at four o’clock yesterday,” wrote a minister from Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. “It was with no little reluctance that the bride’s parents turned off the radio which bore the news of their horses.”

Back on the East Coast, Harlem ministers reported that gamblers couldn’t wait to go to church. Once there they waited anxiously for the hymn to be announced, so that they could bet it, by its numerical designation, in the numbers game. That New York game was controlled by Dutch Schultz, a gangster who feasted upon such superstition, though one day when the winning number in his game came up 0-0-0, he was gunned downed by rivals. Three weeks later the police in Grand Rapids cracked down by putting Mrs. Eleanor Girodat in jail. She had organized a bingo game to raise money for the Catholic Daughters of America.

That one year, 1935, served as a trial for Huey Long’s supposition that “you can’t close gambling nowhere where people want to gamble.” Every other year in American history has tested it as well and, so far, proved it. The lines were drawn tightest around gambling in America in the nineteenth century, when the betting crowd was small and maverick, pushing around in search of “a place where everybody can do what they please, just so they don’t interfere with other people’s rights,” as a Reno man later said. The best that could be said of professional gamblers in those days was that some of them had nice clothes.

Some of them did not. In 1835 the upstanding citizens of Vicksburg, Mississippi, rose up in rage against the gamblers who camped along the river there. They went from shack to shack, chasing the bettors into the swamp, and when they found resistance at one dark place, they dragged five of its denizens out and hanged them from a tree. The incident was widely publicized, and it drew a line between good and bad in the gambling issue, for both sides to see.

Since that eerie night the line has faded. Gambling itself has turned from a social ill to a social remedy; the town today that tried to chase gambling interests out might trip over its own head. Nothing in gambling has changed as much as have the gambling interests, the people behind it. They create the games, run them, and, in the process, define the bettors. Gambling interests include gangsters and syndicates, but also church groups, charities, corporation stockholders, Indian tribes, and state and local governments. The newcomers are at once part of the tradition of gambling in America and a departure from it. Vicksburg, as a matter of fact, is still chasing bettors down to the river—but only as far as the casinos lined up there.

The Puritans of Massachusetts lost little time in enacting America’s first law against gambling in 1638, and in 1682 Quakers in Pennsylvania passed their own law against gambling and “such like enticing, vain, and evil sports and games.” Other colonies, especially New York under the Dutch, were not so strict about private games, but all the colonies depended on one public game, the lottery, as a respectable financial tool. At a time when capital was scarce and taxation an extremely sensitive issue, lotteries supported most schools and public works. Harvard College resorted to lotteries for many capital projects until 1793, when the Stoughton Hall lottery didn’t raise enough money to pay the grand-prize winner, who was unsympathetic and caused a fracas.

Just before he died, Thomas Jefferson was planning to raise money by staging his own lottery, with most of the Monticello estate as the prize. As heartbreaking as Jefferson’s situation was (especially since it was brought on in part by gambling debts), the lottery was often used as a means of liquidating property when no single buyer could be found.

Early lotteries were comparable to today’s raffles in that players received tickets in order, rather than choose their own number. Tickets were very expensive at five, ten, or twenty dollars each; that is a lot of money for a lottery ticket even today, and in colonial days it was inaccessible to people of average or modest means. But they still wanted to play.

Independent operators gave them a chance by offering an “insurance policy” on any specific number involved in the lottery. A policy number cost only a few cents, and the proceeds benefited the operator solely. It had nothing to do with insurance in the regular sense, except in one dismaying aspect. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Metropolitan Life and other reputable companies reported that in poorer neighborhoods more than half their life and health insurance policies were lapsing because customers were spending their premium money on “policy” numbers.

Policy players chose their own lucky numbers and learned the winning number through the drawing in the established lottery. Policy games had the same parasitic relationship to the lotteries that bucket shops had to legitimate stock markets, both offering parallel gambling experiences for the lower classes. Bucket shops allowed people to gamble on the fluctuations of market prices without actually investing in a company. The margins were so fantastic that a customer could buy ten thousand dollars’ worth of (fake) stock for one hundred dollars. If the stock market went up in price on the legitimate exchange, the bucket-shop customer made money in proportion. In practice, though, the bucket shop was less of a gamble than a con game, with a sticky spider web of margin systems that could ruin anyone. Such operations survived until the Great Depression made something of a mockery of the bucket-shop theme.

When lotteries were banned throughout America between 1830 and 1860, the policy game stumbled, but it flourished more than ever after a West Indian man devised a way to base the winning number not on a lottery result but on three digits of some mundane financial figure published in the daily paper. In this way policy grew into the numbers game that continues to this day.

During the late eighteenth century, card games were enjoyed as a fashionable after-dinner alternative to music in private homes in the Southern and Middle Atlantic colonies. When Abigail Adams, a New Englander, visited Philadelphia in 1791, she was aghast: “I should have a winter of dissipation indeed, if I accepted all my invitations to routs [big parties] and teaand-cards.” One of the best cardplayers in Philadelphia was Mary Morris, wife of the financier Robert Morris; another was Lucy Knox, whose husband, Gen. Henry Knox, was Washington’s chief artillerist. The games of loo and whist were the most common in such circles.

A typical colonist in attitude was the untypical man George Washington, who was content to gamble at cards all day, especially if it was raining out. According to his ledgers—and assuming that in this one specific case a gambler’s own records can be trusted—he broke even overall, despite a stinging stretch from January 1768 to April 1769, when he never won once, and lost a total of twelve pounds, ten shillings, and threepence.

As a soldier, however, Washington had far greater problems with gambling, that by the men in the ranks. In 1756, when he was the leader of the Virginia militia, he was warned that he would lose the support of the Virginia House of Burgesses if he could not do a better job of controlling gambling among his men. During the Revolutionary War, as commander in chief of the Continental Army, he issued vehement orders against all “games of chance,” but the fact that he had to issue such orders regularly indicates the frustration he faced over the issue. Even at Valley Forge, where men were freezing and going hungry for lack of supplies—or, especially at Valley Forge, where morale was so low among the troops—gambling was rampant, and it was a keen concern for General Washington.

The favorite game among the soldiers was “toss-up.” One player, (say, a sergeant) called heads or tails (say, heads) as the other threw a handful of wagered halfpennies in the air. When they landed, the sergeant gathered up the ones facing up heads, and the other player took all the tails. No one could stop a game so simple that it required only spare change and boredom, not where both were in good supply.

As the country expanded, each new advance in transportation brought a new chapter in gambling history. Transportation lines attract professional gamblers because they offer easy avenues of escape, along with a continuing supply of travelers burdened with large amounts of cash. Turnpikes, canal houses, riverboats, Great Lakes ships, and railroads all developed distinct traditions in gambling. The automobile brought a great deal of this to a halt simply because it precluded chance contact, the very elbowing among hundreds of people that brings about the games. Even today, teams of three-card monte players wander through the cars of Chicago el trains, acting out parts written for them a hundred and fifty years ago.

The greatest of the lot, of course, were the riverboat gamblers, plying the Mississippi and the Ohio. They are more important as romantic figures than for their small influence over actual history, for they became heroes to little boys and girls and, after they were long gone, to adults too. Being a romantic figure, the riverboat gambler had his uniform, just as the idealized cowboy and the knight-errant have theirs, and even today everyone knows what it was: black hat, suit, and tie; black high-heel boots; frill shirt; and diamond rings. And the keystone, as the writer Herbert Asbury described it: “a fancy vest of unspeakable gaudiness.”

Being a romantic figure, the riverboat gambler acted with honor. When a young Englishman lost all his money and even his luggage to John Powell in a riverboat poker game in 1858, he went on deck and politely said goodbye to the other passengers before shooting himself dead. Powell was devastated, and he sent the luggage and all the money back to the man’s relatives in England. Poker was the most popular game when professional gamblers were playing with strangers, but among themselves they often preferred the bank type of game faro, which allows a player the best winning percentage of nearly any game of chance. Unfortunately it is also among the easiest to rig.

The riverboat gambler cheated too, of course. In fact, New York firms circulated catalogues devoted to cheating devices: “poker rings” with tiny needles that marked cards, “stripper plates” that shaved the cards so that they could be shuffled into an advantageous order, and special ink, applied with the fingertips, that could be detected only through the lenses of special eyeglasses. One gambler specialized in reworking the roulette wheel: sometimes he would stick three or four extra “16 reds” over the numbers on the wheel (and then bet on 16), and other times, for a change, he would attach tiny wires over most of the other numbers, so that the ball almost had to stop on 16 red.

An outgoing riverboat gambler named George Devol was so proud of his ability to bring a stacked deck into the game undetected that he once brought four of them into a single poker hand, dealing four aces to each of his four opponents. The betting was spirited. “To me as a boy, the gambler was an object of awed admiration,” Hugh Fullerton recalled of his childhood in the 1870s. “There was one old fellow who took a great liking to me, and during the summers we often fished together while he told me tales of the great poker games ‘on the river.’ Four or five times a year he went away, down the river to New Orleans on the boats. He was a strikingly handsome man, low-voiced, pleasant, always perfectly dressed.”

Taking his place in folklore, the riverboat gambler, again like the cowboy and the knight-errant, represented a life of freedom, adventure, and independence. Like those others, he was more likely to be, in fact, a slave to a system in which he had long since stopped believing. Most riverboat gamblers died poor; worse than that, they had to live out many years without enough money to gamble anymore. So the pertinent reality regarding the riverboat gambler existed in the minds of the children who followed his image into new eras of popularity for gambling in America.

Before polls and projections, great suspense was attached to election day, and it became a day for heavy wagering. In 1864-August Belmont, the millionaire, told the New York Herald that he would bet all comers that George McClellan would defeat Abraham Lincoln in the presidential election. Editors at the reformminded New York Times noticed that and, disdaining McClellan even more than they did the vice of gambling, offered to direct willing bettors to Belmont’s address.

Baseball developed into a professional sport during the 186Os, and eight teams formed the National Association in 1871. Betting booths were a common feature at ballparks, and players were known to use them; rumors of “thrown” games abounded, but it took the farce perpetrated by the Louisville Grays in the 1877 season to clean up the sport. Louisville was so far ahead in the standings in mid-August that the second-place Boston Reds were considered a lost cause. The Grays, though, were losers from that point on, as the result of the lackluster play of their four starters. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran the story under the headline !!!—???—!!!. Forty-two years later this headline would be aptly translated by a boy’s legendary remark to a player implicated in the Black Sox fix: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

It was so in the case of the Grays, as evidenced by a series of telegraphed messages from a New York gambler named McCloud to Al Nichols, a Louisville infielder. After the fixes became public, baseball was given a dim future as a “national pastime,” but the efforts of two Chicago businessmen resuscitated it into the National League and chastened its image, at least until about 1910, when gamblers returned to baseball parks and betting pools handled millions of dollars a week in baseball betting. As before, rumors flew around, until 1919 when a New York gambler named Arnold Rothstein thought to perfect Mr. McCloud’s scheme, directing eight Chicago White Sox players to throw the World Series; Rothstein walked away from the Black Sox scandal with as much as $350,000 (and a place in literature as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for Meyer Wolfshiem in The Great Gatsby). Baseball has been understandably rigid on the subject of gambling ever since.

Three inventions developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century allowed gambling in America to expand from a diversion into a major industry. The first one, the telegraph, could have done the job all by itself. The others were the parimutuel system and the slot machine.

The telegraph was first exhibited in the United States in 1837 by S. F. B. Morse, but an 1872 refinement called the duplex system allowed more than one message to go through a line at once. Thomas Edison invented the quadruplex system in 1874 that allowed for simultaneous transmission of four messages; through these means, telegraph lines were soon readily available to private concerns. Bookmakers could obtain information on races all over the country, almost immediately. They could also make connections with bookmakers in other cities, forming powerful syndicates for moving around money and bets.

From about 1890 to 1908 the horseracing world was in turmoil. There were too many tracks (314 in 1897) and too many days (364 days of racing at East St. Louis in 1893) to allow for an effective policing system. Tracks did not handle betting in those days, though they could charge book-makers a fee to operate on the premises. Sometimes they took a profit from a crooked race: bookmakers had access to jockeys and trainers, and most of them, even the great rider Todhunter Sloan, were accommodating to offers of bribery. Nearly every state had banned horseracing by 1908, when just 25 tracks remained in all America. In fact, it was during this dry spell in racing that bookies and professional gamblers found an unfortunate substitute in baseball.

Horseracing was nearly dead, and then, just before the Kentucky Derby in May 1908 the mayor of Louisville served what seemed to be a death stroke by banning bookmaking at the track. The track manager of Churchill Downs, Matt Winn, knew that without betting, racing was not viable. He appealed in court but was offered only a slight concession: bookmaking was outlawed, but not pool betting. Winn accepted the decision and retired to the basement rooms at Churchill Downs, where he rummaged around until he found some parimutuel machines that had been purchased from the French manufacturer about thirty years before. The machines could add each new bet to a general pool and calculate each winner’s share of that pool, after overhead expenses had been subtracted. Not only did parimutuel wagering obviate the trackside book-makers, it also allowed state governments to take a tax on bets. New York State legalized parimutuel betting in 1913, and many other states followed suit. Never again, however, could the country support as many as 314 race-tracks—not when, thanks in part to the telegraph, it was supporting nearly ten thousand local bookies.

The modern slot machine was invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco in 1895, but Chicago has been the manufacturing center for them almost ever since. They quickly became common- place in many drugstores, taverns, gas stations, country clubs, and veterans’ and fraternal clubs. Most slot machines paid off in cash, though some of the ones in public places would pay off in gum or cigarettes, which could easily be redeemed for cash.

Perhaps because the slot machine is inanimate, it identified and attracted a vast population of dormant bettors, people who found gambling appealing but contact with gamblers repugnant. Standing at a slot machine, a person is alone and in control, as at the wheel of an automobile or sitting with a radio or television; such things come quite naturally to most people, whereas standing at a craps table, for example, does not, with jostling and shouting, dice flying, and money - one’s own!—pushed and pulled by a snappy croupier. Gamblers usually like the company of other gamblers, but slot-machine players are a world unto themselves. That is the covenant that has made slot-machine play, which a gambler out of the Old West once disparaged as “teasing nickels out of Rebeckah lodge hellions,” the most popular form of casino gaming in America.

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