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A History of Gambling in the USA

How did gambling in the USA begin? To answer that question, we need to go back in time, almost all the way back to the very origin of a nation.

By Patricia SarkarPublished 6 years ago 6 min read
Top Story - August 2018

Gambling in the United States has enjoyed a rich and varied history and it’s one that continues to evolve. In May 2018, the US Supreme Court overturned the PASPA ruling that deemed sports betting to be illegal and we’ve seen a number of developments to introduce sportsbooks across the country since this change of attitude.

But how did we get to this point and how did gambling in the USA begin? To answer that question, we need to go back in time, almost all the way back to the very origin of a nation.

On the Cards

As with most areas of the world, gambling in the United States began with rudimentary dice games and then moved on to take in poker and other card options. Poker was the big driver in the early days and although we can trace the game to various points in the nation’s history, there is some conjecture as to how it actually began.

On a global basis, early poker variants can be traced back to 11th century China but in terms of the United States, it’s believed that the history of poker started in the early 1800s. In the wake of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, French colonists and English speaking settlers evolved the game Poque and began to create many of the poker variants that we are familiar with in the modern day.

As a result, by 1834, the game of poker was essentially identical to the one that we know today with each player being dealt a hand of five cards from a regular 52 card deck. With the framework now in place, poker began to spread along the Mississippi River and into the wider United States. It was a favourite pastime during the US Civil War and at the turn of the 20th century, the entire country was essentially aware of the game.

By the 1920’s and 1930’s, gambling and other social activities were now under the spotlight. This was the era of prohibition and like alcohol, the issue of betting and gaming had already been addressed by the government.

Regulatory Years

In many states, as poker began to grow, gambling was tolerated but social concerns began to be raised until, in 1910, virtually all gambling was outlawed across the United States of America. Typical exceptions included state-sponsored lotteries which were able to be fully regulated and brought in funds for important causes. For the same reasons, bingo was made available in certain churches.

Outside of legal activities, poker, casino play and sports betting were driven underground and became a source of illegal revenue. That situation has remained the same for much of the country but with some notable exceptions.

Out on Their Own

This was the age of the Great Depression and every state in the USA was feeling the effects but in Nevada, there were additional financial pressures. The fallout from the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the expensive Hoover Dam project produced a serious crisis across the State, leaving it to seek alternative means of revenue.

Accordingly in 1931, Assembly Bill 98 was made law and gambling became largely legal across Nevada. There were exceptions, most notably with sports betting which remained outlawed, but legalised poker play was amongst those games that emerged from the underground.

As a direct result of Assembly Bill 98, Nevada now boasts some of the biggest and best casinos in the world, the majority of which are found at the notorious Las Vegas strip. This is an important tourist destination which brings in much needed revenue to this day and while Nevada has been a strange US anomaly for some time, that situation seems set to change.


The early history of poker in the US and of gambling as a whole mirrors that of the UK to a certain extent. In Great Britain, wagering began much earlier with ad hoc bets between two parties dating back to the 1700s when many of the big horse race meetings were established.

Gambling was initially outlawed but inevitably, illegal trades were made and over time, laws were introduced to legalise betting but with heavy regulations. In 1934, lottery play was allowed and eventually in 1961, the first physical betting shop opened in the UK.

When the first internet gambling site went live back in 1996, there were no regulations prohibiting its use, so people based in the UK could play a whole range of casino games; they have always been incredibly popular. In the current day, gambling online and in the physical world is legal in Great Britain and while that hasn’t completely been the case in the United States, the country finally seems to be catching up.

It’s clear that the gambling sector is lucrative, in the UK, the gambling sector is an industry worth over £14 billion annually, over a third of that comes directly from the online industry, just imagine what a country the size of the US could muster. The quality of online games is continually improving, meaning players are regularly opting to stay away from their local casino, in order to play along at home. Popular online poker sites offer a huge range of variants of the game and players can enjoy themselves away from the pressure of the table. Online gambling sites also contribute to government taxes and provide jobs, having a positive impact on the economy.

PASPA Overturned

The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn PASPA in May 2018 may well prove to be the most significant move in the history of United States gambling. Although PASPA was specific to sports betting, its effect is likely to mean that poker and other online casino play is more readily accessible for residents of the United States.

We’ve seen a big and instant reaction to the ruling with a number of familiar global operators making a move into US territory. This has been the case both in the physical world, where sportsbook halls have opened up in casinos and at horse racing tracks across the US while new entities have been busy setting up online sites.

With the responsibility for allowing gambling now falling on individual states, many are finally able to follow Nevada who took their own decision to legalise betting way back in 1931. The situation remains very fluid with new developments taking place almost on a daily basis and these are exciting times for all involved.

In terms of poker play, the moves will serve to make online play far more accessible to United States residents than it ever has been before. This classic card game is becoming more and more popular and in light of recent events, that popularity is now able to grow to even higher levels.


About the Creator

Patricia Sarkar

Raised on a steady diet of makeup and games. Eager to share my experiences with the world and make a difference, article by article! :)

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