An anti-gambling museum opened by an Australian called Jed McCade was somewhat less grim, but just as fanatical.  McCade had established a mid-sized fortune during the Australian gold rush of the 1850s and had watched a good many others do the same.  And he had often seen those fortunes get redistributed in the gambling salons –with, as he said, “an awful poverty resultant.”

But the “poverty resultant” seems to have been only a warm front masking McCade’s  cold hatred for playing cards.  He had got it into his head that they had been imported into Australia on a disease-ridden ship (disease unspecified) and that every pack of cards printed had inherited some awful contamination (possibly not the original one) that was deadly to all players.  McCade was shrewd enough to realize that there were flaws in this theory, and that he would only get into trouble if he tried disseminating it among the prospectors.  So he printed pamphlets containing an ordinary attack on the sinfulness of gambling and ending with the bleak invitation, in black-letter type, “Come To The Museum Of Death.”

The museum was an irresistible attraction-though for more risible reasons than McCade had intended.  It displayed, among other lurid exhibits, while playing three-card monte”; a door panel from an outback shack, inscribed “Rube Martin died here of the cupid’s itch [syphilis] caught from cards 18.7.79”;  an embalmed hand bearing an affidavit from a Melbourne doctor stating that “this is the hand of John Singest, stricken with palsynumerous playing cards apparently infected with bacilli visible under magnifying glasses; and the skeleton of a man supposedly killed by some aboriginal poison that impregnated the cards dealt by his murderous opponents in a faro game.

19th century drawing from the American magazine The Illustrated Police News.  Early opponents of gambling (who were often clergymen) sometimes met with counter-attacks from the gamblers.  But not all forms of gambling have been opposed by the church.

Among similar fanatics who attempted to weaken the grip of gambling on San Francisco during the 1849 gold rush was a self-appointed vigilante, Curtis Grieves. He offered to cure habitual gamblers by plunging their hands into a bucket of red-hot coals that he toted from saloon to saloon.  Astonishingly, he got one taker for this fierce cure-a miner named Henry Grimsdyke, who painfully lost the use of his right hand in consequence and then sued Greeves for $ 10,000 compensation (a suit that failed even to get to court, because of the prior incarceration of Greeves in an asylum as a dangerous mountebank).

Although it is unlikely that such eccentrics as McCade and Greeves made many gamblers’ hair curl with their unbalanced ravings, there were occasional converts made.  There is even a hint, in the newspaper report of Ivan Kuzmitchov’s suicide, that a man who had won a thousand  roubles at faro in one of the waterfront taverns Ivan had visited refused to pick up his winning poker rules because he was scared of the warning in the suicide’s bloody graffito.

All in all, though, the crackbrains have done no more than color the gamblers’ pursuit with a laugh or two.  Over-earnestness is invariably fatal in moral issues.  The Puritans who levied fines for breaches of their rigid code (“Profanation of Lord’s Day 3s., Playing  cards 2s. 6d., Makyng Tumultuous noises 1s. 6d.”) were concerned with a problem of ethics.  But Victorian pseudo-moralists who screamed in tracts and pamphlets of the dangers of drink and gambling were for the most part unthinking pleasure stifles, who found a welcome for melodrama wherever they turned.

A bingo game in progress (to raise money form parish school) at a Roman Catholic  church in Jersey City, U.S.A. Many churches today operate small lotteries bingo games, and so on for charitable purposes.

obviously, it is impossible for anti-gambling legislation to keep an effective rein on an activity that, in many of its manifestations, can so easily be followed in private.  In most countries the attempts at a reasonable compromise (to allow the people freedom to follow their own way of life and at the same time to prevent widespread poverty and misery) have resulted in  a great overcrowding of lawyer’s bookshelves.  And every time attempts are made to untangle some of the absurdities that show up in legal machinery, more shelf space is filled.

Under the common law of England, for example, betting holdem game and gaming of all kinds are legal, but the “aleatory contract” that a wager of any kind involves (which recalls the disapproving Roman  term aleator) is not enforceable at a low.  England’s Gaming Act of 1845 makes it impossible to recover gambling debts England’s Gaming Act of 1845 makes it impossible to recover gambling debts by legal action, and this basic rule hasn’t been altered yet.

If your bookmaker welshes, you can try charging him with larceny, and if you get taken in by the operators of the find-the-lady (three-card monte) games on the London-Paris express, you can haul them up on a charge of false pretenses.  But welshing bookies and other confidence tricksters are likely to have ugly organizations behind them, and you probably won’t recover anything but trouble.  At a different social level, and with a switch in the viewpoint, if you renege on your gambling debts in a respectable club, you’ll find the resulting ostracism far more painful than any legal action could be.  The phrase “debt of honor” has been most useful in circumventing the law.

America has no federal laws controlling gambling.  The states make their individual arrangements, and at the time of writing organized gambling is legal only in Nevada.  At various times in the past, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Louisiana all tried attracting tourists with legalized gambling, but they ended up with a crop of gangster crimes that killed the tourist trade-and occasionally the tourists.

Nevada had legal gambling in the first decade of this century, then abandoned it because of wholesale corruption.  Later, at the time of Great Depression, when the mineral mines that are the state’s basic industry became economically inoperably, the state legislators saw a way of attracting tourists with extremely liberal gambling laws.  Las Vegas has become the center of gambling in Nevada; and the legalization (with some adjustments to cope with gang influences) has worked extremely well there so far as state income is concerned.  Of that income, 20 per cent now comes from the $ 50 monthly fee each gambling house has to pay to the Nevada Tax Commission, and from the monthly $ 10 that is transferred from every slot machine to the same treasury.

Whether the arrangement has worked so well from the tourist-gambler’s point of view is arguable.  Within the two square miles that pin Las Vegas to the middle of the Nevada desert he  can take his pick of 17,000 gambles. But if he has any sense, he will have discovered that Nevada is compelled to maintain a bigger police force than any other state of comparable size, and that a special inspectorate visits every casino and gambling club at irregular intervals to look for swindles.

The ambiguity of the moral and legal attitudes in both England and America is exemplary of the difficulty everyone meets when trying to cope with gambling as a social problem.  Many nations (France and Italy among them) arrive at the compromise of forbidding all gambling but permitting such state-operated public gambles as lotteries.  There are remarkably few countries that go to the extreme and allow all.  Thus a round-up of legal and moral attitudes to gambling throughout the world would naturally reveal various shades of tolerance, intolerance, or ambiguity.  But I have yet to discover a country where there is no gambling to legislate or moralize on.

Crowds in Las Vegas, the City of Gamblers, respond to neon invitations from some of the city’s 300 casinos.  The huge, beckoning cowboy is “Vegas Vic,” the official trademark of the Las Vegas Chamber of commerce.