New Orleans was the precursor of many of America’s other notorious early gambling centers.  Of those other towns, Chicago (which by 1840 had become just as unhealthy as New Orleans ) was typical.  In 10 years it had grown from a shanty town into a minor city, and its gambling activities were growing at the same rate.  The historian John Quinn gives this picture of early Chicago: “Its particular fame as a gambling center rested on the fact that it was filled with a set of sharper drawn from all quarters of the United States, comprising as motley, disreputable, and dishonest a class as ever cursed any city under the face of heaven.  Wealthy suckers were found in abundance, and ‘brace’ dealers, ‘bunko’ men, and rogues of every description carried  off money in bundles.  It is not surprising that the characteristically excitable, speculative, and eager people of America descended on the city from thousands of miles distance in order to satisfy their addition to gambling.  Theirs was the thrill and the misery, the city’s was the fame.”

Cards are dealt in a blackjack.  Below, Fermont Street, with its myriad of casinos and gambling rooms where owners use any advertising technique to draw clients-even offering winners take-away slot machines.

It seems a long step from the seedy water-front gambling houses of early New Orleans and Chicago to Las Vegas, the glittering show-place of modern American gambling.  But in fact Las Vegas too (for all its present magnificence) was created by hoodlums and underworld gangsters who remained deeply entrenched there until as recently as 1947.  But more of this in a moment.
Today, Las Vegas is the world’s biggest gambling center.  Most of its gambling activities are carried on in “The Strip,” the six-lane highway that extends outside the city’s limits past lines of neon-lit hotels, casinos, and restaurants.  Unlike the casinos of Europe, Las Vegas’s big casinos are always parts of hotels: And these hotels are the height of luxury.  They contain magnificent bars, night clubs, swimming pools, restaurants, gift shops, and gaming rooms.  (You can eat and drink at your table and even, at some hotels, telephone directly from your table to your stockbroker or banker.)  There is everything, in fact, to encourage visitors to stay and gamble. For gambling is the be-all and end-all of life in Las Vegas, and play at the tables stops only for one half-minute in the whole year-at the first stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Las Vegas promotes dream up every conceivable gimmick to keep people gambling.  Several casinos have slot machines designed like actual “one-armed bandits”, with masks and guns. 

Such relatively inexpensive pleasures as swimming or sun bathing might keep gamblers away from the tables, so one hotel has instituted a poolside craps table and roulette on the terrace. (far right).

Las Vegas (the name is Spanish for “the meadows”) was originally a camping ground for travelers making their way across the desert from Santa Fe to California.  There was no real settlement until 1885, when 30 young men were sent by the government to Las Vegas to “build” a fort there to protect immigrants and Indians and teach the later how to raise corn, wheat, and potatoes.”  But the young men didn’t stay long, and the area remained uninhabited until it was announced that a new railroad was to be built through Las Vegas to the south-west.  On May 15, 1905, a land auction was held and in two days 2000 lots of land were sold at a total price of $ 265,000.  Soon a huge tent city had grown up, and these tents provided Las Vegas’s first saloons and english gambling houses.

In 1931 the state of Nevada legalized gambling, but though Las Vegas had its share of small gambling houses (and still does) there were no luxury hotels or casinos until 1946.  In that year the notorious New York gang leader and speculator Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel opened a club called the Flamingo on what was then a three-mile desert strip between Las Vegas and McCarren airport.  (The desert didn’t worry Siegel, who filled 40 acres of it with imported lawns, cork trees, live flamingos, and artificial ponds.) Siegel had already made one unsuccessful attempt to beat the existing gambling laws by opening casinos on luxury ships at anchor just over three miles off the coast of Southern California.  He reasoned that because the ships were floating in international waters they were not bound to obey the gambling laws.  But California’s governor Earl Warren tightened the laws so that they unquestionably covered ships at sea too, and Siegel was forced to plan his gambling haven elsewhere.  He turned to Las Vegas, on the assumption that if wealthy patrons were prepared to go out to sea to gamble, they wouldn’t be put off by a journey into the desert – providing legality was assured, and transport and accommodation were comfortable.  And as it turned out, he was absolutely right.

Under-cover gambling may go on in many jails, but in Nevada State Prison (U.S.A) an officially approved gambling center flourishes.  The hours of play are carefully regulated, guards supervise, and prisoners with good records are appointed dealers.  A poker game in progress.  Players draw “brass” (specially minted octagonal coins, below) from their prison accounts, which they redeem for real money when their sentences are up.

Siegel’s reign in Las Vegas was short-lived.  A year after the opening of the Flamingo he was murdered (presumably by a rival gang) and it wasn’t long before his successor, Gus Green Baum, suffered the same fate.  Alarmed by evidence of the underworld’s power in Las Vegas, the Gaming Control Board decided that it was high time they took firmer control.  They made it a law that all casino owners must apply to the State Tax Commission for a license.

But Las Vegas had been launched, and nothing could check its progress.  Once the Flamingo had proved itself a success, other hotels began to spring up.  In 1950 the Desert Inn was opened, in 1952 the Sahara and the Sands, and by 1956 there were 12 luxury hotels with casinos along the Strip.  All of these have large gambling rooms with a generous number of craps, blackjack, roulette, and faro tables.  In 1961 the Saturday Evening Post estimated that Las Vegas has over 9,000,000 visitors each year.  It gave the area’s annual profits (as reported for tax purposes) as $ 107,000,000 – compared to $ 50,000,000 in 1954; and it concluded that “you could live like a prince in Venice and gamble every night for a month for the price of a week in Las Vegas.”

To the Las Vegas casino men, gambling is an industry, and they treat it as such.  (To pay running expenses alone, the big casinos must win $ 25,000 daily which means that approximately $ 130,000 must be gambled at their tables each day.) Money is spent to bring money in on a scale that François Blanc would have never thought possible.  Some hotels run free air flights, some have their own fleet of planes, others (like the Tropicana) place a Rolls Royce car at the disposal of special guests.  (At the Flamingo, you can even get married in the front-lawn chapel.) And all the top hotels spend fortunes to get the world’s biggest stars to perform at their night clubs.

Should you want a break from gambling, or from watching other people gamble, Las Vegas has a great deal more to offer in the way of entertainment.  At all the top hotels you can move from lounge to lounge, drinking and listening to music, you can eat a porterhouse steak in a restaurant and be entertained by top stars like Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Lena Horne; you can swim in the hotel pools or walk around the two miles of town or along the Strip.  And when you feel like gambling again you will be made more than welcome at any one of 40 casinos, all in the Monte Carlo class as far as the stakes are concerned or at any of the more than 100 smaller, less expensive ones in the town.

For Las Vegas casino proprietors have learned one thing: Gamblers like to be recognized as important, and they like to have their money taken from them in style.  And this is exactly what happens to the majority of Las Vegas Vegas’s over-optimistic visitors.

A craps game in the “bull-pen” – the long, low hall where all prison gambling takes place.

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