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GAMBLING . The religious significance of gambling is, in effect, twofold. Many religious traditions, especially the great religions, in their works of legislation and codification, promote as their orthodox norm a prohibition against, or at least discouragement of, gambling. On the other hand, in many cultures gambling takes on religious significance in connection with myths and rituals.

This twofold simplification, however, addresses gambling only insofar as it takes on overt religious significance. No discussion of gambling would be complete, however, without acknowledging its covert religious significance, particularly in cultures that prohibit it or, having adopted a secularized attitude, look upon it as something nonreligious or merely "cultural." Although beyond the main focus of this essay, it is evident that much of what goes on in the name of secular, cultural, or even legalized gambling is both enhanced by the flaunting or circumvention of traditional prohibitions and heightened by ritualized procedures too numerous to mention, by special "sacred" and "liminal" times (the American Superbowl) and places (casinos in remote or international spots), and by a cast of mythological characters and aspirations (the cool, passionate, roving, or desperate gambler; the jackpot winner).

In definitional terms, religious gambling is not easily separated from games and divination. Because gambling cannot be discussed without reference to games, this article shall deal with games only where they are the focus of wages and stakes. As for divination, the use in certain cases of similar implements (lots, bones, dice) and the occurrence of similar attitudes to unseen forces are not sufficient to support the frequently aired view that gambling derives from divination (Tylor, 1871). One does not, in fact, need implements or games at all to gamble. This article shall, however, refer to the drawing of lots and other forms of divination where their use is similar or related to that of gambling practices.

Gambling in Traditional Cultures

Unless one adopts a diffusionist perspective and attempts to derive all forms of gambling from ancient Near Eastern or other Asian prototypes, the prevalence of gambling rites and myths in archaic cultures strongly suggests that the origins of religious gambling are irretrievable. Archaeologists have suggested that the painted pebbles found in the Mas d'Azil caves in the Pyrenees, from the Mesolithic period, are gambling implements. The earliest known dice and board game is that found in the Sumerian royal tombs at Ur, from about 2600 bce. Gambling can only be assumed here, as with Indus Valley dice from about 2000 bce and Egyptian (19901780 bce), Cretan (18001650 bce), and Palestinian (c. sixteenth century bce) finds, some of which resemble cribbage boards. Evidence of ball games and gaming boards from Mesoamerican cultures, of types that continue to be played in that area today, is also traceable to about 1500 bce. And gveda 10.34 provides the first gambler's lament in its "Hymn to Gambling" (c. 1200 bce). The games of ancient cultures appear not only to be similar to those found in recent and contemporary field contexts but to have had in some casessuch as the Mesoamericanremarkable continuity from past to present. As the religious significance of gambling is clearly more in a state of living "expression" than belated "application" (Jensen, 1963, pp. 59-64) in contemporary tribal cultures, such cultures present the best evidence for understanding the religious dimensions of gambling in general.

Unfortunately, ethnographic discussion of "sacred" gambling is uneven. There is sufficient documentation to be confident that it is found on all continents and probably among most, if not all, tribal communities. Many games and implements have been described and collected from around the world, but few studies have examined the cultural and religious significance of gambling at the field level in any detailed way. The only thorough field research on gambling seems to be Geertz's study of the Balinese cockfight, and in that situation its rather covert religious significance is tied in with the Balinese version of popular Hinduism (Geertz, 1973). Nonetheless, Geertz's findings and insights are illuminating with respect to a wider view of religious gambling.

Generally, one finds two models for understanding the archaic religious significance of gambling: Geertz's notion of "deep play," a consuming passionate involvement drawing on deeply ingrained cultural codes and strategies, and the pervasively cited notion that gambling games draw on "cosmic symbolism," or have "cosmic significance." Because Geertz mentions calendrical and cosmological ideas that bear upon the choice and placement of cocks (p. 427), it is evident that the two approaches are not antithetical. In fact, the "cosmic significance" clearly lends itself to the "deepening" of the play.

The cosmological significance of gambling games was maintained by Culin, author of several monumental works on games. In his book on North American Indian games, he summarizes the common pattern of references to gambling games in the origin myths of numerous tribes:

They usually consist of a series of contests in which the demiurge, the first man, the culture hero, overcomes some opponent, a foe of the human race, by exercise of superior cunning, skill, or magic. Comparison of these myths discloses the primal gamblers as those curious children, the divine Twins, the miraculous offspring of the Sun. They live in the east and the west; they rule night and day, winter and summer. They are the morning and evening stars. Their virgin mother, who appears also as their sister and wife, is constantly spoken of as their grandmother, and is the Moon, or the Earth, the Spider Woman, the embodiment of the feminine principle in nature. Always contending, they are the original patrons of play, and their games are now played by men. (Culin, 1907, p. 32)

In Culin's Zuni example, the emblems of the Twin War Gods, their weapons, are classified fourfold in accord with the four directions and are interchangeable with their gaming implements. Thus, for example, stick dice are arrows, shafts, or miniature bows (ibid., p. 33). A correlation between dice and weapons is also made in the Hindu Mahābhārata epic.

It is not, in fact, difficult to advance the principle that every game, ancient or modern, creates a miniature cosmos, its arena, rules, apparatus, and players comprising a unique spatiotemporal world that reflects and symbolizes aspects of known and accepted cosmological structures. This is as true of Monopoly, football, or cricket as it is of more traditional games such as snakes and ladders, which in its Indian context symbolized a difficult ascent to heaven (Grunfeld, 1975, pp. 131133). There are many examples from American Indian cultures of counting boards, playing boards, and ball-game courts having "gateways" or quadrants that correspond to the four directions; to the alternating seasons; to the equinoctial points; to tribal divisions such as men versus women, married women versus single women, old men versus young men; and to moiety divisions identified with heaven and earth, changes in the seasons, or other cosmological referents (Culin, 1907, pp. 34208 passim). In his careful study of the Mesoamerican ball game, Humphrey (1979) thus allows that "there seems to be no question" that it "was based on a kind of cosmic symbolism." He suggests that the movement of the ball represented the course of heavenly bodies through dualistically conceived upper and lower worlds, the two sides thus enacting the struggle between light and darkness, summer and winter, life and death. The ancient Chinese game of pitchpot (see Yang, 1969, pp. 138165) may rely on cosmological notions of the pot (or, sometimes, the gourd) as a container of the world and symbol of primal chaos. Also striking in this connection is the ancient Aztec board game of patolli, which has evident formal similarities with the South Asian game of pachisi. Arguments over whether the similarities are due to diffusion or independent use of similar cosmological structures have remained unresolved since the late nineteenth century. In any case, Beck (1982, pp. 199205) has argued cogently for the cosmological significance of pachisi. The pieces move around the four-armed board, representing the world quarters, in a way that follows the reverse (counter-clockwise) movement of the sun through the houses of the zodiac. The four-sided dice are identified with the four Indian ages (yuga s). The goal of returning to the center thus suggests a triumph over spatiotemporal conditions.

Geertz's discussion of the Balinese cockfight draws its concept of deep play from Jeremy Bentham (17481832), the English economist and philosopher, who uses the term to refer to situations in which stakes are so high that participation is irrational. At the cockfight, two kinds of bets are made: even-money center bets between the two cock owners and their allied supporters, and side bets on odds made among the assembled crowd. As a rule, the larger the center bets, the more even are the odds reached in the crowd. Interest and "depth" are thus enhanced by making the outcome appear as unpredictable as possible. But the size of the center bet also "deepens" the stakes for the cock owners. For the stakes here are not just material, but are matters of honor, esteem, status, and, also, delight in bringing oblique affront to the opponent. Except for addicted gamblers, who are drawnusually to their ruinto the small center bet and long odds matches, real status remains largely unaffected, because victories and losses tend to balance out. But the deep play at status reversals and reclamations of status is real enough in its psychological and social impact. Only men play, while on the periphery of the cockfight, roulette and other gambling games of sheer chance are operated by concessionaires for women, children, the poor, and others who find themselves excluded.

"Deep-play" cockfighting is thus for "the solid citizenry" and resembles an "affaire d'honneur" (Geertz, 1973, pp. 435436). Moreover, it pits not merely individuals against each other, but corporate groupsmost notably, whole villages and patriarchal descent groups. Support money for the central bet comes from other members of the group, and even side-betting against the cock of one's group is considered disloyal. The cock owners thus have not only their own status at stake, but their status within their respective groups and that of the groups themselves.

All of this is displayed "in a medium of feathers, blood, crowds, and money" (ibid., p. 444) that arouses the deepest passions but is rounded off with furtive payments that affirm a cultivated embarrassment at such personal identification with the world of demonic and animal violence. For the cockfight is also, fundamentally, an encounter with the demonic: "a blood sacrifice offered, with the appropriate chants and oblations, to the demons in order to pacify their ravenous, cannibal hunger" (ibid., p. 420). The fights are regularly performed in connection with temple festivals and as collective responses to such natural evils as illness, crop failure, and volcanic eruptions.

A correlation between statusin the largest senseand deep-play gambling can certainly be found. The importance of status is reflected in the fact that gambling is frequently the province of kings, heroes, and aristocrats: the models of what comes down to the present as the genteel bettor. Humphrey (1979, pp. 141146) has applied Geertz's categories to the aristocratic patronage of the Mesoamerican ball game. But still better confirmation for such an analysis comes from descriptions of the North American Huron Indian dice games collected by Culin (1907, pp. 105110). Sacrificial offerings of tobacco to the spirits of the game precede the action. Sometimes whole townships and even tribes contend. In one eight-day game between townships, every inhabitant of each party threw the dice at least once. Players with lucky dreams were sought out for the casting:

At this game they hazard all they possess, and many do not leave off till they are almost stripped quite naked and till they have lost all they have in their cabins. Some have been known to stake their liberty for a time. The players appear like people possessed, and the spectators are not more calm. They all make a thousand contortions, talk to the bones [i. e., throw the dice], load the spirits of the adverse party with imprecations. They quarrel and fight, which never happens among [them] but on these occasions and in drunkenness. (ibid., pp. 105106)

Women and girls play the same game, but only separately and under inferior conditions: with different numbers of dice, and throwing by hand on a blanket rather than with a dice box or basket as the men do (ibid., p. 107).

Gambling on one's freedom is an ultimate status wager and is a type of bet instanced in many cultures. Another suggestive feature of deep play that emerges here is the significance of "stripping," for being willing to gamble all one possesses may both literally and figuratively involve such an outcome. Loss of status is thus potentially far more than just loss of face. As Geertz remarks, there is both a literal and a metaphoric significancesustained by the Balinese language as in the Englishto the Balinese cockfighter's identification with his cock (Geertz, 1973, pp. 417418). I shall note important recurrences of this gambling-stripping correlation, which has a wide range of effects, from deep humiliation to eroticism. Obviously, strip poker is a "secular" example of the latter orientation.

Ritualized gambling thus seems to rely on both its cosmological significance and its character as deep play. The forces of chance draw the contestants into deep involvement in a context that allows for both the regulated breakdown and the creative redefinition of the structural roles by which society and cosmos operatea context that the games reflect. The games thus have the character of liminal passage rites, or ordeals (Humphrey, 1979, p. 144), as well as of reiterations of the cosmogony, the reestablishment of cosmos out of chaos. Such initiatory and cosmogonic overtones have been detected in the dice match that concluded the ancient Indian sacrifice of royal consecration, or rajasuya. In playing dice on even terms with members of different castes, the king overcomes the forces of chance, chaos, and confusion by his triumph (Heesterman, 1957, pp. 140157). As is often the case in ritual gambling, the game is rigged to assure the desired outcome. But the important point is that the participants submit to the principles of the game. Similar initiatory and cosmogonic overtones are found in contexts where gambling is performed for the sick, over the dead, or at turning points in the seasons (for examples, see Culin, 1907, pp. 108115; Hartland, 19241927, pp. 168169; Jensen, 1963, p. 60).

Prohibitions on Gambling

The principles by which different religions have denounced or prohibited gambling are revealing on two fronts. First, they reflect the axiomatic theological and cultural values operative in the respective traditions. Second, they often provide theologically and culturally attuned indications of what it is that is so appealing about what they seek to oppose. Not surprisingly, cosmological significance and deep-play involvement are among the condemned attractions.

In Isaiah 65:1112, gambling is thus one of the ways by which Israel provokes the Lord: "[You] who set up a table for Fortune and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you to the sword." Gad (Fortune) and Meni (Destiny) were gods of fortune, possibly of Syrian or Phoenician origin. The polemic against gambling is thus made in the same terms as that against idolatry, which in turn is a polemic against involvement in false cosmologies ruled by false gods. The context also suggests that such gambling was, at least to the mind of the prophet, one of the alluring vices of acculturation besetting Israel. This attitude persists in Talmudic and rabbinic prohibitions against a variety of games, from the Greek Olympics to cards and chess, which Jews regarded themselves as having adopted from their neighbors. But it is particularly those games that involve gambling that are singled out for condemnation. The Mishnah declares twice that dice players and pigeon racers are disqualified from appearing as witnesses in a court of justice (R. ha-Sh. 1.8; San. 3.3), and the medieval Sefardic philosopher Mosheh ben Maimon (Maimonides, 1135/8-1204) extends the ban to include those who play chess for money (Commentary on Sanhedrin 3.3). This disqualification rests on the principle that gamblers are guilty of facilitating acts of robbery and are thus, in effect, criminals. Curiously, gamblers are similarly disqualified in Hindu law books, joined to thieves, assassins, and other dangerous characters for being "incompetent on account of their depravity" and persons in whom no truth can be found (Narada Smrti 1.159, 1.178; Bhaspati Dharmaśāstra 7.30).

The passage from Isaiah also introduces another strain of condemnation: Using the same Hebrew root in two words, Yahveh "destines" to the sword those who tempt "Destiny." Such a scene is, in fact, played out in another passage from Isaiah, where the rabshakeh (field marshal) of the Assyrian king Sennacherib challenges Israel to a wager over horses, and to an additional (though implied) theological wagerexpressed by boasts referring to Yahveh as a fallible god like those of the surrounding nationsthat Yahveh cannot deliver Israel. The wager over the horses is ignored, but the arrogant theological presumption of the affront to the Lord results in the salvation of Jerusalem and Sennacherib's death by the sword (Is. 3637).

If gambling was denounced in the Bible, however, the casting of lots was not. The throwing of lots with the Urim and Tummim (Yes and No), articles kept in the priest's apron, was accepted as a means of discerning the divine will. Thus Saul was chosen by lot to be king (1 Sm. 10:2021); rural priests were chosen by lot to serve in Jerusalem (1 Chr. 2425); and Matthias was selected by lot to become Judas's successor as the twelfth apostle (Acts 1:26). In these instances, the casting of lots cannot be called gambling. But it is also evident that Israel knew of the use of lots for gambling, though the references suggest that it was only other nations that so employed them. In Joel 3:13, Yahveh speaks of bringing judgment upon the nations for "having divided up my land" and "cast lots for my people." And in Psalms 22:1618, the psalmist, seeing himself dead, describes the "company of evildoers" who "divide my garments among them, and for my raiment cast lots." It is this latter passage that is taken in John 19:2324 as a prophecy of the scene at Jesus' crucifixion, where the Roman soldiers divide up the crucified Christ's garments and gamble for his seamless tunic. Here the symbolism of stripping and gambling accentuates the deepest humiliation and suffering (see Mk. 15:1620, 25; Mt. 27:2829, 36).

Early Christian canon law condemned gambling in no uncertain terms. Two of the so-called Apostolic Canons (41, 42) prohibited both laity and clergy, under pain of excommunication, from engaging in games of chance. And at the Council of Elvira (306 ce), the seventy-ninth canon decreed a year's banishment from communion for anyone guilty of gambling. But restrictions of later councils were directed toward the clergy, and only certain games (especially cards and dice) were forbidden (Slater, 1909, pp. 375376). Such relaxing of restrictions on lay gambling has facilitated church sponsorship of bingo and lottery games in fund-raising efforts. The same is true in Orthodox churches.

Christian condemnations of gambling gather their fullest force in Puritan writings. According to the doctrine of predestination, because every action is foreordained, matters of so-called chance are in the hands of God alone. To invoke God in the name of fortune is to offend him "by making him the assistant in idle pleasures" (Knappen, 1939, p. 439). Similarly, man is but a steward of his goods, which ultimately belong to God. Thus he must not wager what is truly God's (Paton, 1924, p. 166). Furthermore, losers at gambling tend to express themselves in curses.

A rather practical Islamic stance is expressed in the Qurʾān when Muammad discourages wine and a form of gambling with arrows in which the loser pays for a young camel that is slaughtered and given to the poor: "In both there is sin and profit to men; but the sin of both is greater than the profit of the same" (Palmer, 1880, p. 32).

The Hindu law books are full of cautionary remarks on gambling. As noted already, gamblers are judged incompetent witnesses in matters of law. There are statements that gambling makes one impure, and that the wealth obtained by gambling is tainted. Most significant, however, is a passage from the Laws of Manu concerning the duties of kings: Of the royal vices, ten are born of pleasure and eight of anger, and all end in misery; of the ten that "spring from love of pleasure," the most pernicious are drinking, dice, women, and hunting (7.4550). This list of four vices recurs in the Mahābhārata (3.14.7) in the mouth of the divine Ka when he denounces the epic's famous dice match. Ka adds that gambling is the worst "desire-born" vice of all. Thus one seems to have here a condemnation of gambling as deep play. This correlation between gambling and desire is at the very heart of the Indian meditation on gambling, for actions born of desire are binding to this world. Yet in Hindu terms it is also the things of desireincluding the four just mentionedthat draw people to the divine. Thus, whereas Ka here warns of gambling's dangers, when he reveals his "supernal manifestations" in the Bhagavadgītā he claims to be identical with the game of dice itself: "I am the gambling of rogues" (10.36).

Buddhist tradition sustains the same critique of gambling without such accent on the ambiguity. In the sixteenth chapter of the Parabhava Sutta, the Buddha includes addiction to women, strong drink, and dice as one of eleven combinations of means whereby men are brought to loss. The text contrasts these eleven roads to ruin with the one path to victory: loving the dhamma, the Buddha's teaching. Elsewhere, monks are warned that numerous games and spectaclesincluding combats between elephants, horses, buffalo, bulls, goats, rams, and cocks; various board games; chariot racing; and dicingare addictive distractions and detrimental to virtue (Tevijja Sutta, Majjhima Sīlam 24).

Gambling Gods, Demons, and Heroes

Yet even the godsnot to mention their demonic adversariesare wont to gamble. Yahveh makes an implied wager with Satan that Job will remain blameless and upright when deprived of all he has (Jb. 1:612). In Christian traditions, the devil continues to gamble for the human soul, as in Stephen Vincent Benét's story The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937). In Tibet, an annual ceremony was performed in which a priest representing a grand lama played dice with a man dressed as a demonic ghost king. With fixed dice, the priest won, chasing the demon away and confirming the truth of the teaching (Waddell, 1895, p. 512). In India, the two lowest of the four dice throws are demonic. Thus in the epic story of Nala and Damayantī, one demon (Dvāpara) enters the dice, and the other (Kali) "possesses" the hero, dooming him to lose all he has won (Mahābhārata 3.5556). But the Hindu gods play anyway, and are even, as we have seen, identified with gambling. This is true not only of Ka but, more decisively, of Śiva, who is from very early times the lord of gamblers, and who plays dice in classical myths with his wife Parvati.

As noted, Indian dice are named after the four ages (yuga s), which "roll" four by four a thousand times within the larger time unit of the kalpa. The dice play of the divine couple thus represents the continuity of the universe and their absorption with and within it. This "deep play" is one expression of the theological concept of līlā, literally "divine play" or "divine sport." The game's disruption holds the implication of the end of the universe (the mahāpralaya ), while its resumption holds the implication of the recreation (the cosmogony). But insofar as the game is associated with the rise and fall of the yuga s, it is played ritually at liminal temporal junctures in which the continuity of the universe is imperiled. Śiva and Pārvatī thus provide the mythic model for those who play dice ritually at the festival of Dīvālī (Dīpāvalī), which marks a traditional new year. And it is at the mythic juncture of the Dvāparayuga and the Kaliyuga that the great dice match of the Mahābhārata occurs.

One of the most important themes that unites the dice play of Śiva and Pārvatī with the dice match of the Mahābhārata is that of stripping. The stakes for which Śiva and Pārvatī play are their clothes and ornaments. When Śiva loses his loincloth, he gets angry, goes off naked, or refuses to pay up. Pārvatī points out that he never wins, except by cheating (O'Flaherty, 1973, pp. 204, 223, 247). Thus it never comes to pass that both of them are reduced to nakedness, which would imply their merger as Śiva and Śakti, Purua and Prakti, at the mahāpralaya. What is striking about the dice match in the Mahābhārata is that after the five Paava brothers have gambled away everything, even their freedom and their wife-in-common, Draupadī, the culminating act is the attempt by the winners (the Kauravas) to disrobe the heroine in front of her husbands and the whole assembly. As Draupadī is an incarnation of the Goddess, the miraculous intervention by Ka that prevents her stripping is a sign that the dissolution of the universe will not occur in untimely fashion during the intra-yuga period in which the story is set.

It is seen, then, that divine gambling involves persistent encounters with the demonic. Hindu materials carry this theme to great depths, accentuating a continuum between demonic possession and divine rapture. In South Indian terukkūttu ("street-drama") folk plays that enact the epic story, the attempts by the Kaurava Duśāsana to disrobe Draupadī result in his demonic possession, while Draupadī at the same time experiences the most sublime bhakti ("divine love"). On the divine-demonic turf of gambling, in fact, no hero can hope to win without recourse to the powers that hold the demonic in check. The hero is thus the one who is willing to take the risk, even against the seemingly highest odds. It is striking how many epics include episodes of gambling, and even more striking how frequently the "good" hero loses, awaiting final triumph or vindication elsewhere. This occurs not only in the Mahābhārata but in Indian folk epics as well. In the Tamil folk epic The Elder Brother's Story, the twin brothers play six games of dice with Viu at intervals preceding dramatic turns of fortune, the last of which is their death (Beck, 1982, p. 143). In the Telugu epic The Heroes of Palnāu, a cockfight wager divides irreparably the two camps of half brothers, and a game of tops and a dice match between another set of younger brothers in the heroic camp foreshadow the events that lead to their death. In recent years, actual cockfights have been outlawed at the festivals at which these stories are recited (Roghair, 1982, pp. 30 and 62295 passim). In the Tibetan epic of Gesar of Ling, the hero repeatedly plays mōs (see Waddell, 1895, pp. 465474), a game of divination using colored pebbles, before his adventures. Here the lots fall out in the divine hero's favor. In the Mwindo epic of the Nyanga people of the Congo Republic, the hero Mwindo plays wiki, a gambling game with seeds. Mwindo plays in the underworld against the supreme divinity of fire, first losing everything and then winning it back, in an effort to reclaim his antagonistic father from the underworld with a view toward their reconciliation.

Yet there is another dimension to the stance of the heroic gambler that figures, at least metaphorically, in all the great religions of faith: that of the person who may lose everything, or be stripped like Job or Draupadī, but will not gamble away salvation. In positive terms, this is the wager that God exists, the famous wager that Pascal set forth with such precision in his Pensées (1670):

But here there is an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won, one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing. That leaves no choice; wherever there is infinity, and where there are not infinite chances of losing against that of winning, there is no room for hesitation. You must give everything. And thus, since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for an infinite gain, just as likely to occur as a loss amounting to nothing. (Krailsheimer, 1966, p. 151)

Pascal is thus at pains to show that the central bet, as in the Balinese cockfight, is for even money.

See Also

Chance; Divination; Games.


A good bibliography, mainly on the history and legislation of European and American gambling, is found in Stephen Powell's A Gambling Bibliography, Based on the Collection, University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Las Vegas, 1972). Valuable encyclopedia articles include those by J. L. Paton on "Gambling," E. Sidney Hartland on "Games," and G. Margoulith on "Games (Hebrew and Jewish)," in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 6 (Edinburgh, 1913); T. Slater's "Gambling," in Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 6 (New York, 1909); and R. F. Schnell's "Games OT," in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, edited by George Arthur Buttrick (New York, 1962).

For theoretical discussion, see Edward Burnett Tylor's Primitive Culture, vol. 1, The Origins of Culture (1871; reprint, New York, 1958), pp. 7883, emphasizing diffusion and divination, and Charles John Erasmus's "Patolli, Pachisi, and the Limitation of Possibilities," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6 (1950): 369387, which evaluates Tylor's views and various opposing views (including those of Robert Stewart Culin). On "play" in different aspects, see Adolf E. Jensen's Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, translated by Marianna Tax Choldin and Wolfgang Weissleder (Chicago, 1963), pp. 5964, and, especially, Clifford Geertz's The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973), pp. 412453, on the Balinese cockfight. Recent proceedings of the Association for the Anthropological Study of Play (ATASP) are worth consulting, especially for the following: Bernard Mergen's "Reisman Redux: Football as Work, Play, Ritual and Metaphor" and Robert L. Humphrey's "Suggestions for a Cognitive Study of the Mesoamerican Ball Game," in Play as Context (ATASP Proceedings, 1979), edited by Alyce Taylor Cheska (West Point, N.Y., 1981), and Pierre Ventur's "Mopan Maya Dice Games from the Southern Peten," in Play and Culture (ATASP Proceedings, 1980), edited by Helen B. Schwartzman (West Point, N.Y., 1980).

On documentation, see Frederic V. Grunfeld's Games of the World (New York, 1975), for informed discussion with illustrations. On American Indian games, see the classic study by Robert Stewart Culin, Games of the North American Indians, "Bureau of American Ethnology Report," no. 24 (1907; reprint, Washington, D. C., 1973). See also Rafael Karsten's "Ceremonial Games of the South American Indians" (in English), Societas Scientarum Fennica: Commentationes Humanarum Litterarum, vol. 3, pt. 2 (Helsinki, 1930); Jan C. Heesterman's The Ancient Indian Royal Consecration (The Hague, 1957); Liansheng Yang's Excursions in Sinology (Cambridge, Mass., 1969); L. Austune Waddell's The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism (1895; reprint, Cambridge, 1958). On prohibitions of gambling, see the articles by Hartland, Paton, and Slater mentioned above; M. M. Knappen's Tudor Puritanism (Chicago, 1939); and The Qurʾān, translated by E. H. Palmer in "Sacred Books of the East," vol. 6 (1880; reprint, Delhi, 1970).

On gambling in myths and epics, see Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty's Asceticism and Eroticism in the Mythology of Siva (Oxford, 1973); Brenda E. F. Beck's The Three Twins: The Telling of a South Indian Folk Epic (Bloomington, Ind., 1982); Gene H. Roghair's The Epic of Palnadu: A Study and Translation of Palnati Virula Katha (Oxford, 1982); Alexandra David-Neel's The Superhuman Life of Gesar of Ling, translated by Violet Sydney, rev. ed. (London, 1959); and Daniel P. Biebuyck and Kohombo C. Mateene's The Mwindo Epic (Berkeley, Calif., 1969). On Pascal's wager, see Blaise Pascal's Pensées, translated by A. J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth, 1966).

New Sources

Handelman, Don, and David Shulman. God Inside Out: Siva's Game of Dice. New York, 1997.

Alf Hiltebeitel (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 14 2018

37. Gambling

Gambling is an industry that is undergoing tremendous change. It was not too long ago that Nevada was the only state in the union that allowed casino gambling. Today, numerous states either are considering legalizing gambling, or have already done so. There are two factors that are driving the change. First, Native Americans have won the right to establish casinos on their lands regardless of the laws of the state in which they are located. The establishment of these casinos has softened the general publics attitudes toward casino gambling and has led to the introduction of legislative initiatives that permit it, or to voter referendums on the issue. Often, in each situation, the initiatives have resulted in outcomes favorable to gambling. The other factor that has led to legalization of gambling is the economic impact. Many of the regions where gambling has been legalized have realized untold economic benefits in terms of taxes, jobs and development of infrastructure, etc.

Despite the economic developments, the idea of legalizing gambling is not without controversy. Many argue that despite the economic benefits, there is also associated tragedy as people who are addicted to gambling have been known to gamble until they have lost everything and have wreaked havoc on their families and personal lives.

Casino gambling is not the only type of gambling that exists, nor is it the only kind of gambling addressed by state laws. As can be seen in the following chapter, there are many different ways to gamble. The most common subject of regulation is betting. Pari-mutuel wagering is a betting pool in which those who bet on competitors finishing in the top three positions share the total amount bet, less a percentage for the management. Horse racing, dog racing or betting on sporting events are those most frequently and specifically banned. However regulation of regional events is common. Alaska lists about ten different events that are allowed, including many that would be unthinkable in the south: Deep Freeze Classic, Snow Machine Classic, and the Ice Classic are examples. Florida lists a number of legal gambling activities that relate specifically to the states large number of retired citizens: penny-ante games with winnings not exceeding $10 .... including poker, pinochle, bridge, dominos, mahjong that are conducted by adults within a dwelling. One of the more unusual prohibitions is found in Massachusetts where gaming is not permitted within one mile of a cattle show or military muster.

Overall, the subject of legalized gambling as an industry is far from settled and is likely to change regularly in the coming years.

Table 37: Gambling
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
13A-12-20 et seq.; 11-65-1
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or future contingent event not under ones control.Municipalities allowed to determine through referendum whether horse racing will be. permitted.Greyhound races allowed.Gambling devices banned.Pari-mutuel betting allowed in conjunction with horse and dog racing, also with televised horse and dog racing.
11.66.200; 11.66.200(b); 11.66.250(2); 05.15.180
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or future contingent event not under ones control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that person will receive something of value in event of a certain outcome.Prohibited.Dog mushers contests allowed.Gambling devices banned.Several games of chance and/or skill allowed, including bingo, Canned Salmon Classic, Deep Freeze Classic, Fish Derby, Goose Classic, Ice Classic, King Slamon Classic, Mercury Classic, Mushing Sweepstakes, Race Classic, Rain Classic, Snow Machine Classic, numbers wheels, and animal classics. Social in-home gambling allowed.
13-3301 et seq.; 5-101 et seq.
Risking or giving something of value for opportunity to obtain benefit from game, contest, or future contingent event.Horse and harness racing permitted. Off-track betting prohibited.Daytime dog racing not allowed on same day as daytime horse or harness races in same county.Charitable organizations casino night fundraisers allowed; casinos run for profit banned. Indian reservation casinos allowed.Gambling in which prizes are not offered as a lure to separate players from their money allowed. Social gambling allowed. Raffles allowed.
5-66-101 et seq.; 23-110-405 et seq.
Betting any money or any valuable thing on any game of hazard or skill.Pari-mutuel wagering only.Franchised greyhound racing legal, pari-mutuel wagering only.Gambling houses and devices banned.All wagering on all sports or games banned. Betting on card games can result in a fine of not less than $10 and not more than $25. Keno banned 5-66-110
Penal code 330 et seq.; Bus and Prof Code 19400 et seq., Govt Code 98001 et seq.
Dealing, playing, or conducting, games of faro, monte, roulette, lansquenet, rouge et noir, rondo, tan, fantan, seven-and-a-half, twenty-one, hokey pokey, or any banking or percentage game played with cards or dice.Horse and harness racing permitted, pari-mutuel betting only. Off-track betting prohibited. Non pari-mutuel prohibited 337k.Not specified.Indian reservation casinos allowed, otherwise prohibited. Slot machines banned.Razzle dazzle, card, dice games prohibited if played for money, credit, check, or anything of value. Draw poker banned only in counties of 4 million or more people. Illegal to possess any dice with more than 6 faces. Bingo for charity ok 326.5.
18-10-101 et seq.; 12-60-101 et seq.; 12-47.1-101 et seq.
Risking money or any other thing of value for gain contingent in whole or part upon lot, chance, or the happening or outcome of an event over which the person taking a risk has no control.Effective April 21, 2003, off-track simulcasts permitted. Out-of-state simulcasts permitted. Parimutuel wagering only.Greyhound races permitted; off-track simulcasts permitted. Special event greyhound race simulcasts from out of state permitted. Parimutuel wagering only. Standard bred harness horse race ok w/permit 12-60-510. Horse racing permitted 12-60-511.Limited: slot machines, poker and black jack with maximum single bet of $5. Only allowed in cities of Central, Black Hawk, and Cripple Creek. Indian reservation casinos allowed.Election wagers banned; gaming for charitable organizations allowed. Social gambling allowed. Bingo and raffles regulated by the secretary of state.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
12-557 et seq.; 53-278a et seq.
Risking something of value for gain contingent on chance.Daily double, exacta, quinella, trifecta, superfecta, twin trifecta, pick four, pick six, and other forms of parimutuel betting allowed. Off-track betting allowed.Off-track betting allowed. Wagering on out-of-state dog races allowed.Bingo parlors allowed. Pequot and Mohegan tribes permitted to operate casinos per Tribal-State Compact. Gambling devices otherwise prohibited.Any person licensed to conduct betting or wagering events must display informational materials for the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of compulsive gamblers. Social gambling allowed.
3-10001 et seq.; 11-1401 et seq.
Recording or registering bets or wagers, or directly or indirectly betting or wagering, money or anything of value.Horse and harness racing allowed; pari-mutuel allowed. Off-track betting on out-of-state races permitted.Not specified.Gambling devices prohibited.Gambling in bowling alleys, craps games, and election wagering banned. Merchandising plans are not gambling.
22-1701 et seq.
Playing any game of chance for money or property.All wagering on athletic contests, including horse racing, prohibited.Prohibited.No house, vessel, or place on land or water, may be set up for gaming purposes. No gambling devices such as slot machines or roulette wheels permitted.Bingo, raffles, and Monte Carlo night parties organized for educational and charitable purposes allowed. Three-card monte; confidence games; bookmaking; illegal.
849.01 et seq.; 550.001, et. seq.
Playing or engaging in any card game or game of chance, at any place, by any device, for money or another thing of value.Pari-mutuel wagering meets of thoroughbred racing, quarter horse racing, or harness racing allowed with permit. Off-track and inter-track wagering allowed.Pari-mutuel wagering on greyhound dog racing allowed with permit. Off-track and intertrack wagering allowed.Pari-mutuel-style, not casino-style card rooms allowed. Tribal gaming pursuant to Indian Gaming Regulatory Act legal. Gambling devices otherwise prohibited.Penny-ante games with winnings not exceeding $10 permitted, including poker, pinochle, bridge, dominoes, and mahjongg, if conducted by adults in a dwelling. Cardrooms, bingo, gaming for charitable organizations allowed. Chain letters and pyramid schemes banned. Jahalai allowed.
16-12-20 et seq.
Betting upon the final result of any game or contest, or upon games played with cards, dice, or balls, in order to win money or other things of value, prohibited.Prohibited.Prohibited.Maintenance of gambling places or equipment prohibited.Election wagering, commercial gambling, dogfighting, chain letter and pyramid clubs banned. Raffles for charitable organizations allowed.
712-1220 et seq.
Staking or risking something of value upon outcome of a contest of chance or uncontrollable future contingent event in order to receive something of value.  Gambling aboard ships illegal. Possession of gambling devices, e.g. slot machines, illegal.Possession of gambling records, promoting gambling, bookmaking, illegal. Social gambling permitted as long as not committed in a hotel, motel, bar, nightclub, or any business establishment or public place. Must be of majority age.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
18-3801 et seq.; 54-2501 et seq.
Risking any money, credit, deposit or other thing of value upon lot, chance, the operation of a gambling device or the happening or outcome of an event, including sporting events.Live horse racing and simulcasts legal, pari-mutuel betting allowed.Live in-state dog racing and parimutuel betting allowed.Casino operations, including, but not limited to, blackjack, craps, roulette, poker, baccarat, or Keno. Antique slot machines may be displayed but not operated. Modern slot machine possession is unlawful.Bookmaking, possession of gambling records, pool selling prohibited.
720 5/28-1 et seq.; 230 10/1 et seq .; 230 5/1 et seq.
Playing games of chance or skill for money or other thing of value; wagering upon games, contests, or elections; owning or operating gambling devices.Horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering allowed for licensees.Not specified.Riverboat gambling allowed upon any navigable stream other than Lake Michigan.Compensation agreements; bona fide contests of skill, speed, strength, or endurance; manufacture of gambling devices; bingo; raffles; possession of antique slot machines; pull tab and jar games; and charitable games allowed.
35-45-5-1 et seq.; 4-31-1-1 et seq.
Risking money or other property for gain, contingent upon lot, chance, or the operation of a gambling device.Horse racing and satellite facilities licensed for parimutuel wagering legal.Not specifiedRiverboat gambling legal in counties contiguous to Lake Michigan, Ohio River, and Patoka Lake.Bookmaking; pool-selling; maintenance of slot machines, dice tables, or roulette wheels; and conducting banking games banned.
99.1 et seq.; 725.5 et seq.
Participating in a game for anything of value or making any bet.Horse racing legal. Licensees may simultaneously telecast out-of-state races within racetrack for purpose of parimutuel wagering.Dog racing legal. Licensees may simultaneously telecast out-of-state races within racetrack for purpose of parimutuel wagering.Excursion boat gambling, including coin-operated games legal. Gambling on land prohibited except for on Indian reservations.Bookmaking; card counting; pyramid games illegal. Raffles not exceeding $200 in value; bingo legal. Any adult may hold an annual game night with a license, if no consideration is involved except goodwill. Social gambling allowed.
21-4302 et seq.; 74-8801 et seq.
Making a bet; entering or remaining in a gambling place with intent to bet; and playing a gambling device.Nonprofit organizations may apply to state racing commission for license to construct or own racetrack facility and conduct horse races. No off-track betting. Parimutuel wagering only.Nonprofit organizations may apply to state racing commission for license to construct or own racetrack facility and conduct greyhound races. No off-track betting. Pari-mutuel wagering only.Commercial gambling illegal except in accordance with Indian tribal gaming statutes.Bona fide business transactions; prizes to winners of bona fide contests of skill, speed, strength, or endurance; and bingo operated by bona fide nonprofit organizations.
528.010; 230.210 et seq.; 238.500-.995
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest or game based upon an element of chance.Horse running, trotting and pacing races; harness races; off-track interstate wagering legal. Pari-mutuel wagering only.Not specified.Casinos and gambling establishments illegal.Bookmaking; organizing or promoting gambling; possessing gambling records and devices banned. Charitable gaming allowed.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
14:90 et seq.; 27:201 et seq.
Intentional conducting a game or contest in which a person risks the loss of anything of value in order to realize a profit.Horse racing on licensed racetracks, interstate and international parimutuel wagering legal.Dog racing prohibited.Riverboat gambling allowed. Casinos allowed in selected jurisdictions. Must be over age 21 to play video poker.Gambling allowed on international commercial cruise ships sailing to ports in parishes with populations of 475,000 or more. Bona fide charitable raffles, bingo and Keno legal. Gambling via Internet illegal. Social gambling allowed.
17-A §951 et seq.; 8§301; 8§285 et seq.; 8§261-A, et seq.
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event, with intent to receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.Harness horse racing and off-track betting allowed.Greyhound racing, and interstate simulcasts of greyhound racing, prohibited.Gaming allowed.Bingo clubs for individuals 62 years of age or older; bona fide business contracts legal, raffles allowed. Bookmaking; mutuel schemes; promoting gambling; possession of gambling records and/or devices illegal.
MARYLAND BR 11-101 et seq.; BR §10-502; 12-101 et seq.; 13-407 et seq.Wagering or betting in any manner to receive something of value dependent upon the result of any race, contest or contingency.Thoroughbred and harness racing legal. Pari-mutuel betting; intertrack betting; and satellite simulcast betting allowed.Not specified.Occupying any house, building or vessel on land or water for the purpose of gambling prohibited. Slot machines legal in certain counties.Bookmaking; pool-making; jai alai illegal. Games of entertainment, e.g. bingo and raffles, including bona fide political committee raffles and raffles of real property by charitable organizations. Supplier of motor fuel may not use games of chance, only retail service stations.
271§1 et seq.; 128A§1 et seq.
Winning $5 or more by gaming or betting on sides or hands of those playing, in a public place or while trespassing in a private place.Licensed horse racing and on-track pari-mutuel or certificate wagering legal.Licensed dog racing and on-track parimutuel or certificate wagering legal.Betting houses prohibited.Book making and pool making; betting in pool halls or bowling alleys; gaming within one mile of a cattle show, military muster or public gathering; using a telephone to place or accept a bet illegal. Charitable organizations allowed to have raffles or bazaars.
750.301 et seq.; 432.201 et seq.
Accepting money or a valuable thing contingent upon result of contest or happening of uncertain event.Live horse racing at licensed race tracks; on-track simulcasting; and on-track pari-mutuel wagering legal. Gaming on Native American land governed by Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Licensed casinos allowed.Pool selling; registering bets; gambling in stocks, bonds, grain or produce prohibited. Recreational card playing at senior citizen housing facility; league bowling at alleys not exceeding $1,000; redemption games; bingo; millionaire parties, allowed.
349.11 et seq.; 609.75 et seq.
Making a bet; possessing a gambling device without a license; and allowing a structure under ones control to be used as a gambling place.Licensed on-track pari-mutuel system of wagering on horse races legal.Not specified.Gaming on tribal land governed by Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.Pull-tabs; bingo; raffles; private social bets, paddlewheels; tipboards all considered lawful gambling. Possession of a gambling device in ones dwelling for ones own amusement and social skill games with prizes not in excess of $200 legal. Charitable organizations may be licensed to hold gambling activities.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
97-33-1 et seq.; 75-76-1 et seq.
Encouraging any game, other than a dog fight, for money or other valuable thing.Prohibited.Not specified.Cruise vessels allowed on Mississippi River or waters within any county bordering river in which voters have approved gambling. Licensed casinos allowed.Cockfights; Indian ball play; duels; raffles; gambling devices; yacht races; shooting matches; illegal. Charitable bingo allowed. Gambling devices and gaming tables are banned. Minors not allowed any gambling privileges.
572.010 et seq.; 313.001 et seq.
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or future contingent event.Horse racing and pari-mutuel wagering on international or interstate horse race simulcasts legal. Off-track wagering illegal.Not specified.Licensed excursion gambling boats and floating facilities which house games of chance and skill, including poker, craps, blackjack, legal.Bookmaking; possession of gambling records and devices illegal. Bingo sponsored by bona fide charitable organizations legal. No one under 21 may wager on gambling boats.
23-5-110 et seq.; 23-4-101 et seq.
Risking money or anything of value for a gain contingent upon lot or chance.Live or simulcast horse races at licensed racetracks or simulcast facilities legal. Parimutuel, on-track wagering only.Live or simulcast greyhound races at licensed race tracks or simulcast facilities legal. Parimutuel, on-track wagering only.Video gambling devices legal. Gambling devices otherwise prohibited.Fishing derbies; wagering on natural occurrences; gambling activities sponsored by nonprofit organizations; possession of antique slot machines; shaking dice for a drink or music; Calcutta pools; bingo; Keno and raffles; sports pools and tab games; fantasy sports leagues authorized. Bookmaking, pool selling, prohibited.
28-1101 et seq.; 9-201 et seq.; 2-1201 et seq.
Betting something of value upon the outcome of a future event which is determined by an element of chance.Licensed horse racing; pari-mutuel wagering; off-track betting (including simulcasting and telephonic wagering); and exotic wagering such as daily double, exacta, quinella, trifecta, pick six legal. Tribal gaming legal, pursuant to Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Gambling devices prohibited.Lawful business transactions; playing amusement devices; conducting prize contests; participating in bingo and raffles in accordance with state statutes legal. Promoting gambling, possessing gambling records or possessing gambling devices is prohibited.
463.010 et seq.
Dealing, operating, carrying on, or exposing for play any game, or operating inter-casino linked systems.Licensed horse racing legal; off-track betting legal when conducted at licensed gaming facilities.Licensed dog racing legal.Licensed casino gambling legal.Charitable lotteries legal. Manipulation of gaming equipment; use of unapproved wagering instruments illegal. Private, social gambling allowed.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
647:2; 284:1 et seq.
Risking something of value upon a future contingent not under ones control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that something of value will be received in the event of a certain outcome.Licensed horse racing legal. On-track pari-mutuel wagering legal.Licensed dog racing legal. On-track parimutuel wagering legal.Cruise ships equipped with gambling machines whose primary purpose is touring may enter state for 48 hours, provided that all gambling machines are disabled while in state. Others prohibited.Charitable organizations raffles, bingo and games of chance; lucky 7; manufacture of gambling machines legal. Gambling on gas station premises; wagering on games or sports illegal.
2C:37-1 et seq.; 5:5-1 et seq.
Unlicensed risking of something of value upon outcome of contest of chance or future contingent event not under actors control, upon agreement that actor will receive something of value in event of a certain outcome.Licensed horse racing legal. On-track pari-mutuel wagering; race simulcasts; licensed intertrack wagering; receipt of and wagering upon simulcast horse races held out of state legal.Sled dog racing allowed for agricultural fairs and exhibitions only.Licensed casino operation legal.Bookmaking; possession of gambling records; unlicensed maintenance of gambling resorts; possession of gambling devices not regulated by Casino Control Act; unlicensed conduct of games of chance on Sundays illegal. Raffles and bingo for charitable organizations legal. Promoting gambling prohibited.
30-19-1 et seq.; 60-1-1
Making a bet; entering or remaining in a gambling place with intent to make a bet or play a gambling device.Licensed horse racing; on-track pari-mutuel wagering.Not specified.Gambling places illegal, except as pusuant to Indian Gaming Compact.Commercial gambling; permitting premises to be used for gambling; dealing in gambling devices; bookmaking; bribery of contest participants; accepting anything of value on the basis of results of a race, contest or game of skill or chance illegal.
Manufacturing and exporting of gambling devices; senior citizen bingo, permitted.
Minors not allowed to play bingo.
PEN§225.00 et seq.; 47A:101 et seq.; rw&b 47A§518
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under persons control, upon an agreement that he/she will receive something of value, given a certain event.Licensed horse and harness racing legal. Off-track parimutuel wagering at licensed facilities legal.Not specified.Gambling devices prohibited.Promoting gambling; possession of gambling records; bookmaking; possession of gambling devices illegal. Games of chance sponsored by bona fide charitable organizations allowed. Social, private gambling allowed.
14-289 , et seq.
Operating a game of chance and playing at or betting on any game of chance at which money, property or other thing of value is bet, whether the same be in stake or not.Horse racing prohibited.Greyhound racing prohibited.Prohibited.Pyramid and chain schemes; allowing gambling in houses of public entertainment; faro banks and tables; possession and operation of punchboards and slot machines illegal. Bingo games and raffles sponsored by nonprofit organizations legal.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
12.1-28-01 et seq.; 53-06.1-01 et seq.
Risking something of value for gain, contingent, wholly or partially, upon lot, chance, operation of gambling apparatus, or happening or outcome of an event, including elections or sporting events, over which person taking risk has no control.Licensed horse racing; race simulcasts; parimutuel wagering, including place, show, quinella, and combination is legal.Licensed dog racing; race simulcasts; parimutuel wagering, including place, show, quinella and combination.Prohibited.Lawful contests of skill, speed, strength or endurance; lawful business transactions; bingo, twenty-one, pull tabs, poker, calcutta, paddlewheels, punchboards, sports pools and raffles sponsored by licensed charitable organizations legal. Bogus chips; marked cards; cheating devices; fraudulent schemes, illegal.
2915.01 et seq.; 3769.01 et seq.
Bookmaking; facilitating schemes or games of chance for profit; betting on schemes or games of chance for ones livelihood; possession of gambling devices; playing craps; roulette or slot machines for money.Horse racing allowed with permit; on-track pari-mutuel wagering and wagering at fourteen satellite facilities legal.Not specified.Operating a gambling house illegal except as pursuant to tribal-state compact.Games of chance, such as bingo, conducted by charitable organizations, that are conducted four days or less not more than twice a year; licensed tag fishing tournaments are legal. Public gaming; cheating are illegal. Private, social gambling allowed.
21§941 et seq.; 3A§200 et seq.
Betting or bargaining that, dependent upon chance, one stands to lose or win something of value specified in an agreement between parties.Licensed horse racing; pari-mutuel, off-track, interstate wagering legal. State Tribal Gaming Act governs casino gambling.Bona fide business contracts; any charity game conducted pursuant to Oklahoma Charity Games Act; prizes offered to participants of public events such as rodeos, fairs, and athletic events legal. Pyramid schemes; dice games; three-card monte illegal.
167.108 et seq.; 462.010 et seq.
Staking or risking something of value upon outcome of a contest of chance or future contingent event not under control of actor, upon agreement that actor would receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.Licensed horse racing and mutuel wagering legal. Off-track mutuel wagering authorized.Licensed dog racing and mutuel wagering legal. Off-track mutuel wagering authorized.Only gambling places authorized at tribal gaming facilities.Bona fide business contracts; contest of chance where players win prizes, not money, bingo, lotto, raffles, and Monte Carlo events sponsored by charitable organizations; social games are legal. Bookmaking; Internet gambling; possession of gambling records; possession of gray machines; cheating illegal. Counties and cities may authorize game playing in private settings.
18§5513 et seq.; 4§325.101 et seq.
Elements of gambling are: consideration, element of chance, and reward.Licensed horse and harness racing; interstate simulcasts; on- and off-track parimutuel wagering legal.Not specified.Gambling houses and devices prohibited.Pool selling and bookmaking; punch boards, drawing cards; private wire for gambling information; cockfighting; bullet play illegal. Bingo and local option small games of chance sponsored by charitable organizations; antique slot machines allowed.
11-19-1 et seq.; 41-3-1 et seq.
Directly or indirectly setting up, publicly or privately, any chance, game or device for the purpose of disposing of money, or assisting others in such actions.Licensed horse racing, on-track pari-mutuel wagering legal.Licensed dog racing, on-track pari-mutuel wagering legal in cities of Burrillville, Lincoln, and West Greenwich.Operation of gambling places prohibited.Bingo and raffles in senior citizen housing; bingo sponsored by charitable organizations; frontons are legal. Bookmaking, unlicensed horse races are illegal. Governmental lotteries allowed.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
16-19-40 et seq.
Playing card or dice games; roley-poley; rouge et noir; faro; or at any gaming tables or gaming devices.  Gambling devices prohibited.Card and dice games; lettered gaming tables; roley-poley tables; rouge et noir; faro banks; playing games in ones home on Sunday; betting on elections; pool selling; bookmaking; punchboards; gray machines are illegal.
22-25-1 et seq.; 42-7-47 et seq.
Wagering anything of value upon the outcome of game of chance; maintaining gambling place or equipment.Licensed horse racing legal. Off-track pari-mutuel wagering authorized at satellite locations more than fifty miles away from any licensed horse track.Licensed dog racing. Off-track pari-mutuel wagering authorized at satellite locations more than fifty miles away from any licensed dog track.Limited card games and slot machines authorized within city of Deadwood. Casinos allowed on Indian reservations.Travel for sole purpose of gambling; persuading others to visit gambling places; and bookmaking are illegal. Ownership of antique slot machines and bingo sponsored by charitable organizations with no prize in excess of $2000 are legal. Internet gambling prohibited.
4-36-101 et seq.; 39-17-501 et seq.
Risking anything of value for a profit whose return is to any degree contingent on chance, not including lawful business transactions.Licensed horse racing; interstate simulcast wagering; and pari-mutuel wagering at licensed satellite teletheaters legal.Not specified.Gambling devices prohibited.Promoting gambling; pyramid clubs; possessing gambling devices or records; customer referral rebates are illegal. Bingo and games of chance conducted by charitable organizations are legal.
PEN 47.01 et seq.; Civ. St. 179e
Agreement to win or lose something of value solely or partially by chance.Licensed horse racing; simulcast races and on-track pari-mutuel wagering are legal.Limit of three racetrack licenses for greyhound racing. Simulcast races and on-track pari-mutuel wagering are legal.Keeping a gambling place is prohibited.Promoting gambling; keeping a place of gambling, communicating gambling information; possessing gambling devices with intent to further gambling illegal. Social gambling; bingo and raffles sponsored by charitable organizations allowed. Bona fide contests of skill allowed.
76-10-1101 et seq.; 4-38-1 et seq.
Risking anything of value upon the outcome of a contest, game, scheme, or gaming device when the return or outcome is based upon an element of chance and is in accord with an agreement or understanding that someone will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.Licensed horse racing and all wagering prohibited.Prohibited.Prohibited.Lawful business transactions; playing amusement devices legal. Election wagering; possessing gambling records; confidence games illegal. Gambling fraud, promotion, possessing a gambling device or record all illegal.
13§2133 et seq.; 31§601 et seq.
Winning or losing money or another valuable thing by play or hazard at any game.Licensed horse racing legal except on Sundays before 1 PM. On-track parimutuel wagering allowed.Not specified.Gaming houses prohibited.Games of chance sponsored by nonprofit organizations; contests or games of chance, including sweepstakes, provided that persons who enter are not required to venture money or other valuable things, allowed. Bookmaking; pool selling; touting gambling illegal.
State/Code SectionGamblingHorse Racing/Off-Track BettingDog Racing/Off-Track BettingCasinos Allowed?Other Kinds of Gambling-Related Activities Allowed or Banned
18.2-325 et seq.; 59.1-364 et seq.
Making, placing or receiving any bet or wager of money or other thing of value, dependent upon the result of any game, contest, or event the outcome of which is uncertain or a matter of chance.Horse races, parimutuel wagering, and off-track betting at licensed satellite facilities legal.Greyhound racing specifically prohibited.Gambling devices and places illegal.Bingo, raffles and duck races sponsored by nonprofit organizations; contests of skill or speed between men, animals, fowl or vehicles; games of chance in private residences legal. Winning by fraud illegal.
9.46.010 et seq.; 67.16.010 et seq.
Staking or risking something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or future contingent event not under the persons control or influence, upon an agreement that someone will receive something of value.Licensed horse racing and parimutuel wagering allowed.Wagering on greyhound races specifically prohibited.Tribal gaming pursuant to Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and maintenance of licensed gambling facilities allowed. Gambling devices otherwise prohibited.Bucket shops; bunco steering; bookmaking; professional gambling illegal. Bingo, raffles, amusement games sponsored by charitable organizations; fishing derbies; sports pools; golfing and bowling sweepstakes; turkey shoots; social card games; promotional contests legal.
61-10-1 et seq.; 29-22A-1 et seq.; 19-23-1 et seq.
Betting or wagering money or another thing of value on any game of chance, or knowingly furnishing money or another thing of value on any game of chance.Licensed horse racing and parimutuel wagering allowed.Licensed dog racing and pari-mutuel wagering allowed.Video lottery games allowed at pari-mutuel racing facilities. Machines cannot use casino themes such as dice, roulette, or baccarat. May simulate classic slot machines.Bucket shops; policy or numbers games; gambling at hotels illegal. Bingo, raffles, games of chance sponsored by charitable organizations legal. Keeping gaming tables or devices or allowing them on property or keeping a look out for gambling activities all illegal.
945.01 et seq.; 562.001 et seq.
Bargain in which parties agree, dependent upon chance even though accompanied by some skill, one stands to win or lose something of value specified in the agreement.Licensed horse racing and on-track pari-mutuel wagering legal. Off-track betting prohibited. Simulcast wagering allowed.Licensed dog racing and on-track parimutuel wagering legal. Off-track betting prohibited. Simulcast wagering allowed.Indian gaming legal. Commercial, i.e., casino gambling illegal.Licensed bingo and raffles allowed. Crane games; snowmobile racing; bona fide business contracts; contests of skill, speed, strength and endurance legal. Bookmaking; dealing in gambling devices illegal.
6-7-101 et seq.; 11-25-101 et seq.
Risking any property for gain contingent in whole or part upon lot, chance, or outcome of an event, including sporting event, over which person taking a risk has no control.Licensed horse, harness, cutter, chariot, and chuckwagon racing and pari-mutuel wagering legal. Licensed off-track simulcast wagering legal.Licensed dog racing and pari-mutuel wagering permitted.Structures, boats or vehicles maintained for gambling purposes illegal.Bona fide contests of skill, speed, strength, or endurance; bona fide business contracts; raffles, bingo and pulltabs sold by charitable organizations; bona fide social wagering; Calcutta wagering; display or private use of antique devices legal. Professional gambling; possessing gambling devices; gambling record keeping illegal.


views updated May 18 2018


The psychology of gambling

The sociology of gambling

The legalization issue


Gambling may be defined as a form of activity in which the parties involved, who are known as bettors or players, voluntarily engage to make the transfer of money or something else of value among themselves contingent upon the outcome of some future and uncertain event.

While the origins of gambling are lost to recorded history, it appears probable that games of chance developed out of various magical and religious practices employed by man to cope with problems of uncertainty and fate. In contemporary societies gambling appears most frequently in recreational contexts and in association with various sports and games. Among the major classes of games, gambling is especially common in those in which chance plays a prominent role, but it also appears in connection with games of skill or strategy and with games of physical prowess. In nonrecreational contexts gambling occurs in the form of wagers on the outcome of future events about which the bettors have strong convictions, as in the case of election outcomes. Elements closely parallel to gambling appear in conjunction with economic activities, especially those in which risk and uncertainty are prominent. In effect, speculators on the commodity markets bet against each other about the rise or fall of commodity prices.

In its various aspects gambling is at once a major recreational institution, a minor vice, a large-scale industry, a powerful source of crime and political corruption, a perennial social problem, a fascinating psychological puzzle, and an intriguing pastime. Like prostitution, it is ancient, widespread, and widely disapproved. It flourishes, in spite of ethical taboo and legal sanction, as an institutionalized deviant pattern and as a form of crime in which the victims are willing accomplices.

Social science perspectives on gambling . Because of gambling’s complex and paradoxical nature, it is not surprising that the responses to it by social scientists and others have been extraordinarily diverse. Philosophers and theologians have struggled with the ethical and teleological implications of gambling, viewing it at times as a profane and frivolous stepchild of religion, to which it bears certain disquieting similarities. Mathematicians have exploited gambling to the hilt in the development of probability theory, some of them becoming gamesters in the process. Economists have turned to gambling to clarify the distinction between the functional and dysfunctional aspects of speculation and, more recently, for some sophisticated reformulations of utility theory. In the “theory of games” they have found in gambling a model for analyzing strategies in competitive situations involving risk and uncertainty.

Experimental psychologists have employed gambling situations in studies of probability learning and probability preferences, of levels of aspiration, and of intermittent reinforcement and conflict-drive motivation. Social psychologists have utilized gambling games to study social competition, aggression, and coalition formation. Psychoanalysts and clinical psychologists have concerned themselves with the unconscious motivations and personality structures of gamblers and with the problems of addiction. Sociologists have been interested in the incidence of gambling, its organization in relation to the underworld and the police, its functions for individuals and society, and its control. Finally, ethnographers and social historians have provided some fascinating descriptions of the cultural patterning of gambling in various times and places.

In these many different approaches that have touched on the subject, the interest in gambling has often been peripheral to some other, central interest, with the result that the coverage is piecemeal and fragmentary. While there are scattered bits of useful knowledge and theory, systematic treatises on gambling are sadly lacking. Moreover, many of the treatments that do exist are speculative, impressionistic, and moralistic, and many are also without adequate data.

The psychology of gambling

From a psychological viewpoint, gambling is at once an instrumental activity, directed toward a consciously recognized economic end, and an expressive activity, enjoyed as an end in itself. Interpretations of gambling motivations have varied widely, depending upon which of these facets has commanded the central focus of attention.

Gambling as instrumental behavior

In making their betting decisions, economically oriented gamblers must take two principal factors into account: the odds and the probabilities. In gambling terminology “odds” designates the ratio between the amount staked and the amount the player stands to win if successful. “Probabilities” refers to expectations regarding the outcome of the event bet upon, expressed as a ratio of favorable to unfavorable outcomes or as the percentage of favorable outcomes out of all possible outcomes. The actuarial value of a gambling risk depends upon the relationship between the odds and the probabilities. In gambling situations generally, there is a tendency for these two ratios to approach an inverted balance: as the probabilities of a favorable outcome become smaller, the odds become longer. For example, in horse racing, long shots fetch better prices than favorites. That this tendency exists at all may be taken as evidence for the operation of an element of economic rationality among gamblers.

It is clear, however, that no general theory of gambling behavior can be constructed from the conventional notions of economic rationality alone. In every gambling situation either the odds and probabilities are exactly balanced or they are not. Assume, first, that they are balanced, as in the case of tossing coins for even money. In the gambling world such risks are known as fair risks because neither side has any clear advantage. While it might appear that the rational gambler would have no particular reason to avoid such risks, there is also no apparent reason for him to accept them. Indeed, according to orthodox economic theory, the prudent gambler would presumably assign some element of disutility or cost to risk assumption and to the activity of gambling itself, regarding it as a form of “work.” Moreover, if he assigns some function of diminishing utility to successive increments of money income, as economic theory assumes, the utility of each unit of money he might win in a fair-risk situation would be less than that of the money he might lose. Hence, the economically rational gambler would presumably avoid such risks as in this sense “not fair.”

In all other gambling situations the odds and probabilities are not in balance. In situations of this sort, since all gambling transactions are between persons, it follows that whereas one player has backed a good risk, his opponent has by definition accepted a poor one. It is evident, therefore, that at least half of all gamblers have lost their rational economic bearings. In fact, in the gambling world the majority of good risks are monopolized by the professional gamblers who operate the various games and devices, always with a comfortable margin of safety. From the lay player’s point of view there are no “good risks” at all in any professionally operated gambling house. Yet the market behavior of such gamblers makes it clear that there is always an easy market for poor gambling risks, especially those in which the odds are intriguingly long but offset by disastrously short probabilities.

The “utility of money.” Economists and psychologists alike have advanced many arguments and theories designed to show how such apparently nonrational behavior may yet be motivationally intelligible. One line of argument has called for a reappraisal of traditional assumptions about the diminishing utility of money. Thus, Vickrey (1945) reasoned that the behavior of lottery players clearly implies that in this situation the utility of money is an increasing rather than a decreasing function of income. Following this same theme, Friedman and Savage (1948) demonstrated that for the gambler even a small probability of a large reward may have more utility than either a much larger prob ability of small loss or the certainty, if the risk be rejected, of staying at the same income level. Along similar lines, Mosteller and Nogee (1951) recorded the actual market behavior of experimental subjects in a situation that permitted varying amounts to be won, with varying probabilities of success or failure. Observing that the subjects do not automatically accept the bets with the highest actuarial values, they attempted to construct a series of curves showing the actual utility for their subjects of varying amounts of money (see also Coombs & Komorita 1958).

The “utility of gambling.” A second line of analysis has challenged the assumption that the activity of gambling should be reckoned on the cost, or disutility, side of the calculus. In effect, the gambler may justify his losses as a fair payment for the pleasure he has obtained from the activity itself. Royden, Suppes, and Walsh (1959) have proposed a carefully reasoned model for the experimental measurement of the “utility of gambling” itself, which they argue must be kept independent of notions about the “utility of money.” This line of analysis, however, is not much help in explaining why gamblers find pleasure in this activity, while nongamblers presumably do not.

Subjective probabilities

A third line of analysis, focusing on the cognitive aspects of gambling orientations, raises the question whether gambling behavior is a function of simple ignorance or error or whether the “subjective probabilities” upon which the gambler premises his behavior are systemati cally distorted or biased by various motivational factors.

Ignorance or error. Studies of probability learning provide evidence that there is ample scope for error in appraising the probabilities in complex gambling situations. Komorita (1959) has shown that experimental subjects are least accurate in estimating probabilities when the number of events or possible outcomes is large and when the probabilities for unit events depart from .50. Brim and Koenig (1959) found, in a sample of 143 college students, that none knew the correct way to combine the probabilities of independent events. And Cohen and Hansel (1958) found that even highly intelligent subjects tended to interpret multiplicative probabilities as if they were additive. Professional gamblers are less prone to such errors and employ their extra knowledge to design gambling situations in which the true probabilities are subtly concealed.

Faulty reasoning may also serve to distort subjective probability estimates, as, for example, in the widespread belief among gamblers in the “maturity-of-chances” doctrine (Jarvik 1951). Since Dame Fortune must keep her books in balance, reason such gamblers, at roulette, for example, after any unduly long run of black the probabilities of red appearing on the next few plays are greatly increased. In fact, of course, the probabilities on unit events are not affected by preceding sequences. Ironically, perhaps, while the ability to estimate true probabilities generally increases with maturity (Cohen 1957), more sophisticated reasoning errors, such as the maturity-of-chances theory, do not occur among young children and become increasingly common with advancing age (Ross & Levy 1958).

Distorted estimates of the true probabilities also result from erroneous information—a principle much utilized by shrewd professionals. Thus, race tracks abound with false tips and spurious “inside information,” much of which is deliberately circulated by touts to mislead the fans and thus to skew the betting odds in some desired direction.

Motivated bias. While there is ample scope for simple ignorance or error in gambling situations, there is also abundant evidence that such errors are not random or merely cognitive but reflect consistent patterns of motivated bias. Very simply, the “errors” are almost invariably such as to distort the subjective probabilities in the gambler’s favor. It has been observed again and again that gamblers consistently overestimate their own skill or luck, and it has been demonstrated experimentally that subjects consistently overestimate low probabilities (cf. Preston & Baratta 1948; Nogee & Lieberman 1960).

A variety of possible explanations of this phenomenon have been advanced. Atkinson (1957) demonstrated experimentally that the tendency to overestimate chances to win is especially likely to be associated with a high need for achievement. Another recent study of probability learning has shown that positive events are learned more rapidly and extinguished more slowly than negative events (Crandall et al. 1958). This might help to explain the tendency among gamblers to think they are ahead—to remember the exciting winning play and forget the losses that preceded it. But, of course, most gamblers do know in a cognitive sense that they might lose and that they have lost in the past. Leon Festinger and his associates would regard this as an example of dissonant information that must somehow be suppressed if the gambler wishes to continue, which of course he does; indeed, this circumstance may cause the actor to develop some extra attraction to the activity, harnessing various secondary drives to it to justify his behavior and compensate for the dissonant information (Lawrence & Festinger 1962).

In terms of learning theory more generally, gambling represents an ideal-typical situation of “intermittent reinforcement,” or partial reward, and the evidence is overwhelming that activities reinforced in this way are peculiarly resistant to extinction. One plausible explanation of this is advanced in the conflict–drive theory developed by J. M. Whiting and his associates. Basically, this theory argues that when the same activity is sometimes rewarded and at other times nonrewarded or punished, conflict between the contradictory expectations of reward and punishment has the effect of adding drive strength to the originally reinforced action (Sears et al. 1953). Very simply, if the gambler always won or always lost, he would presumably lose interest; however, the conflict between fear and hope helps keep him going.

Gambling as expressive behavior

In considering the purely psychological rewards of gambling, we are clearly getting away from a concern with cognitive orientations and the interpretation of gambling as an instrumental activity directed toward an economic goal and are moving toward interpretations of gambling as an end in itself. It has been shown that even mathematically sophisticated subjects, possessing full information regarding the odds and the probabilities, opt for poor risks most of the time (Scodel et al. 1959). Curiously, it is also clear that there are some kinds of people who would not even bet on a sure thing. Moreover, there are evidently important differences among gamblers themselves: between those who prefer games of pure chance and those who prefer games involving skill or strategy; between system players and long-shot players; or between petty gamblers and addicts, for example. Such differentials as these yield to analysis only in terms of the differential noneconomic needs and motives of different classes of people.

Games as expressive models. Games typically occur in times, places, and contexts that are removed from the workaday utilitarian sectors of social structure and hence from the constraints and disciplines that the reality principle imposes on task-oriented activities. Thus, they tend to become intimately involved with the expressive and social-emotional sectors and to be concerned with problems of tension release and integration. Indeed, because they operate in what Kurt Lewin called a “plane of unreality,” games are well suited to function as expressive models, onto which a variety of psychological conflicts and problems can be harmlessly projected. As Menninger noted with respect to games of strategy, they may enable us “to express aggression without reality consequences; one can hurt people without really hurting them; we can even kill them without really killing them” (1942, p. 172). In a similar vein, Phillips (1960) has interpreted certain children’s games as exercises in the mastery of anxiety, in which psychological problems can be worked through in a miniature and relatively safe context.

Observing that games are not free and spontaneous expressive activities of individuals but are embedded in culture, Roberts and Sutton-Smith (1962) hypothesize that games will have special relevance for psychological problems that are endemic and widespread in the cultures or subgroups in which they are played. While games provide a buffered learning experience for children, game involvement typically diminishes with maturity as individuals become integrated into the mainstream of their culture. Games among adults are thus presumed to represent unresolved areas of conflict, and addicted players are presumed to be persons in a high state of unresolved inner conflict.

We may go on to inquire, for what kinds of needs or conflicts, for what kinds of persons, in what kinds of groups or societies, are gambling games appropriate expressive models? A number of theories have been proposed, each with at least some evidence in its support.

Teleological motivations in gambling. Since games of chance apparently originated out of religious and magical practices of divination, it has frequently been proposed that gambling may still perform an important teleological function in helping people orient themselves to the problems and conflicts invoked by the intrusions of chance, risk, and uncertainty in a world presumed to be causally and morally ordered. In principle, chance is meaningless and unintelligible, both causally and ethically. Yet, because of its capacity to violate legitimate expectations in important ways, many people feel that it must mean something: why do these things happen? why do they happen to me? For people who find these problems salient, gambling may assume a cosmic significance as a device for probing after the ground of things and of one’s personal relationships to fate (am I lucky today?). In one of the earliest psychological studies of gambling, France (1902) argued that in an environment of uncertaint a belief in luck is functional in encouraging a necessary element of risk assumption but that too much reliance on luck would obviate action and lead to a lack of effort. Relevant empirical evidence is provided in a recent crosscultural study (Roberts et al. 1959) which demonstrates that games of chance are especially likely to be found in preliterate societies in which the deities are regarded as benevolent and nonaggressive and readily subject to compulsion by humans. In contemporary, rationally oriented societies, gambling appeals particularly to superstitous persons, and it is one of the few areas in which permissive attitudes toward superstition are tolerated.

Economic conflicts and gambling. Because of gambling’s quasi-instrumental, economic character, it is also peculiarly suitable for the working out of conflicts engendered by the discipline, frustrations, and constraints of the capitalist economic system. Since its rewards are distributed on the basis of chance, gambling would appear to make a mockery of the legitimate economy, with its stress on rationality, discipline, and hard work and its assumed correlations of effort, merit, and reward. Evidence that conflicts in this area are relevant to gambling motivation is provided in another cross-cultural study, which demonstrated that games of chance are most frequently found in preliterate societies in which child-training practices place special stress on responsibility training and arouse high anxiety about achievement performance (Roberts & Sutton-Smith 1962). The authors of this latter study have also demonstrated that in the United States games of chance tend to be preferred by women and low-status economic groups—categories especially involved with positions of frustrating drudgery and with routine responsibilities (Sutton-Smith et al. 1963). A similar hypothesis is tested by Tec (1964) in her study of gambling in Sweden, in which she demonstrated that habitual gambling is especially common in groups that find conventional channels of social advancement blocked (see also Devereux 1949; Caillois 1958).

Competition and aggression. Where gambling occurs in conjunction with games of strategy, as in poker (see Riddle 1925), motivations of personal competition and aggression may also play a prominent role. In a classic analysis of this theme, W. I. Thomas (1901) viewed gambling as a form of sublimated combat and suggested that such games may help to keep this vital “instinct” alive in our civilized, bureaucratic world. Among preliterate societies it has been shown that games of strategy tend to occur most frequently in the relatively complex societies with developed systems of stratification, in which social competition becomes problematic and a source of conflict (Roberts et al. 1959). In the contemporary United States a preference for games of strategy and also games of physical prowess is more common among higher-status persons (Sutton-Smith et al. 1963).

Anxiety and guilt in gambling. Finally, there are theories that have focused upon thrill-seeking motivations in gambling behavior and their relationship to anxiety. There is broad consensus among students of habitual gamblers that, for all their apparent external calm, gamblers are in fact highly anxious persons. The psychological literature on levels of aspiration provides abundant evidence that persons known to be high in anxiety are particularly prone to set goals for themselves that are grossly unrealistic on the basis of past performance, being either much too high or much too low (cf. Lewin et al. 1944). It has also been demonstrated that unrealistic aspirations are more likely to be set in gaming situations, perhaps because of their miniature and fictitious character, than in real life situations (Frank 1935). Addressing himself to such findings, Atkinson (1957) argues that unrealistic aspirations in fact serve the function of minimizing anxiety about failure, for if one did not really expect to succeed, failure has very little sting. In his studies of probability preferences, he was able to demonstrate that persons high in “need achievement” and presumably high in success drives typically prefer risks at intermediate probability levels, in which success or failure are equally probable and, hence, which generate a maximum of tension and anxiety. Subjects low in “need achievement” and presumably more concerned with fear of failure typically preferred risks at extreme probability levels (either sure things or long shots), in which the success-failure tension is greatly reduced. Persons with high success need would presumably prefer games of skill or strategy, while persons with high fear of failure would prefer games of pure chance, in which failure is peculiarly noninvidious [seeAchievement Motivation].

Why do people who are high in anxiety and in fear of failure elect to gamble at all? Edmund Bergler, the only psychoanalyst who has dealt extensively with the problem of addicted gamblers, has argued that such gamblers are genuine neurot ics, driven by unconscious aggression and latent rebellion “against logic, cleverness, moderation, morals and renunciation. That latent rebellion, based on the inwardly never-relinquished ‘pleasure principle,’ scoffs ironically at all the rules of education. Heavy inner retaliation is the result …rebel lion activates a deep unconscious feeling of guilt” (1943, pp. 385-386). This guilt, Bergler argues, becomes in turn a source of anxiety and creates a need for self-punishment. These unconscious feelings are then neatly displaced into the segregated, miniature, and toylike setting of gambling, where they may be more or less harmlessly worked out. The gambler persuades himself that the real source of his guilt and anxiety is the tension of the game itself, and he achieves the needed self-punishment by keeping going until he loses. Thus, unconsciously, the neurotic gambler wants to lose, and he needs to lose in order to keep his psychological books in balance (see also Bergler 1957; Olmsted 1962).

Because gambling provides such a neat, readymade, institutionalized, and culturally sanctioned mechanism for the handling of neurotic problems of this sort, the neurotic gambler does not feel neurotic and rarely appears voluntarily for treatment. Hence, to date there has been very little empirical research on gambling addiction, and academic psychologists have largely ignored the problem. There is, however, at least some empirical evidence that gambling may also serve somewhat parallel conflict-resolving functions for nonaddicted petty gamblers, along the lines indicated earlier in this article.

The sociology of gambling

From a sociological point of view gambling is of interest primarily as an institutionalized deviant pattern. Although it is widely disapproved of, gambling is nevertheless also widely practiced, and it has given rise to an extensive sub rosa organization that is elaborately articulated with the underworld, on the one hand, and with the legitimate world of its clientele, on the other.

Attitudes toward gambling

The disapproval of gambling is ancient and extremely widespread, although varying greatly in intensity, content, and rationale. At different times and places gambling has been treated as a capital offense or merely as a misdemeanor. Legal restrictions have ranged from total prohibition to selective permissiveness, in which certain types of gambling activities have been permitted or even encouraged while others were forbidden or in which the rules against gaming were lifted during stated holidays or holy days. The laws have often made a distinction between games of pure chance and games of skill or between professional gamblers and their clients. Similarly, the grounds for the disapproval of gambling have varied widely, ranging from views that hold that gambling is fundamentally wrong in. principle to views that hold that gambling is wrong only if it produces manifestly evil consequences. Essentially the same conclusions, moreover, have been derived at times from theological and ethical arguments and at other times from rationalistic, scientific, and pragmatic grounds.

In Western society attitudes toward gambling have varied significantly among different religious groups. While the Bible is silent on the subject of gambling, there are numerous references to the use of lots for serious purposes, as when Moses was instructed to allocate the lands of Canaan among the Israelites by lot (Numbers 26.55). Since chance events were considered “acts of God,” the use of the lot, with appropriate ritual and respect, was regarded as justified for discerning the divine will in serious matters. However, the use of the lot for frivolous purposes, as in gaming, was regarded as a sacrilege and profanation. While formal opposition to gambling has persisted among Jewish moralists, prevailing attitudes have softened considerably, and they now view gaming as essentially a useless waste of time. Moreover, since the Middle Ages gambling has been widespread within the Jewish community. Roman Catholics have also come to take a liberal attitude toward gambling, holding that there is nothing wrong in principle with gambling, providing only that certain conditions be met: that the game be honest, that the stakes be moderate and within the means of the players, and that the money staked be one’s own, for example.

Gambling and the Protestant ethic. In Western society fundamental opposition to gambling, as a matter of basic ethical principle, is centered squarely in Protestantism and in the cultures where these denominations prevail. These are also, as Weber (1904–1905) observed, the same cultures in which modern bourgeois capitalism has achieved its greatest development. This fact suggests the hypothesis that gambling is somehow peculiarly antithetical, in principle at least, to the core of values embraced in this dominant economic system and in its supporting Protestant ethic.

On the surface, at any rate, the antithesis would seem to be clear enough. Among the core values of bourgeois capitalism are its special emphasis on rationality, disciplined work habits, prudence, thrift, methodical adherence to routine, and the assumed correlation of effort, ethical merit, and reward. The values symbolically erribodied in gam bling are diametrically opposed to these core virtues. Since its rewards are based on chance, gambling is explicitly and spitefully nonethical and makes a mockery of the required correlation of merit and reward. Thus, it tends to undermine disciplined work habits, prudence, and thrift; and in place of the needed rational-empirical orientations, it tends to foster superstitious beliefs and magical practices. If the values fostered by gambling were to become general in the population, the whole system of ethical sentiments that functions to sustain this dominant economic system would simply wither away. So argue the Protestant moralists.

In fact, of course, even in the dominant economic system the alternative values of initiative, daring, boldness, shrewdness, aggressive competitiveness, and willingness to assume risks also play a prominent role, and sheer luck is not always irrelevant. Because these values do not fit so neatly with those of the ethically sanctioned core, they have been the focus of considerable cultural ambivalence and guilt. The American public is uncomfortably aware, for example, of certain disquieting similarities between gambling and transactions on the stock markets; but open discussion of these similarities is strongly tabooed, and standard economic texts make a frantic effort to focus on the differences. In effect, gambling becomes a whipping boy to serve the precarious distinction between forms of speculation that are functionally useful and hence “legitimate” and those that are functionless or dysfunctional. Thus, when speculation gets out of hand, the obviously dysfunctional consequences for the economy are blamed, not on legitimate businessmen and still less on the stock market system, but on “gamblers,” who have somehow invaded the market and should be driven from it. More generally, it is quite possible that the disapproval of gambling, in addition to reinforcing certain functionally appropriate values and attitudes, functions as a mechanism through which society seeks to allay its fears and misgivings about the ethical integrity of the dominant system—a fact that may account for the persistence and intensity of this disapproval in Protestant societies (Devereux 1949, chapter 18).

Functions of gambling for society

The fact that gambling persists in spite of the powerful legal and ethical taboos against it maybe taken as evidence that it serves important psychological functions for the gamblers; the preceding discussion of the Psychology of gambling has called attention to at least some of these. But what about functions or dys functions of gambling for society? This, of course, is an empirical question that cannot be answered on the basis of a priori principle. The fact that the disapproval of gambling is functional for society does not in itself establish that the practice of gambling is therefore dysfunctional, for the questions of scale, contexts, and side effects must also be considered. Most observers would probably agree that the addicted gambler, like the alcoholic, is a waste for society. Moreover, it is probably true, as the moralists have argued, that if gambling became a major preoccupation for the whole population and if the attitudes and practices of gambling were to permeate the sphere of the dominant economic system, the consequences for society would be seriously dysfunctional.

However, there is no evidence that petty gambling is in any way damaging to character or that petty gamblers differ in significant ways from nongamblers (Tec 1964). On the contrary, petty gambling may function as a kind of institutionalized “solution” for many of the specific psychological problems generated by the conflicts, strains, and ambivalences embedded in the economic system. It may serve to revitalize certain relevant patterns of motivation that are given little scope in routine economic pursuits, such as motives relating to themes of daring, combat, faith, and willingness to take chances. It has also been argued that the existence of institutionalized petty gambling is functional for society in providing a channel into which potentially disruptive speculative tendencies may be safely deflected from the legitimate market place. To these should be added the positive (and perhaps somewhat perverse) value-reinforcing and scapegoating societal function of the disapproval of gambling, for which institutionalized gambling provides a convenient target.

The legalization issue

If recreational petty gambling is harmless enough and may even perform useful functions for personality and society, the question naturally arises, should gambling be legalized? In fact, several forms of gambling have already been legalized during the present century. Gambling casinos flourish in many European countries and in Latin America; many nations, including even the Soviet Union and China, have adopted state lotteries; and legalized football betting pools have captured enormous followings in England and Sweden.

Gambling and law in the United States

In the United States pari-mutuel betting at racetracks has been legalized in approximately half the states. Several states allow the playing of bingo for charitable purposes; two states (New Hampshire and New York) operate a lottery, and only one state (Nevada) permits all forms of gambling. Although there is unmistakable evidence that moral resistance to legalized gambling is weakening rapidly in the United States, until November 1966, with the above exceptions, proposals to legalize any other form of gambling in the United States had been soundly defeated.

Although legal sanctions may have some dampening effect on the amount of gambling that occurs, they have never been able to stop gambling altogether. Sample polls in the United States have indicated over and over again that a majority of American adults do in fact gamble at least occasionally, in spite of moral taboos and legal restrictions. In 1951 the Kefauver committee estimated the volume of illegal betting in the United States at $20,000 million per year (Kefauver 1951), but that estimate is almost certainly too low. In 1963 an officially recorded $2,700 million was wagered legally on horse races alone, through the pari-mutuel machines, and experts are generally agreed that at least ten times as much was wagered illegally with bookmakers. Scarne (1961, p. 1) places the probable total volume of betting, for all types of gambling in the United States, at closer to $500,000 million a year. While this estimate is probably too large, there is ample evidence that the volume of illegal betting in the United States is sufficient to support a major industry. Indeed, since the legalization of the liquor industry in 1933, gam bling has become the major source of support of the organized underworld in the United States.

The antigambling laws are unenforced and un enforceable in the United States for two principal reasons. First, the enormous financial resources controlled by the professional gamblers have enabled them to buy protection from excessive police or political harassment. Indeed, gambling has become one of the principal sources of political corruption and graft in America, especially at municipal levels (Devereux 1949; Kefauver 1951). Second, the general public, although sufficiently ambivalent to insist that antigambling statutes remain on the books, does not really want the gambling laws enforced and hence provides grossly insufficient support to reform-administration and routine enforcement efforts. As noted above, gambling is a peculiar form of crime, which is carried on with the willing consent of its victims; even when the victims have been clearly duped or cheated, they are usually loath to complain to the police, because of feelings of embarrassment and shame.

Arguments for legalization. The proponents of legalization argue that gambling—at least regulated petty gambling—is probably harmless, possibly beneficial, and in any case ineradicable. Antigambling statutes can never be effectively enforced. By keeping them on the books, we throw the entire operation into the hands of the underworld, create thereby an enormous source of revenue and power for organized crime, and keep alive a major source of political graft and corruption in America. Moreover, we place an unnecessary burden of guilt and hypocrisy upon the lay public, which must patronize these illegal and frequently dishonest establishments to indulge their gambling propensities. Partial legalization, as it currently exists in the United States, is doubly unsatisfactory, the argument continues, for it is discriminatory, hypocritical, and sabotages the moral convictions needed for effective law enforcement. Legalization will effectively end this sort of hypocrisy, get gambling into the open where it can be suitably regulated and controlled, dry up a major source of underworld income and power, eliminate the occasion and resource for police graft and political corruption, and make available to the state a highly lucrative source of additional revenue, achieved through the most painless known form of taxation. These arguments were ably stated some thirty years ago by a leading American sociologist, E. W. Burgess (1935), and have been repeated ever since. Until now they have not prevailed, even though recent public opinion polls show unmistakable trends in this direction.

Arguments against legalization. The opposition to legalization stems from several sources and draws on a variety of arguments. The core of resistance in the United States is still firmly rooted in the residual Puritan culture, which regards gambling as inherently sinful and placates its restive conscience by keeping the official facade of culture officially against it. Whatever the merits of the moralists’ theological or ethical grounds, their arguments tend to be sociologically naive; in the empirical world one drink does not necessarily make an alcoholic or one lottery ticket an addicted gambler. While conceding that a generalized gambling mania might have disastrous consequences for society, it is an empirical question whether legalization would have this consequence. However, the moralists undoubtedly score a strong empirical point in their argument that selective legalization weakens the public will to enforce the statutes which remain.

Arguments from other sources have attempted to grapple more directly with empirical conse quences. Would legalization in fact rid gambling of gangster influence? No, answers Virgil Peterson (1945), who was for many years chairman of the Chicago Crime Commission, citing the continued influence of the underworld in the liquor business even after the repeal of prohibition laws, and the unsavory history of graft and corruption which accompanied the later days of legalized lotteries in nineteenth-century America. In rebuttal proponents point out that most European state lotteries have operated successfully for years without major scandal. But perhaps the United States is different.

Would legalization set off a wholesale gambling mania, create a population of gambling addicts, and sabotage work disciplines and the ethical attitudes which maintain them? Undoubtedly the incidence of gambling would increase, perhaps quite substantially, if the taboos were lifted and the facilities made more visible, guilt-free, and accessible, but nobody knows for sure how much it would increase. So far, the legalization of football pools and off-track betting shops in England has not produced any runaway mania. But again, perhaps the United States is different. There is at least some evidence that by the 1820s American lotteries had reached such craze proportions that they had seriously disruptive consequences for some communities (Spofford 1892) and some evidence that during the racing season at local tracks many local businesses suffer, absenteeism increases, installment payments fall off, and petty crimes increase (New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce 1939). Regarding the possible long-run effects of wholesale legalization upon the ethical attitudes and beliefs which underpin the system of bourgeois capitalism, there is no relevant empirical evidence. Opponents of legalization point to Latin America, where permissive attitudes to gambling and generally more fatalistic value systems prevail and where bourgeois capitalism has been slow to develop. Who can say whether gambling is cause or consequence in this relationship? Recalling the functions attributed above to the disapproval of gambling, could the United States afford an attitude of moral indifference?

The solution, of course, does not have to be of an either-or nature. Although few are willing to admit it and still fewer to recommend it, since it violates all the principles of logic and common sense, the United States has again and again shown by its behavior that it still covertly prefers the present type of compromise solution, in which a formal facade of disapprobation and legal taboo is combined with halfhearted enforcement and widespread practice. Through this arrangement it does achieve at least some measure of regulation and constraint, keeps the public conscience appeased, and yet provides generous opportunities for those who would gamble to do so (for a carefully reasoned defense of this arrangement, see Dos Passos 1904). But these gains, if they be that, are not achieved without serious cost; and in any event, in this age of increasing secularization it is highly probable that the proponents of further legalization will have won their battle in the United States before another edition of this encyclopedia appears.

Edward C. Devereux, Jr.

[See alsoGame Theory; Leisure; Social Control; Speculation, Hedging, and Arbitrage; Utility.]


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views updated May 21 2018


Betting was and is a remarkably universal human activity. Various forms came with each immigrant group, Asian or European, who at different times joined the Native American populations in the New World. Keno, for example, which people of the twenty-first century enjoy in electronic form, originated out of a traditional gambling game brought to the American West by Chinese workers already intensely familiar with forms of wagering. Native Americans themselves from prehistoric times already were engaging in ritual contests and betting. In the Old World, not only dice but crooked dice were found in ancient Egyptian tombs. According to the Bible, when Jesus was on the cross, the soldiers cast lots for his clothing (Matthew 27:35). Traditional European justice often involved the use of lots, which suited well populations familiar over many centuries with gaming and betting. Indeed, the ancient Romans had already made a distinction between games of chance (which they forbade) and games of skill.

None of this wagering was a productive activity, but people found betting enjoyable and sometimes preoccupying to the point of serious addiction. In the classic formulation, games carried out in a repeated or ritualistic manner constituted play. Thus, some people used gambling to fill leisure time. Others considered making bets a recreation. People were well aware that gambling belonged in a category that was not work—except for the so-called professional gamblers, who appeared conspicuously in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the ways in which wagering violated the work ethic provided motivations and arguments for both moralists and defiant gamblers.

Gambling appeared in two forms. Sometimes it was a form of recreation in itself. One could gamble alone, as with a machine game such as a slot machine. Or one could make gambling a social activity, as in bingo gatherings or card games. Often, however, gambling occurred in connection with other recreational and leisure activities.

Always the most widespread arena for betting was any kind of contest or sport. For those who could not participate—and often for the participants as well—making a wager on the outcome of a contest was an important activity. The history of sports is inextricably bound with the history of gambling, including all kinds of human, animal, and machine contests.

Moreover, beginning early in the Western world, gambling became associated with a whole set of additional activities, many of which were not "respectable" or were decidedly antisocial. By the nineteenth century, a social constellation of so-called minor vices was well established in the United States; people commonly thought of gambling as part of a complex of activities that included drinking, smoking, sexual naughtiness, and various other minor infractions of good order and bourgeois parsimony. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a cabaret model was in place, which included various kinds of entertainment with gambling, with an additional implication that patrons were at least a bit upscale. As tourism developed, gambling sites often attracted travelers or others who indulged in the conspicuous consumption of betting. The ultimate development was the "Las Vegas package" of the second half of the twentieth century, in which gambling was central to a complex of activities that included shows, eating and drinking, and even prostitution in a holiday setting in which ordinary middle-class standards of behavior—beyond the work ethic—could be set aside temporarily.

But the custom of betting had much deeper cultural roots than commercial packaging. Placing a wager for most people in America from the beginning carried powerful implications for gender. Making extravagant bets or putting one's property at hazard often fulfilled a stereotype of aggressive masculinity. Of great popular interest and appeal was still another stereotype out of the nineteenth century: the romantic gambling lady. But the laying of a wager was still overwhelmingly a masculine act—and still often conflated with sports of all kinds. To augment a contest with a material dimension added or enhanced the risk factor typically associated with masculine stereotypes, especially young, virile masculinity in which risky behavior was an important element.

Most of the best sources for our knowledge of gambling in earlier times are the words and actions of Americans who condemned or regulated or taxed making a bet. In addition, journalists over many generations featured unusual gambling events and especially people who won big. Hence most older gambling history tended to be either antiquarian accounts of colorful personalities or narratives of moral and legal crusades. Everyday wagering outside of recorded institutions was hard to uncover. Only at the end of the twentieth century did historians, with the help of sociologists, begin to explore many of the cultural dimensions of gambling.

Colonial Americans

Intimate knowledge of various types of gambling was part of the cultural baggage of the first generations of English colonists. As a prosperous mercantile society developed, so did gambling. To begin with, promoters of both public and private ventures used public lotteries to raise funds. Perhaps most notable was the English lottery supporting the first settlement in Virginia, between 1612 and 1624. Moreover, as part of their conspicuous consumption, English aristocrats gambled ostentatiously. They particularly bet on horse races, which had the snobbish sobriquet of "the sport of kings." But they also placed wagers on other games and contests and sports of all kinds. In many such games and contests, people of every class joined in the betting, from cards to cock fighting (which was very popular in Britain but did not carry over as much to the American colonies).

Colonists of all classes and backgrounds, therefore, brought with them customs of placing bets on games, contests, and sports. In the southern settlements, particularly, aristocrats imitated the British upper classes and tried to use ostentatious gambling as a mark of high social status. Members of the other social groups, including enslaved people, also placed bets and gambled freely. At one point, however, in Virginia, sumptuary legislation forbade nonaristocrats from actually participating in the races. But betting was endemic. In the eighteenth century, the southern colonies, especially, had a strong tradition of brutal sporting events in which competing, fighting, and betting mixed together. One colorful such contest was gander pulling, in which the participants attempted to yank the head off a live, greased gander.

Calvinists, who were particularly numerous in New England, knew the general proclivity to gamble, and they condemned card playing and similar gaming activity. They had good theological reasons. Because justice was often obtained by the drawing of lots—a device that permitted God to show His will—any trivial use of chance, as in cards, was but trifling with the Almighty. Playing cards was bad enough, but betting compounded the offense. For generations, evangelicals preached against games involving "chance" because the players trifled with Providence as well as thrift.

Yet, beyond upper-class social competition in betting, large parts of the population did indeed make bets as part of their diversions. From the beginning, of course, gambling flourished where other violations of bourgeois work and order were occurring. It was in this way that unproductive betting developed a generally recognized association with the least desirable parts of the population. Yet many residents continued to enjoy wagering in any number of ways. Gambling, then as later, generated ambivalent attitudes and divided opinions.

In the revolutionary years and after, numerous witnesses described the ways in which Americans, particularly those in male groups, placed bets. George Washington was said to have won or lost in a single evening as much as £9 playing cards. Fighting of various kinds, among both humans and animals, invariably generated not just points of honor but sums placed on the outcome of the contests. Public lotteries continued in the New World. Benjamin Franklin actually led an effort to finance the defenses of Philadelphia by means of such a special-purpose lottery.

Gambling became particularly conspicuous on the American frontier. Placing bets was an important part of many lives lived under dangerous and difficult conditions. Travelers left vivid accounts of eye gouging and other brutal contests in which large amounts of money traded hands among the cheering onlookers. And, of course, traditionally not only machismo but omnipresent hard drink encouraged men (notably) to hazard anything they owned. John M. Findlay cites a British visitor who believed inhabitants of Western towns were "generally devoted to gambling on horse races, cockfights, card games, and billiards" as well as the usual personal fights (p. 35).

Institutionalization of Gambling in the Nineteenth Century

What was new in the nineteenth century was the way in which gambling became institutionalized and commercialized. While impromptu and informal games and contests continued, lotteries, racing, casinos, riverboats, and other gambling establishments brought betting into the realm of profit making and business. In the process, the recreational and leisure aspects of placing a bet became much more formally institutionalized. While it is true, as historians have argued, that each institutionalization had an independent history, over decades the general trend toward organization and institutionalization framed all gambling as American society generally became more commercialized.

The history of lotteries illustrates the trend, and, because public campaigns and governments were so often involved, the record is relatively accessible. During the Revolution, the Continental Congress tried to raise funds by means of a lottery, and after independence, various states authorized a wide variety of drawings for public and private purposes—public works, industrial development, and charitable institutions and causes. The lottery device flourished and grew in the early nineteenth century and was especially important in financing schools and churches as well as economic infrastructure. Twenty-four states approved lotteries for internal improvements between 1790 and 1860. But with increasing frequency, private contractors conducted the lotteries, and wholesalers and brokers delivered the tickets to consumers. Therefore an additional keen profit motive furthered the promotion of lottery gambling.

While lotteries flourished for years before the Civil War, the contract system eventually discredited those lotteries, and officially approved schemes diminished greatly, to the point of prohibition. Yet for many decades, lottery speculation flourished alongside land speculation and other schemes. It was especially the addition of contractors and brokers that opened the way for widespread swindling. Lottery managers would not pay out what they had promised, or they would simply disappear with the money. Various states from time to time banned the sale of lottery tickets, but chances were widely available from other states. By 1860, however, lotteries were generally illegal. The ultimate demise of the lottery as a public institution came after the ignominious scandals of the later Louisiana lottery, which inspired Congress in 1895 to pass a law forbidding interstate commerce in lotteries.

As the lotteries grew in the early nineteenth century, poor people who could not afford the substantial price of a ticket still found a way to bet on the drawing. For them, policy gamblers took small sums from people and paid off just as the real lottery would, except in proportionally miniscule amounts. Policy gambling was illegal, and fraud was common, but it grew and expanded. Observers at the time especially attributed policy betting to African American people, but many small-time bettors participated. They often based their wagers on dreams; dream books, which explained how to apply a dream to a bet, flourished for generations as policy evolved into common numbers games.

Some betting games were particularly widespread in the antebellum period. One was faro, a card game in which the house took only perhaps three percent—if honestly conducted, which it almost never was. Myriad confidence games operated, such as an ancestor of the shell game—where a bet was placed on which of three or more shells or cases concealed a hidden object—played with needle cases. For the upper classes attempting to imitate European aristocrats, luxurious commercial gaming houses, if not casinos, were available; other entrepreneurs opened a range of less-respectable establishments to service the less affluent.

The most colorful gambling of the early nineteenth century was, of course, that carried on aboard the Mississippi riverboats (557 boats were in operation in 1860). The so-called professional gamblers contributed substantially to institutionalizing gambling customs. They introduced various games such as twenty-one that were suited for commercialized gambling, and they Americanized poker with wild cards and bluffing and spread the game wherever gambling was a business. Roulette wheels were usually too heavy to carry on the boats, but a casino was licensed briefly in New Orleans in 1827, combining luxurious appointments and snob appeal (the European model) with American democratic openness for the clientele.

The casino model was not necessary for the riverboat gamblers, who had much background in card rooms and other traditional gambling establishments that flourished privately or outside of the law. Gambling onshore continued to take place in taverns and other such establishments, reinforcing the impression that betting was associated with marginal or criminal people. The fact that so many gamblers—typically the "card sharps" (or "sharpers")—were dishonest further reinforced the association. But gambling nevertheless functioned as a business, open to all. Notoriously in California during the gold rush, for example, the business ran day and night, but in established enterprises, "the house" depended more often on a percentage of the money bet than upon skill or cheating to guarantee a profit. Gambling establishments featured the most commercial games, with rapid resolution and turnover: roulette, dice throwing, and card games such as faro and twenty-one.

Speculation and Prohibition

After the Civil War, state legislators became increasingly sensitive to the opponents of gambling; into the 1920s, governments made betting illegal in different ways and in different degrees across the United States, and visible gambling declined in quantity. As new immigrants and new technologies and new sites challenged the evangelicals and Progressives, betting changed dynamically. By 1907, two new states had entered the union with constitutions that banned any gambling. Yet with the rise of commercial sports, opportunities to place bets increased greatly.

It was in the period from 1868 to the early 1890s that the Louisiana lottery flourished and fell—with the corruption and scandal that removed the lottery from a viable means of raising funds for public purposes. In many areas of the country, card rooms and other places for gambling continued as before, albeit frequently under imminent danger of prosecution. For the wealthy, however, a number of casinos did spring up, including one in the Broadmoor in Colorado that operated from 1891 to 1897. Richard A. Canfield, who ran gambling houses for the affluent in New York, Saratoga, and Newport, articulated the business basis of these new institutions. They had the trust of the customer because no cheating was necessary. "The percentage in favor of a gambling house is sufficient to guarantee the profits of the house. All any gambler wants is to have play enough for a long enough time and he'll get all the money any player has."

The way in which such entrepreneurs as Canfield came into the business is illustrated by a former prize fighter (who won substantial sums betting on himself), John Morrissey, who opened increasingly opulent gambling parlors until he finally settled in Saratoga Springs, where he could cater to the very wealthy. There, in 1864, he helped organize the first stakes horse racing in the United States—the first horse racing in the United States in which the winners won cash prizes—marking the beginning of serious commercialization of that gambling sport.

Horse racing, with betting at the track, was the premiere sporting activity connected with gambling. The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1870. In the 1870s, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote,

'Twas on the famous trotting-ground
The betting men were gathered round
From far and near. . .

By 1891, New York had started regulating horse racing. By the 1920s, more than 300 racetracks were in operation, although for a time antigambling pressures reduced the numbers greatly. As racing developed, the pressure of bookmakers changed the sport. Short sprint races replaced longer contests so as to provide more opportunities for betting. State legislators, however, generally moved to suppress open gambling in connection with the tracks.

But many other sports became important to gambling in the late nineteenth century. Bare-knuckle boxing generated an enormous amount of both organized and unorganized wagering. Early in the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt and other leaders called for the reform of college football, which had fallen under the influence of professional gamblers, as had college boat races. Americans more and more often were betting on the emerging professional baseball teams. Team owners were active gamblers, betting on their own teams. Large groups of more humble people engaged in wagering were conspicuous in the bleachers during every game. The extent of the involvement of baseball with gambling was dramatized by the famous Black Sox scandal of 1919.

In the late nineteenth century, as historian Ann Fabian has written, speculation became a highly valued activity in American society. She points out that as commercial speculators grew in numbers and boldness, they tended to try to marginalize the more unrespectable speculation of people who bet on cards and numbers and contests. The most striking contrast was the legality of the praiseworthy speculation on the stock and commodity markets by moneyed people while the operators of bucket shops for poor people were subject to prosecution. In the bucket shops, one could bet on changes in the stock market with small change and risk being arrested for antisocial gambling. In the stock exchange, doing exactly the same thing with stocks was constructive capitalism.

Even as the prohibition of gambling was proceeding, technology brought big changes in betting, whether legal or illegal. At the end of the nineteenth century, the nickel slot machine was invented (the usual date given is 1887, the inventor Charles Fey of San Francisco). From the mid-nineteenth century on, newspapers greatly increased their circulations and became great metropolitan dailies by indulging in yellow journalism. Sports news, which notoriously included betting odds, was an important part of this transformed social institution. The telegraph further stimulated sports betting. By furnishing immediate news of the outcome in many contests, wire services opened up many new opportunities for exciting wagers. Gamblers used the telegraph directly, establishing betting parlors with direct Western Union connections to sporting events. These gambling establishments were called pool rooms. Approximately 2,000 were reported to have existed early in the twentieth century in New York City alone; such gambling centers existed alongside solo illegal bookmakers far into the twentieth century.

Government Gets into the Business

Despite the general prohibition of gambling, governments from time to time made exceptions, and slowly, especially in the 1930s, legal gambling began to expand. Indeed, a pattern emerged: In times when state governments were hard-pressed financially, most notably in the 1930s and 1970s, more and more gambling enterprises became legal because they furnished revenue to the governments. The very legislators who could legalize benefited directly from doing so: By authorizing taxes on the betting, lawmakers were freed from having to impose other taxes; they thus appeared to get something for nothing for their constituents.

Meantime, in the 1920s, the media discovered the gangsters and syndicates who dominated illegal gambling and other activities such as prostitution and other rackets, with sidelines in bootlegging and major crimes. This discovery was, as historian Mark Haller points out, a little late. By the 1920s, local operatives, tied into local politics, dominated illegal gambling, not the organized crime syndicates of the late nineteenth century. Indeed, perhaps 30,000 illegal bookies were then operating in urban centers. Moses Annenberg by the 1930s dominated the information necessary for racetrack betting by monopolizing the wire services and publishing the Daily Racing Form. He recognized how pervasive sports betting had become: "If people can wager at a racetrack why should they be deprived of the right to do so away from a track? How many people can take time off from their jobs to go to a racetrack?"

But the patrons of local entrepreneurs, people who were betting on sporting events and using other kinds of gambling for recreation, were also changing. First, the white Protestant populations, in which antigambling sentiment was strong, were diminishing as the demographic base shifted to other population groups during the rest of the twentieth century. Roman Catholics, who increased relatively as well as absolutely, did not maintain doctrinal prohibitions against gambling, although church leaders often condemned various practices on Christian social grounds. Most noticeably, however, and in the second place, the cultural changes associated with World War I, the 1920s, the Great Depression, and World War II altered the place of gambling in American life.

During World War I, a substantial segment of the young men of the country learned in the barracks that they could while away time pleasurably by surreptitious gambling. Not only card games, but especially craps, a dice game, became part of the firsthand experience of "boys" from antigambling families as well as those for whom betting was already part of supermasculine life. Similar experiences affected a much larger part of the population during World War II.

The new mass media, particularly the tabloid newspapers and the moving pictures, also spread ambivalent or favorable attitudes toward the minor vices in general. The popular writer Damon Runyon was especially important in conveying a benign image of the bookies and bettors of the big cities, as in the classic musical Guys and Dolls. They were often comic characters and, therefore, no longer appeared threatening, even though they operated illegally and on the margins of society. By the 1920s and 1930s, sports journalism was more sensational than ever. Boxing (legalized by New York in 1920) made a big comeback. Bookies also found themselves compelled to work with not only baseball games (and baseball pools) but college football. By the 1930s, the football pool card had joined the baseball pool card as a mass consumption item. As radio began broadcasting sports, many listeners enhanced their recreational pleasure by risking some money on the outcome. By the middle of the century, one expert estimated that $100 million was bet on college football alone, one-tenth of it on the Army–Notre Dame game.

The major new media model, however, was the cabaret, in which trendy people mixed with socially marginal people in a framework of drinking, smoking, gambling, and presumed sexual permissiveness. Of particular importance in transforming cultural attitudes was the transfer of the stylish cabaret model to the casino in the gambling ships that were notable in the early 1930s. They carried passengers outside the continental limits, where gambling (and, incidentally, during Prohibition years, drinking) could take place legally. Los Angeles was a major port for such ships, and they caught the imagination of writers of both fiction and movies, who popularized romantic versions of the floating casinos and the lifestyle that went with them. After the gambling ships shut down, southern Californians, at least, could go to a division point on the Union Pacific Railroad, Las Vegas, and find a reasonable substitute.

That is because in 1931, the government of the state of Nevada, in a desperate attempt to develop revenue without using taxes, legalized casinos. First, criminals with experience and funds moved in; corporations followed. But with the help of publicity in the mass media, Reno and Las Vegas provided a model of a new area for vacation—not only from work, but from conventional social standards.

The other area in which at least some state governments were willing to legalize gambling in the interwar period was horse racing. The parimutuel system appeared first in one state and then another, most notably Illinois in 1927, which served as a model for legislators elsewhere. In 1933, the parimutuel machine in New Hampshire became a part of the state fiscal system. By 1935, sixteen states were taxing racetrack betting directly.

While gambling appeared in the media usually in the form of casino or racetrack images, many Americans found other means of risking their money in the inter-war years, particularly in urban settings. The media continued to publish odds on various sporting contests. The numbers game involved many small bettors; numbers apparently saved many members of the Detroit and Chicago African American communities during the worst years of the Great Depression by providing an income when no legitimate work was available.. Bingo, which started out primarily as a carnival game, became increasingly popular and was often played in a charity or church setting (Frederick Lewis Allen quotes the ironic announcement: "Bingo every night in the Holy Spirit Room."). Another sanitized form of depression gambling was bank night at the movies. Those who attended the movies could win either money or a prize, such as a set of dishes, using their admission tickets as lottery tickets. Other businesses, too, used lottery methods—drawings and raffles—as promotional gimmicks (already in the nineteenth century such marketing schemes had stimulated criticism, not least because entrepreneurs often did not hold the promised drawings). Altogether, extremely large numbers of otherwise innocent citizens by the 1930s and 1940s had become used to lottery-type gambling simply by participating in normal spending activities or by supporting charitable causes. By the 1950s, politicians who attempted to curb the abuses of the bingo craze found themselves unable to act because they appeared to be opposing religion and charity.

The Slow Shift to Legalization and Partial Acceptance

In the second half of the twentieth century, small-time socializing at bingo and bank night at the movies, along with numbers and sports betting, became transformed into very different institutions and major economic and political forces. Even social card playing for stakes became more often institutionalized in commercial card rooms (especially in California, where they had long been available by local option). Gambling became commercialized entertainment for many people while remaining an expensive ritual of risk—play—for many others. In either case, the substance and form of betting meshed with the patterns of a culture of consumption in which many activities and institutions joined gambling in violating work-ethic and other bourgeois values.

A number of writers have traced the growth of casinos, which were ultimately the victory of Las Vegas public relations. These were not the old aristocrats' casinos of Europe, but a very democratic American version in which, ultimately, entertainment mixed with vice. The Las Vegas story began with legalization in 1931 and establishment of the Strip in 1941. In 1946, gangsters definitely took over, to be succeeded by businesspeople, state regulation, and, in 1969, the entry of corporate ownership and the ultimate acceptance of gambling entertainment as just another business. Later, in the age of the globalization of business in general, the American style of casino spread all over the world. The first step, however, was to Atlantic City, New Jersey, from 1976 to 1978.

In 1978, some Florida Seminoles opened a high-stakes bingo operation that started a whole new trend of Native American casinos operating in defiance of local law and custom (confirmed legally from 1987 to 1988). In 1990, Iowa authorized some limited riverboat gambling, and in a rush a number of other states saw an opportunity to raise revenues without raising taxes by letting casinos open legally. During the 1990s, there was what one scholar has characterized as "an explosion" of casinos in the United States. By 1987, slot machines had become the most popular form of amusement in such establishments, and some states even authorized such mechanical (and taxable) devices for the diversion of patrons at racetracks, which were suffering from the competition.

Permitting businesspeople to operate gambling establishments was one matter, but, at the same time, many states were themselves going into the business of gambling. The new form was a revival of the public lottery. In 1964, New Hampshire legislators were the first to try to avoid raising taxes by operating a state lottery. New York joined in 1967, and, in 1969, New Jersey managed a format that was so successful that it served as a model for other states. By 1974, Massachusetts had introduced the instant lottery, the success of which was widely imitated, and in 1975 New Jersey pioneered a numbers game version. Even California finally joined in 1984. By 1989, three-fourths of the U.S. population lived in states with state lotteries, and in those states, the average annual household expenditure for lotteries was $240.

The conspicuous part played by legislators indicated how powerful the political forces favoring extending gambling had become. But the economic forces were even more intimidating. Large retailers such as 7-Eleven backed lotteries because they could sell chances—and were well rewarded for it. The great national accounting firms found legal gambling accounts particularly lucrative, and those firms had links to every major power broker. Suppliers of machines and electronic equipment (including General Electric) were deeply involved in lotteries. Other groups, too, such as small operators of off-track betting (authorized by New York in 1971), aggregated into political and economic forces.

For most gamblers, the major development of the late twentieth century (although the new forms had roots in the 1930s) was sports betting. Two particular factors changed the whole landscape. One was television, which made watching sports a major American activity, dwarfing the live attendance and radio listening of previous times. The other was the point spread, which was, typically, announced from Las Vegas. The point spread meant that betting could occur even when two teams were extremely unevenly matched: one could bet that the team that would obviously lose would lose by less or more than a certain number of points; thus, all team contests, not just close games, became exciting betting subjects. Football and basketball, both collegiate and professional, took on new meaning for those with even a little money to wager—legally or illegally. Professional football's Super Bowl Sunday became a generally acknowledged national carnival, implicitly based on many ordinary citizens' money at risk.

Did legalized gambling supply the entertainment and recreation that might supplant illegal (and untaxed) betting? Sociologists generally concluded that gambling simply begat more gambling, as habit, ritual, or just attitude. Economists believed rational choice might lead clear thinkers to continue to use illegal bookies because the rake-off was less than when taxes had to be added on to the take, as in the lotteries. On the whole, there was a major change so that gambling in general became much more socially acceptable among large parts of the U.S. population in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

A Growth Industry: Technology, Media, and Consumerism

Some scholars believed that what they were seeing was commercial forces coming in to serve people with working-class backgrounds who had a lot of money to spend. Such commentators could point out how technology was being drawn into the service of betting. Television, as numerous scholars such as Benjamin Rader, Richard O. Davies, and Richard G. Abram have pointed out, transformed sports so as to make them subservient to betting. "Jimmy the Greek" Snyder, who reported bookie odds from Las Vegas, became a television personality in the 1970s. The content of the rest of television not only built on the traditional Hollywood glamorization of casinos and betting but also contributed active cultural content, as in the popular show Wheel of Fortune, launched in 1975. Video games, as they came in, were rapidly adapted to gambling, and, in 1989, South Dakota became the first state to authorize video lottery terminals. In the 1990s, a whole new realm opened up with Internet gambling, which could be done online with a credit card. What the impact of this rapidly growing activity would be was unclear, but that it would be great seemed certain to observers at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Those observers and others commented on the way in which libertarian attitudes were permitting "market forces" and "social choice" to shape not only commercial but recreational activities that involved gambling, whether by operating chance machines, by emotionally or rationally calculating odds on contests, or by indulging in social activities that were based on or involved betting. Economic considerations were replacing moral considerations and thriftiness both. Gambling was, after all, not only one of the major entertainment industries but—at $50 billion and 600,000 employees for commercial legal games alone in 1997—one of the major businesses of the United States.

Moreover, the commentators continued, gambling was well adapted to the pervasive consumer society that had succeeded a bourgeois producer society. Gamblers and high rollers had long represented an ultimate of conspicuous consumption. But in gambling, it was the act that was important, not any product. Betting was therefore the essence of imaginative consuming, perfectly suited to the culture. Now participants could enjoy their fantasies at home via television or computer. Or they could participate on the job through the compulsory office or work-crew football pool. Or they could make wagering activities part of tourism or vacations or the contrived sociability of card rooms, bingo halls, or casinos. Gambling also could involve fooling the purchaser, the con game that gave additional enjoyment to shopping and deciphering ads. In the last six or seven decades of the twentieth century, thinking about shopping and purchasing, which could include risking money in other ways, became a major if not dominant entertainment mode. Many commentators concluded that gambling was no longer a socially deviant activity in the United States.

The separate histories of lotteries, sports betting, card games, machine betting, and other risky speculations reflected the specialized and bureaucratic pattern of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the end of the twentieth century, however, gamblers were often taking on a new identity. A successful mass magazine, Gamblers World, described as being "for the individual who enjoys action," first appeared in 1973. Many individuals still specialized in taking risk for pleasure, but many others now identified with celebrities and peers who liked "action" of any kind—from dice games to sports betting to speculating in collectibles such as oriental rugs. Theirs was a new, classic "consumption community." Many Americans in the age of mass media and impulses conveyed electronically were cut loose from bourgeois restraints, and they found that they could identify with the macho television hero, Maverick: "Gambling was his game."

See also: Atlantic City, Card Games, Horse Racing, Las Vegas


Abt, Vicki, James F. Smith, and Eugene Martin Christiansen. The Business of Risk: Commercial Gambling in Mainstream America. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Barker, Thomas, and Marjie Britz. Jokers Wild: Legalized Gambling in the Twenty-first Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2000.

Burnham, John C. Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History. New York: New York University Press, 1993.

Clotfelter, Charles T., and Philip J. Cook. Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Davidson, D. Kirk. Selling Sin: The Marketing of Socially Unacceptable Products. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 1996.

Davies, Richard O., and Richard G. Abram. Betting the Line: Sports Wagering in American Life. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001.

Drzazga, John. Wheels of Fortune. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas, 1963.

Ezell, John Samuel. Fortune's Merry Wheel: The Lottery in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Fabian, Ann. Card Sharps, Dream Books, and Bucket Shops: Gambling in 19th-Century America. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Findlay, John M. People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Haller, Mark H. "Bootleggers and American Gambling, 1920–1950." In Gambling in America. Edited by Commission on Review of National Policy Toward Gambling. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976.

International Gaming Institute, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Gaming Industry: Introduction and Perspectives. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1996.

Kallick, Maureen, Daniel Suits, Ted Dielman, and Judith Hybels. A Survey of American Gambling Attitudes and Behavior. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, 1979.

Lears, Jackson. Something for Nothing: Luck in America. New York: Viking, 2003.

McMillen, Jan, ed. Gambling Cultures: Studies in History and Interpretation. London: Routledge, 1996.

Mirkovich, Thomas R., and Allison A. Cowgill. Casino Gaming in the United States. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1997.

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Final Report. Washington, D.C.: The Commission, 1999.

Nibert, David. Hitting the Lottery Jackpot: State Governments and the Taxing of Dreams. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Reith, Gerda. The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Thompson, William N. Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia of History, Issues, and Society. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-Clio, 2001.

Wiggins, David K., ed. Sport in America: From Wicked Amusement to National Obsession. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1995.

John C. Burnham


views updated May 23 2018


Gambling can be defined broadly as participation in any risk-taking activity. In law gambling is defined as a bet or wager (consideration ), on a probability game or a sporting event (chance ), with the hope of winning a payoff or prize (FCC v. American Broadcasting Co., 347 U.S. 284 (1954)). From a public health perspective, activities such as day trading in stocks, commodities, and futures markets have been said to mimic gambling games.

Gambling has never in law or custom been considered inherently evil (malum in se ). Why then is bettingor accepting betssometimes considered a crime? Reasons that can be singled out include the belief that gambling undermines the work ethic, is destructive of personality, invites fraud and deception, and engenders social decay. Such a view of gambling, although present in most English-speaking countries, is a minority viewpoint, especially in the United States, where a variety of gambling forms are permitted under differing legal regimes. These include casinos, lotteries, wagering on horse or dog races, electric gaming devices and slot machines, jaialai, and Internet gambling.

The historical lottery

Lotteries were popularand remain sobecause they present a rare opportunity to accumulate capital by luck alone. Despite Puritan opposition, the British Parliament authorized numerous lotteries between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. "By 1775," asserted the Royal Commission on Lotteries and Betting in 1933, "the lottery had become virtually an annual event." The lottery made its entrance into American history for much the same reasons. Lotteries were said to be the "reall and substantiall food, by which Virginia hath been nourished" (Ezell, p. 8). No American governmental entitywith the exception of postWorld War II Nevada or possibly nineteenth-century Louisianahas ever been dependent upon gambling revenues for so large a proportion of its budget as was the British government. Not until the early nineteenth century, as the lottery became more widespread in England and dependence upon it increased, did its enemies gather enough influence to destroy it. England saw the last of its state lotteries in 1823.

England's Puritan opposition to lotteries reinforced America's opponents of gambling. By the 1840s and 1850s, most of the South began to feel the anti-lottery pressure, and lotteries seem to have been relatively unpopular by the time of the Civil War. National opposition to the lottery strengthened Louisiana's anti-lottery forces, who captured the governor's office and a majority of the legislature. Consequently, Louisiana discontinued its lottery. With the twentieth century approaching, lotteries vanished from the American scene.

The contemporary lottery

No state-sponsored lotteries appeared in the United States until 1964. In that year, conservative New Hampshire adopted a sweepstakes. The state had no sales or income tax, and already derived more than 60 percent of its revenues from "sin taxes" on horse racing, liquor, tobacco, and beer. From the late 1960s onward, most states searched for alternative revenue sources. Gambling became a prime candidate, particularly through the lottery, off-track betting, and casino gambling. Politicians often welcome legal gambling since it does not depend on the coercive power of the state.

Lottery revenues were often referred to as "painless" although legislators recognized that the burden of providing such revenues fell disproportionately upon identifiable income strata. The lottery is usually a regressive source of public revenue since persons who occupy lower-income positions have the most incentive to purchase lottery tickets. Although lottery ticket purchases are voluntary, so is the purchase of most goods and services, which are taxed at a rate considerably lower than the usual percentage that states take before lottery payoffs.

As states compete with one another for the lottery market, novel ways are developed to stimulate demand. States advertise and market lotteries through the following means: frequent drawings; inexpensive tickets; better chances of prize-winning; higher payoff ratios; attractive prizes (including a larger first prize); simpler buying, drawing, and paying procedures; fast notice of results; and the opportunity for players to choose their own ticket numbers. The move from state lottery prohibition to promotion in half a century is remarkable, but not entirely unprecedented given the lottery's fluctuating history of acceptance and rejection in England and the United States.

Extent of gambling

According to the 1976 report of the U.S. National Commission on the Review of the National Policy toward Gambling, 80 percent of Americans favored the legalization of some form of gambling, and two-thirds had actually gambled, signaling widespread public acceptability. Roughly a quarter of a century later, acceptance had escalated into embrace. The 1999 National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which described the intervening period as "transformative," found that by 1999 more than forty states had legalized pari-mutual racetracks and betting; thirty-seven states had established lotteries, and several others were considering introducing them. Casino gambling expanded from Nevada to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and then nationwide to the gulf coast of Mississippi, to New Orleans, to Midwestern cities on riverboats, to Detroit, and to western mining towns. The immense transformation has been accompanied by an acceptance of gambling in mainstream culture. The winning lottery numbers in ever bigger jackpot games are routinely announced on the evening news. Racetrack betting takes place over the telephone and in off-track neighborhood betting parlors in New York City. "Legions of employees" testified to the National Gambling Impact Commission about the hope and opportunities that casino jobs have brought to their families. Others, however, told tales of families devastated by problem gambling, of blight and sleaze, of a work ethic undercut by the pursuit of easy money.

When made criminal, gambling is quintessentially a victimless crime. Players rarely, if ever, call police to report that an illegal bookmaker has taken their bet. New York City's Knapp Commission found systemic corruption where police regularly received payoffs from illegal bookmakers and numbers racketeers. In recognition of this, and the consequent difficulties of enforcement, the trend in gambling law and policy has been away from strict prohibition to regulation, with distinctions made according to type and sponsorship of gambling activity. This is not entirely new. Even at common law, gambling was not criminal if the game of chance was played privately. Only when conducted openly or notoriously, and where inexperienced persons were fleeced, was gambling a crime. Most gambling statutes imposed minor misdemeanor penalties for public social gambling, with somewhat harsher penalties for gambling with a minor. Gambling by a professional player might be classified as a felony. The 1976 National Gambling Commission gave considerable attention to state criminal laws prohibiting gamblingand found that they were more widely violated than any other type of prohibition. Criminal violation of state gambling laws was scarcely an issue for the National Gambling Impact Commission. Instead, the Commission focused on social policy and consequences of the widespread growth and acceptance of legal gambling.

Gambling and organized crime

Federal criminal law monitors organized crime and gambling through the Gaming Devices Act of 1951 ( Johnson Act, 18 U.S.C. & 1804), which prohibits interstate transportation of gaming devices; the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization Statutes (RICO, 18 U.S.C. & 1961 et. seq.); and amendments made in 1985 to the Bank Secrecy Act (31 U.S.C. & 103), also known as the Currency and Foreign Transactions Reporting Act). The latter act requires several cash intensive businesses, and explicitly casinos, to report cash transactions in amounts greater then $10,000. In addition, the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986 and the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network were enacted to "establish, oversee, and implement policies to prevent and detect money laundering" (U.S. Treasury Order No. 105108).

The federal interest in casino gambling can be traced to Nevada's casino gambling industry, which was established and developed by wellknown organized crime figures. Although not all casinos have connections to organized-crime, such roots have at times become visible. During the 1970s, a number of casinos were found by Nevada authorities and the U.S. Department of Justice to be infiltrated by organized crime families who controlled union pension funds that facilitated casino expansion.

The introduction of strong regulatory measures by the states has been a factor in enabling casino gambling to expand throughout the United States. Moreover, gambling enterprises are typically owned and run by major hotel and leisure industry companies, whose stocks are publicly traded, reviewed by financial analysts and the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as by federal and state law enforcement agencies. In the 1980s only two U.S. jurisdictions, Nevada and New Jersey, had legalized casinos, in good part restrained by the industry's history of organized crime connections and financing. By the year 2000, twenty-eight states had legalized some form of casino gambling, usually in resorts, such as in Biloxi, Mississippi, or on riverboats. Detroit, Michigan, was the only major industrial United States city to have legalized casinos. Approximately 260 casinos were located on Indian lands, with many more expected, especially in California, in the twenty-first century.

Native American tribal gambling

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, 480 U.S. 202 (1987), holding that California had no authority, on Indian lands, to enforce its criminal statutes forbidding bingo. The Court declared that gambling is a legitimate tourist activity, like hunting and fishing, for Indians to exploit. Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) in 1988 to provide a statutory basis for conducting gambling on Indian lands. IGRA divides gambling into three classes: Class I consists of traditional tribal games; Class II consists of games such as bingo, lotto, and punch cards. If these games, such as charity bingo, are permitted by a state and do not violate federal law, they may be conducted on Indian lands without state approval. Class III consists of all other games, especially casino games, parimutual racing, and jai alai. To introduce casino gaming, IGRA requires states to negotiate compacts with Indians. From 1988, when IGRA was passed, to 1997, revenues from tribal gaming grew more than thirtyfold from $212 million to $6.7 billion (National Gambling Impact Study Commission, p. 61,2).

Nevertheless, disputes have arisen between states and Indian tribes over the requirements of IGRA in the areas of regulation, the scope of permitted gambling activities, and the requirement that states negotiate in good faith with tribes. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996), held that, under the Eleventh Amendment, Congress was forbidden from authorizing suits by Indian tribes to bring states to the bargaining table to negotiate a gaming compact. This decision, in effect, invalidated the good faith negotiation requirement of IGRA.

By no means, however, did the Seminole decision portend an end to the expansion of Class III (casino) gambling sponsored by Indian tribes. States could voluntarily negotiate with Indian tribes, as Connecticut had earlier with the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, who built and ran the highest-grossing casino in the world. In September 1999, California's governor and legislature ratified gaming compacts with fifty-seven tribes. In March 2000, California voters passed a constitutional proposition ratifying these compacts and legalizing a major expansion of Indian casino gambling in California.

Gambling: personality and social costs

Fun, excitement, and the occasional thrill of winning seem to motivate most gamblers. Whatever else may be said against it, gambling is not physically risky. Some psychologists have even argued that gambling can be psychologically beneficial because some gamblers affirm their existence and worth by using skills in a risky setting (Kusyszyn). Other psychiatrists compare the excitement of gambling to the intoxication of drugs. A psychologist who interviewed members of Gamblers Anonymous seems to agree: "The compulsive gambler continues to bet because the action has come to be a refuge from thought of the outside world. His anxieties associated with his wife, family, debts, or job disappear when he concentrates on money and action" (Livingston, p. 55).

Pathological gambling is often cited as a major cost of gambling's expansion. A Harvard University sponsored meta-analysis of research on gambling found that 2.9 percent of gamblers had in the previous year reported "disordered and pathological" gambling. The lifetime rate was 5.4 percent. This was low as compared to alcohol dependence and abuse (9.7%, previous year; 23.5% lifetime). Disordered gamblers often experience "co-morbidity," that is, other life problems, such as alcoholism or drug abuse.

Those citing the social costs of gambling usually include, in addition to pathological or disordered gambling, its attraction to youth, elevated crime rates, suicide rates, family problems, bankruptcy, and the corruption of legislators. However, since gambling also provides economic benefits through employment opportunity, economic renewal of declining resorts and urban areas, and taxation, legal gambling has become an increasingly attractive option for many communities. As expansion has continued, at the turn of the century a backlash has occurred, with several states declining to introduce lotteries or casinos.

Internet gambling

Five federal statutes address Internet gambling, particularly the Wire Act (18 U.S.C. & 1084), which makes illegal the use of "wire communications" to assist with placing bets or wagers. The Wire Act's applicability to the Internet is nevertheless questionable in an era of wireless cellular and satellite technologies.

Several states, including Nevada, Texas, Illinois, and Louisiana, have introduced or passed legislation specifically prohibiting Internet gambling. Nevertheless, the large majority of Internet gambling sites, along with their owners or operators, are beyond the reach of state attorneys general.

On 17 July 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives voted down the Internet Act, legislation that sought to shut down many new online gambling sitesthe number of such sites was estimated at between seven hundred and one thousandmost of which operated beyond U.S. borders. Proponents of the legislation included an unusual coalition of Nevada gaming interests, major sports leagues, and Christian conservatives. Proponents cited the potential dangers of Internet gambling, including the undermining of the integrity of sporting events; the potential for defrauding unsophisticated gamblers; the ease of access by children; an increase in gambling addictions; and the need to preserve state revenues from legal, state-run gambling.

Opponents carried the day arguing that the legislation would drive online gambling underground; tamper with the Internet economy; invade Internet privacy; and be difficult to enforce against sophisticated but inexpensive technologies. Even assuming that law enforcement could develop the technological capacity to detect violations, provisions allowing for prosecution of gamblers would require enormous expansion of federal law enforcement to obtain and administer search warrants and subpoenas. Also cited were issues of jurisdiction, comity, and sovereignty, especially where other countries have chosen, or likely will choose, to regulate, that is, license and tax, Internet gambling.

Most basic to the legal and social issues of Internet gambling is the reality that cyberspace transcends borders. Consequently, Internet gambling markets are inherently global, undermining the traditional territorial basis for legal regulation of borders. Governments have the power to grant licenses and to tax within their sovereign territory. The Internet makes it possible to supply the demand for gambling "services" such as blackjack, poker, sports, or horse race betting outside any state or national borders, and without paying gambling privilege taxes. State-licensed casinos in the United States are taxed on their winnings at 7.75 to 8 percent, as in Nevada and New Jersey, and to two to three times that amount in some riverboat states. Internet purveyors will be able to offer better odds to price-sensitive gambling consumers. Will gamblers demand better odds from land-based gambling sites, such as casinos and racetracks? Will states be forced to lower gambling taxes? Will cyberspace gambling replace sited gambling or increase the demand for it? At the onset of the twenty-first century, predictions are difficult. Nevertheless, most commentators agree that gambling on the Internet will increase, perhaps exponentially, as the new century unfoldsand with uncertain but feared consequences regarding gambling taxation, the social costs of expanded gambling, and the viability of present control systems through licensing, taxation, and enforcement.

Jerome H. Skolnick

See also Criminalization and Decriminalization; Organized Crime; Police: Policing Complainantless Crimes; Victimless Crime.


Barthelme, Frederick, and Barthelme, Steven. Double Down: Reflections on Gambling and Loss. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Blakey, G. Robert. "State Conducted Lotteries: History, Problems, and Promises." Journal of Social Issues 35, no. 3 (1979): 6286.

, et al. The Development of the Law of Gambling: 17761976. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, National Institute of Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice, 1977.

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Clotfelter, Charles T., and Cook, Philip J. Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Cornish, D. B. Gambling: A Review of the Literature and Its Implications for Policy and Research. Home Office Research Study no. 42. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1978.

Devereux, Edward C., Jr. Gambling and the Social Structure. A Sociological Study of Lotteries and Horse Racing in Contemporary America. 2 vols. Edited by Harriet Zuckerman and Robert K. Merton. New York: Arno Press, 1980.

Dombrink, John, and Thompson, William N. Success and Failure in Campaigns for Casinos. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1990.

Dostoyevsky, Fyodor M. "The Gambler." In The Gambler; Bobok; A Nasty Story. Translated with an introduction by Jessie Coulson. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966.

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Hawkins, William. A Treatise of the Pleas of the Crown, or a System of the Principal Matters Relating to That Subject, Digested under Their Proper Heads. 5th edition. London: Worrall, 1771.

Kaplan, H. Roy. Lottery Winners: How They Won and How Winning Changed Their Lives. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.

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National Gambling Impact Study Commission. Final Report, 1999. World Wide Web document.

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Trevelyan, George Macauley. English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria. 2d edition. London: Longmans, Green, 1946.

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California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, 480

U.S. 202 (1987). FCC v. American Broadcasting Co., 347 U.S. 284

(1954). Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44 (1996).


views updated May 18 2018


Gambling was known to the ancient world. Games of chance were an appreciated pastime, often turning into addiction, among the Greeks – Herodotus relates that the Lydians supposedly invented some games (History 1:94); among the Romans, who are known to have bet heavily on chariot races; and among the Teutons, of whose gambling habits Tacitus states that in their less sober moments they even gambled themselves into slavery (Germany, 24). While the Hebrews were also acquainted with gambling (Judg. 14), it was only from mishnaic days onward that the rabbis took a definitive attitude toward gambling.

Professional and Compulsive Gambling

Professional gambling in any shape or form, whether among Jews or non-Jews, was severely frowned upon. The professional gambler was considered a parasite who was engaged in a useless endeavor and contributed nothing to better the world. Some rabbis went so far as to declare the professional gambler a robber whom the Mishnah (Sanh. 3:3) disqualified from giving testimony; he was looked upon as a spineless wastrel who, instead of engaging in the study of Torah or in the pursuit of an honest livelihood (Maim., Comm. to Mishnah, Sanh. 3:3), frittered his time and efforts away on a demeaning occupation and unseemly conduct (Rabban (ed. 1920), 224d; Mordekhai, Sanh. nos. 690, 695).

The rabbis recognized the inability of the compulsive gambler to control his passion for the game (Shiltei ha-Gibborim, Sheb. 756), considered him a moral weakling, and consequently dealt with him severely. One medieval rabbi advised: "Do not show pity to the gambler who pleads 'pity me in order that I may not be shamed and disgraced by him who has won a gulden.' Better he be disgraced…" (Judah he-Ḥasid, Sefer Ḥasidim, ed. by R. Margaliot (1957), no. 1026; cf. no. 400). So vehement was his opposition to the gambler that if the latter were to lose his money and require assistance from charity, it was to be denied to him.

Public calamities that befell the Jewish community were often considered the consequence of, and the punishment for, excessive gambling. In 1576, in Cremona, three scholars proposed a ban on gambling after a pestilence had abated. They maintained that the popular passion to gamble was the main source of all calamities that had befallen the community. A similar view had been expressed earlier by Judah Katzenellenbogen (Isaac Lampronti, Paḥad Yiẓḥak, 3 (Venice, 1798), 54a).

Effects of Gambling

Community leaders, keenly aware of the painful and destructive effects of gambling upon an individual's character, meted out severe punishment. Gambling debts could not be collected through the Jewish courts (Resp. Rashba, vol. 7, no. 445). The gambler was often placed under ban, dismissed from the burial society (ibid., nos. 244, 270; Resp. Rosh 13:12), at times prohibited from holding his wedding in the synagogue courtyard (Loewenstein, in jjlg, 8 (1910), 184f.), not called to the Torah (Finkelstein, Middle Ages, 282–95), etc. Family life was also disrupted by gambling habits, and there is much evidence readily available to show how difficult relationships were between gamblers and their wives (Resp. Rashba, vol. 2, nos. 35, 286; vol. 7, no. 501; Rosh, resp. 82:2, inter alia). Women refused to live with such husbands; wife-beating and drinking were common (Zikhron Yehudah no. 71; responsa Maharyu no. 135) and the education of children was jeopardized (Rosh, resp. 82:2). Repelled by the conditions under which they were forced to live, gamblers' wives often sought divorce. The gambler's desertion of his family was not an uncommon occurrence. One moralist even suggested that women should join their husbands in their acts of gambling in order to save their marriages (Moses of Jerusalem (Moses Henochs), Brant-Shpigel, ch. 10).

Gambling was denounced not only by Jewish law and by Jewish moralists, but its evils and terrible consequences were warned against by popular folk singers, in colloquial expressions, and in proverbs. "Gambling poems," describing the sorrow of a home where the man gambles, speak pitifully of the mental anguish of the gambler's "widow," the hidden tears, and the neglect of the children.

Curbs on Gambling

Jewish writings mention many gamblers who made conscious efforts to curb their passion and activities. A common practice among them was to take an oath not to indulge in games of chance, although this usually resulted in a double violation: gambling and breaking a vow. The vows varied: some gamblers set a time limit to their vows; others excluded specific days or special occasions; while still others only refrained from placing monetary stakes, but played, for example, for stakes of fruit (Resp. Rashba, vol. 3, no. 305; Maharshal, resp. no. 185). Rabbis discouraged hasty vows, realizing that these did not lessen the lure of games of chance.


Communal restrictions to suppress gambling were often enacted; the frequency of these enactments, however, shows how futile the prohibitions were and how popular the games. Taking into consideration the attraction of games and gambling, the enactments were flexible: on many festive occasions (e.g., Ḥanukkah, Purim, the intermediary days of Passover and Sukkot, and the New Moon) the restrictions were lifted (Israel Bruna, resp. no. 136). Special family occasions also received communal dispensation for gambling (Finkelstein, Middle Ages, 228–42, 284–91). In general, however, the prohibitions were enforced and accompanied by severe penalties: excommunication and flagellation were commonly meted out to transgressors (Resp. Rashba, vol. 7, nos. 244, 270); fines were imposed and honorary functions within the synagogue withheld.

Types of Games of Chance

The medieval gambler was enticed by all sorts of games. Dice were known from ancient times, and games such as "odds or evens" played with pebbles, knucklebones, and bowling were also quite old. Games with nuts, although often played by children, were also a pastime for the gambler (Haggahot Mordekhai, Sanh. nos. 722–3; Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, no. 94). Not until the 15th century did cards capture the fancy of the Jewish masses (I. Abrahams, Jewish Lifein the Middle Ages (19322), 415ff.). Tennis, popular among the Jews of Italy during the 16th century, was, just as chess, not merely played as a pastime but enormous stakes were wagered upon the outcome of such matches (Henderson, in jqr, 26 (1935/36), 5; for cards and chess see *Games). By the 18th century, lotteries were very popular. The different types of gambling were not universal; each country had its own fads and favorite games.

Many authorities felt that it was permissible to indulge in games of chance on occasions (Mordekhai, Sanh. 690f.). Gambling, however, carried with it a stigma; but while public opinion looked down upon it, all the private and communal efforts to stem the tide of gambling did not stop Jews from indulging frequently. One scholar even urged the abolition of all decrees against gambling since men could not withstand such temptation (Mordekhai, Shev. 787).

Synagogue Gambling

Gaming in the synagogue was not uncommon; a sharp contrast was drawn, however, between the usual forms of gambling and cases where the primary motive was not personal gain. A multitude of responsa cite instances where the winnings at games of chance were not considered fruits of sin (e.g., Resp. Maharam of Rothenburg, ed. Prague, no. 493). One of the clearest statements was made by Benjamin *Slonik who differentiated between gambling for private gain and that in which the winnings, even if only in part, went to charity. He saw no violation in the latter case and demanded full payment of gambling debts to charity. There were many instances where the rabbis and communities joined in games of chance. One rabbi ruled that he who wins at a lottery should pronounce the blessing She-Heḥeyanu; should one win together with a partner, one must also add the blessing ha-tov ve-ha-metiv (B. Levin, Shemen Sason (1904), 53 no. 27; see *Benedictions). It seems hardly likely that any blessing should be required if the winnings were considered the rewards of sinful acts. It would thus appear that Jewish law proscribes the professional and compulsive act of gambling; frowns severely and condemns the occasional act of gambling when indulged in for personal gain; while occasional gambling, where all or part of the winnings go to charity, has never aroused condemnation and frequently even has had the approval of the Jewish communities.

These findings might have bearing on the modern controversy over congregationally sponsored bingo and card games organized to raise funds to meet the tremendous budgets of the synagogues. Jewish history and rabbinic literature shows that such methods are not new. Synagogues and communities have indulged in similar games in the past, and the revenues have been used to meet their financial obligations. Rabbis not only did not frown upon such acts but frequently encouraged them. The *United Synagogue of America at successive conventions has, however, ruled that bingo is a form of fund-raising not to be permitted by their congregations, the opinion being that it is not in keeping with the spirit of Judaism.

[Leo Landman]

In Jewish Law

It is said that people who play games of dice are the sinners "in whose hands is craftiness" (Ps. 26:10), calculating with their left hand and covering with their right, and defrauding and robbing each other (Mid. Ps. to 26:7). Dice are variously named in the Talmud as kubbiyyah (rh 1:8; Sanh. 3:3; et al.), pesipas (Sanh. 25b), or tipas (Tosef., Sanh. 5:2), apparently all words of Greek origin denoting small, wooden, mostly painted cubes. The player is sometimes called kubiustos, and it is said of him that he is afraid of daylight (Ḥul. 91b). Slaves are said to be notorious gamblers – which is the reason given for the rule that the sale of a slave could not be rescinded where it turned out that he was a kubiustos (bb 92b–93a and Rashbam ibid.).

However sinful and reprehensible gambling may be, it was not regarded as a criminal offense in talmudic law. A gambler who had no other trade but lived by gambling was disqualified as a judge and as a witness (rh 1:8; Sanh. 3:3), and in order to have his disqualification removed, had first to pay back (or to distribute to charities) all the money he had earned from his gambling (Sanh. 25b; Piskei ha-Rosh, Sanh. 3:10). For the purpose of such disqualification, moreover, the concept of gambling was expressly extended to include betting on animal races and the flights of pigeons and other birds (Sanh. 25a–b). Opinions differ as to the reason for such disqualification: some hold that taking money from another by way of game or sport, without giving valuable consideration in return, is like larceny; others hold that wasting time and money in gambling, instead of engaging in studies or in a trade or profession, amounts to ignoring the "general welfare of the world" (yishuvo shel olam); both schools conclude that gamblers cannot, therefore, be reliable (ibid.; and Yad, Gezelah Va-Avedah 6:10–11 and Edut 10:4). The rule did not apply to occasional gamblers who earned their livelihood by an honest trade (Sanh. 3:3; Rema, Ḥm 370:3; Mordekhai, Sanh. 690; Kesef Mishneh, Edut 10:4; et al.). A vow not to earn money was understood to mean not to win money by gambling (tj, Ned. 5, 4, 39b). As gambling easily grows into an irresistible obsession, vows and oaths to abstain from it in the future were frequently taken, and the question arose whether such vows were irrevocable: those who held that they were regarded gambling as offensive and prohibited anyway (cf., e.g., tj, Ned. ibid. and Korban Edah and Penei Moshe ibid.; Resp. Rashba, vol. 1, no. 756; Resp. Radbaz 214; Resp. Maharashdam, yd 84; et al.); others also considered the psychological aspect and held such vows to be impossible to maintain (Resp. Ribash 281, 432; et al.). But so long as the vow had not been lawfully revoked, any gambling in contravention of it would be punished with *flogging and heavy *fines (Resp. Rosh 11:9).

In the Middle Ages, the playing of games of chance came to be recognized in many communities as a criminal offense: with the impoverishment of ghetto populations, the public danger of gambling and the necessity to suppress it called for drastic measures. The following is an example of a communal law (*takkanah) on gambling: "Nobody may play at cards or dice or any other games whatsoever that the mouth could speak or the heart think, even on Rosh-Ḥodesh, Ḥanukkah, Purim, ḥol ha-mo'ed, and other days on which no Taḥanun is said, and even at the bed of a woman confined in childbirth or at a sickbed – and everybody whoever it may be, including boys and girls, manservants and maidservants, shall be punished if they should (God forbid) contravene and play; if the offender is well-to-do, he shall pay for every occasion two silver coins, one for the talmud torah and one for the poor of Jerusalem; and if he is poor so that he cannot be punished by fine, he shall be punished by *imprisonment and tortured by iron chains as befits such offenders – always according to his blameworthiness and the exigencies of the day; and in any case shall his shame be made public, by announcing that this man has contravened this law" (Takkanot Medinat Mehrin, ed. I. Halpern, 92f.).

The modern distinction between games of skill (which are lawful) and games of chance (which are prohibited) was already made in Jewish medieval sources: some scholars held that games of skill were allowed and games of chance prohibited on a Sabbath (Shiltei ha-Gibborim, Er. 35b); some doubted the validity of the distinction and held that all games, even chess, were prohibited on Sabbath (several responsa on the subject are printed in full in Paḥad Yiẓḥak (by Isaac Lampronti) s.v.Shevu'ah she-Lo Lishok). Games of skill, such as chess, were never made a criminal offense, though disapproved of as a waste of time which should properly be devoted to study; and domestic gambling, even for money, became customary during the night of Christmas.

The Israel Penal Law Amendment (Prohibited Games; Lottery and Betting) Law, 5724 – 1964, provides for the punishment, with imprisonment up to one year and a fine of up to 5,000 pounds, of professional gamblers (and much lighter punishment for occasional gamblers); the prohibition attaches to games in which money or other material benefits can be won, and the results of which depend more on chance than on understanding or skill, or – as in the case of bets – depend purely on guesswork.

[Haim Hermann Cohn]

The Validity of an Agreement Dependent on Casting Lots

an agreement dependent solely on casting lots

Casting lots is mentioned in tannaitic literature as an acceptable way of dividing property amongst heirs (bb 106b). The *amoraim discussed the nature of the legal mechanism of *acquisition (kinyan) after the results of the lots are obtained. The conclusion reached in the Babylonian Talmud is that the benefit derived by each of the siblings from the very fact of the mutual agreement to disband the partnership creates the wholehearted agreement required in order for the transaction to be valid (Rashbam, ibid.). Similarly, any agreement in which the sides undertake to make payment in accordance with the results of casting lots has binding force, albeit on condition that a formal kinyan was performed so long as there was no kinyan the sides can withdraw from the agreement (Me'irat Einayim on Sh. Ar., Ḥm 207:33).

The conditions required to validate an agreement involving lots or gambling are that it be carried out fairly; and that each participant enjoy equal chances of winning. Rabbi Jair Hayyim Bacharach was asked about a case in which people had cast lots, the stakes being a golden goblet. In the particular case he adjudicated, the lots were cast in an unfair, unequal manner; hence, he ruled that the lottery was invalid. Had the lots been cast fairly, he ruled that they would carry binding validity for "we see from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings that lots were relied upon when they were cast without human thought or intervention… Most likely, if the lots are cast fairly, an element of divine intervention obtains" (Responsa Havot Ya'ir §61).

agreements dependent on both luck and skill of participants

In the case of games involving a combination of both skill and luck, we find a controversy regarding whether the agreement among the sides is valid or not. As stated earlier, the amoraim argued in the Talmud (Sanh. 24b) as to why diceplayers are disqualified from serving as witnesses or judges. According to Rabbi Shesheth, it is because "they are not concerned with the general welfare." In his view, their disqualification is more societally oriented. Rami bar Hama, by contrast, argues that their disqualification stems from the invalidity of the agreement among them, which transforms the transfer of money among them into theft, thereby disqualifying them as witnesses or judges.

In this second view, games of dice "constitute an asmakhta [a transaction built upon a fallacious presumption], and an asmakhta is not binding" (bm 66b. See *Asmakhta). Each participant presumes that he has the skill and ability to beat his opponent and to win the money; hence, when he initially agrees with the other parties to abide by the results of the game, his consent is not sincere. Hence, the required act of acquisition does not take place among the sides, and the money that ultimately goes to the winner is in a sense stolen (Rashi, ibid.).

The law was decided in favor of Rabbi Shesheth, who said that the reason that dice-players are disqualified from serving as judges or witnesses is their "lack of concern with the general welfare." Some explain this in the sense that dice-players, being unfamiliar with the normal workings of the world, are thereby unfit to serve as judges. This approach would seem to imply that, from a monetary standpoint, the agreement among dice-players is valid (Rashi, ibid.). Yet according to Maimonides (Yad, Gezelah 6:11), even the rationale of "lack of concern with the general welfare" includes the issue of theft. In his view, winning money in a dice game still involves a "trace of theft" to it, thus making it rabbinically prohibited. No fullfledge acquisition takes place between the sides; what occurs is instead a farce (Me'irat Einayim on Sh. Ar., Ḥm, 34:40. In the view of Alfasi [Teshuvot ha-Ge'onim (ed. Harkabi, 5647, §84)], or that of the Talmudic text he had before him, it follows that Rabbi Shesheth does not disagree with the principle that dice-games constitute an asmakhta.).

When the dice game is played for money that is not literally lying on the table before the players, but only exists as a debt, such that each participant undertakes to pay in the future if he loses, the winner is unable to claim the money from the loser through the rabbinic court. The reason for this is that such a case constitutes an outright asmakhta, or because such an act is devoid of any act of acquisition (Tosafot, Er. 82a; Tur, Ḥm 207:17).

games of skill

We find a controversy among the halakhic authorities regarding games in which winning depends on skill rather than luck. The Talmud (Er. 104a) mentions such a game between women employing nuts and apples, and the game is deemed prohibited on the Sabbath. Or Zaru'a (Pt. ii, Hilkhot Yom Tov, §357) rules that even on weekdays that game is prohibited, because it is like dice games.

By contrast, Shiltei ha-Gibborim rules that this game is exclusively one of skill, and as such cannot be likened to dice games. In wake of this controversy, later authorities disagreed regarding chess: should chess be considered not an asmakhta, as it requires skill and only people of good character play it, or should we not distinguish between different types of games, and instead consider even games of skill an asmakhta? (see, for example, Responsa Torat Emet §180).

purchasing lottery tickets

Contemporary halakhic authorities deliberated the issue as to whether one is permitted to purchase lottery tickets. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef ruled that, owing to the problem of asmakhta, it is forbidden to purchase such tickets. By contrast, Rabbi Avraham Shapira, when he served as chief rabbi of Israel (see Bibliography: Shapira), ruled that the purchase of lottery tickets differs from playing games of dice, because the person purchasing the tickets knows full well that the money with which he purchased the ticket will not return to him. Rather, it will be transferred, via an agent, to the bank account of the lottery company. It is therefore clear that he is making an outright gift of the money to the company. His hopes of winning remain a separate issue, independent of his agreement to pay the cost of the ticket, much like any other person who invests in a business and hopes to earn a profit from his investment. Subsequent disappointment does not suffice to transform the investment to theft. In addition, he makes the point that "we need to be aware of a major principle, that we mustn't question a practice of the entire Jewish People. Heaven forfend that we say the entire Jewish people have fallen pray to a sin." Furthermore, many sources indicate that Jews customarily purchase lottery tickets, and the great rabbis of Israel, even if they viewed such purchases as indicating weak faith in God, did not suggest that the practice involved the least hint of theft.

The Law in the State of Israel

Articles 224–235 of the 1977 Penal Code deal with gambling. According to the law, a "forbidden game" is one in which "a person is supposed to win money, goods, or benefits based on the outcome of a game, and that outcome depends on luck more than on understanding or ability." The law imposes prison sentences on anyone participating in forbidden games, and larger punishments on those who organize such games. There is likewise a prohibition against operating or maintaining premises in which such games are played, and the police are authorized to close them down.

At the same time, when games are earmarked for a specific group of people, are not played in a place where forbidden games are played, and their purpose is entertainment alone and not profit, the law does not forbid them. The Finance Minister likewise has the authority to permit certain games, and the National Lottery is allowed to operate in accordance with a special license received from the minister.

The Supreme Court of the State of Israel relied on the stance of Jewish Law regarding games of chance in the "Ninety Balls Incident" (ca 4436/02 Ninety Balls v. the Haifa Municipality, pd 58 (3) 782), vis-à-vis the underlying reasoning for the negative approach to gambling. The Court (Justice Asher Grunis) quoted from R. Menahem Meiri (Bet ha-Behirah, Sanhedrin, ad loc.). Meiri explains that two reasons stand behind this negative relationship. The first involves the fact that, just as gamblers are accustomed to lying during their gambling, they will not consider lying a shameful act in their other activities. According to the second explanation, just as gamblers take a cavalier attitude to their own money where gambling is concerned, so are they liable to take a cavalier attitude to the money of others. Hence, they will not consider what it means for someone to lose money as a result of their own false testimony.

[Menachem Elon (2nd ed.)]


L. Loew, Die Lebensalter in der juedischen Literatur (1875), 323–37; V. Kurrein, in: mgwj, 66 (1922), 203–11; I. Rivkind, in: Tarbiz, 4 (1932/33), 366–76; idem, in: Horeb, 1 (1934), 82–91; idem, Der Kamf kegen Azartshpilen bay Yidn (1946); I. Jakobovits, Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems (1965), 109–12; L. Landman, in: jqr, 57 (1966/67), 298–318; 58 (1967/68), 34–62; idem, in: Tradition, 10:1 (1968/69), 75–86; I. Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (19322), 397–422; et, 2 (1949), 113; 5 (1953), 520–2; J. Bazak, in: Ha-Peraklit, 16 (1960), 47–60; idem, in: Sinai, 48 (1961), 111–27. add. bibliography: M. Elon, Ha-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 1:193f, 576, 658, 665; idem, Jewish Law (1994), 1:218f.; 2:710, 814, 822; M. Elon and B. Lifshitz, Mafte'ah ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Sefarad u-Ẓefon Afrikah (legal digest), 1 (1986), 15; B. Lifshitz and E. Shohetman, Mafte'aḥ ha-She'elot ve-ha-Teshuvot shel Ḥakhmei Ashkenaz, Ẓarefat ve-Italyah (legal digest) (1997), 13; Sh. Warhaftig, Dinei Ḥozim be-Mishpat Ivri (5735 – 1975), 212–31; idem, "The Contract Involved in Lotteries and Gambling According to Jewish Law," in: Sinai, 71 (5732 – 1972), 229–40; B. Lipschitz, Asmakhta – Ḥiyyuv ve-Kinyan be-Mishpat ha-Ivri (1988), 81–83; A.C. Shapira, "Purchasing Lottery Tickets," in: Teḥumin, 5 (1984), 301–2; Y. Cohen, "A Married Woman's Winning the Lottery," in: Teḥumin, 5 (1984), 303–14.


views updated May 14 2018


From TV programs such as Wheel of Fortune to daily point spreads in newspaper sports pages, the gambling spirit is everywhere in American life. Casinos have spread beyond tawdry, out-of-the-way locations such as Las Vegas to Indian reservations and cities across the country. Riverboats, with their poker machines and blackjack tables, ply the nation's great rivers again, as their predecessors did over a century ago. The gambling and casino boom has breached even the citadel of middle-class respectability in the form of hotels such as Las Vegas' Circus Circus and Treasure Island, featuring "family" entertainment within yards of slot machines. Variously blamed on de-industrialization, a decline in the American work ethic, and a lapse in moral values, gambling's something-for-nothing mentality has become an important part of the American consciousness. Long a refined diversion for the wealthy and a desperate last chance for the poor, it is perhaps only technology and style that separates twentieth century gambling from its primeval counterparts.

Gambling, the betting or staking of something of value, is as old as humankind itself. Betting on horses began as soon as the animals were domesticated, and gambling's ties to sports date back as far as 1450 B.C.E., when Egyptians competed against each other in jumping, wrestling, and ball game competitions, centuries before the first Greek Olympics. As many as 250,000 spectators watched, and gambled on, chariot races in Rome's Circus Maximus. Gospel writers Matthew and Mark report that Roman guards gambled for Jesus' garments following his crucifixion, "casting lots upon them, what every man should take." Towns challenged towns in medieval archery matches, and gambling was an ever present accompaniment as sports competitions became organized in Europe during the Renaissance and early Modern periods.

In the New World, special days were set aside by the Northwest Coast Indians for "mook-te-lo," or wagering on games. The Iroquois played a betting game called "hubbub" with dice made from peach stones. Participants hit themselves on the chest and thighs, crying "hub hub hub" so loudly that they could be heard a quarter-of-a-mile away according to a contemporary report. The first deck of cards to be manufactured in the Western hemisphere was made by Columbus' crew in 1492. According to the story, the sailors threw their European cards overboard because they believed gambling was bringing them ill fortune during their long voyage. Once ashore in the New World, they regretted their impulsive behavior and made substitute decks from the large leaves of the copas tree. Lotteries, begun in England in 1566, were approved for the new Jamestown settlement in Virginia by King James I in 1612. Proceeds were used to sustain the struggling colony until the king withdrew his permission in 1621.

The Puritans first objected to popular recreations like gambling during the seventeenth century because they violated Sabbatarian principles. In the Puritan's distinctive mixture of capitalism and Calvinism, gambling was a double sin, a violation of the Lord's day of rest and an ungodly diversion from work the other six days of the week. Puritans had little success convincing Europeans to stop betting but they established strict statutes against gambling and other worldly distractions in their early American settlements beginning in 1638. Lotteries were unnecessary appeals to providence, according to Puritan minister Increase Mather, who believed that "God determines the cast of the dice or the shuffle of the cards, and we are not to implicate His providence in frivolity." The Puritans' holy opposition to gambling faded in the New England colonies during the eighteenth century, and they had never had much influence on mid-Atlantic and southern colonists, but the Puritan association of gaming and wagering with alcoholism, idleness, and ungodliness became a recurrent theme in numerous anti-gambling crusades during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Lotteries were a common recourse for eighteenth-century American colonists in search of funds for wars, schools, charities, or other purposes. George Washington himself bought and sold lottery tickets, and Benjamin Franklin spoke in favor of a lottery to finance the purchase of a cannon battery for Philadelphia in 1748. In 1758, once-Puritan Massachusetts authorized a lottery to fund an expedition against Canada during the French and Indian Wars. Gambling was still considered a vice, however, and during the first days of the American Revolution, various colonial "committees of safety" opposed gambling as a means of galvanizing public morality. General Washington, a frequent gambler at cards, forbade gambling among his soldiers when it distracted them from their military duties, even during the grueling winter at Valley Forge. However, the Continental Congress sponsored a national lottery in 1777, promoting it as a contribution "to the great and glorious American cause," only to be disappointed by the proceeds because the loosely-knit colonists failed to gamble as freely as their more sophisticated English counterparts.

On the rough-and-tumble borders of the new country, however, gambling was a primary diversion. Thoroughbred horse racing, cockfights, card games, billiards, and fighting over the outcome of such contests were favorite past times of eighteenth-century frontier inhabitants, and gambling, alcoholism, prostitution, and related social vices continued to be associated with the American frontier as it spread westward throughout the nineteenth century. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase opened the western Ohio and Mississippi, and as commerce developed on the waterways, so did gambling. New Orleans evolved as America's first gambling city as flatboat men, farmers, and plantation owners played a French card game named "poque." With a few modifications, draw "poker" became the quintessential American card game. Gambling was outlawed in the rest of the huge Louisiana territory in 1811 in the wake of a popular anti-gambling tract written by Mason Locke Weems (better known for authorship of the myth about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree), but gambling remained a critical component of New Orleans' economy and politics for another century.

The first American gambling casino was opened in New Orleans around 1822. Owner John Davis provided gourmet food, liquor, roulette wheels, faro tables, poker, and other games, made certain that prostitutes were never far away, and kept his club house open twenty-four hours a day. Dozens of imitators soon made gaming, drink, and women of easy virtue the primary attractions of New Orleans. The city's status as an international port and its thriving gambling industry created a new profession, the card "sharper." Professional gamblers and cheats gathered in a waterfront area known as "the swamp," an area even the police were afraid to frequent, and any gambler lucky enough to win stood a good chance of losing his earnings to thieves outside of the gambling rooms and saloons. The slot machine, invented by Charles Fey in San Francisco in 1895, first became popular with New Orleans gamblers. Reform movements struggled to limit gambling and prostitution to a red light district until military restrictions put the halls and brothels out of business during World War I.

The nineteenth-century relationship between gambling and western expansion was epitomized by the early West's favorite son, President Andrew Jackson. Jackson was not the first president to gamble openly, but he bet with such an intensity that he created an image that came to stereotype all Westerners. He bet on cards, lotteries, and cockfights, but he preferred horse racing, a sport suited to his western Tennessee roots. Jackson hated losing, and his advice to a nephew summarized not only his personality but the mood of entire nation during his presidential term: "You must risk to win." New frontier settlements risked everything for success, and those that prospered almost always embraced gambling. Chicago became a city in 1837, the same year it ostensibly outlawed gambling, but gaming "hells" continued to flourish along with drunkenness and prostitution. By 1849, there were as many gambling establishments in Chicago per capita as New York City and more than 1,000 women were said to be employed as prostitutes in 1856. The New England-bred Mayor "Long" John Wentworth ordered the destruction of gambling houses along Chicago's notorious Sands riverfront district in 1857, but the denizens simply moved to more law-abiding sections of the city where open gambling continued until 1904 when Mayor Carter Harrison closed all of the city's horse-racing tracks.

Gambling thrived in the South as well. Horse racing was the most popular sport for betting, and formal racing sessions were organized by the upper class in Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Annapolis, and Alexandria well before the Revolutionary War. Slaves rode Southern race horses until replaced by white riders after the Civil War, inspiring the black jockey lawn ornaments that persisted into the twentieth century. The development of the telegraph, especially a modification permitting the transmission of more than one message at a time, allowed betting from a distance and made betting on the races a major business in the South. The first sports pages in American newspapers were reports on horse racing until the rise of professional baseball after the Civil War. Baseball, too, attracted gamblers. The Chicago "Black Sox" scandal of 1919, which saw the best team in baseball lose a World Series on purpose, was predated by the Louisville Greys, who threw enough games to go from a comfortable first place in the National League standings to late season also-rans in 1877.

Steamboats and riverfront gambling houses along the lower Mississippi attracted swarms of professional gamblers. A host of companies specialized in manufacturing and selling card cheating devices. One riverboat gambler named George Devol was so proud of his ability to slip a stacked deck into a game that he once used four of them in one poker hand, dealing four aces to each of his four opponents. Devol bragged of his exploits in his 1887 memoir, Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi. Children looked upon such professional gamblers as heroic figures. "To me as a boy, the gambler was an object of awed admiration," sportswriter Hugh Fullerton recalled of his Southern boyhood in the 1870s. But anxious townsfolk viewed the presence of such confidence men as a vestige of an unruly frontier past. Five "sharps" were lynched by vigilantes in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1835, less for religious reasons than to preserve civic respectability, and other river cities applied similar, if less stringent preventatives. Still, the riverboat gambler came to symbolize freedom in dime novels and other popular literature, even though most died poor.

California established a reputation for professional gambling as well. In the wake of the state's 1848 gold rush, European traveler Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Gerstacker observed that "gambling houses are now to California what slave-holding is to the United States." Professional gamblers became so wealthy and influential that they managed to become controlling political forces in the state for short periods of time. In San Francisco, gamblers played all day and all night at games that were refined into a high-volume industry. Rather than cheating and deceit, the city's gambling saloons relied on percentages and odds for their profits, foreshadowing the Las Vegas casinos a century later. Miners did not seem to mind. San Francisco gambling mirrored the entire gold rush mentality that "the fun would be worth a fortune almost," as one contemporary wrote. Professional gamblers were an implicit, if not sanctioned, part of the casino scene until journalist and businessman James King launched such a vigorous crusade against them that he was murdered in 1856. In revenge, his alleged killer and a professional dealer named Charles Cora were lynched by vigilantes. Nonetheless, gaming continued in San Francisco, on a less ostentatious scale, into the 1910s.

Gambling flourished in other Western mining camps and towns that supplied the prospectors. Virginia City, Comstock, and Deadwood became as well known for faro and gunfights over card games as they did for mineral wealth. Even cattle towns such as Dodge City, Kansas, had forty saloons and gambling houses to cater to the cowboys, buffalo hunters, and railroad workers that visited it in 1875. But prohibition was in the wind. Scandals involving lottery ticket sales, including a massive fraud in the Louisiana lottery in 1894, the rise of baseball and other spectator sports, and a revival of moral concerns against idleness, drunkenness, and debauchery led to laws against lotteries and gambling in most states by 1910. "Puritanism [was] the inflexible doctrine of Los Angeles," one historian noted. By 1908, 289 of the nation's 314 thoroughbred horse race tracks had been closed.

Horse racing was the first gambling industry to be reborn. Colonel Matt J. Winn, president of Churchill Downs, dusted off old pari-mutual machines stored in the back of the track's storehouse, banished illegal bookmakers, and made sure the state of Kentucky got a share of every bet made at his track. Pari-mutual horse wagering was legalized in other states, especially during the cash-strapped Depression years. State racing boards or commissions supervised the tracks, reducing cutthroat competition and providing an aura of respectability for a public concerned about the connection between gambling and crime. Professionals gamblers remained, epitomized by George E. Smith, better known as "Pittsburgh Phil," who made horse betting into a science. Bookmakers prospered as well, off track, aided by advances in communication such as radio. Although state lotteries were not revived until 1964, numbers games were introduced to Harlem by West Indian immigrants in the 1920s and spread to other cities. Manufactured games such as pull tabs and punch boards appeared in rural areas, as did illegal slot machines and other electronic devices. Almost 25 percent of Americans admitted gambling on church-sponsored bingo games and lotteries in a 1938 Gallop poll. New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia stated the obvious, "if bingo is unlawful in one place, it cannot be lawful in another." Politicians have tried to resolve this dilemma over the remainder of the twentieth century.

Most casinos and "gambling hells" were shut down during the early 1900s, even in obscure locations such as French Lick, Indiana, and Canton, Ohio. True to the worst fears of the Puritans, gangsters combined liquor and gambling in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and other cities during the 1920s. Florida temporarily legalized slot machines during the depths of the Depression at about the same time that El Monte and Gardena, California, licensed poker. But it was a dusty little Nevada town located on the old Spanish Trail that reintroduced casinos and gambling to twentieth-century America.

Las Vegas was established as a Mormon mission before the Civil War. Its future was assured when the San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake railroad laid track in 1904 and three other railroads, including the Union Pacific, soon followed suit. The railroads were the town's primary employer but the providing of ice, refreshments, shelter, and other amenities became almost as important. Although gambling was banned in Nevada in 1909, Las Vegas continued to grow, reaching a population of 5,165. It remained a railroad town until divorce and gambling laws were relaxed and the federal government began the construction of Hoover Dam in 1930. The first major hotel, the 100-room Apache, opened in 1932 to augment an active red light district patronized by dam workers. So many workers and their families poured into Las Vegas that the New York Times claimed the city had "a touch of Mexico's Tijuana" in 1936. Still, Las Vegas continued to be outpaced by its primary competitor, Reno, and boasted only six casinos and sixteen saloons by 1939.

The post-World War II improvement of automobiles and highways, especially to and from Los Angeles, forever changed Las Vegas. Downtown's Fremont Street became "Glitter Gulch" and the vacant Las Vegas Boulevard was renamed the "Strip." Three casinos opened in 1946 including mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's Flamingo Hotel. The Horseshoe Club began hosting the World Series of Poker in 1951. Motion pictures such as the 1952 Las Vegas Story, staring Jane Russell and Victor Mature, and the 1959 Oceans Eleven, which featured the "rat pack," Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop, promoted the growing sophistication of Las Vegas. The movies also helped establish gambling as an adult entertainment in a decade noted for juvenile attractions from Elvis Presley (who later became a Las Vegas star) to McDonald's. They also helped erase gambling's disreputable, low-class image. Las Vegas' gambling industry survived and even thrived under scrutiny from investigators led by Senator Estes Kefauver. His Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime leaned heavily on gambling during the early 1950s, but only a few of the committee's proposals were legislated.

The Golden Nugget was the first Las Vegas property created specifically as a hotel-casino, but every hotel provided gambling. Eventually all would feature big-name entertainment, led by pianist Liberace, who headlined the new Riviera in 1955. The city's reputation as the "last" frontier served not only as a recurring casino and hotel theme, but intensified the gambling experience. Just as thrill seekers had swarmed San Francisco's casinos a century earlier, gamblers escaped their ordinary lives in the fantasy world of Las Vegas, surrounded by flashing lights and jingling coins, visual and auditory "noise" that heightened their sensations of gambling. Sports betting became popular, influenced in part by the banning of Pete Rose from baseball in 1989. The first theme property, the Circus Circus Hotel Casino, opened in 1968, was joined by the Mirage in 1989, the Excalibur in 1990, and Treasure Island in 1993, attracting a new type of visitor, the middle-class family. The introduction of gambling in Atlantic City and other locations induced Las Vegas to reinvent itself once again, providing educational attractions such as dolphin habitats and family entertainment acts like magicians Siegfried and Roy.

Beginning in New Hampshire in 1964, lotteries spread to more than thirty states, usually claiming to devote a large percentage of the profits to state education. Multi-state lotteries offered payouts of over one hundred million dollars. The first legal casino in the United States outside of Las Vegas opened on Atlantic City, New Jersey's Broadwalk in 1978, providing an influx of jobs and money even as the outer city remained impoverished. Deadwood, South Dakota, opened its streets to gambling in 1989. Gaming on Indian Reservations, the so-called "return of the buffalo," was re-legalized by Congress in 1988. Dozens of tribes across the country competed to provide casinos and hotel-casinos almost as glitzy as Las Vegas and used the profits to bolster their dying cultures and communities. River and lake boats, off-track and bingo parlors, dog and horse racing tracks, all vied for what economists called discretionary funds. In every case, what had been once a sin, like divorce or deficit spending, was re-merchandised into an economic and social virtue. Even the Indian casinos and the state lotteries, however, must continually fight against gambling's shadowed twin, corruption. The same qualities of desperation and greed that guarantee success to gambling enterprises, also impel those who try to "beat the system." "Gambling is the child of avarice, the brother of iniquity, and the father of mischief," wrote George Washington, and, whether the gambling is for fun or for charity, that lineage seems to remain the same.

—Richard Digby-Junger

Further Reading:

Brenner, Reuven. Gambling and Speculation: A Theory, A History, and a Future of Some Human Decisions. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Burnham, John C. Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History. New York, New York University Press, 1993.

Christiansen, Eugene Martin. "Gambling and the American Economy." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Vol. 556, 1998, 36-52.

Fabian, Ann. Cardsharps, Dreambooks, and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1990.

Findlay, John M. People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Lane, Ambrose I., Sr. Return of the Buffalo: The Story Behind America's Indian Gaming Explosion. Westport, Connecticut, Bergin and Garvey, 1995.

Sasuly, Richard. Two Hundred Years of Gambling. Fort Worth, Texas, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982.

Weyler, Karen A. "'A Speculating Spirit': Trade, Speculation, and Gambling in Early American Fiction." Early American Literature. Vol. 31, No. 3, 1996, 207-42.


views updated May 21 2018


The early settlers of colonial America undoubtedly viewed their decision to migrate from Europe to be a major gamble. Crossing the Atlantic in a small sailing ship and establishing a foothold in the wilderness was fraught with danger. A strong adventurous spirit was required to tackle this first of many American frontiers, and so a willingness to take a chance, to risk everything, naturally emerged as a prominent American trait. By the mid-eighteenth century, a willingness to take risks in business and trade had became a defining American characteristic. It was only natural that gambling of many types would become an integral part of the American lifestyle, just as it had been in England. However, as gambling developed in the colonies it exhibited traits that deviated from the mother country, reflecting the open, democratic, aggressively capitalistic, equalitarian values of colonial life.


Gambling came to the colonies with the first settlers at Jamestown—a motley collection of misfits to be certain—who came unprepared for the hazards they faced and were disinclined to undertake the arduous labor necessary to build shelters and grow food. One inspector from London in 1609 identified "idleness and other vices," specifically rampant gambling, as a major problem. Consequently, the expectations of investors in the Virginia Company were not met, and in near desperation they turned in 1612 to gambling as a means of saving the enterprise. They decided to raise much-needed capital by holding a lottery—a relatively novel idea at the time—and over the next decade several lotteries were conducted by the Virginia Company. These unique fund-raisers enabled the colony at Jamestown to survive, but ironically, at the same time that this form of gambling sustained the lifeline of supplies across the Atlantic, the officers clamped down on the Jamestown residents with strict prohibitions on gambling within the Jamestown settlement in an effort to get them to take their labors seriously.

By the mid-seventeenth century, the Tidewater region of Virginia had become transformed by tobacco—an unexpected but welcomed revenue producer—and the importation of slaves to do the arduous work that its cultivation required. The slave-owning planters dominated Virginia's economy and its political and social life. High-stakes gambling with the money earned from the labor of their slaves became an integral part of their lives. Men of substance found gambling an apt metaphor for their own lives as planters, where high economic risk was a constant. Their fortunes, however, were often established on fragile margins and were always in play, subject to the vagaries of weather, fluctuating commodity markets, work slowdowns by slaves, and violent weather at sea that could sink a year's money crop. One planter wrote a friend in England whose son was contemplating taking up the life of a Virginia tobacco grower with the warning that "even if the best husbandry and the greatest forecast and skill were used, yet ill luck at sea, a fall of a Market, or twenty other accidents may ruin and overthrow the best industry." In this turbulent economic environment, it was not unusual for a planter to wager an entire year's crop on a turn of the cards, a toss of the dice. A visiting Frenchman observed early in the eighteenth century that many members of the House of Burgesses began to gamble at cards immediately after dinner. One of the gamblers told him that he might wish to retire, "for it is quite possible that we will be here all night." Indeed, the next morning he arose to find the game still in session.

Virginia's slave-owning elite gambled heavily, risking large sums upon quarter horse races, cock-fights, dog fights, and table games. The historian Elliott J. Gorn summarizes the gambling mania of the southern slave-owning gentry as a product of a "fiercely competitive style of living," wherein

individual status was never permanently fixed, [where] men frantically sought to assert their prowess—by grand boasts over tavern gaming tables laden with money, by whipping and tripping each other's horses in violent quarter races, by wagering one-half year's earnings on the flash of a fighting cock's gaff. Great planters and small shared an ethos that extolled courage bordering on foolhardiness and cherished magnificent, if irrational, displays of largess. (pp. 21-22)

Gambling was also a popular pastime of those southerners who did not own slaves. At the many small taverns that stood along the main traveled dirt roads, male members of the lesser classes convened regularly to drink, socialize, argue, and gamble. One frustrated Anglican clergyman complained in 1751 that the taverns had become a place of "rendezvous of the very dregs of the people…. Where not only time and money are vainly and unprofitably squandered away, but (as is yet worse) where prohibited and unlawful games, sports, and pastime are used … namely cards, dice, horse-racing, and cock-fighting, together with vices and enormities of every other kind."

the north

Such behavior would have produced severe retribution in New England. Unlike the southerners who sought to emulate the landed aristocracy of rural England, along the North Atlantic the dominant religious and social force was the new wave of Puritanism that had surfaced in urban England. To strict Calvinists, gambling served to undercut the established order, diminishing the work ethic by providing successful gamblers with monetary rewards that did not result from honest effort, stripping losers of their hard-earned income, and generally creating a social atmosphere not conducive to the earnest pursuit of an honest wage. Further, gambling tended to encourage other social misbehavior—excessive drinking and profaning the Sabbath among them. As the preeminent scholar of the Puritan ideology, Perry Miller, has explained, gambling tended to encourage idleness, but it also brought into play divine providence on trivial matters, because the toss of the dice or the turn of a card invited God to become involved in matters of little significance. Any game of chance "prostituted divine providence to unworthy ends." A leading Puritan theologian, Increase Mather (1639–1723), once commented, "God determines the cast of the dice or the shuffle of the cards, and we are not to implicate His providence in frivolity." The all-powerful Puritan God, it was clear to Mather, had more important things to occupy his time.

Nonetheless, as the decades rolled by, gambling increased in New England as the forces of "declension" undercut authoritarian theocratic rule. At times gambling even constituted a positive social and religious force, as many a Puritan schoolhouse, public building, and church was paid for by seemingly omnipresent lotteries. Well into the nineteenth century, lotteries were a popular method of raising funds for public works and worthy projects; in the 1740s, for example, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) organized a lottery to raise monies for military defense of the city of Philadelphia, and the Continental Congress launched a national lottery in 1777 as a means of financing the War for Independence. Those who purchased tickets were told that they could take patriotic pride in having "contributed … to the great and glorious American cause."

Lotteries naturally invited corruption by their organizers, however, and a series of sensational revelations led legislatures to abolish them in every state between 1820 and 1850. (They would inevitably make a comeback, however, beginning in 1963 when the New Hampshire legislature created a lottery as a means of raising revenue without raising taxes, and by 1990 thirty-six other states had followed suit.)

By the eve of the American Revolution, New England and the middle colonies tolerated gambling because it did not constitute a serious social problem. The relatively low number of laws and decrees regarding gambling and its influences in Massachusetts and Connecticut, for example, indicates that gambling was neither widespread nor widely popular in the region. Nonetheless, Puritan leaders kept a close eye on the practice because it could lead to unnecessary idleness and the profaning of God and the Sabbath. The Quakers in Pennsylvania held a similar view of gambling because it produced no social good and contributed to unsavory behavior. Nonetheless, card playing grew steadily throughout the middle and northern colonies as the decades passed. In Massachusetts, card games became a constant form of recreation, with games being played both in taverns and private residences. The historian Foster Rhea Dulles reports in A History of Recreation (1965) that during the years preceding the American Revolution, the popular card game of whist became a social passion for New Englanders of all classes. He reports that customhouse records revealed large quantities of cards being imported and that the game was often mentioned in diaries and correspondence. In New England, gambling at cards was widespread, but stakes were usually modest—one convenient way to keep score, in fact—and because this recreation was conducted in moderation, it was not considered a threat to society. The region's increasingly lenient leaders even permitted occasional organized horse racing because the crowds were well behaved, the wagering modest, and threats to the social order nonexistent.

The ambivalence of the Puritans is instructive. Although gambling posed a potential threat to their theocratic instincts, it also seemed to be a natural human endeavor given the dangers and risks that existed in colonial America—from the vagaries of unpredictable weather and disastrous epidemics to even an occasional marauding Indian tribe. Consequently, throughout the colonial period, and in fact extending to the twenty-first century, gambling in America has always been enshrouded in what the historian Ann Fabian, in Card Sharks and Bucket Shops (1999), calls "moral confusion." While investors speculated on wild land schemes, dubious issues of stocks and bonds, agricultural commodity futures, untested new business ventures, and other risky get-rich schemes, they were merely responding to the temptations of high returns in the liberated capitalist society that America had become by the time of the Andrew Jackson's presidency. But when individuals pursued these same risk-taking instincts at the gaming tables or while watching a cockfight, a bare-knuckled prizefight, or a quarter horse race, they were skating on thin moral ice. Thus, while the spirit of unfettered American capitalism emphasized serious risk taking and speculation, and those who practiced them successfully were rewarded with high social status and public admiration, many moralists were quick to condemn successful gamblers as slick shysters because they made a mockery of the traditional Calvinist virtues of thrift, the work ethic, and prudence.

the west

The opening of the trans-Appalachian West in the 1790s introduced a new era in American gambling, especially in the southern slave states. No one American better exemplified this spirit than Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who owned a stable of race horses and bet heavily (as much as $6,500) on the outcome of a single race. He was also an avid card player. As a young man in his native North Carolina, he was known as "the most roaring, rollicking, gamecocking, horse-racing, card-playing, mischievous fellow that ever lived." In 1806 he killed young attorney Charles Dickinson and almost died himself from wounds inflicted in a duel that stemmed from a disagreement over the settlement of a wager on a race involving Jackson's prize horse, Truxton. Jackson would become the first president known for his propensity for high-stakes gambling.

Of major importance in the evolution of gambling in America was the emergence of organized casino-style gambling in the Lower Mississippi Valley between 1800 and 1830. Men who became known as riverboat gamblers had often honed their skills as con men operating flim-flam land promotions. This wide-open frontier area was rampant with a myriad of suspicious investment schemes, and gambling naturally flourished in the fluid frontier social order. Gambling mimicked the staunch frenetic speculative economic climate of the era, as it did the frenzied entrepreneurial outlook of those who migrated into the area in hopes of making a fast fortune. By the time Jackson entered the White House in 1829, a commercialized gambling culture had become firmly entrenched along the Mississippi Valley from St. Louis to New Orleans. Professional gamblers adapted card and table games from Europe, modifying them to be attractive to their American clientele. The games of French origin were especially popular: faro, roulette, three-card monte, and vingt-et-un (twenty-one). Professional gamblers preferred them because of the decided odds favoring the house and because they could easily be manipulated by myriad forms of cheating; this was especially true of the scam of three-card monte.

However, by the early 1830s there had emerged the especially popular card game that best exemplified the raucous entrepreneurial atmosphere of the frontier: poker. Although its origins are murky, the wildly popular American card game of poker most likely evolved from the eighteenth-century French game of poque and entered the United States at the time of the French occupation of New Orleans. Others claim it is of Germanic origin. Whatever the case, its incremental betting system, the art of bluffing, and the optimism that it takes to attempt to fill an inside straight were apt reflections of the economic climate of the times. The game also afforded con men and cheats ample opportunities to ply their trade. Usually operating in pairs, professional gamblers were adept at skinning their victims with a wide range of scams. In fact, Jonathan H. Green, a onetime successful professional riverboat gambler who reformed in 1842 and launched an national antigambling lecture crusade, routinely referred to poker as "the cheating game."

As gambling grew in popularity in the early nineteenth century, philanthropic reformers sought to have the practice banned on the grounds that it undermined the economic order, that professional gamblers were nothing more than thieves and crooks, and that gambling threatened society by holding out false hopes and robbing naive individuals of their hard-earned wages. By 1830 many states, both North and South, had passed legislation making it illegal to gamble in public; these laws were designed in part as an attempt to control the lives of the working-class poor and to protect innocent travelers from professional cheats. At no time did any state attempt to ban private gambling. The laws seemed aimed not so much at gambling per se, but at the attendant vice, drinking, and public disorder. Never widely enforced, these laws might have revealed a moral intent but had little impact, unlike the actions of a group of "respectable" Vicksburg citizens in 1835 who, angered by the nefarious cheating of five itinerant professional gamblers, took the law into their own hands and lynched the gamblers.

The historian John Findlay has identified four centuries of Americans as a "people of chance" in a 1986 volume of that title. In writing about the period from 1750 to 1830, he concludes, "The culture of gambling … thrived in the relative fluid society on the frontier, amid footloose and acquisitive men…." That forty-eight of fifty states in the year 2004 were home to many forms of legalized, and often state government–operated, gambling is no accident. Games of chance have been an integral part of the American heritage ever since Jamestown, and in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries they gained wide and popular acceptance, despite opposition from outnumbered and outflanked moral reformers.

See alsoRecreation, Sports, and Games; Taverns .


Davies, Richard O., and Richard G. Abram. Betting the Line: Sports Wagering in American Life. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2001.

Dulles, Foster Rhea. A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play. 2nd ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965.

Fabian, Ann. Card Sharps and Bucket Shops: Gambling in Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Findlay, John M. People of Chance: Gambling in American Society from Jamestown to Las Vegas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Gorn, Elliot J. "'Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch': The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Back Country." American Historical Review 90 (1985): 18–43.

Gorn, Elliot J., and Warren Goldstein. A Brief History of American Sports. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

James, Marquis. The Life of Andrew Jackson. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1938.

Sasuly, Richard. Bookies and Bettors: Two Hundred Years of Gambling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982.

Richard O. Davies


views updated May 17 2018


Gambling is a form of risk-taking that may be defined as risking (betting or wagering) something of monetary value on the unknown outcome of an event in order to gain possessions, such as a painting, jewelry, or money. Evidence of gambling has been found in early civilizations and throughout history. For example, many references to gambling can be found in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) and the New Testament. However, as with alcohol, different cultures take different views of gambling; some cultures accept or encourage gambling, while others actively reject or discourage it.

The Growth of Legalized Gambling

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, legalized gambling entered its largest period of continuous growth in United States history. Gambling revenues—money that the gambling industry takes in—dramatically increased in the 1990s. For example, in 1996, gambling yielded revenues of $47.6 billion, which surpassed $40.8 billion of combined revenues from movies, recorded music, cruise ships, live entertainment, and spectator sports. The private gambling industry and state governments praise gambling as exciting entertainment that also brings the benefits of more jobs and lower taxes. By the end of the twentieth century, gambling in public opinion had moved away from being associated with immoral activity involving deviant behavior and crime. Instead, the public came to see gambling as a socially acceptable area of entertainment. Gambling may benefit society in some ways, but it also can cause serious problems.

What Kinds of Problems Can Gambling Cause?

When gambling is legalized and made more available, the number of people who try it increases and a certain percentage of those new gamblers develop problems with gambling. The most widely used term for a serious gambling problem is "compulsive gambling." Other terms currently in use are "addictive," "chronic," and "disordered gambling." The term "problem gambling" usually refers to a gambling problem that is minor to moderate. In 1980, the mental health field recognized that excessive and out-of-control gambling is a psychiatric disorder, naming it "pathological gambling." Research studies have shown that pathological gambling can lead to bankruptcy, divorce, crime, and other social costs. Thorough study of these social costs and whether they outweigh social benefits has only just begun.

With funding from the federal government, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission (NGISC) conducted a national study of gambling and problem gambling in 1999. The study found that 1.2 percent (2.5 million) of the adult population were lifetime (currently or in the past) probable pathological gamblers. In addition, the commission found that 1.5 percent (3 million) were life- time problem gamblers. An additional 15 million adults were identified as being at risk for developing a gambling problem. This study also asked questions of patrons at gambling facilities and found that 13 percent could be defined as having a lifetime gambling problem and pathological gambling. The NGISC report estimated that the annual cost for problem and pathological gambling is $5 billion. Lifetime costs—measured in terms of decreased productivity , costs for treatment and other social services, and unpaid debts from gambling—came to $40 billion.

The Prevalence of Pathological Gambling

Many factors affect the prevalence of pathological gambling, which is the percentage of individuals who have gambling problems at any given time. These factors include the number of legal (and illegal) forms of gambling that are available and accessible. Prevalence rates may also be affected by the increasing availability of forms of electronic gambling. These machines can be very engaging and hard to stop playing. This form of gambling involves an interaction between person and machine that may be so compelling or attractive that it results in separation from other people or social activities. Electronic gambling gives the gambler the opportunity for more frequent play and rewards. For an individual who is vulnerable to a gambling problem, the time it takes to develop an addiction may be quite short, especially when the machines are available twenty-four hours a day. However, any form of gambling may result in a problem for an individual who is vulnerable.

Even the stock market is an arena for gambling and problem gambling. While most people invest carefully in the financial markets, enormous sums are also gambled daily. In 1997, the United States Securities and Exchange Commission agreed to distribute a pamphlet on investor problem gambling, thus acknowledging for the first time that problem gambling occurs in the financial markets. However, the brokerage industry has not yet acknowledged problem gambling as a concern.

The Internet has made gambling much more available. The number of online gambling sites and of online gamblers have been increasing rapidly. Internet gambling revenues have more than doubled from $445.4 million in 1997 to $919.1 million in 1998. Experts have predicted $2 billion in revenues by the end of 2002. People at risk for a gambling problem will find it more difficult to avoid gambling. Home computers, with easy access to the Internet, make gambling sites accessible to youths, who may find the temptation hard to resist. In addition, some online gambling sites lure people in by disguising their identities as gambling sites. As a result of all these trends, online gambling is fast becoming the area of greatest risk for youth.

Problem Gambling

The National Opinion Research Center reviewed the available literature (articles and other writings) on problem gambling to determine what factors are likely to lead to problem gambling. The following are the major factors that predispose someone to a gambling problem:

  • Problem gambling often occurs along with substance abuse, mood disorders, and personality disorders.
  • Pathological gamblers more often than nonpathological gamblers report having a parent who is a pathological gambler.
  • The younger someone is when he or she begins gambling, the more likely pathological gambling will occur.

Mixed Messages about Gambling. The public receives mixed messages about gambling. On the one hand, private and government sponsors of gambling encourage gambling. On the other hand, consumers receive strong but less frequent messages that gambling to excess can result in addiction and related negative consequences for their lives. Public policy regarding gambling is often confusing to both adults and youth. For example, in some states children are permitted to gamble at bingo but not at other forms of gambling; schools and parent/teacher associations sponsor Las Vegas Nights and cow chip bingo; children cannot purchase lottery tickets but can receive them as gifts. As a result of these mixed messages, many people are confused about the role of gambling in society.

Who is at Risk for Problem Gambling? Evidence suggests that certain groups are at particular risk for developing problems with gambling. Included in these groups are older people, youth, women, and people with low income. Seniors are gambling more frequently, and advertising and other promotions by casinos target this group. There is increasing evidence that people of low income gamble a higher percentage of their income than people of higher income. The rate of problem gambling among women increased dramatically in the 1990s, growing from a small percentage to more than 25 percent of all identified problem gamblers.

Studies conducted by states of gambling prevalence have consistently identified teenagers as having a higher rate of problem gambling than adults in the same states. In a review of eleven studies, researchers found that between 9.9 percent and 14.2 percent of youth had a minor- to moderate-level gambling problem, and between 4.4 percent and 7.4 percent had a serious problem. The high rate of problem gambling among youth is not a surprise, as the current generation of youth is the first to be raised in a time when gambling is not only socially accepted but actively promoted by private industry and government.

What are Some Causes of Problem Gambling?

Experts who have studied problem gambling are not in total agreement as to the exact causes of pathological gambling. However, many hold the view that there are four major types of risk factors for developing a gambling disorder: (1) biological, (2) social and environmental, (3) psychological, and (4) spiritual.

Biological Causes. Pathological gambling is increasingly viewed as an addiction resembling substance addiction. Research shows that adults and teenagers who have gambling problems tend also to abuse substances such as alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco. Research also has pointed to similarities in brain chemistry between pathological gamblers and people dependent on substances. While not as extensively researched, relationships have also been found between pathological gambling and food, sex, and work addictions. Significant connections have also been found between pathological gambling and other disorders, such as depression and other mood disorders, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and personality disorders such as antisocial personality disorder .

Genetic research in the late 1990s provided the first evidence of a genetic link between pathological gambling and other addictive and impulse control disorders. If present, this gene may affect the neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that control impulsivity , emotions, and the experience of pleasure. Advances in brain imaging in the late 1990s began to identify faulty areas of brain functioning that are related to behavior problems, such as ADHD.

Social and Environmental Causes. Research has provided evidence that early environmental factors in the home, such as exposure to a parent's excessive gambling or abuse, are linked to a later gambling problem. Further, it is likely that trauma in adulthood, including losses later in life, increase the chances that a person may develop a gambling problem. Other environmental factors may contribute to gambling problems in some communities: having a gambling casino nearby, widespread gambling advertisements, and the absence of serious education about responsible gambling and the warning signs of problem gambling.

Psychological Causes. Problem gamblers seem to share certain personality traits, including low tolerance of frustration, self-centeredness, mood changes, confusing fantasy with reality, and irrational thinking. While men and women have a number of similarities in gambling behavior (such as the lottery), in some areas men and women choose different gambling activities to fulfill different psychological needs. Men tend to be "action" gamblers seeking competition and games of skill (such as cards and sports); women tend to be "escape" gamblers seeking solitary and noncompetitive activity (such as electronic gambling machines).

Spiritual Causes. People who have addictions, including pathological gambling, tend to substitute quick-fix activities for intimate relationships and a spiritual life. The Twelve Step–recovery programs of Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-Anon are patterned after Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon. These programs attempt to bolster the recovery process by encouraging members to search for and rely on a higher power to give new meaning to life.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 2 for address, telephone, and URL.

How Do Gambling Problems Progress?

Pathological gambling is a progressive disorder, meaning it worsens over time. At its later stages, this disorder can have very serious life consequences, such as bankruptcy, crime, and suicide. Identifying the disorder early is especially important because of the devastating impact on the gambler, the gambler's family, and society.

Gambling disorders appear to progress in three stages:

  1. Winning stage: characterized by an initial large win.
  2. Losing stage: losses are chased with increased gambling until a major problem occurs that is temporarily resolved by a financial bailout, followed by a higher level of gambling and increased crises.
  3. Desperation stage: the gambler further withdraws from family and work responsibilities into gambling, often resulting in criminal and suicidal behavior. Help may or may not be sought. Some gamblers, who have lost most of what is important to them, no longer care and continue to gamble without hope of winning.

Diagnosing Pathological Gambling

Diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling are specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III). Health-care professionals who specialize in mental health and addiction diagnose a gambling disorder if a person has five or more of the following repeated and persistent (ongoing) behaviors:

  • is preoccupied with (thinks constantly about) gambling, such as reliving past gambling experiences, planning the next gambling venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble
  • needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement
  • has repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling
  • is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling
  • gambles as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving dysphoria (feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)
  • after losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even ("chasing" one's losses)
  • lies to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling
  • has committed illegal acts such as forgery, fraud, theft, or embezzlement to finance gambling
  • has put at risk or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling
  • relies on others to provide money to relieve a desperate financial situation caused by gambling

Treatment Programs for Gamblers

In the United States, Gamblers Anonymous became the first organized program to deal with problem gambling. It was started in 1957 and serves as a self-help/mutual support program. The first professional treatment program for compulsive gamblers began in 1972 in an inpatient alcohol program in a Veterans Administration hospital. Funding for treatment, prevention, and research programs by state governments began gradually in the late 1970s, and by the end of the twentieth century approximately half of the fifty states funded programs.

Although many research studies have identified a high rate of problem gambling among youths, there is still insufficient awareness of this problem. As a result, few treatment programs exist for adolescent problem gamblers. In addition, youths may not realize they need help or, even when they are aware of this need, do not seek it. Schools and families are not referring these adolescents to treatment. When youths who currently have gambling problems reach adulthood, the demand for adult treatment programs may rise.

Councils on Problem Gambling. In 1972, the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) was founded to meet the challenges that problem gambling presents to individuals and society. In 1980, Connecticut became the first of the current thirty-four state members of the NCPG. The NCPG was the first professional organization to educate the public about compulsive gambling as a serious public health problem and advocate for treatment services. The NCPG and many of its state members offer problem gambling help lines to the public.

See Organizations of Interest at the back of Volume 2 for address, telephone, and URL.

Recommendations of the NGISC

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission's two-year examination of gambling in the United States resulted in seventy-four recommendations for changes in policies and practices. Some of the major recommendations that have an impact on young people include:

  • the elimination of convenience gambling or gambling at local businesses such as convenience stores, bars, and restaurants
  • no further authorizations for new convenience gambling
  • a minimum legal gambling age of 21
  • a ban on betting on collegiate and amateur athletics
  • a ban on all aggressive gambling advertisements, and the creation of responsible gambling advertisement guidelines
  • a prohibition on Internet gambling that has not already been authorized
  • gambling establishment policies to ensure the safety of children and prevent underage gambling
  • school programs from the elementary through college level to include warnings about the dangers of gambling.

see also Ethnic, Cultural, and Religious Issues in Drug Use and Treatment; Gender and Substance Abuse.


According to Gamblers Anonymous, people who have gambling problems may answer yes to several or more of these questions:

1. Did you ever lose time from work or school due to gambling?

2. Have you ever felt remorse (regret) after gambling?

3. After losing did you feel you must return as soon as possible and win back your losses?

4. After a win did you have a strong urge to return and win more?

5. Did you often gamble until your last dollar is gone?

6. Were you reluctant to use gambling money for other expenses?

7. Did you ever gamble longer than you had planned?

8. Did gambling cause you to have difficulty sleeping?

9. Do arguments, disappointments, or frustrations create within you an urge to gamble?


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GAMBLING. From the early medieval period, various forms of gambling were popular at every level of society, although the types of games played, as well as the freedom to indulge in them, was dependent on an individual's position in the social hierarchy, and subject to sustained criticism from both church and state. Blood sports such as bearbaiting and cockfighting were popular among the peasantry, and regular contests, accompanied by heavy betting, drinking, and general revelry, were a traditional part of community life.

At the other end of the social spectrum, horse racing was a pastime confined to the upper classes. The ownership and racing of horses operated within a system of royal patronage, with successive monarchsmost notably, Charles II of England (ruled 16601685), "the father of the British turf"organizing races and entering horses to compete in their name. Betting was a strictly private affair conducted among the aristocracy, who regarded participation in the sport as their exclusive right.

Lotteries began during the fifteenth century, and, although popular, were governed by politically expedient legislation that made participation irregular and often arbitrarily illegal. The most widespread form of gambling, however, was dice playing, which endured as the standard game of the entire medieval period. The most ancient and simple form of gambling, it was pursued assiduously by all sections of societyincluding the clergydespite being subject to innumerable bans and prohibitions. The Saxons, Danes, and Romans all introduced their own varieties of games and their own styles of playing, although most games tended to fall into one of two types: either based on moving counters around boards (such as the Spanish alquerque, a game similar to checkers), or guessing games based on dice throws (such as hazard). Playing cards were introduced into Europe from the East toward the end of the thirteenth century, where they grew, over the next three hundred years, from an elite pastime into a leisure activity popular with every social class. Their route of entry is uncertain: some have suggested that Marco Polo brought them back from his travels in Cathay, while others believe they were introduced by Gypsies or returning Crusaders. Whatever the case, the first mentions of cards in Europe come from Italy in 1299, from Spain in 1371, from the Low Countries (modern Belgium, Luxembourg, and Netherlands) in 1379, and from Germany in 1380. By 1465, they were sufficiently well established in Britain to be subject to an import ban.

These early cards were crafted by hand on copper and ivory as well as card and wood, usually by professional painters who found patronage in aristocratic households. The first woodcuts on paper were, in fact, playing cards. (The term Kartenmahler or Kartenmacher, 'painter' or 'maker of cards', appears in German in 1402.) At first, their expense put cards out of reach of all but the wealthiest in society, with the result that widespread playing was initially restricted to the upper classes. Gambling was fashionable among this group, with high-stakes "betting orgies" frequently lasting for days and serving as a marker of status and prestige as much as a straightforward leisure pursuit. Cards and games were symbolic systems that represented the cultural climate and social order that surrounded them. Medieval card games such as brelan, pair, gleek, and primero were based on the principals of "melds" and "murnivals"pairing and joining cards in ranksreflecting the hierarchical social organization, represented as the "great chain of being" in the Middle Ages.

The development of the printing press in the fifteenth century was crucial to the history of cards, transforming them from the playthings of the aristocracy into mass-produced commodities enjoyed by all ranks of society. The presses also gave cards the name they still have today. The medieval Latin charta, 'sheet of paper', was taken as shorthand for the playing cards, which were, for a time, the presses' main industry. The word survives as the standard term for cards throughout Europe, variously as cart, carte, Karte, karta, and kartya.

Despite its widespread popularity, attempts were continually made by both church and state to limit or outlaw gambling. Although ostensibly designed to curb the excesses of the general population, most legislation targeted the poor and was uneven in its application. Initially, prohibitions imposed by the Catholic Church were pragmatic and aimed at steering the population away from sedentary activities that were seen to encourage idleness and toward more organized exertions, such as sports. Ultimately, the aim was to create a fit workforce that could be easily rallied into an indigenous army, a definite advantage in the violent climate of the Middle Ages. As such, various edicts attempted to regulate gambling according to social position. From the time of the Crusades, dicing by any soldier below the rank of knight was forbidden.

Cardplaying on workdays had been banned since 1397, and was further outlawed when a statute of Henry VIII (ruled 15091547) confined all gambling among the working population to Christmas, the assumption being that, as they would be celebrating anyway, its disruptive effects would be minimal. After the Reformation, attempts to outlaw gambling were dramatically increased by the Protestant bourgeoisie, who objected to it on the ideological grounds that it undermined the work ethic and squandered time and money.

Criticism continued throughout the Enlightenment, when the emphasis shifted to the disorderly effects of gambling within rational societyagain, aimed primarily at the poor. Across the continent, legislation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries attempted to remove gambling from the mass of the population, primarily by fiscal means: imposing taxes on cards and dice, charging hefty entrance fees for horse races, and increasing the price of lottery tickets.

At the same time, many European countries introduced laws limiting public gambling to licensed premises, while restricting the granting of licenses to members of the nobility and upper classes. The result of such legislation was the stratification of public betting and the effective outlawing of gambling for the majority of the population, with the poor restricted to playing in illegal, unlicensed taverns, and the upper classes free to indulge in a wide variety of games with impunity.

See also Class, Status, and Order ; Games and Play ; Lottery ; Printing and Publishing ; Roma (Gypsies) ; Sports .


Ashton, John. The History of Gambling in England. Montclair, N.J., 1969. Originally published in 1898.

Cotton, Charles. The Compleat Gamester. London, 1674.

Kavanagh, Thomas. Enlightenment and the Shadows of Chance: The Novel and the Culture of Gambling in Eighteenth-Century France. Baltimore and London, 1993.

Reith, Gerda. The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture. London and New York, 1999.

Gerda Reith

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