The ancient game of gambling dates as far back as 2300 BC China, evidenced in tiles engraved with people playing games of chance. Archaeologists also discovered dice from around 1500 BC in Ancient Egypt, and it’s well known that dice games have long been popular across middle Eastern Asia. For entertainment in bygone eras, people flocked to gambling dens to indulge their daring sides – not a lot has changed!
The first land-based casino opened in Italy in 1638 during carnival season, an attempt by the local council to keep gambling under control and trouble-free. This sparked a trend across Europe and other palatial buildings were transformed into casinos, such as Germany’s Baden-Baden and Monaco’s Monte Carlo. These institutions attracted an elite crowd who’d play away their days and nights in glamour and decadence. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in the US, it was a very different picture. Gambling took place in scruffy saloon bars, a far cry from the Las Vegas glitz that erupted in the early 1900s.
In the early days, land-based casinos catered to the upper echelons of society, who were beautifully dressed and ready to bump up their fortunes. London’s Crockford’s Club was a members’-only joint that originally opened in 1828 as a gentlemen’s club. The clientele there is said to have been very distinguished and would head there to gamble and mingle. Rumour has it that some of the great political decisions in British history were decided upon within those very walls. Over time, casinos became more inclusive, accepting people from all walks of life.
Gambling has always been controversial and subject to resistance, particularly from religious groups who believe temptation is a sin. In the US, rail workers building the line from Vegas to the Pacific coastline were notorious for unwinding after a hard day of labour over a game of odds. Before long, these hubs became centres for drinking, gambling and prostitution, soon requiring intervention.
In 1910, gambling became illegal and went underground. It still happened, of course, but it wasn’t openly discussed like it is today. Tables were set up in every basement and kitchen where people played until the small hours. The ban was lifted in 1931, around 20 years later, coinciding with the Great Depression. It was at this time that Las Vegas really came into its own. It wasn’t until 1994 that the first land-based casino was erected in New Zealand, in Christchurch.
Funnily enough, the year that New Zealand joined the hype is the same year that Microgaming took casinos onto the world wide web. The revered software developers had the vision to bring it the fun of the casino directly to our homes. Within five years, the online gambling business was already worth more than a billion dollars, and today is a multibillion-dollar industry with over 1000 online casinos.
Playtech narrowed the gap between online play and land-based casinos in 2003 with the introduction of live dealer games online. Now, the need to play on the go has brought about technological advancements that provide state-of-the-art graphics on your mobile so you can play anytime, anywhere.
Despite all this gambling lust running through the world’s veins, it wasn’t until 1638 in Italy’s Venice, that the first casino, Casino di Venezia opened. It was a palace of exquisite beauty, attracting the card-playing elite. With its impressive architecture, chandeliers and sculptures, it’s easy to see how the trend for more caught on. It’s still standing in all its glory today, a shining and gorgeous beacon for jet-setting gamblers.
During the ban on gambling, a dark underground scene, specialising in organised crime and gambling, had started to emerge in Las Vegas. In 1941, the first casino resort that we associate with Vegas was built, El Rancho Vegas. It was like nothing ever seen before, with its swimming pool, horse riding facilities, and, of course, the games.
Following the Second World War, Mafia man Bugsy Siegel got wind of the latest desert trade and wanted in. In 1946 he opened the glitzy, Hollywood-inspired Flamingo resort. Backed by drug money from East Coast gangster Mayer Lansky, it topped El Rancho Vegas.
He was shot in 1947 but dirty cash continued to pour in and built up Las Vegas. Shortly after Lansky’s premature death, Sands, New Frontier, and Sahara popped up, and by the time the ‘50s had rolled around, New York and Chicago mafia families had truly ingrained themselves in casino culture.
Thanks to the mobsters, big names like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra frequented the casinos, and the crowds followed. By 1954 the annual tourist headcount was at eight million – all thirsty people, ready to spend their cash at the game tables. The rest is history…