Politics and Social Issues

The Rise of Gambling Culture in the United States

By Ryan S. ’22

Gambling: some sternly claim that the game is too addictive with no upsides while others enjoy the risk and entertainment. Many use the term “degenerate” to disparage someone who gambles or has a gambling addiction, however this sentiment may be subsiding with more money being wagered during every year in the last decade. Gambling has exponentially increased in the online realm during the coronavirus pandemic, as people have been left without alternative forms of entertainment.

Gambling is one of the oldest modes of entertainment, with its roots stemming from ancient Egypt, where games of chance were played with a lopsided dice and other devices. Even in the New Testament of the Bible, a story is described in which Roman soldiers “cast lots” to determine who would receive the robe of Jesus (Matthew 27:35, Mark 15:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:24). It is assumed that these soldiers actually rolled a die, to utilize a means that would “reveal the will of universal forces or entities.” 

Shifting to North America, Native Americans had a history of gambling, using dice games and wagering on sports events. Although the Native Americans did have an effect on gambling, a greater influence was made by English settlers in the early 17th century, who first established a lottery system in order to raise funds for requisite infrastructure in Virginia. However, with the Great Awakening, a Christian revival of conservative moral values, gambling became a sin and remained in this view for many decades down the road. 

As the 20th century began, gambling was mostly defunct in many states in the union, as the only legal option at the time were horse races in Kentucky and Maryland. Moreover, many states at this time were pressured to outlaw gambling as a precondition for statehood, such as in New Mexico, Arizona and Oklahoma. This drought of gambling in the United States would end a couple decades later, first in Nevada as a result of the Great Depression. In 1931, Nevada would legalize casino gambling, opening up a lucrative American industry. Just two years later, America would end prohibition, as organized crime syndicates shifted their focus from bootlegging to gambling. Famous mobster Benjamin Bugsy Siegel was sent to Nevada to expand his enterprises’ influence by spending millions of dollars on lavish casinos in Las Vegas. 

In the 1960s, organized crime syndicates purchased large sums of property in Las Vegas. In response to the rise in organized crime, federal acts were passed in 1971 aimed at overhauling the casino regulatory system. Despite this legislation, organized crime would still be involved in gambling, and likely still is to this day. However, significant strides have been made since the middle of the 20th century. 

In the 1990s, gambling transformed to the internet forum as online gambling sites became prominent in Caribbean countries. Around the start of the 21st century, there were an estimated 700 gambling sites online and by 2008 this internet segment of the gambling industry amassed 21 billion dollars worldwide. In 2006, however, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which outlawed banks and credit card companies from processing payments to online casinos. This law and other prohibitive legislation surrounding online gambling has been amended in recent years as the legality of online wagering is essentially determined on a state by state basis. Currently, most gambling is online sports betting, which is only legal in ten states and has an immense economic impact. In December 2019 close to a billion dollars were wagered on sports in the state of New Jersey.

In America, it seems that the most acceptable forms of gambling are local bingo games and the lottery, which support charity and fund state initiatives. Both of these games are more or less random and tend to result in a participant losing money. Betting on sports and card games, however, include an element of skill, but are generally deemed as less socially acceptable forms of gambling. This makes sense, as most of the general public that partakes in a game of poker or betting on a sports game are not equipped with the requisite skill to consistently make a profit. Only professional poker players and sharps (professional sports handicappers) can assure making revenue off of their bets. 

Many postulate about the reasons that humans have gambled throughout all of history. Simple intuition would claim that it is clearly irrational to potentially sacrifice capital on a result that is random. Scientists have come up with reasons that include the illusion of a profit and excitement with friends. At the most fundamental level, it appears that humans have an innate desire to explore and control the randomness that consumes the world.

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