Although widespread legalized gambling is a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States, humans have been gambling in one form or another for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians played games with dice. The Hun Dynasty in China is credited with devising keno and using the proceeds to build the Great Wall. The earliest European explorers observed American Indians playing games of chance or betting on the outcome of games of skill.
But until just a few decades ago, Americans' gambling options. were limited to the bright lights of Las Vegas, horse tracks, or the seamy underground of illegal betting. A handful of states had lotteries, and sometimes you could get hold of an Irish Sweepstakes ticket, but for the most part gambling was the milieu of only two kinds of people: wealthy Vegas high rollers and street hustlers who lured the naive into three-card monte or fixed craps games in dark alleys.
Today, legalized gambling is a $54 billion a year industry, employing about 1 million people and pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy through payroll, vendor spending, and taxes. Americans today have more gambling options than our parents ever dreamed of, from instant scratch-off tickets at the corner convenience store to Vegas-style casinos that sprang up seemingly overnight in what used to be cornfields. No longer does the average American have to plan a trip to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to put his or her luck to the test. Gambling in one form or another is legal and available in every state except Hawaii and Utah.
Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have lotteries. Some states offer video lottery games in bars and restaurants, and others have added video lottery terminals — sometimes called “virtual slots” — to horse and dog racetracks, creating so-called “racinos.” Several states have riverboat casinos, off-track betting parlors, high-stakes bingo halls, or full-fledged casinos owned by American Indian tribes.
Attitudes toward gambling have undergone a major shift as well. The occasional flutter at the slots, the blackjack table, or the racetrack is no longer widely considered even slightly wicked. Commercial casinos alone drew more than 51 million visitors in 2002, and according to a recent survey commissioned by the American Gaming Association, 85 percent of American adults think gambling is an acceptable activity for themselves and/or others. In fact, four of every five respondents view casino gambling as “a fun night out,” the equivalent of going out to dinner or to the movies.
All the new gambling venues and the cornucopia of games they offer can make gambling in the 21st century a bewildering proposition for the novice. But armed with an understanding of how the games work, even the rawest gambler can be confident of enjoying the thrill of playing — and occasionally beating — the odds.