The extreme popularity of casino games in the United States may be due in large part to the frontier spirit upon which the country was founded. Just like the colonial desire to explore new worlds, gambling relies heavily on high expectations, risk taking, and opportunism. Today it’s the adrenaline rush, the excuse to gather friends, and of course the desire to win big, that have kept gambling high on the list of favorite American pastimes.
Casino games have histories as colorful as the venues in which they’re played, from the Las Vegas strip to San Diego sports bars. For anyone who has ever wondered how his favorite pastime came into existence, following is brief chronicle of some the most popular casino diversions.
Poker has roots tracing back to Europe, first appearing in literature in the early 1500’s. The game was played with three cards and winning hands included three of a kind, a pair, or a flux—three cards of the same suit, the precursor to today’s «flush.» In the 1700’s, betting and bluffing made an appearance in similar games such as Brag in England and Pochen in Germany, which literally means, «to bluff.»
A French version of Pochen made its way to the American colonies in 1803. Over the next 20 years, settlers adopted the pastime, changed its name to Poker, and established the features that identify the game as we know it today. The earliest known reference to Poker in American literature occurs in 1829, and describes a game played with a pack of cards that included five per player. All the cards were dealt and players bet on who had the best combination. Interestingly, this version of the game is nearly indistinguishable from an older Persian game called As Nas, although the former is rarely credited as an influence on modern Poker.
Over time, the 52-card deck became the norm and new features were embraced to inspire freer betting. Enter «the straight,» a new hand that provided alternate ways to win, and «the draw,» designed to keep players in the game even if the original hand they were dealt was sub par. Stud Poker was introduced to increase opportunities for betting. Many of these changes occurred between 1861 and 1870, presumably due to record-breaking numbers of soldiers playing the game during the Civil War. While depicted as a pastime fraught with vice and violence in movie versions of the «Wild West,» by the late 1920s, Poker’s popularity extended to both sexes and all levels of society, and was the favorite card game among men—while ranking third among women—by the middle of the twentieth century.
Given the rising popularity of Poker in the late 1800s it’s not surprising that the first slot machine was invented in an attempt to automate the game. Early prototypes had no way to provide payouts however, so players were awarded cigars or free drinks from the house if they lined up a winning combination.
Then in 1887 Charles Fey created a revolutionary device. It had three spinning reels, each with five symbols—including diamonds, hearts, horseshoes, spades and the Liberty Bell. Later to become known as «the one-armed bandit,» this machine solved the problem of the automatic payout. Three Liberty Bells in a row comprised the jackpot—a grand total of fifty cents, paid all in nickels.
In 1909, gambling experienced a fall out of favor and laws were passed prohibiting money to be paid out as a reward. Proprietors combatted this by awarding patrons fruit-flavored gum, candy and other prizes. Gaming experts believe this is when the fruit and bar symbols (representing candy and gum, respectively) became the standard images featured on the slot reels we see today.
Poker is inarguably a game of skill and some suggest there are even strategies for playing slots, yet some casino-goers seek straightforward entertainment that doesn’t require an arsenal of tricky maneuvers. For players such as these, Bingo is the go-to game of choice. The game is a type of lottery descended from one used by the Italian government, which began in 1530 and continues today, contributing more than 75 million dollars to the budget each year. A similar lottery celebrated some vogue in France in the late 1700s and even became a popular way to teach math to children in Germany in the mid 1800s.
Soon after, a New York toy salesman named Edwin S. Lowe happened upon the game at a carnival, where the pitchman running the tables explained how he’d run across it while traveling in Germany the previous year. He’d changed the manner of play slightly and switched the name to Beano, in reference to the dried beans that were placed on each number marker as it was called. As he’d suspected, the game was a hit, so he’d brought it with him back to the States. Lowe saw the massive potential of the diversion and soon introduced it to his friends. During a particularly tense game, a player jumped up to shout «Beano,» but tongue-tied with excitement, stuttered the word «Bingo» instead. Lowe adopted the new name, and collaborated with a math professor to produce 6000 cards with unique number combinations. After a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania approached Lowe about using the game to raise church funds, Bingo’s popularity spread rapidly, and by 1934 an estimated 10, 000 Bingo games were being played each week.