Las Vegas has offered gambling in one form or another, legal or otherwise, for more than a century.
The Downtown gaming area was built shortly after the town was incorporated in 1905.
Today it’s home to a dozen casinos with computer-driven slot machines, high-rise hotels, swimming pools, and table games players can actually beat, sometimes. It hasn’t always been that way!
Like other small towns in America, the first businesses to open in the business district were restaurants, dry-goods stores, and bars.
It was the turn-of-the-century. It was the Old West.
There were no fast-food joints, no strip malls, and no air conditioning. It was 110 degrees in the summer. What were these people thinking?
Men walked around in suits. They wore cowboy hats and boots. The streets were dusty and rutted from wagon wheels.
The early occupants needed a place to unwind, and once there were a few hotels, there were a few hookers. And, there were poker games and whiskey.
The hell with the heat, let’s gamble. On the girls, or the cards. We know what you’re thinking. Vegas isn’t too much different today.
Poker Is King
Poker is still King in Sin City. It may have waned a bit, but the overwhelming success of the World Series of Poker keeps the stories coming, year after year. And, it keeps players coming to Las Vegas.
Big town beginners and small-town champs descend on the town day after day like a never-ending line of ants to a picnic. Gamblers find poker chips to be yummy and there are plenty of players and chips in the town’s poker rooms!
In the early days, players gathered around small wooden tables in a haze of a sea of whiskey. Most bars in Las Vegas had at least a few games going. Hard clay chips with no denominations splashed across the tables.
They got scratched from use and scorched by the burning end of late night cigarettes. Players rolled their own. Ashtrays were for sissies. It was a tough crowd. Hell, even the word sissies were for sissies.
They did need competition, and locals feed on tourists who made their way from trains stopping at the Fremont station.
Visitors and locals alike were known to cheat. Players dealt their own games, bent, warped and nicked the cards, and grumbled when they lost. Guns were drawn when necessary.
Sometimes it wasn’t about the game at all; it was about fooling your opponent by warping different cards than they were to take down a pot. Five card draw was the favorite game in town, but cheating was the favorite pastime.
There was no house, no rake, no floorman to settle disputes. You agreed to disagree, or you took it outside. If it went outside, locals ruled. Tourists learned to accept minor transgressions or to lick their wounds. Vegas prevailed.
In 1931, when open gaming was legalized in Nevada, bars became casinos, often with nothing more than a couple of slot machines and a few poker tables.
The changes that came were time charges and dealers. Instead of a flat table where players handled the dealing, casinos provided a dealer and charged an hourly fee to play poker. The players weren’t impressed, but business was business.
Now tourists had to watch the other players and the dealer because dealer pay was low, and a misdealt card could make for a nice tip. When the 1960s rolled around, big poker games flourished in places like Gardena, California, but Vegas was a popular place for circuit players (pros like Sailor Roberts, Puggy Pearson, and Doyle Brunson) from the southwest to live. That meant the games were super-tough.
In the low-limit games, the local competition was tough too. And, dealers took a rake from each pot and pulled it into their tray. Sometimes it was a buck to two. Sometimes the rake was based on how much disdain the dealer held for the players. A table of friendly locals might get raked a buck a pot. A table of annoying drunks, well, you get the idea.
Five-card stud was the overwhelming favorite game in the 1930s, usually played for nickels and dimes.
No-limit games popped-up, but they were rare. In the 1950s, the game of choice changed to seven-card stud. It was an easy game with many cards in sight. The most popular game was 10-cent ante, $1 to $3 betting.
The boys from the south brought Texas Hold’em to Vegas in the early 1960s.
It was played for higher stakes and wasn’t a crowd favorite until CBS Wide World of Sports started broadcasting the WSOP each year and highlighting the $10,000 buy-in Hold’em finals in the 1970s.
In the eighties, poker rooms gave the players what they wanted; mostly $1-3 limit Hold’em. The big boys played $15-$30. The pros got together for no-limit games.
Today, nearly every poker game in Las Vegas is Texas Hold’em. Most are of the no-limit variety. Dealers take a specific amount (rake) out of each pot, and locals still whine and cry about tourists. Don’t worry, it’s all good. The games are safe, the dealers are well-trained and friendly, and the players are cordial. Most of the time!
Other Early Table Games
Most early Las Vegas casinos offered roulette, a favorite of Old West mining camps.
Little has changed since the 1930s but the cost of the chips. Early gaming pioneers like Bill Boyd took jobs dealing penny roulette. It was a grind.
Today, the wheels are the same, the layout is the same, and the dealers still consider a low-limit game to be a drag. Most clubs have a minimum per chip of at least a buck.
Craps, on the other hand, has evolved from a single-dealer tub game to three-dealer tables that run 12-feet. The tub game emphasized the field wager, where the house held a large edge similar to a carnival game. Full-table games became popular in the 1940s when gamblers who had learned the game during the Second World War started hitting Vegas.
The ever-popular field bet changed from even-money on winners to a double payoff on aces to double and then triple payoffs on double sixes. Still, the players were savvy by then, and most played the Pass Line and took odds on their wagers. The house edge is a tiny 1.44 percent, but there are plenty of tables.
The other surviving favorite is blackjack, which was played at clubs on Fremont Street for as little as a nickel per hand. The tables were flat, with green felt, but there was no rail. Dealers had to be careful not to let the cards skip past the players onto the floor. They dealt slowly. Gamblers played their hands slowly. It was a more leisurely game than roulette. Most new dealers learned 21 first before moving on to other games.
Early Faro Games
Another favorite game from the mining camps that made its way to Las Vegas was Faro Bank. It was played with a single deck of cards. They were shuffled and placed in a small box, or case, that kept the deck from being manipulated. Or did it?
According to early editions of Hoyle’s Rules of Games, there wasn’t a single honest Faro Bank game to be found in the United States.
Vegas may have been an exception by then, but cheating was always a consideration for players. And for the casino.
In fact, long before cameras and the Eye-in-the-sky were commonplace, a supervisor sat on a tall chair to watch the Faro game.
No payoffs were ever made until the supervisor nodded his head. Not her head. There were no females. Not dealers, not supervisors. The dealer glanced towards the supervisor, and if they moved their finger, it meant retrace your steps before allowing players to remove their payouts.
Playing the game was simple. Wagers were made on the layout which held the denomination of each card. The first card taken out of the deck was the losing one, and all wagers on that card lost. The second card was the winner, and any bets on that denomination were paid even-money.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, to complicate things, players could place their bets between card denominations to cover more than one wager. They could also place a six-sided token on top of their wagers to change their bet from winner to loser.
If that wasn’t enough, players could bet “high card” to signify they thought the second card out would be higher than the first. A casekeep device was used to keep track of all cards played. When only three cards remained, players had the option of wagering on the exact order of the final cards – loser (Banker), winner (Player), and the final card called the Hock.
The odds of choosing the correct order were 5 to 1. The payoff was 4 to 1, giving the house a small edge for dealing the entire shoe of cards. If by chance the remaining cards included a pair, the payoff was even money. If all three cards were the same, the game was over.
Strangely enough, the person keeping track of the cards with the casekeep device was often referred to as the coffin driver. They were apparently driving a game that died out in the 1950s. Partly because it wasn’t very exciting, and partly because the house had too small an edge. Casinos like games with lots of outcomes per hour, or a larger edge.
Early Chuck-a-luck Games
The game of Chuck-a-luck was very popular in the 1940s and 1950s. Unlike Faro, which had a tiny house edge, Chuck-a-luck had a high house edge.
As players became more sophisticated about their gambling, they gravitated towards games like blackjack, baccarat, and craps that offer nearly break-even odds. Of course, the more outcomes, the more certain it is that the house will eventually win all of a gambler’s money. What a bummer.
Chuck-a-luck was played on a large rectangular table with a set of three dice inside a wire cage. No, the dice were never set free. The cage (or birdcage) was shaped like an hourglass and had a handle so it could spin, allowing the dice to tumble from one side to the other for each play.
Players wagered on what totals and denominations the dice would land on. A triple (all dice numbers match, such as 4-4-4) paid 30 to 1. Individual numbers paid 1 to 1 for a single, 2 to 1 for two matching dice, and 10 to 1 for all three-dice matching.
There were also boxes on the layout to bet on a Big total of 11 or higher, or a Low total of 10 or lower. This wager paid even money, except when a triple was rolled, then the house won. The Field wager paid even money for any number total rolled outside of 8 to 12.
Players liked the game, played regularly, but suffered through the 4.6 percent house edge. Today, many Las Vegas casinos offer a similar game called Sic Bo. The odds aren’t much better. Maybe the players aren’t that interested in the house edge after all?
Early Las Vegas Keno Games
The game of Keno isn’t dead. It’s just on life support. When Keno first came to Las Vegas in the late 1930s, it was popular because a player could win up to $500 for just a dime! Ten-cent slot machines at the time paid $15 for a jackpot. New cars sold for $500. It was the freaking lottery!
Keno is played with 80 numbered ping pong balls bouncing around in a cage. Twenty are chosen to exit the cage and show their stuff. Players can choose any number of ways to risk their money by marking numbers on a Keno card. The more numbers chosen and drawn from the cage, the higher the payoff.
The game is slow. In the 1930s, there were only a few games per hour.
It’s a little faster today, but the house edge is huge!
Most casinos offer the game as a courtesy. Sometimes you can find Keno cards in restaurants and spend a few bucks playing while you enjoy your meal.
If you do play Keno, forget that the house edge is about 28 percent and concentrate on the fact that you get to gamble while eating. If you are playing outside the restaurant, concentrate on the fact that you are probably over 80-years old, or really bored! Good luck anyway.
Early Las Vegas Slot Machines
While Las Vegas may have been founded on poker games, most old saloons had a few dusty slot machines in the corner. They were likely to be nickel and dime machines, and they usually paid a few coins for cherries or ten coins for oranges or plumbs on the pay line.
The machines were made of metal and wood, with strong handles that set the mechanical gears in motion and spun the wheels. You could get exercise just pulling the handle! Machines made by Jennings, Pace, and Mills were very popular. They had similar internal mechanisms and paid similar prizes, including 150 coins for a jackpot.
Most machines had three spinning reels with fruit symbols and a single jackpot stop on each. When the machines had 20 stops each, the chance of hitting the jackpot was 8,000 to 1. Slot machines offered two very specific attractions the table games did not. They could be played very rapidly, with many outcomes per hour, and they could be played for as little as five cents per spin.
In the 1940s, as more women ventured to Las Vegas, the number of slot machines in each casino grew. New properties like the Last Frontier on the Las Vegas Strip had almost 100 slots.
The games were popular, and the house edge was substantial, even if the total dollar income for the house was small compared to the roulette and craps tables.
In the 1960’s, Bally Manufacturing introduced electro-mechanical slot machines that featured electric motors that spun the reels and also offered a hopper device. The hopper paid winning combinations quickly, without the need for a change person to make the payoffs. Higher jackpots were offered, and by the 1970s, casinos like the Golden Nugget downtown had more than 1,000 slot machines in action every day.
Like blackjack, craps, and roulette, slot machines remain very popular in casinos today. In fact, unlike the early years where slot machines accounted for less than 10 percent of most casino’s profits. The average Las Vegas casino now derives more than 75 percent of its gaming income from slots.