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Atlantic City’s Gambling Legacy

Placing a bet with Atlantic City is as old as strolling the Boardwalk.

By Michael Pritchard
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Nov. 10, 2010

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The old Playboy casino

Anyone who thinks gambling in Atlantic City can be traced back to the opening of the Resorts Casino in 1978 is cutting out a huge portion of the resort’s gaming history. Atlantic City’s history of back-room casinos and gambling dens is as old as the city’s Boardwalk. Still, gambling went through a dry spell as the city began to decline in the 1950s and ’60s and was reborn on that May 26, 1978 opening of Resorts. Here’s a look at the action Atlantic City has offered since it’s earliest days.

Casino Games

Then: Philadelphia newspapers were complaining about Atlantic City’s illegal gambling houses and brothels as early as the 1890s. In truth, the city was offering gambling action from its inception. In those early days, the most popular games were roulette, poker and faro, a simple French card game based on betting on cards drawn by the dealer. Poker games would have been the more traditional stud and draw versions, though community card games such as Hold’em began to emerge in the 1920s. Craps was also popular in the city’s horse rooms.

Gambling could be found in the city’s storefronts, restaurants and nightclubs, each serving a different class of gamblers. Atlantic City’s long history of back room gambling was summed up well in 1951 when a congressional report on illegal gambling was released. Atlantic City was one of the medium sized cities highlighted. The committee’s final report, issued Aug. 31, 1951, concluded that Atlantic City was “riddled with rackets, including nearly every known type of gambling” from bingo to the numbers [illegal lottery].”

The report said nearly every cigar store in town was a front for a bookie and that the city, then under the control of powerful State Sen. Frank S. “Hap” Farley, refused to enforce anti-gambling laws.

Now: Atlantic City recaptured some of its history when casino gambling was legalized in 1978 and a steady stream of glitzy casinos was built through the 1980s and ’90s. Most every game the city offered in its illegal heyday (except faro) is being offered again in the resort. But one of the biggest changes may be the reliance on slot machines. While blackjack grew in popularity from the 1930s on, slot machines eventually passed table games as the top casino money-maker in the 1980s. Despite 11 casinos operating in Atlantic City, there are probably fewer table games being offered in the city than in the 1920s.

However, since 2003, one table game, poker, has been rising steadily. Atlantic City casinos added poker rooms in the 1990s, before the Hold’em explosion, leaving them in good position to take advantage of poker’s rise in popularity. Most of the city’s casinos have refurbished their poker rooms or built new rooms in the last few years. The city now offers poker action in eight casino poker rooms and also offers table-game versions of poker (such as Caribbean Stud) and video poker in all of its casinos.

Playing the Ponies

Then: The simulcasting of horse racing from tracks around the country legally came to Atlantic City casinos in 1993. But the operative word here is legally. Atlantic City has always been a place to get down a bet on a horse.

For years, the city sported “horse rooms,” as part of the illegal casinos, which were found in restaurants, storefronts and nightclubs around town.

The rooms would receive the results through special telegraph wires. In 1935, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, the man Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky Thompson is based on, solidified control of the horse rooms by striking a deal with the Nationwide News Service for racing results. Each room in the city paid $200 per week for the service. Nationwide charged $40. Nucky got the rest.

Atlantic City also became part of the “sport of kings” when the Atlantic City Race Course opened in 1946 in Mays Landing. Frank Sinatra, band leader Xavier Cugat, Bob Hope, and Sammy Kaye were among the original investors.

In its glory days, the race track often drew crowds of 30,000.

Now: While simulcasting rooms can still be found in Atlantic City, the racing industry in the country has been in serious decline and several casinos have gotten out of the business. In an Internet and fast-information era, the leisurely pace of horse racing, with races every 45 minutes or so, seems to be a losing bet. Of course, the whole point of simulcasting is to bring in races from numerous tracks to up the action. Six Atlantic City casinos still offer simulcasting rooms.

Today, the A.C. Race Course runs a simple six-day meet each year and offers simulcasting year round. Much of the track’s land was taken over by the Hamilton Mall in 1987.

The Numbers

Then: Illegal numbers rackets were a staple for organized crime throughout the first half of the 20th century. While numbers rackets could be fixed, they often used horse-track betting results to assign random numbers. At its height, Atlantic City’s numbers rackets took in $5,000 to $6,000 a day on nickel and dime bets. A government investigation in the 1930s found more than 1,000 city businesses involved with the numbers rackets.

Now: The New Jersey lottery raised more than $2.5 billion in revenue in 2009 and tickets can be purchased in more than 6,000 locations statewide. It offers six numbers-based games including Pick-3 and Pick-4, which draw numbers twice daily. The state lottery began in 1970.

Despite the advent of state lotteries in 40 states, there are still numbers rackets being run around the country.

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1. Rich said... on Nov 11, 2010 at 03:25PM

“thats because the street nimber pays better and faster than the state does”

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