BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: Programmes: High Stakes  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
High Stakes Tuesday, 20 March, 2001, 12:46 GMT
High Stakes: History
History of gambling

In 1931, the State of Nevada legalised casino gaming. Immediately, the remote Mojave desert became a focal point for entrepreneurs, gamblers and criminals alike and Las Vegas Boulevard was eventually born.

Mobster and father of Vegas, 'Bugsy' Siegel
Just after the Second World War Mafia Boss Meyer Lansky sent Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel to Las Vegas to set up the Trans-America Wire Service on America's West Coast.

Siegel soon saw the wider gambling potential of the place however and created the Flamingo hotel and casino.

Glamour and danger

By 1947, this flamboyant character was dead, assassinated by his fellow Mafiosi for running up huge debts.

His murder sensationalised the Strip and cemented Las Vegas's reputation as a place of glamour and danger.

 US comedian, Alan King, on the early days of Vegas.

In Britain, meanwhile, gambling though widespread was mainly illegal. Those who liked a flutter were often forced underground.

Bets had to be placed with the street bookies as betting shops didn't exist. Private gaming parties were held at the homes of wealthy, young Londoners where vast amounts of money, if not inheritances would change hands. The games set up by the late John Aspinall were particularly notorious.

Mob moves to London

In 1961, the Betting and Gaming Act provided a legal basis for off-course betting and casinos. Overnight illegal bookmakers who were raided by police once a year became legitimate.

Opening at a rate of 100 a week, there were ten thousand betting shops established after only six months. One thousand casinos were opened in the first five years.

The Act however was poorly worded and allowed almost anyone to open a casino in the UK with disastrous consequences.

As a result, many of the casinos became a cover for criminal activity. The film star George Raft, a childhood friend of Bugsy Siegel fronted the Colony Club for the mob while casino 'advisers' moved to the UK from Chicago and Miami.

I think people did get eliminated...there was a culture of violence

James Whittaker on London Casinos in the 60's
Britain's gangland also became involved in the gambling industry. The Krays visited mobsters in New York and East End gangs demanded protection money from London clubs.

According to the FBI, there was a summit between known Mafiosi and London's gangs to discuss the running of London clubs. Gambling junkets were organised by the mob, selling casino weeks in London.


The then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, recognised the problem and decided to act. Raft, amongst others, was deported and in 1970 the new Gaming Act became law.

This was a highly restrictive piece of legislation that closed all the loopholes of the previous Act.

All gaming, including bingo and gaming machines, was to be subject to licence and placed under the control of the Gaming Board which answered directly to the Home Office.

Casino gaming was confined to members who had to join 48 hours before playing and advertising of gambling was severely restricted.

The impact was dramatic. Casino numbers fell from well over a thousand to 120 licensed casinos within a year. Yet despite having the most restrictive gaming regime in the western world, London remained an important gaming centre.

This was to prove to be only a lull in the irresistible rise of gambling this century as it journeyed from an illegal 'backroom' pursuit to a mainstay of the leisure industry.

Cleaning up its act

Binions Lights
The State of Nevada had always viewed gambling more as a partner than an adversary but as federal pressure against organised crime increased, Nevada realised that as a state entirely dependent on gambling, it needed to legitimise its act to survive and prosper.

As the sixties drew to a close in the US, the reclusive billionaire businessman Howard Hughes increased his stake in Las Vegas and by 1970 had become the largest individual casino owner in Nevada. Corporate America was taking over the helm of the gambling business.

This side of the Atlantic, London casinos were booming. High rolling, oil-rich Arabs were playing for high stakes. Casinos vied with one another for their custom, at times resorting to dirty tricks. Clubs such as Ladbrokes and Playboy lost their licences and were forced to close down.

In the 1980s corporate gamblers applied new mass-merchandising techniques to give betting a better image, selling it as just another form of recreation - family entertainment. It was at this time that Las Vegas became known as 'Disneyland for Adults'.

Today gambling is global. Britain's National Lottery is played regularly by 65% of the adult population. With the advent of the Internet, people can gamble 24 hours a day from the comfort of their living room.

Internet Links:

For more information about the world of gambling:

High Stakes Bookshop

Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more High Stakes stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more High Stakes stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |