Is Nevada Moving Away From Gambling?

For 150 years, Nevada and gambling have enjoyed a mostly blissful marriage. Could that relationship now be on the rocks?

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Illustration by Jon Estrada

Nevada’s 150th birthday is as good a time as any to reflect on how the relationship between the state and its highest-profile industry, gambling, has changed over time.

The original match wasn’t exactly a marriage of convenience, but it wasn’t a forbidden romance, either. When Nevada joined the Union in 1864, it soberly criminalized the gambling that had been rampant—as it was virtually everywhere in the West—during its territorial days.

Five years later, though, the state Legislature thought better of it and, over the governor’s veto, made gambling legal. Not that Nevada was all that much of a maverick. After all, commercial gambling remained legal in California until 1860, and the act of gambling itself wasn’t outlawed until 1885. Legal or not, gambling ran virtually unrestricted in the cow towns and mining camps west of the Mississippi, and gambling remained legal in Arizona and New Mexico territories until their statehood in 1912.

Nevada’s legalization wasn’t an immediate unabashed love affair; gambling could be conducted, but not in the front room of an establishment. The impressionable public would have to walk past the whiskey and dancing girls to get to the poker and faro.

As the Silver State moved into the 20th century, though, gambling came to be seen as, possibly, a youthful indiscretion; other states were certainly moving past their tolerance. A coalition of Nevada progressives convinced voters that legal gambling was a relic of the past that was keeping the state from reaching its true potential, and in 1910 gambling became illegal once more. The ban was never absolute—social games such as poker were permitted almost immediately—but the official policy of Nevada remained anti-gambling for more than 20 years.

The state’s “I wish I knew how to quit you” moment happened in the throes of the Great Depression when, out of desperation for any kind of economic stimulus, the Legislature approved “wide open” commercial gambling and “quickie” six-week, no-fault divorce.

Over the next 30 years, several things happened to keep gambling and Nevada sleeping in the same bed. A wave of national anti-gambling sentiment following the Kefauver Committee’s early-1950s investigation soured other states on legalizing wagering, giving Nevada a monopoly. Also, other economic development options failed to pan out, leaving the state few avenues for different revenue-producing industries.

And yet today, at 150 years old, there are signs that Nevada is looking past its longtime paramour. Since the turn of the millennium, non-gaming elements have produced the majority of revenue on the Strip, and competition from surrounding states has diminished the fortunes of markets such as Reno, Lake Tahoe and Laughlin. Two once-closed Las Vegas casinos have, in the past year, returned to life (Downtown Grand and SLS), but with far less focus on gambling than their predecessors. Similarly, other operators continue to invest heavily in their resorts, but in a non-gaming way.

Indeed, one gets the sense that if a more attractive suitor approached—be it Tesla factories or festival concerts headlined by Metallica—Nevada wouldn’t think twice about moving on from gambling. To an extent, it’s already happening: Call it diversification if you like, but it’s as clear as ever that most Nevadans would prefer to see the economy tied to something else. And, with gambling nearly ubiquitous in the United States, even casino operators agree that other options are needed to keep the city’s resorts full.

So, 150 years in, Nevada’s love for gambling might indeed be on the wane. And really, that’s not much of a change at all, because Nevada’s passion was never for gambling per se, but for the things it brings: tourists, jobs and money. As we look to the next 150 years, it likely won’t be gambling but the larger hospitality experience a city like Las Vegas offers that keeps the Silver State’s pulse racing.

David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research.

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