Sunday, January 24

The trials and tribulations of riverboat casinos

Before the construction of buildings that were dedicated to gambling, which we now know as casinos, fans of table top gaming had to find new ways to facilitate the pastime. And, with online casino in the UK households quickly becoming the most popular way to pass the time, it’s interesting to see how far the act of gambling has come over the years, long before we were able to play the classic games from the comfort of our homes!

A great way to get around those pesky guidelines was to host casino games onboard a riverboat – an idea that dominated the scene in 19th century America. These boats were already being used as a means of commuting and trading, and wealthy merchants would often indulge in a couple of card games to pass the time on their journey.

The idea of gambling on riverboats quickly became somewhat of a phenomenon, for two main reasons. Firstly, as we’ve already touched on, a lot of cities and states had begun passing legislation that prohibited all gambling, but gaming gatherings on the water hadn’t even been considered when the laws were created. With rivers being an unregulated area, it posed as a perfect way for people to keep a low profile, whilst still indulging in their much-loved casino classics. The other reason that playing on the waters had such an appeal was that gambling vigilantes could take things into their own hands, and punish cheaters however they saw fit.

In 1806, Louisiana brought forward a law which made all gambling illegal throughout the state, apart from in New Orleans, which led to a concentration of gaming facilities within the city, with people looking for new alternative ways to play. Whilst a few years later, in 1814, Missouri had established a gambling ban across the entire state, meanwhile New Orleans had brought in casino licencing and taxation.

Fast forward to the 1850s and riverboat gambling was recognised as a casual activity, as opposed to an organised commercial operation. Forming these casino-style locations on the river placed them between states and in no man’s land, therefore happily settled in a grey area of the jurisdiction.

Despite gambling gradually being legalised across the majority of America by the 20th century, riverboat casinos still remained a feature in the world of gambling. Across different states there were varying operating regulations and requirements put in place, all depending on where you played, such as:

  • Technical features: in Louisiana gambling boats were required to be paddlewheel driven, whether it be partially or entirely. This idea came from the original appearance of the 19th century paddlewheel boats.
  • The size of the vessel & passenger capacity: in Indiana, ships must have a minimum length of 150 feet and the facilities to carry at least 500 passengers, whereas in Louisiana, they must carry 600, including the crew.
  • Wagering limits per bet: perhaps a strategy for making the trips worthwhile, Iowa’s state law dictates that there should be a $5.00 betting limit alongside a $200 loss limit for each player on each cruise.
  • At sail vs docked: in some areas, the boat must be travelling for gambling to take place, whilst in others, weather and safety considerations have allowed these boats to operate whilst never leaving the docks.
  • Limit of licences available: Louisiana allows up to 15 boats to hold a casino license at any one time. With slightly tighter restrictions in place, the Illinois Riverboat Gambling Act authorise only 10 licences to be granted.
  • Tax: Illinois law states that 15% of all gambling revenues must go back to the state, with 5% of earnings being fed back into the community.

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