The Gambling History of Las Vegas

Las Vegas, which means the meadow in Spanish, was once nothing but a water stop for travelers.

But Las Vegas is now the gambling capital of the world.

In the famous Las Vegas vacation destination you can find food, shows, entertainment, and gambling galore at any time of the day.

1905 - 1929

Water was piped down into Las Vegas from wells and it became a popular water stop for wagon trains and eventually railroads. Many of the travelers were traveling between California and New Mexico.

In 1905 the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad was completed. William Andrews Clark, a U.S Senator, owned the majority of the railroad and also owned the east - side of Las Vegas which is now Main Street and Las Vegas Boulevard. J. T. McWilliams owned the west - side of Las Vegas which is now Bonanza Road.

Clark built another railroad called Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad. This railroad generated a lot of revenue and Las Vegas began growing quickly. Las Vegas was officially founded as a city in 1905, this is when 110 acres that would eventually become what now is downtown, was auctioned off.

In 1910 Nevada outlawed gaming and was the last western state to do so. They even outlawed flipping a coin for the price of a drink, which was a western custom.

Peter Buol was the first mayor of Las Vegas and he served from the years of 1911 - 1913.

Even though Las Vegas suffered some financial setback do to the outlaw of gaming, they continued to grow till the year of 1917. In 1917 a combination of different factors including the war forced Clark to declare bankruptcy in the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad. Clark sold the rest of the company to Union Pacific Railroad.

In 1922 Las Vegas had a nationwide strike which left them in a rough state with no growth in sight.

1930 - 1940

President Herbert Hoover signed a bill in 1930 for Boulder Dam to be built. Boulder Dam was later renamed to what we know it as today, Hoover Dam. The work on the dam started in Las Vegas in 1931 and their population of 5,000 grew to 25,000 with workers coming from far and wide to work on the dam.

The majority of the workers were males that intended to leave the area once their work was done. This atmosphere called for entertainment, such as casinos and showgirl theaters. This boom of population caused the illegal gambling industry to grow.

Nevada State saw the revenue potential in these travelers and legalized local gambling in 1931. The first legal gambling license was given to the Northern Club, and soon after it was given to the Las Vegas Club and the Apache Hotel. These casinos were on Fremont Street, which became the first street to receive a traffic light and be paved.

The dam was completed in 1935.

Southern Nevada Power was the first to create electric from the dam in 1937, and Las Vegas was their first customer. Fremont Street glowed with electric powered bright lights and became known as Glitter Gulch.

The workers for the dam returned home, but the tourist population picked up because of the want to see the dam and the lit up city.

1941 - 1945

In 1941 a gunnery school for the U.S. Army was established in Las Vegas, but they disliked the legal prostitution that was available to their soldiers so Las Vegas outlawed prostitution and the popular red light district was put out of business permanently.

Thomas Hull saw the need for luxury hotels for the tourists and in 1941 he opened the first resort on what now is the Las Vegas Strip, El Rancho Vegas. His hotel offered a gourmet buffet and gained much of its fame from this.

Between 1942 and 1945 organized crime began showing up in hotels and casinos. Before this, Las Vegas families owned most hotels and clubs and refused to work with the mafia.

1946 - 1957

In 1946 gangster Bugsy Siegel and mob boss Meyer Lansky opened The Flamingo in Las Vegas.

Between the years of 1952 - 1957 other parts of the mafia began constructing casinos throughout Las Vegas such as the:

  • Sands
  • Sahara
  • New Frontier
  • Showboat
  • Fremont
  • Riviera
  • Royal Nevada
  • Binion's Horseshoe
  • Tropicana

8 million people were visiting Las Vegas by the year of 1954, and they were sinking $200 million into casinos each year. These gamblers would be drawn to Las Vegas to see stars like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Carol Channing and then they would stay for the food and gambling.

1958 - 1969

In the year of 1966 a man named Howard Hughes visited Las Vegas and stayed in a room in the Desert Inn. He refused to leave his room and decided to purchase the entire hotel. He continued to purchase hotels and various other estates throughout Las Vegas with an estimated $300 million. He was soon a very powerful man in Las Vegas and was the key leader in changing Las Vegas into a refined cosmopolitan city and moving it away from the Wild West style.

A financial problem for Las Vegas was that the popular Las Vegas Strip was not inside the city limits, meaning they could not collect the city tax. They attempted to annex the strip in hopes the hotels and casino owners would move their business inside the city limits but the strip was turned into an unincorporated township which they named Paradise, meaning they could not annex it. The strip in modern day is still outside of the city limits of Las Vegas.

1970 - 2010

A rapid growth rate in Las Vegas started in the 1930s and didn't stop until the 2000s recession. In 2000 Las Vegas was the largest city in the 20th century and in 2006 they held a population of 552,000 and were the 28th largest city in the U.S.

This large injection of revenue, population, and baby boomer entrepreneurs into the city led to new casinos and resorts spreading like wild fire. The first resort to be built with wall street money was The Mirage, with gold tinted windows in each of it 3,044 rooms, a new luxury standard was set for Las Vegas.

Other hotels and casinos built in these years include:

  • Rio and Excalibur in 1990
  • MGM Grand, Luxor, and Treasure Island in 1993
  • Monte Carlo and Stratosphere Tower in 1996
  • New York - New York in 1997
  • Bellagio in 1998
  • Mandalay Bay, Paris, and Venetian in 1999
  • Plant Hollywood (previously Aladdin) in 2000
  • Palms in 2001
  • Wynn in 2005
  • Palazzo in 2007
  • Encore in 2008
  • City Center in 2009
  • And The Cosmopolitan in 2010

World Series of Poker (WSOP)

World Series of Poker was established in 1970. The first event was held at Binion's Horseshoe and includes the cash only games deuces to seven low - ball draw, razz, five - card stud, seven - card stud, and Texas holdem.

Johnny moss was the winner of the 1970 WSOP and was given a silver cup as a prize, along with the money. Moss also won the WSOP two more times.

Starting in 1972 the event was changed to a $10,000 buy - in no - limit Texas holdem tournament. The winner of the event gets the cash, a gold bracelet, and their picture in the gallery of champions at Binion's.

WSOP also hosts a $50,000 H.O.R.S.E / Poker Players Championship that many of the top players say defines the world's best poker player. The first H.O.R.S.E tournament was in 2006 and was won by Chip Reese. H.O.R.S.E was changed to an 8 - game format in 2010 which added no - limit holdem, 2 - 7 triple draw, and pot - limit Omaha. After this the name of the event was changed to The Poker Player's Championship.

The top first place prize amount won was $12,000,000 in 2006 by Jamie Gold, with the hand of queen of spades and 9 of clubs.

Since the beginning of WSOP only two players have one the main event 3 times, Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar.

Phil Hellmuth is the only player to win the main events of both WSOP and WSOP Europe. He also holds several WSOP records including most WSOP final tables, most bracelets, and most WSOP cashes.

In 2004 they began giving a Player of the Year (POY) award based on how many points players have accumulated throughout WSOP. Daniel Negreanu is the only person to win two of these awards.

The WSOP Poker Hall of Fame has included 42 individuals both players and non players. Non players are selected based on their contribution to the growth and success of poker.


WSOP has been televised since the late 1970s and is still aired on ESPN and

DVD's of the main event were released by ESPN in the years of 2003 and 2004.

Video Games

Several video games about WSOP have been released including World Series of Poker in 2005, World Series of Poker: Tournament of Champions in 2006, and World Series of Poke 2008: Battle for the Bracelets in 2007. In some Harrah's casinos you can find WSOP video poker machines.

WSOP Poker Academy

Harrah's launched poker academies in Tunica, Mississippi, Indiana, and Las Vegas starting in 2007 to teach poker players the skills to win a WSOP bracelet. They included the instructors:

  • Annie Duke
  • Greg Raymer
  • Phil Hellmuth Jr.
  • Mark Kroon
  • Scott Fischman
  • Alex Outhred
  • Joe Navarro
  • And Mark Seif

Famous Las Vegas Entertainers

Frank Sinatra

Francis Albert Sinatra was born in 1915 and has sold over 150 million records worldwide, making him one of the best - selling artists ever. He was badly scared as a child but his mother invested a strong sense of confidence in him. He began as a professional singer who would rise to the top and then quickly sore to rock bottom. He then traveled to Las Vegas were his career picked up again and he became a prominent figure in Las Vegas entertainers. He also took up a career in acting and producing.

Sinatra never learned how to read music and only played it by ear. He had three children, and he died in 1998 after he was left in poor health from a heart attack.

Dean Martin

Dean Martin was born in Steubenville, Ohio. He was born with the name Dino Paul Crocetti and was an Italian - American film producer, actor, comedian, and singer. He was nicknamed King of Cool. Martin was one of the most popular entertainers in Las Vegas for three decades. One of his children also sang in Las Vegas. He had eight children and died of acute respiratory failure in 1995. The Las Vegas Strip dimmed their lights in honor of his death.

Andy Williams

Howard Andrew Williams was born in 1927 in Wall Lake, Iowa. He was an American singer that recorded a total of 44 albums in his life. Williams was a popular act in Las Vegas and headlined at the Caesars for 20 years. Williams had 3 children and died in 2012 from bladder cancer.


Wladziu Valentino Liberace was born in West Allis, Wisconsin in 1919. He was an actor, singer, and pianist known as a child prodigy. Liberace gained fame from his flashy shows he put on in Las Vegas. He began at the Persian room in 1945. In the year of 1955 he was working in the Riviera Hotel and Casino and making $50,000 a week. He earned the nickname Mr. Showmanship from all the glamour and glitz he put into his shows.

It was later determined that Liberace was gay and used close friend Betty White as a public lady friend to try and hide this fact. He was diagnosed with HIV and died in 1987.

Carrot Top

Scott Thompson, known as Carrot Top for his bright red hair, was born in Rockledge, Florida in 1965. Top is a comedian that consistently sold out Luxor's show room and filled Hollywood Theatre for 15 weeks a year from 1996 to 2003. He specializes in prop comedy.

David Copperfield

David Seth Kotkin was born in Metuchen, New Jersey in 1956. He is an illusionist and known as the most successful commercial magician ever. He has won 21 Emmy awards for his combination of illusion and storytelling. Copperfield was doing 15 shows a week at the MGM grand.

Penn & Teller

Penn and Teller is a two person act who has been performing together since the 1970s. They're known for their mixture of magic and comedy where Penn is big and loud and Teller is small and silent. They currently headline in Las Vegas at The Rio.

Siegfried & Roy

Siegfried and Roy are a two person magician act known for white lions and white tigers being part of their act. They were a popular act until 2003 when Roy was injured by a tiger during the act, almost losing his life. In an interview with Roy he said he had a stroke on stage and the tiger was only trying to pull him to safety as a mother would do with a cub. He remained friends with the tiger until the tiger died from an illness.

The Mafia in Las Vegas

The mafia and gambling has always gone hand in hand, cards, races, dice, they were making profit from it.

But Las Vegas remained almost completely mafia free until the 1940s when Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel saw the potential to make a lot of cash. Although their first venture of the Flamingo was a bust for Siegel and resulted in his death, Lansky turned it around and the mafia began moving into Las Vegas.

Three major casinos in the 1950s, the Stardust, Desert Inn, and Riviera were all mafia ran by both the Chicago outfit and the New York City Mafia. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the mafia opened up more casinos and hotels to gain more power and money in Las Vegas.

The downfall of the mafia in Las Vegas happened in the 1960s when Howard Hughes initiated a Nevada law change that made it so corporations such as the mafia could not buy interest in resorts, casinos, or hotels. Hughes then purchased 17 resorts and forced the mafia out of Las Vegas.

Hughes left Las Vegas a decade later because it was not paying out how he wanted. The mafia returned for a short time but in the 1980s the FBI cracked down on mafia interests and cleaned up the city to make it more family friendly.

Famous Las Vegas Casinos Past and Present


Bellagio is a current luxury hotel, casino, and resort on the Las Vegas Strip. It's owned by MGM and was built over what was once the Dune hotel and casino. The resort was inspired by a town in Bellagio Italy, Lake Como. Bellagio is well known for its elegance and its 8 - acre lake that has dancing fountains.

On the lobby ceiling of the Bellagio you'll find over 2,000 hand - blown glass flowers. Bellagio is also the home to the aquatic production O of Cirque du Soleil.

It has a total of 3,950 rooms with over 116,000 sq ft of gaming space.

Notable restaurants include:

  • Circo
  • Le Cirque
  • Picasso
  • Jasmine
  • Michael Mina
  • Lago by Julian Serrano
  • Jean - Georges' Prime
  • Olives
  • Yellowtail
  • And Sensi

The Venetian

The Venetian is a current Las Vegas Strip luxury hotel and casino that has five diamonds. It was built over the Sands Hotel. The Venetian is owned by Las Vegas Sands. With the resort complex including the Venetian resort, Sands Expo Convention Center, and the Palazzo Hotel and Casino Resort they're the world's second largest hotel.

The Venetian has 4,049 rooms, 120,000 sq ft of gaming space, and is themed after Venice, Italy.


Riviera is a past hotel and casino from the Las Vegas Strip that opened in 1955 and closed in 2015. They had a Mediterranean theme, 2,100 rooms, and 110,000 sq ft of gaming space. They had a permanent show called Crazy Girls.

After filing for bankruptcy twice since being opened, they were closed and demolished to make way for the Las Vegas Global Business District.

Sahara Hotel and Casino

Sahara was open from 1952 to 2011 and had 1,720 rooms and 85,000 sq ft of gaming space. Sahara was the 6th casino to open on the Las Vegas Strip. They had a Moroccan theme and were the first hotel to have a high - rise tower on the strip. In 1963 a 24 - story tower was built which made them the tallest building in Las Vegas.

In 2011 Sahara was closed and their chief executive said it was not economically viable but that he would help the 1,600 workers find new jobs.

Since then a new hotel has been opened in its spot called the SLS conversion, and it opened in 2013.


Las Vegas has an exciting history about not only their gambling, but also their famous entertainers, resorts, events, and more. When visiting Las Vegas you'll find reminders of the past and the new age of gambling that has shaped it today transforming it from a water stop to a vacation destination.