History of Las Vegas Gambling: An Ode to the Mafia

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History of Las Vegas GamblingToday, when we think of casinos, slot machines and table games, we often picture the glamorous, surreal world that is Las Vegas. Modern day casinos were born from this city’s decades-old model. But if you delve far enough into its past, you’ll find that the history of Las Vegas gambling can be credited to one group – the Mafia.

We don’t generally consider mass crime organizations to have contributed anything positive to modern society. But the fact is, if it weren’t for the age-old Mafia syndicates from New York, Las Vegas may never have been developed into the gambling mecca that it is today. And without Las Vegas to lead the way, we probably wouldn’t have other major gambling destinations like Atlantic City or Macau, China either.

History of Las Vegas Gambling

It all started back in 1930, when President Herbert Hoover approved the construction of the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam). With the gold and silver mines dried up, and the Great Depression in full swing, the previously declining population of Las Vegas swelled from 5,000 to 25,000 as people flocked in seeking employment on the dam’s construction crew.

With a landscape holding as much appeal as the tumbleweeds that littered its vast barren terrain, the state government saw an opportunity. There was a great need for entertainment for the out-of-state workers pouring in. In March of 1931, they made a bold and drastic move to legalize casino gambling.

Businessmen responded by opening various small-time gambling establishments, but it wasn’t until infamous Mafia boss Meyer Lansky realized the enormous potential lying in that vast dessert that the history of Las Vegas gambling really began to take shape.

Flamingo, First Casino Resort in the history of Las Vegas Gambling

Bugsy Seigel’s Flamingo, 1947

Lansky sent one of his most trusted men, Bugsy Seigel, to investigate the area and explore existing casino operations. Seigel formed a partnership with William R. Wilkerson to open the very first casino resort in Las Vegas, The Flamingo. Shortly after construction got underway, Seigel proposed an alteration to his agreement with Wilkerson that would give himself full control of the property. Under threat of death, Wilkerson agreed to sell his stake in The Flamingo, and immediately fled to Paris.

Seigel then went to work lining up shipments of the best liquor and food – no doubt benefiting his criminal cohorts back home. He installed exorbitant furnishings and the finest gambling tables money could buy. By the time The Flamingo opened, Seigel has spent millions of dollars of mob money on the property, not to mention embezzling millions more to support his elaborate lifestyle.

Unfortunately, The Flamingo wasn’t an instant success. Meyer Lansky was beyond furious with Bugsy, who’s ego had inflated far beyond his actual realm of power. As often happens when a Mafia boss is displeased with one of his employees, Bugsy Seigel ended up 6-feet below the desert sand, so to speak.

Lansky himself took over the operation and, like Seigel, was embezzling millions of dollars from the Mafia-led union funds. However, his bosses didn’t mind because, under Lansky’s firm hand, The Flamingo finally took off. It was making so much money that Meyer soon began opening more casino resorts all across Las Vegas.

Over the years, Sin City’s most famous gambling dens were born – Freemont, Golden Nugget, The Sahara, etc, – all from Mafia influence. Showgirls and famed singers like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra and Wayne Newton spent their performing lives turning Las Vegas into the entertainment capitol of the world.

Viva Las Vegas!

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