“The view from the window, particularly if you enjoy neon, is extraordinary.” - Chris Bachelder.
While Naples is famous for its pizza, Brussels for its chocolate, and Dubai for being unlivable, Las Vegas is synonymous with gambling. For many, Las Vegas is gambling’s spiritual home; its name alone conjures the image of casino halls decked with tables and teeming with hopeful punters. So indelible is its image that few seem to realise just how recently (and rapidly) Las Vegas has grown to prominence.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Las Vegas was nothing more than a small enclave of fertile land within a desert. Its history up to this point is underwhelming: in 1855 a group of Mormons tried to settle the land, only to give up two years later - the harsh climate getting the better of them. A census in 1900 reports that the land was home to no more than 30 people, most of whom were cattle-ranchers.
Within a century this had all changed. This once-insignificant patch of land went from nothing to notorious - which begs the question: What has contributed to Las Vegas’ reputation? How has it gone from 30 cattle-ranchers to attracting almost 50 million tourists a year? Might it be the draw of its reputation as the ‘Sin City’? Or might something as small and humble as the one-armed-bandit the power to turn marshland to metropolis? As you’ll find out, the answer is both complex and compelling.
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Looking back over the history of Las Vegas it may seem like a land without grace. (The plague of insects that ravaged the crops of its first, pious settlers is, perhaps, a bad omen). Yet it wasn’t until 1906 when Las Vegas was given the rather seductive title of ‘Sin City’.
Since its founding as a city in 1905, Las Vegas has shown a healthy disregard for laws designed for the sake of ‘moral improvement’. One could say, even, that vice has been the city’s greatest tradition. According to Stephanie Kishi of the Las Vegas Sun, the city’s infamous Block 16 - a district located on First Street - gained notoriety way back in 1906 for its:
“Dusty saloons, gambling tables, whiskey and gin flowing like a river, and of course, scantily-clad women with loose morals.”
By this time in Las Vegas gambling was well underway, with the popular bar ‘The Arizona Club’ featuring its own gambling hall. But the title of ‘Sin City’ was not given to Las Vegas for gambling alone. Rather, the locals were equally fond of alcohol and prostitutes - which led to The Arizona Club being refurbished as a bordello in 1912.
Las Vegas’ reputation as a haven for punters really began in 1931, when Nevada relegalized gambling after years of prohibition. Fourteen years later, the first luxury casino and hotel resort, The Flamingo, was built by Bugsy Siegal - a member of many illustrious gangs, including Murder Inc., the Jewish mob and the National Crime Syndicate.
Immortalised by Hollywood with films such as Bugsy (1991), Casino (1995) and, I guess, The Hangover (2009), the city’s association with organised crime only enhanced its reputation as the ‘Sin City’. Entrenched as it is in the popular imagination, the glamour of Las Vegas precedes it: to mention the Sin City is to summon an image of a city where anything goes.
In the background of all the action taking place in the bordellos and saloons of young Las Vegas, a little machine was beginning to grip the thrill-seeking minds of America. Charles Fey’s ‘Liberty Bell’, created in 1895, became a regular feature in the bordellos, saloons, private clubs and gambling halls of the USA. However, its emergence wasn’t met with the same enthusiasm in all societies, as Dan Glimme writes in the Encyclopedia Britannica,
“Forces of morality and the clregy, and then of law, frequently opposed the operation of slot machines.”
Slot machines - like alcohol - fell victim to the morality of the day. Yet, from a business perspective, the potential of slots was conclusive. They were so popular that, “By the time San Francisco banned them in 1909,” writes Dan Glimme, “there were some 3,300 slot machines in the city,” which equates, roughly, to 1 slot machine per 126 residents.
Because of this, when Nevada re-legalized gambling in 1931, one would suspect that slot games would be one of the great profit-makers. But, as Scott Boylan reports in his study on Nevada Gaming Revenue: A Comparative Analysis of Slots and Tables,
“Slot machines were problematic because they didn’t generate much revenue. Table games like craps, 21, roulette and baccarat were much more profitable.”
Here Scott Boylan is referring to the fact that, in their infancy, slot machines were not able to match the revenue of table games. This would all change in the 1980’s, when new video slot machines would replace their aging precursors.
Once taking up a secondary role to the likes of blackjack, baccarat, roulette and poker, the role of slots in Las Vegas has changed dramatically. With the emergence of video slots in 1976, and the ability to link slots to a ‘super jackpot’ in 1986, there came a shift in the focus of the city’s many casinos.
Historically speaking, these technological advances have been so significant that David G. Shwartz, in Forbes magazine, claims that slot games saved Las Vegas during the early 1980’s, when - as the University of Las Vegas News Centre reports,
“... the city suffered the triple-whammy of competition from Atlantic City, the 1978-1982 national economic downturn, and the MGM Grand fire, which was a major public relations nightmare in the city’s newest, largest resort. Some thought that Las Vegas had seen its best days, and nearly everyone agreed that the future would likely be grim.”
Schwartz’ claim is not unfounded. According to Scott Boylan, the 1980’s marks the event when “new and improved slot machines began appearing en masse on casino floors.” As we can see from the following graph, ever since the 1980’s, when “the new breed of slots began replacing older machines,” slot games “have outperformed table games, producing larger revenue games.”
As we can see from the graph, Nevada’s gaming revenue has displayed real economic growth over the past three decades. Yet this growth has only been possible due to developments in slot technology. Boylan’s findings indicate that Nevada’s economic growth “has come principally from slots.” Similarly, Dan Glimme reports that nowadays, “Slot machines are by far the largest profit generator for nearly every casino, averaging 30 to 50 percent or even more of total revenue.”
The change from analog to digital has allowed slot machines to generate more revenue - not so much ‘per-unit’ - but by broadening their appeal, and by “the increased efficiency associated with the replacement of older single-denomination machines with multi-domination units.”
So, to answer our long-suspended question, we can conclude that it may be a slight exaggeration to say that slots were the primary cause of Las Vegas’ existence. It is not so contentious to maintain that, without slots, Las Vegas would be unrecognizable from what it is today.
Boylan, S., 2016. Nevada Gaming Revenue: A Comparative Analysis of Slots and Tables. Centre for Gaming Research: Occasional Paper Series, [online] 34, pp.1-9. Available at: https://digitalscholarship.unlv.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1040&context=occ_papers [Accessed 19 October 2020].
Glimme, D., 2020. Slot Machine | Gambling Device. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/slot-machine [Accessed 19 October 2020].
Kishi, S., 2020. Home Of Sin City's Original Sin. [online] Las Vegas Sun. Available at: https://lasvegassun.com/news/2008/may/15/origination-sin-sin-city/ [Accessed 19 October 2020].
Schwartz, D., 2018. Las Vegas Casinos Are Worried The Worst Is Yet To Come. [online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidschwartz/2018/10/30/las-vegas-casinos-are-worried-the-worst-is-yet-to-come/#24f95b605fe3 [Accessed 19 October 2020].
University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 2020. The Great Vegas Turnaround. [online] Available at: https://www.unlv.edu/news/article/great-vegas-turnaround [Accessed 19 October 2020].