Experiences/descriptions of 20thC illegal gambling
February 25, 2021 9:54 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in hearing about or reading about cultures of illegal gambling businesses in physical places, in the twentieth century, but before the era of the internet.

I'm particularly interested in the hows of how people went about playing games of risk for money with strangers in the 20thC, in situations where that was against the law, and in the form of history, sociology, literary description, film, personal anecdote, anything.

I'm not interested in informal social gambling, i.e. between friends or workmates, or in legal gambling (track betting, casinos, bingo, etc.)

If you went to an illegal casino, or bookmakers, or place where games of risk were held, what was it like? What games were played, for what stakes—and was it a one-game operation or could you choose between games? How clandestine was it, did someone have to vouch for you or could you walk in off the street? Was it adjunct to another associated business, like a bar or club, or was it its own place? Did people dress up or down? Were chips or tokens used or was cash wagered directly? Was it dominated by one gender, or one race/ethnicity, or was it a mixed crowd? Was 'security' obvious or hidden? If there had been a police raid, would the consequences have been minor or serious?
posted by Fiasco da Gama to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about penetrating sociological insight, but illegal gambling plays a role in both Casablanca and--much more extensively--Gilda.
posted by praemunire at 10:25 PM on February 25, 2021

Also, Bob le Flambeur is primarily a heist film, but the title character's weakness is compulsive gambling, and he spends one long night failing to go home from illegal backroom card games in post-WWII Paris.
posted by praemunire at 10:40 PM on February 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Rounders was based on real underground game rooms in NYC, such as the Mayfair Club, and gets a fair amount of the detail correct.
posted by whisk(e)y neat at 10:48 PM on February 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

There were gambling ships anchored off the coast of Santa Monica and Long Beach, CA:

Dice Roll: Gambling on the High Seas (the Paris Review, May 2019) [Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.]

The Battle of Santa Monica Bay in 1939 (LAist, Aug. 8, 2009) Author Raymond Chandler, who wrote of Santa Monica and its gambling ships in his book “Farewell, My Lovely,” wrote in a personal letter dated October 12, 1944:

Alas that its [Santa Monica] gambling ships are no more. The present governor of California won his office by disposing of them. Others had tried (or pretended to) for years and years. But there was always the legal argument as to whether the 12-mile limit should be measured from this place or that. Warren solved it very simply, and no doubt, quite illegally. He commandeered enough boats and deputies to surround the ships and keep anyone from leaving them or reaching them. Then he just stayed there until they gave up.

[Gov. Earl Warren, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.]
posted by Iris Gambol at 10:50 PM on February 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Jimmy LaFontaine of Washington, DC, is an interesting character who ran the biggest casino on the eastern seaboard between New York and Miami in the period between the world wars. He operated a place on the line between the District of Columbia and Maryland, with gaming tables on wheels so they could be shifted over the line into another jurisdiction in the event of a raid (which is a variation on the gambling ships anchored offshore outside the twelve mile limit).
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 11:11 PM on February 25, 2021 [1 favorite]

Many of Joseph Wambaugh's excellent novels feature various illegal gambling activities as well as raids of gambling dens and games. As he was a field cop in LAPD for 14 years, the activity described is probably more accurate than non-cop writers.

I first read the Choirboys when I was 12; it was a birthday present from a friend of my dad's, what were they thinking??
posted by unearthed at 11:30 PM on February 25, 2021

Forgive me for citing a Wikipedia article rather than a book or a paper, but the numbers game Wikipedia page has a fairly detailed section on the history of one particular flavour of this kind of gambling in the US, and you might find some useful jumping-off points in the sources.
posted by terretu at 2:27 AM on February 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Confessions of a Yakuza for early 20th Century Japan dice games. There's a fair bit about the social structure around the games and the logistics of getting gamblers and money around the city after curfew that's pretty interesting.
posted by clockwork at 4:56 AM on February 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

My grandfather operated an illegal casino in Texas in the 1950s. I’ll comment further when I’m not on my phone!
posted by 8603 at 5:26 AM on February 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this counts, but Mahjong Parlors of Chinatown can have pretty big stakes, and people can win or lose hundreds a night. And that's pretty informal ones. There may be triad-protected ones that allow even bigger stakes, but that's more like lore or legends from times past (like 1980's) .
posted by kschang at 5:57 AM on February 26, 2021

Best answer: Here's an article about my grandfather, Tom C. Moore, that talks a little bit about the casino in San Antonio.

My grandfather was born in 1901 and stayed on the farm near Dallas until he was about 20. Then, from 1920-1950, he did various dubiously legal things around the state. In 1950 he married my grandmother and established what seems to have been a miniature full-featured casino that was physically attached to their house in the suburbs. This was really more out in the country then, on a big lot. There was a large steel door that connected the house and the casino. The main business was card games, blackjack, poker, but they also had craps tables, roulette, etc., sort of to create atmosphere. They had chips--we still have boxes and boxes of them. They had not one but two short-order cooks. I am 99% sure that the clientele was all white men wearing their office clothes, but I'm pretty sure the occasional Mexican would have been welcome if he had money to spend. Their social circle just did not overlap with black people at all, I'm sorry to say. This was a well-known operation that was tolerated by law enforcement from approximately 1950-1967--I don't know whether my grandfather specifically paid people off, or made large campaign contributions, or what. Consequences of a raid would have been dire, but they were never raided.

Then, as you see in the article above, my grandparents and mother moved to Reno for a few years in the late 60s to operate a (legitimate!) hotel-casino. When they returned to San Antonio in 1969-1970, until his death in 1979, he seems to have made the majority of his income making book on sports games. For example, our Thanksgiving and Christmas meals are to this day held on Wednesday night and Christmas Eve, because Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day are huge for the bowl games. When he was in the hospital for his ultimately fatal heart attack, he somehow got 2 phones in the room (in 1979!!!!!!) so he could transact all his business. At some point between 1974-1977, he was investigated by the FBI, there was a trial, etc., but my mother is understandably tight-lipped about this period. I don't know what the FBI wanted with him. Maybe they thought he was part of a larger organized crime syndicate? He was acquitted or case dismissed, anyway. Never write anything down, he said.

Hope this is helpful!!!!
posted by 8603 at 8:16 AM on February 26, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You used to need someone to introduce you to the place. You used to hear about them through the grapevine. In some cities taxi drivers used to work as the contacts and brokers for illegal businesses. One common pattern was for a taxi driver to be a pimp. When he took business travelers to their hotels he could lightly ask if they were going to look for some fun while they were in town "Strictly business trip, Sir?"

Then if they guy said he was looking for fun or pleasure they could sound out what he was looking for and advise him where or how, or handing him a matchbook with a contact phone number. Matchbooks were big and the standard item for passing information over. It might well be a matchbook from the bar where there were sex workers available and a backroom where the gambling was done.

If you were a sex worker this is how you worked as a call boy or call girl and the taxi driver(s) who passed on your info got tipped by you. "A guy driving a yellow cab gave me this number..."

Sometimes a guy who owed money to a casino would do favours for the casino by bringing new customers in. One of a group of buddies who met to play poker at one of their homes would suggest that the four of you go to "this club" he knows. The club would be willing to let the newcomers in because they recognized the customer who was bringing them.

Back when telephone calls and letters and telegrams were the means of long distance communication there were a lot of commercial travelers. This is why there were so many jokes about traveling salesmen. Thousands of men spent their lives going to other cities and trying to find retail buyers. Say a small factory made "genuine European style cookware", they would have a salesman or three on commission who would go to other cities and stop in to every store on main street likely to buy a dozen crepe pans. In those days there were plentiful department stores that were not chains, and so the salesman would want to talk to the buyers there. That's where the big sales were. And often taking them out for drinks was the price of making a sale. The drummer (salesman trying to drum up some sales) would be likely to make up a party. If you wanted to get drunk, or "meet some girls" or gamble a bit, he would pay for it. The sex workers would be paid by the salesman or even be included in the cover charge, which gave you plausible deniability as a customer since the sex worker would never mention money, so you could claim that you thought she was 'easy' and not in the trade. It was understood that if the salesman gave you fifty dollars worth of chips to gamble with that you in turn would have to make purchases that gave him more than fifty dollars worth of commission.

Nowadays we can compare prices on office supplies easily. Back then you had to look at the typed up price lists that the salesman left at the office. Purchasing departments were established in order to make the process more visible to the company owners - the company president might not want to go drinking in order to get a good price on stationery, but he also might want to be sure that his managers were actually going with the best price rather than the salesman who paid for the most chips.

There were generally guys who "knew everybody" so if you lived in a given city you could try taking a taxi and asking the taxi driver for a club, but if that didn't work you asked the people you worked with, and they would tell you who to ask. The guy was generally pretty sleazy and tried to look glamorous. Think of the rat pack.

It was essential for a gaming club to have a reputation for honesty. Just as bars nowadays have to work hard to attract the crowd as a popular location, so did the gaming clubs. Two or three patrons complaining to their friends that they think a place is rigged could wipe them out, so clubs did everything they could to maintain their reputation, and to be safe for the patrons. This is why they often tried to look so upscale and tuxedos were worn. "Let's get out of here, I don't like the look of this joint," was not what they wanted to hear their prospective patrons say after they walked in the door.

Clubs had door men and security whose job it was to keep the place running smoothly with no one acting unsavoury. If there was a raid, one of the priorities was to get the customers safely out. Often a crooked police officer would provide a tip, just in time to get the patrons out, and this was considered good practice - you really did NOT want to find yourself arresting the mayor's brother in law, let alone the mayor himself, so give them enough time to hustle out the back and then move in and arrest the usual suspects. This became so formalized that people knew that Wednesday night was raid night at the Black Cat - never a Friday or Saturday, of course, because that would disrupt business too much.

Where were plenty of smaller, blue collar establishments that didn't try to aim higher. There would be the bar where the guys who worked at the crepe pan factory went, and you asked if there was a "game in the back tonight" if you wanted to play, and everyone knew you there because you worked with half the other customers so they knew you weren't an undercover cop. They wouldn't have croupiers but would instead require a cut from the bets. It would be agreed upon that if you were betting a hundred they got five, or some such figure so it cost you a hundred and five to place the bet. If the place was successful there would be multiple tables in the back. It would still just be poker tables, not slots or roulette. If there was trouble any money could get stuffed into pockets and if there was nothing in sight the cops couldn't prove there was gambling for money going on - after all it was legal to play poker for nothing but chips.

Places were highly segregated. There were black clubs and white clubs and you could get thrown out of anywhere or not allowed in if you didn't quite fit the milieu. Black and gay clubs were more likely to be treated badly and subject to police brutality simply because it was safer, with little risk of the cops getting in trouble for it. You might find the mayors brother in law in a gay club, but rather it would be bad for his reputation and he would claim the broken jaw was from a car accident, rather than brazening it out, unlike if there was a raid in an upscale joint that go out of hand.

Since places that did illegal gambling usually also did illegal liquor and prostitution they were not places that respectable women went. Respectable woman in this context means women not willing to put up with sexual harassment and the risk of sexual assault. Saleswomen did not bring customers to these places. There basically were no saleswomen as they could only operate successfully in a milieu where the buyers were also women and those would have been quite rare. However if the mayor's wife wanted to gamble they either held a private party at her home with invited guests - including some who were in the casino business and organized it for her, or went to the most upscale clubs.

Small gambling joints were the majority. Nowadays people buy lottery tickets. Back then there were small shopping districts everywhere and bars and taverns all over the place, far, far more small businesses. These small businesses were vulnerable to organized crime. If there were two poker tables in the back of Frank's bar, a stranger who knew about it could walk in with a gun, grab all the cash in sight and walk out. So very often the small gambling place paid protection to prevent that. It wasn't that the protection prevented them from being held up by random thugs, but prevented them from being held up repeatedly by the crime organization itself.

(There is a story about the hold up man who burst into such an establishment and jumped on the table with a shot gun and fired a shot into the ceiling demanding the players turn over all their cash. However they were reluctant to obey so in order to encourage them to hurry he fired off the shotgun again...)

In order to protect such small gambling operations they were often peripatetic. You had to know someone who would tell you where the gambling was going to take place any given night. One night it might be at Frank's bar, the next night at the Lebanese Club, the next night in the back of the Laundromat on fourth street. You called your contact and they told you. This made it harder for both the cops or criminals to break the place up. You had to have an in. Because they were small and organized on a small scale they would often disappear and reappear. "They used to have a game in the basement of the shoe store on Ohio Avenue" was the kind of dead end that led to it taking a few days to find a place you could go. Eventually the guy who fixed your furnace or your kid brother could tell you where there was a game you could join.

Most gambling was low stakes, just as most gambling now is of poorer people buying a few lottery tickets. With no legal outlet for gambling in many areas low stakes gambling flourished. You didn't have to go to the race track to place bets on a race. "Where can a guy go to place a bet?" was the kind of question that a cigarette girl expected. You would tip her for the information. A bartender or taxi driver or cigarette girl who sent cops to location would not get a kickback but they would be doing it for the tips anyway.

Some establishments had a constant problem with people looking for a good time. For example the TicTac or the Hawaii Club might be well known and well advertised, but stick strictly to liquor. The locals would know this but they might get a steady stream of visitors from out of town, three a night who would wander in and ask to "get in on a game" or "place a bet". Of course the club that didn't have any connections to gambling might answer exactly the same way as one that didn't accept strangers, insisting there was no game here.

Knowing this stuff was part of the pre-information age. You needed to know which of the various small shoe repair shops would actually get your shoes re-soled overnight when they said they would, and which corner store would give credit and which customer was good for credit and a guy who could get you French letters since you couldn't buy them at the drugstore and wanted to use them with your spouse as birth control, and which bus took you to Welland Heights and which motel rented rooms to black customers. Word of mouth and the grapevine was big.

It was completely common for someone to walk into an establishment, see who was there and turn around and go out again. Whoops! This store is black/white/too upscale/doesn't sell perishables/is full of drunks/is for Italians, etc.

There were city directories and telephone books, of course, but also some of the strangest things were also city directories. For example in a small town the high school year book might be a city directory with the ads in the back that covered printing cost also being a guide to stores and bars. I've also seen cookbooks put out with the same kind of information.

Barbershops were a place you could ask for this type of information at the time of day when the bars were closed. They frequently sold birth control when it was illegal.

Coded language provided plausible deniability and clues as to where to get information. "He's a good time guy" might mean that he was a two-timer you shouldn't go out with because he would cheat on you, but might also mean he was a paying customer for sex, or the contact you could try to find out where to go to "party." Partying in turn meant going to an establishment that provided illegal services. "Mostly respectable" meant you couldn't do it there but they could tell you where you could do it. "Respectable" or "Well-run" meant you shouldn't even ask except when well-run was the description of a gambling joint, in which case it meant the house was square and they had paid off the police so there would be no raids.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:31 AM on February 26, 2021 [11 favorites]

Nick Pelling's Cipher Mysteries blog has several articles about underground gambling in Melbourne, Australia in the 1940s, related to the Somerton Man case. This one is a pretty good starting point, and searching for 'baccarat' will find more.
posted by offog at 2:22 PM on February 26, 2021

The Wiki article on Barbary Coast has lots of details about gambling dives and related diversions.
posted by ovvl at 2:26 PM on February 26, 2021

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