Nevada Legalizes Gambling

Nevada governor Fred B. Balzar signed two bills that would have major impacts on the state’s image and economy. The first bill legalized most forms of gambling within the state, and the second made divorce easier in Nevada than in other states by cutting the necessary period of residency to six weeks.

Summary of Event

Nevada’s legalization of gambling followed a tradition that predated clanging slot machines or glittering casinos. Its roots lay in the state’s frontier past, when the first white settlers—cattlemen, sheepherders, miners, and the mountain men of the wilderness—came to northern Nevada. Gambling and liquor were always available to fill lonely workers’ idle hours in the mining camps and boom towns that sprang up around the state. Frontier conditions also bred a libertarian attitude toward personal behavior that not even the state’s strong Mormon influence could shake. [kw]Nevada Legalizes Gambling (Mar. 19, 1931)
[kw]Gambling, Nevada Legalizes (Mar. 19, 1931)
Gambling, Nevada
Nevada, gambling
[g]United States;Mar. 19, 1931: Nevada Legalizes Gambling[07790]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 19, 1931: Nevada Legalizes Gambling[07790]
[c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 19, 1931: Nevada Legalizes Gambling[07790]
[c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 19, 1931: Nevada Legalizes Gambling[07790]
Tobin, Phil M.
Balzar, Fred B.
Smith, Raymond I.

Nevada gained statehood in 1865. Two years later, the first state governor, Henry G. Blasdel, vetoed an act to legalize gambling. His objection was based on moral grounds, but in 1869 the state legislature overrode Blasdel’s veto. Gambling remained legal in Nevada for the next forty years, and the state also had some of the era’s most liberal divorce laws, which required a residency of only six months before papers were filed.

In 1910, under pressure from Progressives and other reformers both in and outside of Nevada, gambling was outlawed. Over the next few years, the legislature ventured a few changes around the edges of the gambling laws—exempting private card games, for example—but the legislation remained largely intact. However, this did not mean that gambling stopped. “Key clubs” flourished in Reno, and they had guarded entries and other subterfuges. Almost any town large enough to support an undercover gambling den had one, or several, and police generally overlooked them (with or without a bit of bribery).

By 1931, the Progressive Era had waned, and both the Great Depression and Prohibition Prohibition had taken hold on the national scene. Nevada was especially hard hit when, in 1930, the production of silver—still one of the state’s major industries—and other minerals fell to less than half the previous year’s figures. Livestock production also began a downward slide in the late 1920’s, and although Nevada had not yet felt the full force of the Depression by 1931, businessmen and politicians were aware of the need for other economic stimuli to replace the losses.

George Wingfield, a leading banker and Reno hotel owner, and Thomas H. Carroll, an influential Las Vegas real estate agent, were outspoken in their belief that legalized gambling and an even more liberalized divorce law could bring tourist dollars into the state. Almost as important in changing the climate of opinion, however, was the public’s disillusion with the results of prohibiting gambling. The 1910 law was unenforceable, and despite frequent efforts to strengthen its regulation, gambling flourished in back rooms all over the state, and most police and officials were indifferent to it. Of course, by this time the United States had also adopted Prohibition, which had similar results. One state alone could not change the Eighteenth Amendment (1917), but the Nevada statute forbidding gambling could be overturned by one session of the legislature.

By the time that body met in 1931, both legislators and public were ready to end Nevada’s prohibition of gambling. There had been low-key discussion in local newspapers, but the only strong voices opposing legalization came from women’s clubs and some religious groups, and they were a minority. Finding a representative to sponsor a bill, however, was not easy. Although many thought legalizing gambling was a good idea, few politicians wanted to “own” the bill. Finally, on February 13, Phil M. Tobin, a freshman assemblyman from Humboldt County, introduced Assembly Bill 98. Winnemucca, Tobin’s hometown, had recently polled its chamber of commerce members about legalized gambling. All but one of the sixty-nine members favored legalization, a fact that provided some cover for Tobin.

The bill sailed through Nevada’s assembly and senate with very little opposition. On March 19, it was signed by Governor Fred B. Balzar and was slated to take immediate effect. On the same day, Balzar also signed a bill that lowered the residency period for divorce to an unprecedented six weeks. Divorce law, Nevada The new divorce legislation went into effect on May 1, 1931. Provisions of the gambling law were fairly simple. Licensing was done by city or county officials, who imposed a modest fee that was similar to building and other business licenses. Only some years later, when gambling mushroomed into a giant enterprise and shady characters from outside the state made inroads into casino ownership, did the state’s modern complex of laws, licenses, and regulations develop.

The law’s immediate economic impact was underwhelming. The Bank Club in Reno, the city’s largest casino, remodeled in anticipation of the new law and held a gala grand opening on the night the law took effect. However, most card clubs and other establishments were used to keeping a low profile, and there was confusion at first about just what legal licensing entailed. Most gambling stayed in the back rooms where it had previously operated. Advertising was mostly by word of mouth.

Reno, the state’s largest city, expected to prosper from the law. It did so, but for the first five years, the economic impact of the divorce legislation was much larger than that of gambling. The was because divorce was difficult to get in many jurisdictions. The only grounds allowed for divorce in New York State were adultery, and in booming California, just across the mountains, there were still rigorous provisions. As a result of its lenient policies, Reno gained a growing reputation as a glittering “big little city” visited by celebrities, surrounded by dude ranches and spectacular scenery.

In 1931, Las Vegas had a population of only around five thousand people. It was much more focused on the Boulder Dam project, which was just getting under way some few miles south, than it was on legalized gambling as a route to prosperity. Smaller cities, especially Elko and Sparks, had mixed feelings toward the new law, and they tried to minimize its impact by denying licenses. In general, Nevada officials maintained a cautious approach for several years; they feared that the Puritan influence of other states might prompt federal interference that would kill the infant industry.

This began to change with the advent of Harold’s Club, Harold’s Club (casino)[Harolds Club] which opened in 1936 on Reno’s Virginia Street. Harold Smith, the owner, and his father, Raymond I. “Pappy” Smith, a public relations genius, put the casino and the city on the map through advertising and clever innovations. The elder Smith had “Harold’s Club or Bust” signs placed all over the nation’s highways and even in other countries, and this made people around the world curious about the little casino. The Smiths also designed a roulette game that was operated by mice. A little mouse ran around and around the wheel, and whichever hole he dived into was the winning number. This created valuable buzz and helped end the taboo against women in casinos; women could now use the excuse of going in to watch cute little mice. With these two advertising innovations and a customer base that included both sexes, legalized gambling was able to become a tourist attraction and economic engine for Nevada.


The two bills signed by Governor Balzar in March of 1931 had significant effects. Legalized gambling ultimately led to giant, corporate-managed casinos, with the Las Vegas Strip drawing visitors from the entire world. Because of its economic impact, that city and its suburbs became some of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Furthermore, Nevada’s success with legal gambling led to its demystification and its acceptance by a wide segment of the U.S. population. Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Native American tribes became the most notable investors in casinos, which brought prosperity to depressed areas and peoples. In addition, many states adopted lotteries (still forbidden in Nevada by the state constitution) as a revenue source.

The significance of the liberalized divorce legislation is harder to assess. For several decades it did contribute to Nevada’s influx of tourists and gave rise to dude ranches and other western-themed attractions in northern Nevada. Since the 1970’s, when no-fault divorce became available in most states, few of Nevada’s visitors came to the state simply to get a divorce. In fact, Las Vegas’s wedding chapels became more of a draw. The six-week residency requirement did not have a major influence on other states’ divorce requirements. Gambling, Nevada
Nevada, gambling

Further Reading

  • Barker, Thomas, and Marjie Britz. Jokers Wild: Legalized Gambling in the Twenty-First Century. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004. Topical treatment, with analysis of gambling as legitimate industry, gangster involvement, state-run lotteries, and gambling’s effect on communities.
  • Hulse, James W. The Silver State: Nevada’s Heritage Reinterpreted. 3d ed. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2004. Overview of Nevada history, from original Native American inhabitants to the late twentieth century population boom. Photographs, maps, and extensive bibliography.
  • Laxalt, Robert. Nevada: A Bicentennial History. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1977. Nevada history told in an informal style, with emphasis on colorful people and bizarre events that shaped the state. Chapter on “The Sin State” traces the state’s reputation back to an 1897 prizefight.


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