Gambling's Nemesis: Cheating
It's an open secret that in the earlier days in Las Vegas, prosperity as the gambling capital of the nation most casinos were dishonest, at least some of the tables or in some games.
Dealers had a habit of letting some of the house's winnings stick to their fingers as they worked, and management had a way of fixing equipment and cooking up schemes to fleece visiting yokels from Texas or California.
More than one dealer was fired in those days for refusing to help cheat unsuspecting suckers.
The explanation for management's crookedness is even simpler than the explanation of why people gamble: greed. Realizing that they had the choice of setting slot machines at 80-percent return to the house or five percent return, those early casino managers hardly hesitated.
How could anybody have any trouble choosing between 80 cents and five cents? In the same way, it seemed obvious that to fix the roulette wheel to give the house more than its legitimate mathematical odds was only good business.
Why take six percent a night when you could take 60? Although customers who lost in Las Vegas, or in other (illegal) casinos around the country would grumble that they were being had, they only half-believed it.
Besides, there was no way to prove such suspicions, and if you liked to gamble, you had to go where the action was, even if it was dishonest.
Many buyers into Las Vegas casinos in the first years were themselves hustlers, people who had made a living with a poker scheme, for example, moving around the country fleecing the locals and then moving before anyone suspected them.
What has brought about this change is not decreased eagerness on the part of gamblers to take money, but the realization that patience and playing it straight may actually make you more green in the long run without the risk of getting busted.
Just as advertising and big business is more enticing to quarterbacks than throwing the game for some gambler, high finance has become more attractive to casino owners than cheating some sucker from Oklahoma out of a few thousand dollars.
One catalyst for this change, at least in Las Vegas, was Howard Hughes.
In the four years he remained in Las Vegas, Hughes bought more than 500 million dollars' worth of Las Vegas, including five hotels and two casinos.
In the process, he bought a new image for the little desert tin spot and taught the world of big business something about the value of gambling.
By the time Hughes's reign was over, hotels and casinos were being bought by giant corporations, organizations that ran them like businesses instead of clip joints.
Howard Hughes even tried to evict prostitutes from his hotels and casinos, a move that did not sit well with his customers. Nevada ultimately legalized prostitution, once again leading the nation in turning a vice into a source of revenue for the state.
As quickly and mysteriously as he had come, he exited from Las Vegas, going to what was to be his last stop, the Bahamas.
But the face of Nevada was forever changed. Changes had been at work across the country, too, as more and more localities looked favorably on gambling as a means of raising money for government.
Gambling was no longer a half-hidden, sleazy rip-off; it was big business.