Back Room Gambling in the Good Ol’ Days

In America for most of the 20th century, laying a bet was strictly illegal except at regulated horse and dog tracks and a few isolated outposts in the far West.  Just as with the banning of alcohol in the 1920s, the prohibition of gambling resulted in an underground world of back room poker games, crap tables, and roulette wheels in cities and their environs throughout the United States.

Bill Miller's Riviera Nightclub had a gambling room on the top floor

Ben Marden’s Riviera Nightclub was located at the end of the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey with views toward Manhattan.  Its small gambling room at the top of the club was expanded after World War II by new owner Bill Miller.  Headliners at the Riviera included Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis.

Ramshackle roadhouses, speakeasies, bars, nightclubs, hotels, and private homes hosted illegal betting parlors.

This modest roadhouse outside of Chicago was busted for back room gambling

And there were famous carpet joints – large upscale restaurant-nightclubs with plush carpeting – that catered to the well-to-do in the resort communities of Hot Springs, Arkansas; New York’s Saratoga Springs; Palm Springs; and South Florida.  It’s amazing to realize that illegal gambling was common and exceptionally widespread prior to its legalization in (far off) Nevada, Atlantic City in 1976 and at Indian reservations in the 1980s.

The Clover Club on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles was a posh carpet joint

Amongst gamblers, a “clean” operation meant that there were no rigged games, loaded dice, altered roulette wheels, or card sharks preying on the unsuspecting.  As a result, clean clubrooms attracted the biggest high rollers.

New Orleans was privileged to have a number of upscale gambling parlors that were located just outside the city limits.  Two of the most popular were O’Dwyer’s and the Old Southport Club, which had no qualms about featuring its gambling room on picture postcards.

O'Dwyer's just outs the New Orleans city limits was a full-service gambling facility

The Old Southport Club outside New Orleans was proud of its roulette parlor as seen in this postcard

On the night of March 19, 1931 the saloons of Fremont Street in the dusty town of Las Vegas, just 26 miles from Boulder City, legally added ‘casino’ to their names as they opened their swinging doors to the dam builders.  For the first time, wide open gambling was legal in the United States.  Yet, except for Reno with its status as America’s divorce capital, there was little incentive to make the arduous trek to distant Nevada to enjoy a legal poker game, pull the handle of a slot machine, or throw the dice.  As a result, illegal gambling continued to thrive throughout the country.

Fremont Street in all its neon glory

It would not be until after the Second World War when Las Vegas remade itself into a destination worthy of the effort that America began to pay attention.  With its modern décor and sophisticated night club atmosphere, Bugsy Siegel’s Flamingo Hotel situated just outside the Las Vegas city limits – then only six hours northeast of Los Angeles by car – was the catalyst that would soon drain the illegal clubs of their best customers.  The days of the back room craps table were about to end.

The legal way to spend your hard earned paycheck

About Peter Moruzzi

Author and historian Peter Moruzzi is passionate about the middle decades of the 20th century: its nightlife, classic dining, and architecture. Born in Concord, Massachusetts and raised in Hawaii, Moruzzi graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and later attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. In 1999, he founded the Palm Springs Modern Committee (PS ModCom) an architectural preservation group. He is the author of "Havana Before Castro: When Cuba Was a Tropical Playground," "Palm Springs Holiday: A Vintage Tour From Palm Springs to the Salton Sea," "Classic Dining:Discovering America's Finest Mid-Century Restaurants," "Palm Springs Paradise: Vintage Photographs from America's Desert Playground," and "Greetings from Los Angeles."
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25 Responses to Back Room Gambling in the Good Ol’ Days

  1. Hi, I am researching information on casinos and gambling in the 1920s as part of a project. Could you possibly direct me to the sources of your information if possible? I could use a lot of help.

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  2. close window says:

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  3. fairly beneficial material, overall I imagine this is worthy of a book mark, thanks a lot

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  4. Have you given any kind of consideration at all with translating your main website into French? I know a couple of of translaters here which might help you do it for free if you want to contact me personally.

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    • Gosh, I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never heard of Epiphany. It’s amazing that I can operate my own computer and manage a blog given such ignorance. Sorry about that.

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  7. My husband was Joseph Nesline, the godfather of D.C. In my book Lucky 325, Everything is Predestined, Nothing is by Chance, I wrote about my life with the “Boys”. I entertained all of Joe’s friends in organized crime and travelled with him all over the world setting up the casino for Meyer Lansky. Check out my web page Lucky325.com. Josephine Nesline Alvarez

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  8. DeSoto says:

    One small addition to this sinful subject of illegal gambling: The Kau-Kau Korner Drive-In in Honolulu built a modern concrete building in 1941, emulating the look of existing Southern California drive-ins, and upstairs behind the curved glass-block facade was a small gambling parlor which included slot machines. I have a souvenir silver dollar with sticker on one side that shows the Kau-Kau Korner logo. It was in among my grandmother’s possessions when she died in 1974, and knowing her, she might very well have been a patron there a few times.

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  9. Mark Jefferson says:

    Didn’t know about any of these. THANKS for posting. Terrific photos. The Washington, DC area had a number of these places across the border in Maryland, many in old Hyattsville along US Route 1, many of them survived well into the 1950’s……

    Liked by 1 person

    • Russ says:

      Mark,
      Joe Nesline was a boss gambler in the DC area for years. He was an associated of several well known Genovese family members. He worked in Havana for a while, had some clubs in DC and in Maryland. There were also a lot of legal slot machine clubs in Maryland, especially along US 301 around Waldorf until they were shut down in 1968. Some were places with showrooms and name entertainment. The slots paid the bills and made a lot of profit. There was always talk about who actually ran those places. According to one article about it, “nearly 5,000 legal slot machines operated around the clock in Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, and St. Mary’s counties” from 1948 to 1968.

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  10. Erica Morawski says:

    I have to concur with Russ, great post. I am intrigued by all of your avenues of interest, especially your work on Havana. I am grad student in Art History (specializing in the history of design and architecture) writing my dissertation on hotel design, tourism, and urbanism in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Havana. Would love to email off the blog if possible, I have some questions about your work and your amazing collection of ephemera!

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  11. Wow, I’m very intrigued by the Hot Springs, Arkansas connection. I’m going to check out the Vapors and the others. Thanks for letting me know. How did you find my blog?

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    • Russ says:

      I’ve been reading it for a while and also subscribe to updates. have your Havana and Palm Springs books. I also commented on a couple of other posts earlier. I have a big interest in illegal gambling clubs, especially since my parents used to take me to Hot Springs in the 1960s when they were still flourishing. I was too young to get into the casinos, but slots machines were at just about every restaurant in the city at the time.

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    • Rebecca Carey says:

      Do you know anything about the the Original Club Forest in New Orleans, LA? My Grandfather was from Harahan LA, (born in 1908, died in 1996) and among his things left to my Mother (now deceased, and items given to me) were a Pilcher face powder compact and a brass ashtray (both unused and in their original packaging) with Original Club Forest (407 Jefferson Highway, New Orleans, LA) advertising on them. I’ve done research and don’t come up with much except that it was an illegal gambling joint in Jefferson Parrish, New Orleans, LA, and possibly owned by George and Rudy O’Dwyer. Seeing the picture of O’Dwyer’s above makes me think there’s a connection, and someone may be interested in these pieces of New Orleans history. Thanks for your time. Rebecca

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Rebecca,

        My knowledge of the Original Club Forest is limited to what I have below. I was going to do more research on the subject until my book was pulled from production…but I’m hoping to find another publisher. Thanks for contacting me and I love the idea that you have some great stuff from such a renowned gambling joint.

        “Given its embrace of all things forbidden it is not surprising to find that New Orleans was rife with illegal gambling clubs. Actually, most of the clubs were located in adjacent Jefferson Parish just outside New Orleans city limits. Some of the most popular were the Old Southport Club, ODwyers, and the Original Club Forest.”

        “The Original Club Forest, a gambling club also on the Jefferson Highway, was both fireproof and air conditioned.”

        Best regards,

        Peter Moruzzi

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      • chaillemount says:

        Club Forest was owned by Henry Mills, my great-grandfather, and 2 of his brothers. I’m looking for more stories as well. Did you gind more information in your research?

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        • Actually, I did not do any specific research on Club Forest. How fascinating that your great-grandfather and other family members owned Club Forest. Here’s the little that I know: Given its embrace of all things forbidden it is not surprising to find that New Orleans was rife with illegal gambling clubs. Actually, most of the clubs were located in adjacent Jefferson Parish just outside New Orleans’ city limits. Some of the most popular were the Old Southport Club, O’Dwyer’s, and the Original Club Forest. The Original Club Forest was both fireproof and air conditioned.

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  12. Russ says:

    Great post.
    I posted some photos from illegal gambling clubs in Hot Springs, Ark., on a Facebook group page. The casinos there ran wide open until 1965, and on the sly until 1967.
    The big ones were the Vapors, the Southern Club and The Belvedere Country Club.
    Here’s one of the photos
    Casino at The vapors:

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