"Where did gambling come from?" asks David G. Schwartz at the start of his newly-published Roll the Bones: Casino Edition, a comprehensive history of gambling in general and casinos in particular. From there Schwartz carries the reader through the centuries-long tale of humans' fascination with gambling games, highlighting in particular the absorbing story of the birth and growth of casinos throughout the world.
Roll the Bones: Casino Edition not only provides the reader much to consider regarding the origins of man's gambling urge, but offers a thorough examination of the growth of gambling and casino culture over the last several centuries as well. Thus does Schwartz's book not only give readers an idea of where gambling came from, but also where it has been, and even where it might be going.
For more than a decade Schwartz has served as Director for the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. There Schwartz oversees the Center's fellowship program while also helping maintain the world's largest collection of scholarly research and source documents on gaming. During his time at UNLV Schwartz has produced three book-length studies of gambling culture, including an earlier edition of Roll the Bones published in 2006.
As Schwartz explains in a prefatory note, this new "Casino Edition" of Roll the Bones omits some of the earlier version's discussion of non-casino games such as lotteries and horse racing. Meanwhile, material covering the birth and growth of Las Vegas has been expanded, as have discussions of Atlantic City. Additionally, attention is afforded to more recent developments happening since the book's original edition, including the recession's effects on the gambling industry in America and the rise of casinos in Asia (particularly Macau).
Even with the paring down, the new edition still contains a wealth of information regarding gambling's early history and the many precursors to casino gambling. Schwartz spends the first four chapters accompanying the reader all over Europe of the early modern era, with visits to the ridotto and casini in Italy, the gambling spas in France, Germany, and Russia, as well as the English gambling houses along the way.
Schwartz fleshes out the narrative with a thorough presentation of the various legal battles that have always been part of gambling's history. He also shares numerous anecdotes regarding notable gamblers from Casanova to Dostoevsky as they partook in a variety games including roulette, blackjack, craps, baccarat, and whist.
From there Schwartz travels across the Atlantic to provide a detailed overview of the last two-plus centuries of gambling in America. Four more chapters move the story through the 19th century as Schwartz describes faro and poque games in New Orleans, card games on Mississippi steamboats, dice and poker during the Civil War, and gambling's "industrial revolution" including the first slot machines and poker machines.
Next Schwartz tells of the relative successes of anti-gambling crusades in early 20th century America, followed by changing laws and in particular the rise of Nevada as the country's preeminent gambling destination. Here the author ably analyzes the many forces at play -- including that of organized crime -- from which emerged the first large hotel-casinos and formation of the Vegas strip.
Each of the major Vegas casinos receives attention, from Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo to Binion's Horseshoe to Caesars, the Golden Nugget, and the first MGM on up through the Bellagio, Venetian, Wynn, and more. Gradual shifts of emphasis marking Vegas through the decades are outlined as well, including the industry's eventual shedding of its mob-influenced origins as well as attempts by Vegas to evolve into a vacation destination for families and non-gamblers.
Schwartz then turns to discuss the emergence, growth, and struggles of Atlantic City as an alternative gambling destination for Americans in the late 20th century. Schwartz also documents the growth of casinos to other states and reservations from the 1980s onward and the accompanying "mainstreaming" of gambling in the U.S.
Latter chapters then look at more recent challenges being faced by the casinos, including the economy's downturn in recent years as well as the emergence of online gambling. Schwartz likewise dedicates a chapter to the rapid growth of casinos in Asia, including Macau's recent replacement of Vegas as the world's foremost gaming center.
Roll the Bones: Casino Edition is a thoroughly engaging read, filled with entertaining and informative stories of visionaries, hucksters, criminals, and risk-takers of all stripes. Indeed, like a busy casino filled with alluring attractions occupying every available space, each page of Schwartz's history should contain something of interest to anyone curious about humans' urge to gamble and how casinos came to be a favored place to satisfy that urge.
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