There are tales of tremendous good luck ($25 million from slots?), dubious capitalism (atomic bomb parties?), and disgusting personal hygiene (adult diapers to keep a hot streak going?). Some of the most interesting facts about casinos and gambling come from societies where it isn’t allowed, proving that it’s hard to keep people from the allure of a potential big win.
Gamblers in Japan are forced to exploit a huge legal loophole to get their fix, while one of the world’s most famous casinos in Monaco forbids locals from playing at all. In the United States, Las Vegas reigns supreme, but Indian reservation casinos across the country are a huge force in the industry as well – despite humble origins. Here are some of the craziest, most interesting facts you probably don’t know about the wild world of casinos and gambling.
It sounds like a sick joke straight out of Fallout: New Vegas, but it’s true: starting in 1951, the U.S. Department of Energy began detonating more than one thousand test nukes just 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, a scary spectacle that “turned night into day” and left mushroom clouds visible from casinos in the burgeoning tourist hotspot. Vegas being Vegas, the city turned the horror show into a business opportunity, promoting the detonation times via official Chamber of Commerce calendars touting Atomic Bomb Parties and offering special “atomic cocktails” at casino bars. There was even a “Miss Atomic Energy” beauty pageant at one casino, complete with little mushroom cloud outfits!
“Card counting” is a perfectly legal strategy in blackjack that involves keeping track of which cards have been dealt and which remain in the deck as you play. Movies like Rain Man and 21 make card counting seem like wizardry, but it’s actually fairly simple arithmetic. That hasn’t stopped casinos around the world from stopping card counting, however, especially if the player is less-than-subtle in their approach (actor Ben Affleck, for example, was banned from a casino in 2014 for his trickery). Besides asking players to leave or play another game, casinos also combat card counting by changing the rules slightly or shuffling the deck more often.
The Japanese have devised a loophole to allow gamblers to get their fix: while casinos are illegal in the country, Pachinko parlors are not. Pachinko is a slot machine-like game that earns players little silver balls. The balls can be traded for alcohol, toys, or other prizes … but you can also ask for “special prize” tokens. These tokens can be redeemed at separate, state-regulated shops for cash, thus enabling gamblers to earn money in a country that technically forbids gambling.
Here’s an inspiring story for aspiring gamblers and small business owners: the founder of FedEx saved his floundering company by gambling in Vegas, earning $27,000 in blackjack! The company only had $5,000 in its coffers when Frederick Smith decided to fly to Vegas in 1973 and risk it all. Though this isn’t good investment or business advice in general, Smith’s gamble paid off, allowing the company to last long enough to raise $11 million and eventually earn its first profits in 1976.
Gambling and superstition go hand-in-hand, so it’s not surprising that some mystical properties have been assigned to some popular casino games. The biblical “Number of the Beast” makes an appearance in every casino with a roulette wheel: if you add up all the numbers on the wheel, you get 666! The coincidence, coupled with gambling’s knack for ruining lives, has earned the roulette wheel the nickname “The Devil’s Wheel.”
Gamblers playing roulette in America are going to have a slightly harder time winning. Originally a French game, Americans have tweaked the formula to include 38 instead of 37 possible places for the ball to land (adding a “00” as well as a “0” house pocket to the wheel). It used to be worse: in 1866, a version of the game featuring an American Eagle symbol added yet another opportunity for the house to win it all.