Cruise Casinos and Gambling on Rivers and at Sea

Victoria Riverboat Casino, Elgin, Illinois
Bruce Leighty/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Cruises used to be one of the few places you could find casino gambling in the United States outside of Las Vegas or Atlantic City. A cruise ship would leave port, and the casino would open as soon as the ship was three miles offshore in international waters. (The three-mile limit was set in the last century as the boundary of the United States because it was the maximum distance that shore-based cannons could fire.) Casino gambling was a big shipboard activity, especially for those that lived far away from Las Vegas or Atlantic City. That idea has certainly changed in the United States with the onset of state-operated river gambling casinos and those run by Native American tribes.

History of Riverboat Gambling

Riverboat gambling is not a completely new phenomenon. Many American history buffs remember the romance attached to the riverboat gambler of the nineteenth century. It was not a change in public morality that caused the demise of the riverboat. The emergence of the railroads as a better transportation medium and the outbreak of the Civil War were the precipitating factors. Trains were more reliable and were faster than the riverboats. The War Between the States interrupted virtually all river travel and abruptly diminished gambling in that area.

Today's Riverboat Casinos

The last decades of the twentieth century found states looking for new revenue sources that would be appealing to voters. Many states began allowing riverboats to offer casino gambling. Many of these boats are really stationary barges that never leave the dock. They are moored on a river, lake or ocean permanently. States sold casino gambling to their voters by limiting the gambling to riverboats. The rationale for this was not only the physical restrictions but also the time limitation. Gamblers with a set time of two or three hours might not lose as much as if the time were unrestricted. At first, these riverboats would "sail" down a river or around a lake or bay. As time has passed, more and more of them never leave the dock. In addition, because of competition amongst neighboring states, many riverboat cruises no longer limit the time per "gambling excursion". This competition has also caused many states to significantly raise the gambling limits that were set when the riverboat gaming parlors were first established in the 1980's and 1990's.

Laws and Allowances

Native American tribes have also gotten on the casino bandwagon. They are allowed to set up gambling casinos because of their sovereign nation status. Native American tribes existed as sovereign governments long before European settlers first arrived in North America. The tribal nations signed treaties with European nations and later the United States in exchange for land. These treaties guaranteed the tribes continued recognition and treatment as sovereigns.

Modern riverboat casinos were first legalized in 1989 in Iowa, then Illinois followed closely by Missouri, Indiana, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The type of gaming allowed on riverboat casinos varies by jurisdiction. Generally, the states allow the playing of traditional casino games such as blackjack, roulette, and slots. In addition to the riverboat and tribal casinos, some states have begun allowing "cruises to nowhere" that take passengers out beyond the three-mile limit for one night or weekend gambling cruises. As a result of these new gaming opportunities, casino gambling, including Native American gaming, is legal in over half the fifty United States, and most of the casinos have been built in the last 10 years.

Cruising and Gambling

What does all of this mean to the cruising enthusiast? Fortunately for those who like to gamble, cruise lines continue to build bigger and more elaborate onboard casinos. Many passengers consider them an essential feature of the cruise experience, and ships ranging from luxury to mainstream all have casinos.

One of the best parts about gambling at sea is that the cruise ship dealers and other casino workers are more patient and willing to help a beginner learn the games than in Las Vegas. Most cruise ship passengers are on vacation to enjoy the cruise, and gambling is just one small piece of their trip. Therefore, the casino is competing with other shipboard activities. At one time, a cruise might be the first gaming exposure for many passengers. With the advent of riverboat and Native American tribe casinos, this is not necessarily true anymore.

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