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Works like Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas feature stories that transcend the casino genre, exploring themes that could easily appeal to those with little interest in poker or roulette. However, those with a keener interest in the mechanics of the casino industry may be better served by the non-fiction genre.
These books can often read more like gripping novels, as the real stories of those in the casino business can be as wild as any work of fiction. With that in mind, here are three essential books for anyone looking to learn more about the intricacies of the casino industry.
David G. Schwartz: Roll the Bones
For a broad but compelling overview of the history of gambling, Schwartz’s Roll the Bones is the ideal starting point. Betting wasn’t invented in Las Vegas, while modern table games haven’t always looked the way they do today. Those games are the result of thousands of years of development, with different cultures placing their own spin on the world of gambling. Schwartz’s epic journey through history takes us from the prehistoric rolling of knucklebones right up to the rise of Las Vegas as a modern tourist destination.
Schwartz not only takes us through time, but he also takes us across continents; the book explores everything from twelfth-century China, where playing cards were invented, to the role of the British Empire in spreading gambling across the world. The ambition of Schwartz’s work makes it a must-read for anyone fascinated by the history of gambling.
Warren Nelson: Always Bet on the Butcher
Always Bet on the Butcher is a distinctive piece of oral history that takes us through Warren Nelson’s experience of the American gambling industry from the 1930s to the 1980s. Nelson gives his unique perspective on the development of the casinos in the US, beginning against the backdrop of the Great Depression and ending with Nelson as a key figure in Las Vegas. Nelson tells true tales that are as memorable as any work of fiction.
One story from the 1940s explains how one casino operator used live mice in a roulette table, with a mouse scurrying about the wheel until it chose a hole to settle into – the number above that hole would be the winner. That variation didn’t catch on; an online collection of roulette casino games may include 3D titles or a version with a Superman theme, but it is a mouse-free zone. As a renowned innovator himself, it is the work of the likes of Nelson that paved the way for so many modern variations of online casino games.
Nelson Johnson: Boardwalk Empire
Many casino books written by American authors inevitably end up with a strong focus on Las Vegas. Nelson Johnson’s Boardwalk Empire bucks the trend, instead delivering a remarkable insight into the life of casinos in Atlantic City. Despite being a New York Times bestseller, many people still may know Johnson’s work best from its HBO TV adaptation, with Steve Buscemi in the lead role and Martin Scorsese as executive producer.
However, Johnson’s book remains the definitive true retelling of life in Prohibition-era New Jersey. For example, Buscemi plays Nucky Thompson, inspired by the real political kingpin Enoch L. Johnson. Johnson’s book explores the life of his namesake in comprehensive and fascinating detail, with the rise of Atlantic City casinos often considered to be a tale that is stranger than fiction.
While these three books are true in their content, they use source material that may not be widely known. If you’re looking for a deeper insight into how the casino industry became the cultural giant that it is today, then this trio of books is a great place to start.