Interested in Atlantic City gambling history?
These days, Atlantic City has harnessed the power of casino gambling, sports betting, and iGaming to become a legitimate rival to Las Vegas. But while Sin City had a 50-year head start, Atlantic City didn’t get into the gambling game until 1978 – when the Resorts casino first opened its doors. Since then, the local casino industry has experienced tremendous growth, evolving from a handful of Boardwalk gambling halls to a statewide economic engine.
The timeline below traces Atlantic City’s more than four-decade history of casino gambling, from 2020 all the way back to when voters got the party started.
1974 – Voters Roundly Reject Legal Casinos throughout New Jersey
At this time, the Garden State was home to a thriving horseracing scene and even a state-run lottery. But like every other state in the country save Nevada, casinos offering slot machines and table games were nowhere to be found. Remember, this was still 14 years before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 allowed Native American tribes to operate casinos on reservation land.
But in November, voters had their first crack at legalizing casinos via New Jersey Public Question No. 1, a constitutional amendment referred by the state Legislature.
Unfortunately for gambling enthusiasts, the referendum was widely shot down on November 5, 1974, when 1,202,638 people voted “No” to only 790,777 “YES votes. That 60.33 percent to 39.67 percent margin of victory didn’t bode well for the future of casino gambling in New Jersey – but voters can be notoriously fickle
1976 – Limitation to Atlantic City Only Prompts Voters to Have a Change of Heart
Two years later – with lawmakers having since changed their focus to a single-municipality casino market in Atlantic City – voters once again found a constitutional amendment on the November ballot.
And with more conservative voters satisfied with the Atlantic City limit, Ballot Question No. 1 received 1,535,249 “YES” votes (56.53 percent) to 1,180,799 “NO” votes (43.47 percent).
Just like that, the path had been paved for Atlantic City to construct the country’s first legal casinos outside of the Silver State.
1978 – Atlantic City’s First Legal Casino Opens Its Doors
After purchasing and renovating Chalfonte-Haddon Hall – a 1,000-room hotel on Atlantic City’s iconic Boardwalk which was originally built in 1866 – Resorts International opened Resorts Casino Hotel on May 26, 1978.
Resorts Casino Hotel was outfitted from floor to ceiling with a “Roaring Twenties” theme, offering a distinct alternative to anything found in Las Vegas at the time. Hundreds of people lined up on the Boardwalk to become the venue’s first gamblers, enjoying 84 table games and 893 slot machines across 33,735 square feet of gaming floor.
1979-1981 – Casino Gambling Gold Rush Changes Atlantic City Forever
With casino companies eager to enter the new market and Resorts Casino Hotel providing the perfect proof of concept, no less than eight new venues sprung up between 1979 and 1981:
Casino Opening Date
Caesars June 26, 1979
Bally’s December 29, 1979
Sands August 31, 1980
Harrah’s November 27, 1980
Atlantic Club December 12, 1980
Atlantis Casino April 14, 1981
Tropicana November 26, 1981
Claridge Casino and Hotel July 20, 1981
As you can see, many of the heavy hitters firmly established in Las Vegas – brands like Caesars, Bally’s Sands, Harrah’s, and Tropicana – set up shop on the Boardwalk and beyond.
1990-1991 – A Future President Proves Even the “Best” Casinos Can Fail
By April 2, 1990, the New York-based celebrity real estate tycoon Donald Trump arrived in Atlantic City to open the eponymous Trump Taj Mahal.
In his typical showman fashion, Trump declared the venue and its 120,000 square foot gaming floor to be the largest casino anywhere in the world. That claim was easily refuted by the Riviera on the Las Vegas Strip, but that didn’t stop Trump from billing his Taj Mahal as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
However wonderful the place may have been, however, Trump Taj Mahal entered bankruptcy court just one year later. And while the property survived that ordeal to operate through 2016, a shift to publicly traded status saw shareholders lose a combined $1.5 billion over that span.
1993 – The Taj Mahal Opens Atlantic City’s First Poker Room
Despite the eventual catastrophic failure of Trump Taj Mahal, the casino did score a coup among local card sharps when it opened Atlantic City’s first poker room.
The glittering facility held 50 poker tables, and as anybody who has seen the cult classic “Rounders” can attest, these tables were typically packed with professionals and recreational players alike. The game of choice back then was Seven Card Stud, and on any given evening, tourists with money to burn could take their chances against two-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event champion Johnny “The Master” Chan.
The poker room at “The Taj” wound up serving as the proving ground for many of the East Coast’s superstar pros, including a baby-faced Phil Ivey – who played underage as “Jerome” thanks to a fake ID.
1999 – Atlantis Casino Becomes the First Atlantic City Venue to Close Down
Originally opened in 1981 as the Playboy Hotel and Casino, a rebranding effort in 1984 created the Atlantis Hotel and Casino.
The underperforming casino wound up closing its doors temporarily in May 22, 1989, but Trump purchased the property and reopened the gaming floor as part of Trump World’s Fair in 1996.
Past was prelude in this case though, and for the second time, the man who would wind up in the White House 20 years later wound up leading an Atlantic City casino to ruin. When the casino finally shut down for good on October 3, 1999, followed by an implosion one year later, Atlantic City’s first casino casualty was in the books.
2003 – Borgata Brings Atlantic City Gamblers to the Big Time
In a partnership between major industry players MGM Resorts and Boyd Gaming, the Borgata Hotel, Casino & Spa opened its doors on July 2, 2003.
Located in the Marina district a mile or two from the Boardwalk, the Borgata’s gleaming gold tower can be seen from miles away. Following a $200 million renovation campaign between 2005 and 2006 – one which included the construction of a second tower called the Water Club – the Borgata’s 2,798-room capacity made it the largest hotel in all of New Jersey.
The Borgata invested heavily in becoming a full-scale Las Vegas style casino resort, one where world-class chefs like Wolfgang Puck serve up award-winning cuisine and top entertainers regularly visit for shows and concerts.
The Borgata poker room also became the largest of its kind in Atlantic City, ushering in a new era for local card players thanks to regular stops from the World Poker Tour (WPT).
All told, the Borgata is home to 161,000 square feet of gaming floor where players enjoy more than 4,000 slot machines, 180 table games, and 50 poker tables.
2011-2013 – Online Casinos and Poker Rooms Arrive in Atlantic City and Across the Garden State
Following the passage of state senator Ray Lesniak’s online casino and poker package in January of 2011, former Governor Chris Christie elected to veto the legislation.
In explaining his decision to kill the bill, Christie claimed that a loosely worded law could be exploited to allow bars, nightclubs, and other non-casino venues to offer online gambling services. Responding to Christie’s concerns, lawmakers tightened the legal language to ensure that only Atlantic City casinos could set up online / mobile casinos and poker rooms.
This revision, passed by the Legislature in February of 2013, satisfied Christie’s concerns and he signed the Internet Gaming Act into law a short time later. Under the law, only Atlantic City’s 11 casinos are permitted to partner with iGaming firms. Nonetheless, online gambling websites and mobile apps were made available to any player over the age of 21 who is physically located within state lines.
And on November 21, 2013, a synchronized launch saw New Jersey join Nevada and Delaware as the first states to authorize a full-scale iGaming industry. From there, major iGaming entities like 888 Holdings, Betfair, PartyPoker, Unibet, DraftKings, and FanDuel were battling for their share of a billion-dollar market.
2012-2014 – Governor Christie Tries and Tries Again to Legalize Sports Betting in Atlantic City
After voters once again showed their support for a comprehensive legal gambling industry, Christie signed the Sports Wagering Act of 2012 into law on January 17.
The only problem was a federal law known as the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1992, which limited full-scale sportsbooks to Nevada only. Citing the PASPA law, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball (MLB) took Christie and New Jersey to court almost immediately.
According to the leagues, New Jersey’s attempt to legalize sports betting violated PASPA’s federal ban, while threatening the “integrity” of their sports in the process. Christie and his legal team argued that the PASPA represented an unconstitutional restriction on states’ rights.
After the federal courts sided with the leagues, Christie adjusted the legislative language in response to the judge’s ruling. By simply removing provisions from state law which banned sports betting, rather than regulating the industry outright, Christie signed the Sports Wagering Act for a second time in 2014.
Once again, the leagues conspired to sue Christie and New Jersey, setting the stage for a truly momentous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.
2018 – States’ Right to Sports Betting Becomes the Law of the Land after Supreme Court Ruling
With the case now named Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association after new Governor Phil Murphy, the issue of a state’s right to regulate sports betting was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.
And on May 14, 2018, the justices issued a landmark 6-3 ruling in favor of New Jersey, one which officially struck the PASPA law down as unconstitutional. With the stroke of their collective pen, the six justices ruled that any state which wishes to legalize and regulate sports betting can proceed as they see fit.
By June 11, Murphy signed sports betting legislation into law, and three days later, the Governor placed New Jersey’s first legal sports bet at Monmouth Park Racetrack.
Over the next year, every major casino in Atlantic City had established sportsbooks of their own, both of the brick and mortar and online / mobile variety.
2018 – DraftKings Debuts the State’s First Online / Mobile Sportsbook App
Having established itself as the daily fantasy sports (DFS) industry leader, DraftKings launched New Jersey’s first online / mobile sportsbook app on August 6, 2018. The Boston-based DraftKings partnered with Atlantic City’s Resorts casino to use the latter’s license.
Before long, the list of online / mobile sports betting providers in the Garden State seemed to grow exponentially:
Online Sportsbook Land-Based Casino Partner Launch Date
DraftKings Resorts AC August 6, 2018
BetMGM Sports Borgata AC August 22, 2018
SugarHouse Monmouth Park August 23, 2018
William Hill Monmouth Park September 1, 2018
FanDuel Meadowlands September 1, 2018
Caesars Caesars AC September 6, 2018
888 Sport Caesars September 10, 2018
Fox Bet Resorts AC September 13, 2018
PointsBet Meadowlands December 11, 2018
Hard Rock Hard Rock AC January 26, 2019
Resorts Resorts AC January 31, 2019
BetAmerica Golden Nugget February 2, 2019
Golden Nugget Golden Nugget February 19, 2019
Borgata Sports Borgata AC May 14, 2019
Bet365 Hard Rock AC August 30, 2019
Unibet Hard Rock AC September 10, 2019
TheScore Monmouth Park September 3, 2019
Finally – What You Need to Remember about Atlantic City Gambling History
For gamblers who step foot on the Boardwalk or in the Borgata today, it’s practically inconceivable that Atlantic City once had zero casinos to speak of. The area’s very identity – from its economy to its culture to its reputation worldwide – is entirely steeped in the casino gambling industry.
And yet, the history of casinos here can be traced back clearly over the last four decades, beginning with a historic show of support by voters in 1976. The question going forward remains, how will Atlantic City’s utterly unique casino gambling scene continue to evolve over the next 42 years?