Monday, March 19, 2001 | 11:21 a.m.
The 70th birthday of legalized gambling in Nevada is passing today with little fanfare: no fireworks, no confetti, no showgirls poolside for publicity stills to celebrate.
It's somehow appropriate, one gaming expert notes, as gambling seems to have taken a back seat to what used to be window-dressing services in Las Vegas.
"The last decade, with the coming of the megaresorts, may have been the most significant in our history, but not necessarily in terms of gambling, which has been de-emphasized," gaming historian Peter Ruchman said.
"Our heroes no longer are the gamblers like Nick 'The Greek' Dandolos or Johnny Moss. Today the headline-makers -- our heroes -- are our gourmet chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Legasse."
Ruchman is writing a three-volume history of local gambling titled, "After the Gold Rush: The Rise and Fall of Gambling's Glory in Las Vegas."
Ruchman says years ago a gambler with a modest bankroll of a couple thousand dollars would be flown in on a junket by the casino, would have his room and meals comped and would be encouraged to spend his money solely at the gaming tables.
"Today, high-rollers aside, the flights are more costly, the rooms cost upward of $140 a night, a meal for two in a gourmet restaurant could cost $300, and there are expensive boutiques in a number of the resorts," Ruchman said.
"The philosophy is 'spend your money on these things and, if you have any money left, visit the casino.'
"Today the gambler sees rows and rows of slot machines and fewer tables. For example, 70 years ago the most popular casino game was Faro. Today there isn't a single Faro table anywhere in the state."
Faro is a card game that involves guessing the rank and sequence of cards.
While rooms and food are more expensive, gambling still is central to Las Vegas, Las Vegas historian Frank Wright of the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society said.
"I still would be willing to bet that the casino pays the bills, and these other things are still just window dressing," Wright said.
"I still believe Las Vegas is a relatively cheap vacation. You can still get a good steak for $4 and the rooms and air fares are relatively inexpensive. What you do have is Las Vegas losing its gambling distinction, as gambling now is practically everywhere."
The spread of gambling is key to that change, Rob Powers, spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said.
"There is no question the mindset has changed in the last 20 to 30 years as Nevada no longer has the monopoly on gaming.
"Many first-time visitors are not coming here solely to gamble because many of them live close to Indian reservation casinos or riverboats and can go gambling anytime," Powers said. "They come to Las Vegas for the entertainment -- the entire experience. We have to continue to diversify."
While attention has been given to other services, gambling revenues remain high and are vital to the resort industry's continued growth, he said.
"We are averaging 89 percent capacity in our 125,000 rooms, and that is higher than 10 years ago when we had 50,000 fewer rooms," Powers said. "This means people are still coming in great numbers, even though about 30 states now have legalized gambling, while 10 to 20 years ago, only a handful had legalized gambling."
Powers noted, however, that the LVCVA has no plans to celebrate the 70th birthday of legalized gaming and that he knew of no resorts that planned ceremonies to honor March 19, 1931, when Gov. Fred Balzar signed the bill that legalized gambling and changed the course of Nevada history.
The lack of recognition of the state's history and history makers bothers Ruchman.
"Gambling in Nevada dates back to before the European settlers, when the Mohave and Paiute Indians threw objects through rolling hoops and bet on the outcome," Ruchman said.
"But so few people know of such history, even recent significant history. Recently oddsmaker Bob Martin, one of gaming's most important figures, died and I'd say eight of 10 Las Vegans, including sports book employees, didn't know who he was."
Wright noted that gambling wasn't always a source of pride for Nevadans.
"Las Vegas, Reno and Elko did not boast of gambling in the 1930s, even after it was legalized," Wright said. "It was not until the celebrity clientele and California gamblers started coming here in the 1940s that gambling came out of the woodwork."
Gambling in Nevada was open and legal before the Civil War, as miners played all sorts of card games in saloons. But that changed in the 1860s, when the Nevada territory had a chance to become a state.
Territorial Gov. James Nye and the state's first Gov. Henry Blasdel were gaming opponents, and the activity was outlawed. Gambling was not reinstated until the Legislature overrode Blasdel's veto in 1869, allowing gaming in buildings, as long as the casino was not on the first floor.
In 1905, in early Las Vegas, gambling was confined to Blocks 16 and 17, which today are part of Fremont Street. In 1910 moralists, urging the state to shed its frontier image, got lawmakers to once again outlaw gambling.
But with the state reeling from the Depression, gambling seemed like a good idea to entice tourism and raise revenues. Assemblyman Phil Tobin, a 29-year-old cowboy from Humboldt County, became known as the "father of modern Nevada gambling" when he introduced the "Wide Open Gambling Bill."
The bill passed the Assembly, 24-11, and the Senate, 13-3. Tobin later came to regret the road gambling took, and told Sun reporter Cy Ryan, then with United Press International: "I don't think it's right, allowing these one-armed bandits in every supermarket ... and restaurant in the state."
Ruchman, noted, however, "once the genie was let out of the bottle, it was difficult to stuff it back in or limit boundaries to just the casinos. In effect, we became America's repository for sinners. And I think that was a good thing."
Ruchman said he sees the future of Las Vegas gaming turning more to coinless slot machines and other electronics, even for blackjack and craps. Such technology, he said, will replace people, eliminating jobs for dealers, change girls and others.
"In the future, I see gamblers paying a premium to play a game in a casino involving real dice and cards," Ruchman said.
Wright, however, said that if there indeed is a de-emphasis on gambling, it could mean greater cultural growth for Las Vegas, with more gourmet restaurants and museums.
"I'd love to see a larger art community in Las Vegas," Wright said. "I think we could see high culture really established in our city."