Looking Back on the Good and Bad Of Gambling in Atlantic City 

Sports betting became legal, and instead of any casinos closing for the first time in six years, two new casinos opened on June 28. This year, however, this much-maligned but incredibly resilient vacation destination, seaside resort, and East Coast gambling mecca has much more to celebrate. The year 2018 also marks the 40th anniversary of casino gambling in Atlantic City. 

This article will take a brief trip down memory lane, discussing what went right and wrong for Atlantic City over the last 40 years, as well as where the city is headed next. Let us begin with some background on how Atlantic City casino gambling came to be in the first place. 

How New Jersey became the country’s second state to legalize casinos 

Before 1978, casino gambling was only legal in one state: Nevada. Nevada on May 26, 1978, New Jersey made history by becoming the first state in the United States to follow in Nevada’s footsteps and offer legalized casino gambling, but only in Atlantic City. According to OnlineUnitedStatesCasinos.com, 28 states now have land-based casinos, with only two states — Hawaii and Utah — prohibiting all forms of gambling. However, the spread of casinos across the country did not happen overnight. The procedure took many years to complete. 

New Jersey held a referendum in 1976 

For some time, it was thought that building casinos in Atlantic City would benefit both the city and the state of New Jersey. But, before any casinos could legally operate in that state, there had to be laws authorizing them, and before that could happen, the people of the state had to express their desire for it. In 1976, 57 percent of New Jersey voters approved a referendum on the ballot proposing casinos in Atlantic City. 

The first casino in Atlantic City opens on May 26, 1978 

On June 17, 1977, then-Gov. Brendan T. Byrne signed the final version of the bill into law. On May 26, 1978, the first Atlantic City casino opened for business, nearly a year later. 

How have the various Atlantic City casinos fared over time? 

Resorts were the first casino in Atlantic City

Resorts International was the first casino in Atlantic City, and it was where it all began. On opening day, the lines to enter the venue stretched for blocks. It was, after all, the only game in town. It remained the only game in town until June 26, 1979, when Caesars Boardwalk Regency (now simply Caesars) opened as Atlantic City’s second casino. 

A difficult period lies ahead

Other casinos opened in the years that followed, but not all of them were successful. Hurricane Katrina and the recession hurt every property, and businesses throughout the town suffered greatly. However, some properties fared better than others in the face of economic uncertainty and the added challenge of competition from casinos in neighboring states. 

After 40 tumultuous years, Atlantic City’s oldest casino is still going strong

It wasn’t always easy for Atlantic City’s first casino, now simply known as Resorts. The aging property has had a long and turbulent history, as well as multiple ownership changes. Resorts, on the other hand, remain. The property held a massive 40th-anniversary celebration over the entire Memorial Day weekend. You can read all about that historic event here. The excitement, however, is far from over, as Resorts continues to offer 40th anniversary-related special events and promotions throughout the summer. Most importantly, Resorts’ ability to persevere through difficult times and reinvent itself has served as a positive model for many other casinos, not just in Atlantic City but nationwide. 

Other ups and downs in Atlantic City 

Failure to remember 

One poorly designed property, originally the Playboy Hotel and Casino, then the Atlantis, then the Trump Regency, and finally the Trump World’s Fair, appeared doomed from the start. Another casino hotel, at the far south end of the Boardwalk, which was very successful early on as the Golden Nugget under Steve Wynn’s ownership, went through several ownership changes, none of which worked. The Atlantic Club, the casino’s final incarnation, closed its doors permanently in 2014. (one of a record four Atlantic City casinos to close that year). Since then, the building has been empty. 

Then, from the ashes, comes new life

However, not all of Atlantic City’s closed casinos remained closed. The property, originally known as Trump’s Castle and later as Trump Marina, reopened in 2011 under new ownership as a new Golden Nugget and has since grown to become one of the town’s most successful properties. Of course, the most recent examples of closed properties reopening are the former Revel and the former Trump Taj Mahal. Revel, a poorly conceived, extravagantly expensive, and doomed from the start, lasted only two years before closing in 2014. However, the property has undergone extensive renovations and is now known as Ocean Resort Casino. 

The Trump Taj Mahal was not recently renovated. It was completely transformed inside and out to become Hard Rock Atlantic City, its replacement. On the same day, June 28, both new casinos opened. 

What Atlantic City has done well in the last 40 years 

Looking back over the last 40 years, it is possible to see that where Atlantic City is now is a result of both certain things that could have been done better and many things that AC did right. Atlantic City wasn’t always dealt a favorable hand, and no one who knows the city well believes that all of its problems have been resolved. But, just as foresight, hard work, and perseverance have been critical to many of the positive changes that have already occurred, I believe that the same commendable characteristics will continue to serve Atlantic City well in the future. 

A long history of stepping up to the plate 

Fortunately, Atlantic City is part of a state with a long and proud history of taking the initiative and fighting hard to bring about positive change. Rather than sitting back and waiting for other parties to step up, New Jersey has not only repeatedly taken the lead but has also remained steadfast, no matter what roadblocks arose along the way. The most recent example of this leadership was the May 14, 2018 decision by the United States Supreme Court to overturn PASPA. The decision made it possible to have legal sports betting in New Jersey. However, without the foresight and hard work that made casino gambling in this state a reality 40 years ago, there might not have been any casinos in Atlantic City today to accept sports bets. 

Creating a safe and honest casino gambling environment from the start 

When the referendum on casino gambling in Atlantic City was presented to New Jersey voters in the months leading up to the 1976 election, supporters did not leave the outcome to chance. 

Rather than betting that love of gambling would be enough to get the majority to vote yes, they concentrated on assuring the public that all necessary precautions would be taken to create a casino gambling environment of safety and integrity. Otherwise, the majority of voters could have voted no instead of yes on the referendum, and Atlantic City’s history would have been very different. After the referendum, state legislators continued to work hard to craft an extremely detailed and well-thought-out final version of the bill. The 156-page bill was then signed into law by Byrne on June 17, 1977. 

Among the most important provisions of the law were the following

A Casino Control Commission would be established to oversee the licensing of all New Jersey casinos and key employees. 

A Division of Gaming Enforcement (DGE) would also be established to investigate each casino’s financial stability as well as the background and qualifications of the owners and key employees. The DGE would then make licensing recommendations to the Commission based on its findings. The DGE would also be in charge of regulating the operations of each casino and enforcing compliance with the state’s casino gaming laws. Some applicants were rejected. 

According to Kevin O’Toole, former Deputy Attorney General of the DGE, some applicants for key executive positions were turned down because they did not pass scrutiny. Both the DGE and the Casino Control Commission had to approve the candidate. On June 14, 2018, O’ Toole stated at this year’s East Coast Gaming Conference at Harrah’s Resort that “one of the bedrocks of the New Jersey casino gambling industry is licensing.” All applicants had to demonstrate honesty and character integrity.” Spectrum Gaming Group’s managing director, Michael Pollack, added, “a gaming license is a privilege, not a right.” 

Another source of concern was that Resorts’ only prior casino experience was in a small country: the Bahamas when it applied for its NJ casino license. The Commission and DGE needed to determine whether that level of casino experience was sufficient to open a new casino in the United States. Even though it meant being very selective and rejecting some candidates, the guiding principle was that it was better to be safe than to be sorry later. 

Unlike Nevada, New Jersey complied from the start

Even though casino gambling became legal in Nevada in 1931, questionable practices persisted for many years. The Nevada Gaming Control Board was not established until 1955, and the Nevada Gaming Commission, with additional regulatory responsibilities, was not established until the state’s Gaming Control Act was passed in 1959. Because of the lengthy delay, the industry was essentially unregulated until then. New Jersey, on the other hand, had the advantage of being able to review and improve on the Nevada 1959 model. As a result, Resorts and all subsequent casinos in Atlantic City complied from the start. There has never been a casino in Atlantic City ordered to close due to unethical or otherwise inappropriate or irresponsible management in 40 years.