Pennsylvania Casinos History and Timeline: From 1855 to Today

Arsenii Anderson
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Many consider Pennsylvania one of the pioneering states in specific areas. It’s essential for railroad, steel, and coal production, and it was one of the first 13 recognized colonies. Though landmarks in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are renowned, gambling has a more troubling reputation.

There’s a specific reason for this reputation. Pennsylvania has a population balanced between modern capitalists and traditionally religious people. Even though gambling has existed in the state for almost six decades, it’s only recently become regulated. Below, we consider the timeline of casino gambling in Pennsylvania.

Timeline of Casino Gambling in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has a long and arduous history with gambling, starting as early as the 1700s. People started gambling in Pennsylvania and established unregulated gambling houses. However, people and their gambling endeavors went through troubled times before it became a regulated market.

1855 - Gambling Houses Become Illegal

The early 1800s, like the 1700s, was characterized by various gambling establishments. Most of these establishments were run by organized crime syndicates. It got to a point where the government realized it was affecting the citizen’s way of life. That’s why, in 1855, the state finally passed a law that banned gambling.

However, it didn’t help much except to make it explicitly illegal to operate a gambling house. Given that most of the operators were crime syndicates, the prospect of breaking the law wasn’t enough to stop them. As such, the lawless market continued, though with slightly less blatant gambling establishments.

1959 - Horse Racing Industry Reform Act

In the early 1900s, some state officials tried to legalize gambling again. However, religious movements kept this possible act of legalization at bay. Still, in 1959, the state took its first step towards legalized betting. That year, the state implemented the Race Horse Industry Reform Act.

This Act allowed companies to build the first racehorse tracks in the state. They finalized the first track in 1965, namely the Meadows Racetrack, more followed in the 1970s and 2000s.

1971 - Lottery Act

The next step was taken in 1971 when the state legalized lottery games through the PA Lottery Act. Though the first lottery ticket wasn’t sold until 1972, it opened the gates for a more positive perception of gambling. Lottery jackpots could quickly rise to $1 million in those days. Four players won the million-dollar jackpot within the lottery’s first six months.

1988 - The State Adds the Small Games of Chance Extension

Started as legalizing fundraising bingo events, the state allowed in 1988 to accept more games of chance. The Local Option Small Games of Chance allowed fundraising organizations to host other games. It includes raffles, pools, punchboards, and tabs with the bingo games. This law especially allowed small organizations like churches and youth sports clubs to raise funding.

2004 - Slot Machines Added to Racetracks

After allowing small games of chance, it was almost two decades before the state made another stride forward. In 2004, Pennsylvania lawmakers decided to allow racetracks to offer slot machines. The reason for this change was because racetracks were struggling to stay afloat.

However, this change wasn’t just implemented with racetracks. It also allowed stand-alone casinos. Racinos, as they called the racetracks offering slot machines, and stand-alone casinos could have up to 5,000 slots. Meanwhile, resort casinos could have up to 600 slot machines. The state approved fourteen locations to add these games. They approved seven sites for racinos. They further approved five areas for stand-alone casinos and the last two for resort casinos.

2010 - Law Amended to Offer Table Games

Six years later, bettors sought more than slot machines and pari-mutuel betting. Recognizing this, Pennsylvania lawmakers amended the previous slot machine law. It now includes various table games. As such, players could play games like baccarat, blackjack, poker, roulette, craps, and more.

2011 - Black Friday of Online Poker

On the 15th of April, the PA government finally acted to curb illegal online gambling in PA. The government seized the three big poker rooms. These rooms were Pokerstars, Absolute Poker, and Full Tilt Poker. The reason behind the seizure was the illegal offering of online poker.

This seizure of the websites showed that the government was serious about not allowing online gambling. Most players using those sites weren’t persecuted. However, the operators landed in hot water. This change led to increased measures to prevent online players from the US from playing at the sites. It shook up the US gambling world. As such, they realized they wouldn’t get away without legal and regulated websites.

2017 - Pennsylvania Gambling Law Expansion Bill

Satellite casinos entered the market. These casinos referred to small casino stops at truck stops and international airports, where slot machines were available. It also legalized online PA gambling laws, but only technically, as federal laws still prohibited online casinos. We’ll look further at this online expansion below.

2018 - Sports Betting Enters the Market

The federal government overturned PASPA. As such, each state can now decide whether to legalize sports betting. Pennsylvania immediately jumped onto the bandwagon. Previous PA gambling bills already legalized sports betting in the state.

This legislation allowed the state and casinos to implement the change immediately. However, Pennsylvania didn’t stop there. The state also accepted two further gambling games: Xpress Sports and Keno. The PA lottery hosts both the Keno and Xpress Sports virtual betting games.

2019 - Online PA Gambling Laws Finalized

While online gambling existed for almost two decades in Pennsylvania before it became legal, the state only moved to legalize it in 2017. Despite passing online Pennsylvania gambling bills in 2017, they only introduced the first Pennsylvania-based online casinos in 2019.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) licenses and regulates the casinos, and before it could license any, it had to implement clear guidelines and regulations for these websites. The casino must have a license to operate legally, as should their operating partners.

2023 - Current Gambling Market

The current PA gambling laws allow players to enjoy various betting opportunities. Online casinos and sportsbooks are available to PA players, with the state ensuring independent testing agencies test the games for fairness.

Nowadays, there are 17 land-based Pennsylvania casinos, racinos, racetracks, and resort casinos available in PA. Besides the brick-and-mortar establishments, there are also approximately 18 online casinos available. Some of the most popular online casinos are BetMGM PA, FanDuel, Borgata, DraftKings, and others.

❓ FAQ

Is gambling legal in Pennsylvania?

Yes, recent years have changed the gambling market significantly. Now, land-based and online gambling is legal in the state, provided the appropriate authorities licensed it. Pennsylvania gambling bills also state that any PA-based casino is only available to citizens in PA or visitors physically located in the state.

Are casinos legal in Pennsylvania?

Yes, land-based casinos might not be some of the first organized gambling forms available in the state, but it’s available now. While it simply started as allowing racetracks to offer slots, it changed into allowing stand-alone casinos. Now 17 establishments are open in Pennsylvania.

Is online gambling legal in Pennsylvania?

Yes, online gambling was the last form of gambling legalized in the state. Federal laws made it illegal, but in 2017, the state passed a bill allowing online gambling. Even when this law was implemented, it took about a year or two before the first casino website was available to players.

How many casinos are in Pennsylvania?

Currently, there are 17 land-based establishments, such as Harrah’s Philadelphia, Lady Luck Casino, Mohegan Sun, Hollywood Casino, Parx Casino & Racing, and more. However, besides the land-based establishments, there are also around 18 online casinos, such as Unibet, BetRivers, BetMGM, and more.

What was the pivotal year for online PA gambling laws?

In Pennsylvania, the most pivotal year for legalizing online gambling was 2017. This year, the state officially recognized it as a legal form of betting and implemented changes to allow online casinos. While the casinos only opened in 2019, it still required that law in 2017 to change for it to become possible.

What federal laws affect PA online gambling laws?

Two primary federal laws prohibit internet gambling, though it’s generally implicitly stated. The first is the Federal Wire Act, which bans the transmission of payments and information related to sports betting, and now online casino wagering, across state lines. UIGEA further makes it illegal for online gaming operators to accept funds, though the individual states can still legalize online casinos, provided it doesn’t operate across state lines.

Does the same organization license online casinos in PA that permit land-based ones?

Yes, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) licenses and regulates brick-and-mortar and online casinos. It further licenses the gaming employees at casinos and oversees the operations of casinos to ensure it follows regulations.

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