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Gambling in Arkansas

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Arkansas may be called the Natural State, but gaming fans may find that the state of gambling here is nothing to write home about. Current views about gambling may stem from the notoriety of casinos in the state during the early part of the 20th century.

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Back in the day, one of the most populated places in Garland County, Hot Springs, was home to illegal casinos with several ties to the mob families. Sources say this is the place where known mobsters such as the Capones and Nittis would hold business meetings. Ironically, no shoot-outs occurred, and only more casinos sprouted. Residents felt that the casinos were actually helping the local economy and was okay with them despite being deemed illegal. At the height of their success, casinos in Hot Springs competed with the natural mineral spring (in which the town got their name) for tourists, and many people flocked to Arkansas to experience two different ways on which they can relax.

By the 1950s, attempts of the governor to close the establishments were opposed by judges of Garland County. The campaign got a second wind in the sixties, this time coming from the state legislature. This time opposition came from residents of Hot Springs, putting a petition to legalize gambling. In the 1964 ballot, amid the resistance of both parties seeking the gubernatorial position, the casinos were defeated by a margin of 113,000 votes. Even if the Hot Springs local chamber of commerce said that the move would have a drastic effect on the economy, the casinos were closed.

Arkansas laws define gambling as wagering anything valuable (including money of course) on a game involving skill or hazard (by hazard it means risk or chance is involved, effectively encompassing many forms of gambling). Social gambling is allowed, but anyone caught betting on card games will get a fine. Quite surprisingly, owning a slot machine, whether the antique or modern ones, are allowed in the state. This is under a fact that any form of gambling operations will be dealt with serious penalties and possible jail time. Even bingo is illegal in the state.

Several attempts have been made later in the eighties and nineties to reinvigorate gambling in the state, but all were turned down. In 1984 an initiative led by Garland County was again put on the ballot. Then-governor Bill Clinton was opposing the move, and her wife, Hillary, went across the state to campaign against it. When the vote came out, No won by 71% against the Yes, which only garnered 29%. Two more initiatives were also defeated before the turn of the century.

Today there are only two areas where some form of gambling is allowed and regulated: the Oaklawn Jockey Club in Hot Springs and Southland Geryhound Park in West Memphis. Both offer pari-mutuel wagering, and several forms of slots and video gaming. Pari-mutuel wagering is allowed since winners get to divide the total amount that was wagered (minus management expenses) and receive a prize proportional to how much they have bet.

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