History of gambling in Australia

With more punters per capita than any other nation in the world, Australia has a long and rich gambling history. But where did it all start? And what key events have led to betting and gaming becoming one of the country’s most popular pastimes?

Here, we take a detailed look at Australia’s gambling history – from the very start, right up to the present day.

1788: Convicts bring two-up to Australia

It should come as no surprise that gambling in Australia goes right back to the very first British settlements. Within a few years of the First Fleet’s arrival in 1788, the convicts had developed a coin game called two-up. This was an evolution of pitching pennies, which can trace its roots to Ancient Greece and was popular among the lower classes in Ireland and Great Britain during the 18th century.

Two Up Australian gamblingTwo-up featured two coins placed on a small board (called a ‘kip’), with one facing heads-up and the other tails-up. The coins were tossed simultaneously, and players could bet on two heads, two tails, or one of each. There was also a wager called ‘odding out’, which paid when the spinner tossed five odds (one heads, one tails) in a row.

This phenomenon soon spread throughout the colony, which then included what are now Victoria and Queensland. Its popularity boomed during the great Australian goldrushes of the 1850s and ’60s, when it spread to Western Australia and South Australia.

Two-up was heavily played by Australian troops during World War I and, although it was otherwise illegal throughout the 20th century, became an ANZAC tradition. It is still played in RSL clubs on April 25 every year.

1810-1861: Birth of Australian horse racing

Like two-up, horses cane to Australia on the First Fleet. Just over 20 years later, in 1810 at Hyde Park, Sydney, the first official race meet to place at the behest of Governor Macquarie. Trotting races and steeplechases began to appear in NSW around the same time. Organised racing soon followed in Tasmania in 1814, and by the mid-1840s had also commenced in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia.

Phar Lap with jockey Jim Pike in 1930Public interest in horse racing continued to grow in the following decades. Country meets and metropolitan tracks alike became swamped with punters and bookmakers, especially throughout the goldrush years. It wasn’t long before major turf clubs and jockeys clubs had formed in all the major colonies.

In a bid to capitalise on the money and interest associated with the sport at the time, in 1861 the Victorian Turf Club came up with the idea to hold a little race called the Melbourne Cup. The rest is history, and thoroughbred racing remains one of Australia’s most important and lucrative spectator sports. It is also the source of an enormous betting industry, with more than AUD $14 billion wagered per year on Aussie race meets.

1913: Invention of the automatic totalisator

Up until the early 20th century, trackside betting at racecourses had to be calculated manually by the bookmakers. This often resulted in lengthy delays in changing and displaying odds, as the sheer amount of money coming in at major race meets meant the betting pool had to be constantly recalculated.

An inventor and engineer by the name of George Julius changed all that shortly before World War I. His invention (which was originally intended to be a mechanical vote-counting device) automatically tallied up wagers for parimutuel betting systems, thus making it much quicker and easier for bookies to put up their prices. It also made it all but impossible for dodgy turf accountants to defraud punters.

The first purely mechanical tote board was installed at Ellerslie Racecourse, New Zealand, in 1913. By the mid-1930s, auto-tote machines had been installed all over Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. They remained a fixture of race betting throughout the 20th century, up until the computer age and the development of the bookmaking software programs used today.

1916: First official Australian lottery

George Adams – the founder of Tattersall’s – is widely credited with creating the first true lottery game in Australia, when he put together a sweepstakes for the 1881 Sydney Cup. Such draws were soon outlawed in New South Wales, but would continue to pop up in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania in the years leading up to World War I.

First Australian lottery held in Western AustraliaIt was during the war that the Australian government decided to launch its first official lottery. Named the Golden Casket Art Union, it was designed to raise funds for charities and community projects around the country. Its inaugural drawing in 1916 helped generate money to support veteran diggers returning from Europe.

Over the next few decades, the states started creating their own lottery draws to garner revenue for hospitals, schools, infrastructure and various other government-funded projects. These were especially important in keeping civil services afloat during the Great Depression.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and Australia now boasts a thriving collection of state-based and nationwide lottery games – inlcuding TattsLotto, Monday and Wednesday Lotto, Mega Jackpot and Super Jackpot Lotteries, Oz Lotto, Powerball and the Soccer Pools.

1956: Pokies legalised in NSW

In 1956, New South Wales became the first Australian state to legalise gaming machines in pubs and clubs. This marked the beginning of a love affair which is still going strong.

While other states have since followed suit, NSW remains the undisputed home of Australian pokies. To put things into perspective: in 2010, there were just over 200,000 poker machines in Australia. Nearly half of those resided in New South Wales (around 96,000).

While pokies are divisive among anti-gambling campaigners and keen punters alike, there can be no denying their popularity in Australia today. We have roughly five times more pokie machines per capita than any other place on Earth, and rank seventh overall for total number of units behind Japan, USA, Italy, UK, Spain and Germany.

1973: Wrest Point Casino opens its doors

For a nation of mad punters, it might seem a little strange that we didn’t have single (legal) casino until more than a century after the first Melbourne Cup was run.

It all changed in 1973 with the opening of the Wrest Point Hotel Casino in Hobart, Tasmania, which finally gave Aussie gamblers the opportunity to play legitimate versions of blackjack, baccarat, roulette – games which had previously only been available in illegal gambling dens.

The Wrest Point launch sparked a big boom in Australia’s interest in casino gambling. Now there are a dozen casinos nationwide (with plans for more), including at least one in each state or territory.

1991: Kirner government legalises gambling in Victoria

While pokies boomed in pubs and clubs in New South Wales and brought the state government a valuable revenue stream, gambling was still largely prohibited in Victoria by the dawn of the ’90s.

But things soon changed after Joan Kirner succeeded the decidedly anti-pokies John Cain as Victorian Premier, as her government passed new laws in 1991 which allowed the establishment of pokies venues across the state. This move provided a huge boost for the local economy, which was in serious trouble at that time.

The legalisation of pokies machines was also coupled with the 1991 Casino Control Act, which paved the way for Melbourne’s Crown Casino – now the largest gambling complex in the Southern Hemisphere.

2001: Federal parliament passes Interactive Gambling Act

Once the first online casinos started to emerge, digital casino games and remote sports betting grow ever more popular throughout the late ’90s, the Australian government saw the need for regulation against the potential dangers of online gambling.

The result was the 2001 Interactive Gambling Act (IGA), which prevents Australian-based gambling operators from offering certain services to Aussie citizens. These include restrictions upon live in-game betting and the prohibition of online casinos.

While these laws have prevented home-grown firms from offering virtual casino games to Australian players, it left plenty of room for Aussie punters to play at offshore gambling sites. To our knowledge, no individual has ever been prosecuted under the IGA.

Today: Australia’s sports betting craze

Betting on horse racing has been embedded in Australian culture since the early 1800s. But since the turn of the millennium, wagering on sports such as football, soccer, rugby, cricket, golf and tennis has gone through the roof.

Much of that can be attributed to the rise of online betting sites. Operators such as Sportsbet and CrownBet have developed a strong media presence in recent years, to the point where their betting markets and promotions are ingrained in the television coverage of everyday sporting events.

But more than anything, the development of mobile betting apps has revolutionised the way Australians approach punting. The ability to place a wager with just a couple of taps on a smartphone or tablet has changed everything and inspired a whole new generation of bettors. Anyone can have a flutter, anytime – not just the diehards in the TAB.

Other than land based “brick and mortar” casinos, there are online casinos available to players from United States. We highly recommend Slots.lv as safest and the best online casino providing support for players from United States.

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