Missouri figures prominently in the history of gambling in the United States. With the Mississippi River forming the state’s eastern border and the Missouri River also darting across the state, the rich tradition of gambling aboard 19th-century steamboats includes many stories and figures with connections to the Show-Me State.
Steamboats, saloons & shootouts
Missouri saloons and gambling halls figured prominently in that history, as well. Both Kansas City and St. Louis were particularly famous for hosting many establishments where gamblers played faro, poker, three card monte, vingt et un (or 21), roulette, chuck-a-luck and other games.
After growing up in Hannibal, Mark Twain was among the writers chronicling the exploits of cardsharps, in some cases drawing upon his time working on steamboats. The famous gambler George Devol also wrote of his own experience as a cardsharp on those vessels matching wits with a long succession of adversaries in “Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi.”
Meanwhile, the most famous gambling story from 19th-century Missouri was a violent one, the one of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok gunning down Davis K. Tutt in Springfield following an argument over gambling debts.
Timeline of legal gambling in Missouri
However, much of that early history involves unregulated, unauthorized gambling, even on the steamboats. In truth, the history of legal gambling in Missouri only dates back to the late 20th century. What follows is a rundown of that history, starting with a timeline of key events:
- 1980 — Missouri voters approve charitable bingo.
- 1984 — Missouri legalizes pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing.
- 1986 — Missouri Lottery sells first tickets.
- 1992 — Missouri first authorizes riverboat casinos.
- 1993 — Missouri Gaming Commission was established.
- 1994 — Another referendum allows games of chance on Missouri riverboat casinos.
- 1998 — Voters approve ballot amendment allowing riverboat casinos to remain moored.
- 2008 — “Loss limit” restrictions on riverboat gambling lifted.
- 2016 — Missouri legalizes daily fantasy sports.
Missouri authorization of bingo
Like many states, Missouri’s initial foray into legal gambling began by allowing games for charitable purposes.
In November 1980, Missouri voters weighed in on a ballot measure asking whether they approved of the state authorizing charitable bingo games. Amendment 3, aka the Missouri Authorization of Bingo Amendment, would allow nonprofit charitable organizations as well as religious, fraternal and veterans groups to conduct bingo games to raise funds.
Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, with 71.5% in favor of it. Later, the state added other games like pull-tabs and merchandise coin boards, as well.
The Charitable Games Division of the Missouri Gaming Commission currently oversees bingo and other charitable gaming activities, including issuing licenses to establishments wishing to provide the games. Taxes go toward the state’s Proceeds for Education Fund.
The Missouri Lottery
It wasn’t long after the introduction of bingo that Missouri authorized a state-run lottery.
It was in November 1984 that Missouri voters once again supported another ballot measure authorizing expanded gambling in the state. Amendment 5 passed with nearly 70% of voters in favor. The amendment allowed lawmakers to establish guidelines for the new lottery, and the following year they did so with the passage of SB 44.
In January 1986, the first Missouri Lottery sold its first tickets. Then in 1987, Missouri was one of the first states to join the Multi-State Lottery Association.
Horse racing comes to Missouri
There was a time during the 19th and early 20th centuries when Missouri horse betting was especially popular. In fact, there are accounts of horse races in the state dating as far back as the 1760s. One famous race with a $50,000 purse took place in St. Louis at the 1904 World’s Fair — the St. Louis World’s Fair Handicap.
However, pari-mutuel wagering on horse races in Missouri only officially became legal in the 1980s. Voters approved it in 1984 when 60% voted in favor of legalization. The new law allowed wagering on live races as well as on simulcast races shown at the track, but only on race days. It also established the Missouri Horse Racing Commission to oversee the new industry.
Alas, horse racing struggled in the state, and when riverboat casinos later became legal, the tracks couldn’t compete. In 2002, there was a push in the General Assembly to allow the tracks to offer simulcast wagering throughout the year, but the effort failed, thereby sealing the tracks’ fate.
All of which is to say, while Missouri allows wagering on horse races, there are no live races on which to bet. Nor is off-track betting available in the state.
The return of riverboat gambling to Missouri
Reprising its history with 19th-century steamboats, Missouri introduced legal riverboat casinos in the 1990s.
In 1989, Iowa was the first state to legalize riverboat gambling. Then, Missouri voters approved a 1992 referendum to authorize gambling on boats on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. A couple of riverboat casinos opened, although at that time the law did not allow slot machines or roulette wheels, but only “skill” games like poker and real money blackjack.
However, the Supreme Court of Missouri subsequently overturned the law resulting from that 1992 vote. That meant another vote and law were necessary to allow Missouri casinos.
The next attempt came in 1994, first in April when a special election took place to vote on the Missouri Riverboat Gambling Amendment. That vote failed by a very slim margin, with 50.08% against and 49.92% in favor. However, another vote on the same amendment in November passed, with nearly 54% approving.
The new law did allow games of chance like slots and variants of roulette. However, it also imposed a $500 “loss limit” that prevented patrons from purchasing more than $500 worth of chips in a two-hour span. There was also a requirement that the riverboats actually take short cruises, but several nonetheless remained moored most of the time.
Another referendum in 1998 officially removed the cruising requirement, thereby allowing “boats in moats” as long as they were positioned in spaces containing water (even human-made spaces) that were located within 1,000 feet of the main channels of either the Mississippi or Missouri rivers. (At the time of the vote, 10 out of 15 riverboat casinos in the state were already permanently docked.)
Later, in 2008, the state removed the “loss limit” rule, which considerably boosted casino revenue. Today, 13 casinos operate in the state.
Missouri explicitly legalizes daily fantasy sports
While the state has yet to legalize sports betting, it has already passed a law explicitly allowing daily fantasy sports contests in Missouri. In fact, Missouri is one of a relatively small number of states with such a law on the books, although many states still allow DFS without having laws authorizing the contests.
The law is the Missouri Fantasy Consumer Protection Act of 2016. It requires DFS providers to apply for licenses and to pay an annual licensing fee. The sites also have to pay the state 11.5% of their net revenue, which goes toward the Gaming Proceeds for Education Fund.
DraftKings, FanDuel, and a half-dozen other daily fantasy sports sites currently have licenses to offer contests to DFS players in Missouri.