Florida

Sports Betting in Florida

Like the state itself, gambling in Florida has a very bizarre and interesting history.  At various points, gambling in the Sunshine State has involved Native American tribes, organized crime figures, Cuban mobsters, fundamentalist Christians and big corporate gaming interests.  While there’s a decent amount of legal gambling available in Florida the state has some of the most severe penalties for running an illegal gaming operation of any state in the country.

Florida became a state in 1845 and about the same time Henry Flagler was one of the most powerful businessmen in America.  Flagler founded Standard Oil but his involvement in this story begins in the late 1800s when Flagler and his second wife traveled to St. Augustine for their honeymoon.  Flagler fell in love with the area but found the city’s hospitality infrastructure substandard—particularly the hotels. He returned to Florida in 1885 after giving up his day-to-day involvement with Standard Oil and began construction on the Ponce de Leon Hotel.  What isn’t mentioned in his official bio is that he also built the first unregulated casino right next door to the Ponce de Leon and would do so at all of his properties in Florida.

From this point we’ll move ahead to the early 20th Century when the population of Florida is starting to explode.  Miami, in particular, is booming and a far cry from the sleepy town with a population of 1500  that it was at the turn of the century. Thanks to a large presence of organized crime imported from Chicago and local authorities that were happy to look the other way gambling was also booming by the ‘Roaring 20s’.  Al Capone was involved in the Miami gambling industry for awhile and the area began being referred to pejoratively as ‘Little Chicago’ due to a spate of gangland style murders and rampant corruption.

As was the case in many mob run towns, the illegal gaming operations offered poker, blackjack and horse racing.  The big prize, however, was a game that most people have never heard of: Bolita. Bolita (Spanish for ‘Little Ball’) was imported from Cuba and became the big revenue driver for Florida’s illegal gambling operators.  According to most historical accounts the game first took hold in Tampa’s Ybor City area (Ybor City had a large Cuban population and was the center of the US cigar industry for many years). Tampa native Charlie Wall was the de facto ‘King of Bolita’ in the 1920’s and found himself in a bloody turf war with Italian gangster Ignacio Antinori.  The war would rage on for years and the ‘locals’ didn’t exactly roll over for the gangsters—in fact, it would end with Antinori killed with sawed off shotgun legend suggests by Wall himself.  Wall would meet his fate in 1955 after being beat with a baseball bat and his throat slit.

The Chicago interests—perhaps wanting to avoid the mayhem of the Gulf Coast—focused on Miami.  The game was very big among the increasingly large Cuban population of South Florida and was controlled by various operatives of the Chicago mob until the 1940’s.  At this point, a crackdown on organized crime ended mob control of Bolita but did nothing to end the game or its popularity. Bolita remains a fixture today not only in Miami but in Hispanic communities in New York and other large cities.  

Things have become a bit less violent since then.  Florida began to offer legal gambling options in the 1930’s with the introduction of parimutuel wagering on horse racing, dog racing and the Basque game of jai alai.  Jai alai has its own fascinating and colorful history but would be a big presence in Florida throughout the 20th century.  It experienced a huge boom in popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s with thousands attending games at the Miami area frontons.  Due to a confluence of factors—including a unionization effort by players who felt they were underpaid—the game began what would be a preciptious decline.  Today, there are only two places in South Florida that offer the sport on a year round basis.

Horse racing in Florida has also seen better days though it’s definitely in better shape than jai alai.  Gulfstream Park remains one of the important venues in all of racing and several other venues including Tampa Bay Downs and the Pompano Park harness track continue to host live meets.  Hialeah Park has a large casino but is a shell of its former self as a horse track. The owners run a nominal quarter horse meet every year in order to maintain the regulatory status that lets them operate a casino.  What used to be Calder Race Course is now primarily a casino though Gulfstream Park runs a two month live meet called ‘Gulfstream Park West’ in order to maintain Calder’s status.

The primary casino gaming in Florida is currently offered by the Seminole Tribe who control seven of the state’s eight properties.  The other is on the Miccosukee Tribe reservation near Miami. The Seminole Tribe has become a very powerful political force in shaping gaming law in the ‘Sunshine State’ and has opposed efforts to expand gaming at other venues.  The terms of the Seminole compact with the State of Florida allows them to offer both ‘Class II’ and traditional ‘Class III’ gaming devices. Class III devices are the type of machines they have in Las Vegas. Class II devices look like slot machines but are in actuality ‘bingo games’.  The spinning reels are just for ‘entertainment purposes’ with payouts determined by the result of the underlying bingo competition. The Miccosukee Tribe has not signed a compact with the state of Florida and can only offer Class II devices in their casino.

The Seminole Tribe also offers blackjack, baccarat, mini-baccarat, three card poker, ‘Let It Ride’ and pai gow poker.  All tribal casinos in Florida are allowed to offer high stakes bingo, video ‘pull tab’ games and poker. The two Seminole Hard Rock Casinos (Hollywood and Tampa) and the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek do not offer bingo though every other property in the state does.  All tribal casinos are open 24 hours a day/7 days a week. The minimum gambling age is 18 at all tribal casinos for bingo or poker and 21 for electronic gaming machines.

The casinos at the horse tracks in the state offer slot machines and poker but no table games.  The casinos at Hialeah Park, Pompano Park and Calder do offer electronic versions of ‘table games’ that skirt around the regulations and are similar to video ‘live dealer’ offerings at online casinos.  The specific games change but within the past year video blackjack, video roulette and video craps have been available. There has been an effort to allow table games at these properties but it has met with stiff opposition from the powerful Seminole gaming interests.

At one point, the casino cruise business in Florida was vigorous and offered another way for state residents to gamble.  Basically, it’s a ‘cruise to nowhere’–the boat leaves port and once it hits international waters gambling is legal for all passengers 21 or over.  In 2004, there were 17 casino boats operating in Florida but that has dwindled to a handful. The casino ships offer a mix of table games and slots with at least one (Victory Casino Cruises) offering a full service sportsbook.  Given the proliferation of gaming options elsewhere, the casino cruise industry might be footnote to Florida gambling history before long.

Florida does have a thriving lottery with eight draw games in addition to the big multistate networked jackpots (MegaMillions and PowerBall).  There is also a wide variety of scratch off games available. Unfortunately for Florida bettors, any effort to provide additional wagering opportunities has several obstacles in addition to the usual fundamentalist Christians—they have to placate the interests of the parimutuel racing industry and the Seminole gaming powerhouse.

Sports Betting in Jacksonville

First, the good news. Relatively speaking, Florida enjoys a decent number of gambling options and particularly compared to the religious fundamentalist controlled states in the region like Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Now the bad news—the state has a hard time further liberalizing gambling law due to fundamentalist Christians, big corporate gaming interests and the Seminole Tribe which has become the most dominant lobbying entity of them all. There’s more bad news for Jacksonville residents—most of the state’s gambling action happens well to the South.

Interestingly, Florida’s gambling history began just 45 miles down the coast from Jacksonville in St. Augustine. That’s where longtime Standard Oil executive Henry Flagler built the Ponce de Leon Hotel which opened in 1888. In addition to being the first hotel in the world built entirely of poured concrete. What isn’t mentioned in his official bio is that he also built the first unregulated casino right next door to the Ponce de Leon and would do so at all of his properties in Florida. The Ponce de Leon Hotel survived for nearly a century before finally closing in 1967.

Gambling would finally move above ground in the twentieth century though most of the action happened to the South around the booming metropolis of Miami. Things have remained fairly quiet in the Northern part of the state and for gambling enthusiasts they’ve been ‘too quiet’. Florida does have a thriving lottery with eight draw games in addition to the big multistate networked jackpots (MegaMillions and PowerBall). There is also a wide variety of scratch off games available. Unfortunately for Florida bettors, any effort to provide additional wagering opportunities has several obstacles in addition to the usual fundamentalist Christians—they have to placate the interests of the parimutuel racing industry and the Seminole gaming powerhouse.

Horse racing in Florida has also seen better days though it’s definitely in better shape than jai alai. Gulfstream Park remains one of the important venues in all of racing and several other venues including Tampa Bay Downs and the Pompano Park harness track continue to host live meets. Hialeah Park has a large casino but is a shell of its former self as a horse track. The owners run a nominal quarter horse meet every year in order to maintain the regulatory status that lets them operate a casino. What used to be Calder Race Course is now primarily a casino though Gulfstream Park runs a two month live meet called ‘Gulfstream Park West’ in order to maintain Calder’s status.

Jacksonville did have a couple of greyhound tracks though only one continues to hold live racing events. That could come to an end soon as statewide referendum on the ballot in November 2018 could ban the sport entirely. The two Jacksonville area tracks were formerly known as the Jacksonville Greyhound Racing Park and the Orange Park Kennel Club. Perhaps reading the proverbial ‘writing on the wall’ both properties have been re-branded and are now known as ‘BestBet Jacksonville’ and ‘BestBet Orange Park’. The two properties have a large poker room with the Jacksonville location claiming the largest live poker venue in Florida (88 tables in 20,000 square feet of space). They also offer simulcast betting on thoroughbred racing, harness racing, greyhound racing and jai alai.

The primary casino gaming in Florida is currently offered by the Seminole Tribe who control seven of the state’s eight properties. The closest such property to Jacksonville is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino which is three hours to the Southwest. This property offers Class 3 gaming including slot machines, video poker, table games and a live poker room. There’s not much to choose from in other states either—the closest out of state casino jurisdiction is the abundant gaming on the Mississippi Gulf Coast but with Biloxi six hours away that’s not exactly an easy drive. That’s roughly the amount of time it would take to fly to Las Vegas which you can do from Jacksonville International Airport for less than $250 round trip.

At one point, the casino cruise business in Florida was vigorous and offered another way for state residents to gamble. Basically, it’s a ‘cruise to nowhere’–the boat leaves port and once it hits international waters gambling is legal for all passengers 21 or over. In 2004, there were 17 casino boats operating in Florida but that has dwindled to a handful. Not long ago, Jacksonville was served by several casino cruises but that ended when Victory Casino Cruises moved their base of operations to Cape Canaveral, two hours South. The Victory Casino Cruise ship offers table games, slot machines and even a full service sportsbook. Given the proliferation of gaming options elsewhere, the casino cruise industry might be footnote to Florida gambling history before long.

Sports Betting in Miami

Like the state itself, gambling in Florida has a very bizarre and interesting history. It should be no surprise that Miami plays an oversized role in that narrative. At various points, gambling in the Sunshine State has involved Native American tribes, organized crime figures, Cuban mobsters, fundamentalist Christians and big corporate gaming interests. While there’s a decent amount of legal gambling available in Florida the state has some of the most severe penalties for running an illegal gaming operation of any state in the country.

The modern era of gambling in Miami began in the early 20th Century as the population of Florida is starting to explode. Miami is the epicenter of that growth and in the process of transforming from a sleepy town into a major city. Thanks to a large presence of organized crime imported from Chicago and local authorities that were happy to look the other way gambling was also booming by the ‘Roaring 20s’. Al Capone was involved in the Miami gambling industry for awhile and the area began being referred to pejoratively as ‘Little Chicago’ due to a spate of gangland style murders and rampant corruption.

The illegal gaming operations in Florida offered poker, blackjack and horse racing. The big prize, however, was a game that most people have never heard of: Bolita. Bolita (Spanish for ‘Little Ball’) was imported from Cuba and became the big revenue driver for Florida’s illegal gambling operators. According to most historical accounts the game first took hold in Tampa’s Ybor City area (Ybor City had a large Cuban population and was the center of the US cigar industry for many years). Tampa native Charlie Wall was the de facto ‘King of Bolita’ in the 1920’s and found himself in a bloody turf war with Italian gangster Ignacio Antinori. The war would rage on for years and the ‘locals’ didn’t exactly roll over for the gangsters—in fact, it would end with Antinori killed with sawed off shotgun legend suggests by Wall himself. Wall would meet his fate in 1955 after being beat with a baseball bat and his throat slit.

The Chicago interests—perhaps wanting to avoid the mayhem of the Gulf Coast—focused on Miami. The game was very big among the increasingly large Cuban population of South Florida and was controlled by various operatives of the Chicago mob until the 1940’s. At this point, a crackdown on organized crime ended mob control of Bolita but did nothing to end the game or its popularity. Bolita remains a fixture today not only in Miami but in Hispanic communities in New York and other large cities.

Florida began to offer legal gambling options in the 1930’s with the introduction of parimutuel wagering on horse racing, dog racing and the Basque game of jai alai. Jai alai has its own fascinating and colorful history but would be a big presence in Florida throughout the 20th century. It experienced a huge boom in popularity in the 1970’s and 1980’s with thousands attending games at the Miami area frontons. One of the most memorable images during the opening credits of the ‘Miami Vice’ TV series featured players at the Dania jai alai fronton. Due to a confluence of factors—including a unionization effort by players who felt they were underpaid—the game began what would be a precipitous decline. Today, there are only two places in South Florida that offer the sport on a year round basis.

Horse racing in Florida has also seen better days though it’s definitely in better shape than jai alai. Gulfstream Park remains one of the important venues in all of racing and several other venues including Tampa Bay Downs and the Pompano Park harness track continue to host live meets. Hialeah Park has a large casino but is a shell of its former self as a horse track. The owners run a nominal quarter horse meet every year in order to maintain the regulatory status that lets them operate a casino. What used to be Calder Race Course is now primarily a casino though Gulfstream Park runs a two month live meet called ‘Gulfstream Park West’ in order to maintain Calder’s status. The casinos at the horse tracks in the state offer slot machines and poker but no table games. The casinos at Hialeah Park, Pompano Park and Calder do offer electronic versions of ‘table games’ that skirt around the regulations and are similar to video ‘live dealer’ offerings at online casinos.

The primary casino gaming in Florida is currently offered by the Seminole Tribe who control seven of the state’s eight properties the majority of which target the Miami metro area The other is on the Miccosukee Tribe reservation near Miami. The Seminole Tribe has become a very powerful political force in shaping gaming law in the ‘Sunshine State’ and has opposed efforts to expand gaming at other venues. The terms of the Seminole compact with the State of Florida allows them to offer both ‘Class II’ and traditional ‘Class III’ gaming devices. Class III devices are the type of machines they have in Las Vegas. Class II devices look like slot machines but are in actuality ‘bingo games’. The spinning reels are just for ‘entertainment purposes’ with payouts determined by the result of the underlying bingo competition. The Miccosukee Tribe has not signed a compact with the state of Florida and can only offer Class II devices in their casino.

The Seminole Tribe also offers blackjack, baccarat, mini-baccarat, three card poker, ‘Let It Ride’ and pai gow poker. All tribal casinos in Florida are allowed to offer high stakes bingo, video ‘pull tab’ games and poker. The two Seminole Hard Rock Casinos (Hollywood and Tampa) and the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek do not offer bingo though every other property in the state does. All tribal casinos are open 24 hours a day/7 days a week. The minimum gambling age is 18 at all tribal casinos for bingo or poker and 21 for electronic gaming machines.

One downside for Miami gamblers is its location. If they’re not happy with the menu of options in South Florida it’s a long way to another jurisdiction. That would most likely be the Mississippi Gulf Coast which is just over 11 hours away. One intriguing option is to hop a flight or a ferry to the Bahamas where there are a number of large casinos. The most famous property is the Atlantis Paradise Islands which has all of the options you’d find in a Las Vegas casino including a full race and sports book.

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