Like its neighbor Louisiana, the gambling tradition in Mississippi runs deep. Riverboat gambling was a huge industry until the start of the Civil War. They returned after the conflict but never to the extent as before. By the early 1900’s and Prohibition they were all but done and gambling went underground for much of the next century. While the traditional riverboat gambling iconography evokes imagery from sinister to sleazy the reality was significantly different. In fact, the hundreds of riverboats had more in common with today’s corporate casino industry. They competed with each other to offer the most appealing gambling and entertainment and primarily relied on ‘repeat customers’.
Riverboats weren’t the only form of gambling in pre 20th century Mississippi. Horse racing has existed in the state for at least two centuries, brought here by the early French settlers. At the time Mississippi gained statehood the biggest gambling issue was ‘independent lotteries’. These loosely regulated games were primarily based in Louisiana but were popular throughout the Southeast. They were also rife with crooks and corruption. As was the case in many states, the lotteries were outlawed and shut down and this served as the template for much of the gambling regulation until the late 20th Century. In 1938, the state outlawed slot machines and pinball machines. On the other hand, betting on dog fights is legal in Mississippi and is reflective of the general backwardness of the state.
That was it for gambling in Mississippi until the late 20th century. The big development came in 1990 when the Mississippi Gaming Control Act was passed which legalized riverboat gambling in coastal or riverboat counties. This had to be approved on the county level but a thriving casino industry quickly came to life. Starting in 1992, the ‘riverboats’ were allowed to remain docked. The casino industry has definitely weathered its share of ups and downs. Initially, Tunica was the epicenter of the state’s casino industry due in large part of its proximity to Memphis and the busy East/West traffic of Interstate 40. That changed as more riverboats were added elsewhere in the state and the industry started to explode on the Gulf Coast. The Gulf Coast casinos suffered a blow from ‘Mother Nature’ when Hurricane Katrina slammed the region in 2005 with several Mississippi casinos closing in the aftermath and never re-opening. There have been a number of casinos to go out of business along with name changes and consolidation. There is also a casino complex called the ‘Pearl River Resort’ on Choctaw tribal land. All casinos offer a similar—and extensive—gaming mix.
It’s really tough to figure out where Mississippi stands on the issue of gambling on a macro level. The state’s politics are driven by pragmatists who understand the need to increase revenues and fundamentalist Christians who want to turn the state into a theocracy. You can probably guess where these factions come down on gambling related issues. What’s notable are the forms of gambling that don’t—and haven’t ever—been legal in Mississippi. There has never been any parimutuel wagering and for most of its history Mississippi didn’t have a state lottery. That has changed recently with Governor Phil Bryant signing lottery legislation into law on August 31, 2018. The state now has a nominal lottery offering with a very limited number of games though you can expect that to increase significantly going forward.
Another recent development in Mississippi is the addition of sports betting. They were the third post PASPA state to come online with the MGM owned casino properties leading the way. The other casinos in the state are quickly adding their own bookmaking operations. One downside of Mississippi’s sports book regulation—in June 2018 the state’s gaming law was amended to mandate that all betting take place ‘in-person’. Although the language says that mobile gaming will be ‘considered later’ this liability means that Mississippi is already years behind the industry state of the art.