A Hard Look at Atlantic City Casinos Over the Last 40 Years

A Hard Look at Atlantic City Casinos Over the Last 40 Years
By Bill Ordine

New Jersey gambling, at least the legal kind, has meant one thing.

A.C. Not even Atlantic City. Just the initials — A.C.

However, while the days of driving to A.C. to hit the slots and play some blackjack are certainly not gone, New Jersey gambling is quickly evolving into a far different experience. Now, gambling in the Garden State is just as likely to happen in someone’s basement in front of a computer, or sitting on the couch, smart phone in hand.

Last year, almost half of the approximately $2.88 billion in gambling revenue came from either online casino gambling or sports gambling, which also is mostly done on the Internet. In 2020, the financial figures were $970 million in revenue from Top New Jersey online casinos and about $400 million in sports gambling revenue (to repeat, where the vast majority of wagering is done at Top NJ online sportsbooks). That means about 47.5% of New Jersey’s gambling revenues in 2020 came from folks pushing buttons on a computer or a cell phone.

Of course, there is the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has folks working, shopping and, yes, gambling from home. So, COVID-19 behavior obviously influenced those 2020 gambling figures you just read. But the trend has been unrelentingly obvious. Gambling, even in New Jersey where Atlantic City was the East Coast bookend of the casino industry, is something that happens with increasing frequency in cyberspace as opposed to on green felt tables.

Meanwhile, the journey from Resorts International, Atlantic City’s first casino, to the dot-com gambling world of the 21st century has been fascinating, sometimes disappointing and highly unpredictable.

The Old Days

In 1978, when Resorts International opened, the people came in droves. It was so difficult to get a seat at a blackjack table, bystanders would bet on other people’s hands just get some action.

However, no one mistook Atlantic City for Las Vegas until one particular gambling hall opened — Steve’s Wynn’s Golden Nugget (not to be confused with Tillman Fertitta’s current Golden Nugget in the Marina district). That Wynn Golden Nugget was quintessential Vegas. It was themed in a “Gay ‘90s” motif, all gold and glitz. Wynn, now shunned by the gambling world over sexual misconduct allegations, was the boyishly handsome face of his property in those days doing whimsical TV commercials with Frank Sinatra, who entertained there.

In the earliest A.C. days, Hugh Hefner built a Playboy casino (some female dealers were stuffed into bunny costumes); the English-themed Claridge had doormen dressed as Tower of London Beefeaters, and a guy named Trump salvaged a Hilton licensing problem by taking over a new casino in the Marina district that took on the unassuming name “Trump’s Castle” (now the new Golden Nugget).

For a while, the A.C. Boardwalk became the East Coast version of the Las Vegas Strip — without the year-around good weather. Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Cher, Johnny Carson, Lena Horne — from Dolly Parton to Luciano Pavarotti, A.C. featured world-class entertainment. It also became a boxing mecca. Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes and George Foreman all stepped into A.C. rings. An Atlantic City boxing match was even the setting for the 1998 Nicholas Cage-Gary Sinise thriller, “Snake Eyes.”

Short-Sighted Mindset

Unfortunately, though, the folks running the A.C. casinos ultimately lacked the vision of Las Vegas operators, even though they sometimes shared corporate parentage.

It was a short-sighted philosophy of Atlantic City casino operators that they did not want customers to venture outside of their buildings. Casino complexes were built so that patrons walked from their cars in a parking garage right into the casino, where they stayed for a few hours and then made their way home.

The Boardwalk, the beach, the Atlantic Ocean — all the things that distinguished Atlantic City — were what casino operators preferred that their guests never even noticed. Almost nothing was done to integrate Atlantic City’s incomparable charms with the resorts. The limited quarterly-report mindset of casino executive stunted Atlantic City’s growth while Vegas was doing its shape-shifter thing and promoting a critical mass of entertainment, dining, shopping, and attractions that buttressed gambling.

Because A.C. let itself become a listless collection of concrete-and-steel gambling warehouses, the resort was vulnerable to the day when nearby states — Delaware, then Pennsylvania, then Maryland, even New York — opened their own warehouses with slots and blackjack tables. As the aforementioned Mr. Wynn once remarked, a slot is a slot machine. It turns out a slot machine that’s an hour closer to a gambler’s home is far more attractive.

By the mid-2010s, the city was imploding. From 2014 to 2016, at least five A.C. casinos closed. Even a sexy, multi-billion dollar exquisite but flawed resort then called Revel (now the Ocean Casino Resort) couldn’t save the city’s fortunes.

iGaming Emerges in New Jersey

As it happened, what did save New Jersey’s casino industry was this thing called the internet. Invisible, tasteless, amorphous. But in gaming terms, it was the most convenient form of convenience gambling – and New Jersey acted quickly when the opportunity presented itself, and the gaudy revenue numbers speak for themselves.

In the last few years, internet gambling (with offering such as Online poker and Online slots ) has gone from being a tidy supplement to A.C.’s brick-and-mortar gambling industry to, in the era of COVID-19 with casino shutdowns, its outright salvation.

What remains to be seen is if Atlantic City’s current casino operators are possessed of the vision and resourcefulness to marry the virtual with the real, to find a way to bring those internet gamblers through the doors of the casinos, and perhaps even entice them to stay for a few nights in the hotels and eat at the restaurants. In short, revive gambling tourism.

As we are constantly being reminded, life is full of surprises, some good and some not-so-good. So, there’s no prediction here on how this all works out for A.C. But you can bet on this — in 50 years, or a hundred years, and far, far beyond that, the ocean will still be there.



A longtime reporter and editor who began writing on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened, Bill covered the world Series of Poker and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for a decade.

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