What Is a Casino?

A casino is a place where people can gamble and play games of chance. The modern casino looks more like an indoor amusement park than a traditional gambling hall, with spectacular entertainment and shopping centers providing the bulk of its attractions, but the casino still depends on the inherent luck of the games to bring in the billions of dollars in profits. Casinos have many ways to attract gamblers, including offering free shows and rooms, discounted transportation and food. But the casino would not exist without games of chance such as slots, blackjack, roulette and craps.

Gambling probably predates recorded history, with primitive protodice and carved six-sided dice found in ancient archaeological sites. But the modern casino as a collection of gambling activities under one roof did not develop until the 16th century, when a casino craze swept Europe. Rich Italian aristocrats created private clubs known as ridotti where they could gamble legally and in the company of friends.

Today, the majority of casino revenues come from slot machines. Patrons insert coins or paper tickets with barcodes to activate the machine, and varying bands of colored shapes roll on a reel (actual physical ones or a video representation) to display patterns that trigger payouts. The machines are designed so that no amount of player skill or strategy can change the outcome. Casinos also make their money by taking a small percentage of all bets placed, an advantage called the house edge or vigorish.

To keep their advantage, casinos invest heavily in security. Besides the obvious cameras, some of them use technology to monitor game activity and identify anomalies in a player’s betting behavior. For example, some betting chips have built-in microcircuitry that interacts with electronic systems in the tables to oversee the exact amounts wagered minute by minute and warn the dealers if any discrepancy is detected; and roulette wheels are electronically monitored regularly to discover any statistical deviation from their expected results.

The majority of casinos are owned by corporations based outside the United States, but some states, such as Iowa, have legalized them and allow their residents to gamble there. Other states, such as New Jersey and Illinois, have banned them or have laws prohibiting their operation.

While casinos provide a major source of income for their owners, they do not necessarily benefit the communities that host them. Studies show that local gambling revenue often diverts spending away from other forms of community entertainment, and the cost of treating compulsive gamblers can offset any economic benefits from a casino. The economic impact of casinos is a complex issue that must be considered carefully before they are established in any community. This article was originally published in March 2008 and updated in February 2016. For more information about this and other topics on this website, please visit our About page. The editors at Merriam-Webster want to hear your feedback about this article. You can email us at [email protected].