Erving Goffman's Las Vegas: From Jungle to Boardroom

By Schwartz, David G. | UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal, April 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

Erving Goffman's Las Vegas: From Jungle to Boardroom


Schwartz, David G., UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal


Sociologist Erving Goffman's presence in Las Vegas never yielded a definitive publication. Though it informed his work about action and interaction, his time in Las Vegas-both as a blackjack dealer and a player-remains one of the great what-ifs of gambling academia. This is regrettable, not only because the field would have benefited immeasurably from the analysis of a figure of Goffman's talent and repute, but because Goffman was in Las Vegas exactly as the city's casino business was undergoing its most significant shift, from small-scale, syndicate-owned ventures with links to former and current illegal enterprises elsewhere to massive, publicly-traded, mainstream-financed concerns.

Goffman began regular trips to Las Vegas in the late 1950s. By this time the coterie of former illegal gambling operators who did much to build the Las Vegas Strip had become established and relatively secure. Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris's muck-raking The Green Felt Jungle (1963), which ticked off the most salacious facts, rumors, and misrepresentations to be found, chronicled the peak of this cohort's power. Goffman had an intimate view of Las Vegas at the exact moment when the generation that built the Strip was at its mightiest.

Yet that command was short-lived. When Goffman contemplated an abortive continuation of his casino study in the mid-1970s, most of the names that had built the Las Vegas he first entered were gone or diminished. Moe Dalitz, with whom Goffman has been linked, sold his interests in the flagship Desert Inn to Howard Hughes in 1967; he would have licensing difficulties with his last project, the Sundance, in 1980. So Goffman, had he completed and published his work on Las Vegas, would have been able to provide a detailed, insider portrait of a business in the throes of its most historic shift.

Experiencing Las Vegas, Reno, and Lake Tahoe casinos first as a dealer and then as a card-counting blackjack player, Goffman would have seen not just how these gambling houses presented themselves in everyday life, but what went on behind the scenes-a look at not just the onstage drama but the equally-compelling backstage action.

Goffman did not complete his study of casinos because of a "crisis" that involved "evil."1 Travis Hirschi, who attended the seminar where Goffman spoke-somewhat elliptically, it seems-about his confrontation with evil in Las Vegas-was unable to say exactly what had turned Goffman against pursuing further research and publication. Subsequent researchers have been unable to shed any light on the about-face.2 So Goffman's forays into Nevada casinos ended, with no direct material published on the experience, although, as Dmitri Shalin points out, his time in Las Vegas directly informed much of his later work on deviance, action, and interaction.3

Paradise Diminished

When Goffman began visiting Las Vegas regularly, the city was in its own state of crisis. Before exploring that crisis, the underlying structure of the Las Vegas casino business, as it existed circa 1958, must be explored.

Nevada initially legalized "wide-open" gambling in 1869, with few oversights at the state level-licensing and fee collection was at the county level.4 This system was tolerable for the small-scale gambling operations of the time, and for the next forty years the legislature continually adjusted the parameters of regulation, raising the minimum age, adjusting license fees, changing permissible operating hours, and broadening the scope of games allowed. In 1909, however, the legislature put an end to this system, passing a law that made dealing or playing games punishable by as much as five years in prison.5

After a progressive loosening of the state's gambling prohibitions (social card games quickly returned) the Nevada legislature in February 1931 re-legalized "wide-open gambling" in what historian Eric Moody has termed "purely a business proposition."6 This begins the modern era of Nevada gaming, and the state's casinos and regulatory apparatus date from this year. …

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