Thursday, March 19, 2015

Phil Metschan Tobin. The father of modern gambling.

On March 19, 1931, in the Great Depression, the sparsely populated desert state of Nevada ended nearly 70 years of a prohibition and broke with the other 47 states by legalizing gambling. the idea came from a tenderfoot legislator who would, at age 29, serve but five years before ranching full-time in Humboldt County, Phil Metschan Tobin.

He changed Nevada -- and eventually every state government in the nation. And yet it seemed to be no big deal at the time.

Phil Metschan Tobin and his twin, Frank, were born on April 28, 1901, in Portland, Oregon, to a banker, and the daughter of a banker. But when young Phil was 4, his family moved to Winnemucca, Nevada, where his father started a ranch. Phil loved ranching and would eventually be inducted into the Buckaroo Hall of Fame, which noted:
According to Kelley Pearce, who ran cattle with Phil in the 1920s and 1930s Phil was a buckaroo right from the start. One night they had just finished dinner and someone tossed out the dishwater. The innocent act started a 600 head stampede. Phil and Kelley jumped on their horses bareback to get them stopped. Another time they were herding about 800 head of cattle in to a corral when a whistle on a nearby switch engine blew and the resulting stampede went about 10 miles before he got them stopped. His brand was a bar inside a circle and many of the cattlemen around Winnemucca referred to the ranch as the ‘Circle Bar’. 
The hall of fame also noted: "Tobin was not your average politician, he was more likely to be found outside the Capitol rolling a Bull Durham cigarette, he was foremost a cowboy. He introduced the legislation to regulate illegal gambling that was rampant in those days and bring more revenue to the then poverty stricken state. In fact, he has said that the real reason he ran for office is because the ranchers were having problems with irrigation dams along the Humboldt River and he wanted to resolve that conflict."

Thus, long before the efforts to legalize marijuana so it could be taxed and regulated, Phil Tobin did this with gambling. The state already largely ignored its law. The Humboldt Museum wrote, "At the time, illicit gambling houses were thriving in Las Vegas, and with Hoover Dam slated to begin construction 40 miles away, many feared the increased Federal presence associated with the Dam construction effort would lead to a clamp-down."

Gambling was pretty modest for the first 15 years. Technology changed that. Robert D. Faiss and Gregory R. Gemignani of the University of Nevada Las Vegas wrote: "Air conditioning and the growing popularity of the automobile in the early 1940s caused an explosive growth of Nevada’s gaming industry. The cool casino breezes made the blast-furnace heat of a Southern Nevada summer tolerable. And, the automobile transformed Las Vegas into a weekend playground for gamblers from Southern California. Western Airlines began flights to Las Vegas, providing yet another boost to the state’s tourist trade."

In 1945, lawmakers added casino regulations. Then the mafia came in and built casinos in Las Vegas. They were so successful, corporations bought them out. By 2014, gambling was a $25 billion business in Nevada -- and it had spread to every state, if only in the form of a lottery. Gambling balances many a state budget today.

But Tobin entered the gambling business. He said, "The cattle business is the biggest gamble there is -- the odds are always bad."

He died in 1976, just as New Jersey was beginning its run as the second state to open casinos.


  1. Interesting guy. I'm no fan of gambling*, but there are worse ways to amuse oneself ("knock-out game," for one), and Tobin obviously has had a prodigious impact on the American economy.

    * I'm not a Puritan. Gambling just >bores< me. Gambling is a tedious enterprise, at best. When I casino gamble, my strategy morphs from recreational enjoyment (which lasts about 10 minutes) to trying to lose the money I've brought (and consider lost already) as fast as possible so I can get out of the doggoned place.

  2. Are we sure those corporations that bought from the mob are truly not mob-related?