Iowa, pioneer in riverboat gambling, today boasts healthy casino industry

As the first U.S. state to legalize riverboat gambling back in 1991, the count of casinos in Iowa has increased to about 20 as of this writing. Whereas back in the day, bets were capped at $5 per wager and losses at $200 per session, these limits were overturned in 1994. Ten years later, restrictions were further loosened so that non-riverboat casinos could legally do business in the state.
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Iowa casinos – About 20 gaming house in the Hawkeye State

If just one phrase were allowed to describe gambling in Iowa, it would be “riverboat gambling.” Though the day of the riverboat is waning, Iowa is the rare state that legalized casino gambling before the Indian Gaming Enforcement Act (IGRA) which changed everything in 1988. At one time, some 14 riverboat casinos were doing business along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, but by the mid-2010s, that number has shrunk to a mere three. Nevertheless, the Hard Rock Casino and Diamond Jo casinos in Iowa owe their very existence to old-fashioned gaming of the sort enjoyed in the 1800s.

Vital Statistics

Population: 3.107 million (off. 2014 est.)

Area: 56,272 sq. mi.

Gambling Age (Casinos): 21

Gambling Age (Lottery): 21

Number of Casinos: 25


•  Nearly seven times as many pigs (over 20 million) as people live in Iowa.

•  The “Honey War” was actually a bloodless legal dispute over the Iowa-Missouri border in 1839, a matter which was not finally resolved until 2005.

•  The blue, white and red stripes of the state flag are an homage to France and the Louisiana Purchase.

History of Gambling in Iowa

An informal history of gambling in Iowa would naturally begin on the riverboats. The riverboat gambler – particularly of the crooked sort – has become a staple of 18th-century American lore thanks to Mark Twain and his contemporaries in reportage.

Gambling law in Iowa became more and more restrictive through the 2-th century until 1972, when only some bingo, charitable raffles and pari-mutuel betting at the state’s horse tracks was allowed. Until a guy named Bernard Goldstein came around…

Iowa was known as a pioneer in modern riverboat gambling in the U.S. from the 1980s through the 2000s and cashed in on the lucrative gambling boom in the 80s and 90s well ahead of most states, thanks to some nifty lobbying work by Goldstein. Goldstein made his fortune in scrap metal, going from secretary/treasurer in 1950 to chairman 30 years later with Alter Companies. When getting set to retire from Alter in 1989, Goldstein’s last major act for Iowa was his lobbying for – and subsequent introduction of in 1991 via Alter’s boats – riverboat gambling in the state.

At one time, riverboat casinos were doing brisk business. By 2005, the maximum number of casinos allowed under state law (14) were open for business on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers – but the metaphorical bubble had already burst.

Since casino gambling had now become an accepted pastime, folks like the owners of the Hard Rock Café group opened up purely land-based casinos in Iowa. Once IGRA passed in 1988, the state’s Native American tribes got to work in building large casinos and resorts. This business competition, combined with the heavy depreciation of the riverboats themselves and tighter environmental restrictions, slowly drove the riverboat casinos out of business; as of this writing, just two remain. It’s an ignoble ending for an industry that generated some $22.6 billion in tax revenue and made a $25 billion economic impacton Iowa in 25 years of operation…

Casino Venues

About two dozen casinos dot the state, with 18 towns hosting at least one. Council Bluffs sports three Native American-operated casinos in the Harrah’s, Horseshoe and Ameristar casino hotels.  Dubuque claims two, with the Mystique (with neighboring racetrack) and one of the state’s two Diamond Jo casinos located there.

Casino Gambling Age Restrictions

Interestingly enough, despite its relatively liberal stance on gambling, Iowa is one of the few states which allows all major types of wagering (state lottery, pari-mutuel betting, casino gambling)  but with a minimum age of 21 for any – that’s right, even lottery tickets.

Famous Iowa gamblers

One of Iowa’s all-time most famous citizens was also one of its all-time greatest poker players (probably): John Wayne. Biographies of Wayne are littered with tales of his all-night poker games with director John Ford, actor Montgomery Clift and dozens of other notable celebrities.

While shooting a film, one actress was invited to Wayne’s room and spent the night. She later said, “When I left, I was nearly bankrupt because I'm not a very good [poker] player." One story claims that Wayne won the original movie Lassie in a poker game with the dog’s owner/trainer, but couldn’t legally keep the famous canine. The point: If you were to play poker with John Wayne, well, “Think before you play that, pilgrim…”

By the time the 70s rolled around, Wayne’s star was fading and he spent more and more time in Las Vegas with his new friend Dean Martin. According to Wayne’s soon-to-be ex-wife Pillar, “I watched him lose $11,000 on one roll of the dice in Vegas one night.”

Iowa gambling law (as of 2017)

Laws regulating legal bingo, lottery, horseracing and casino gambling are in the state’s books. Most forms of gambling are easily found in Iowa – so no need to get fleeced by a cunning riverboat gambler type – including daily fantasy sports betting. And, like most other U.S. states, no extant law regarding playing casino games online exists in Iowa.

Future of Gambling in Iowa

A couple of key issues will probably get some advancement within the Iowa gambling sphere. On the plus side, Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second-largest city, is still without any sort of casino operation. The proponents appear to be gaining steam as of 2017, and a new outlet opening in the city before 2020 would hardly be surprising.

On the minus side, current Iowa governor Terry Branstad has stated that he will consider overturning the 1990s laws that made riverboat gambling legal – though it’s a mystery as to why the state would illegalize this unique and interesting bit of Americana. Heck, the state should be funding one or two of the things. After all, what else might a tourist come to Iowa for…?

Iowa casinos

The riverboat casinos in Iowa are mostly located on the state’s eastern and western borders; the key bodies of water, then, are the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, respectively. In the western bit, important casinos include franchises in the Ameristar chain, the Argosy in Sioux City and the WinnVegas Casino. In the east, look for Dubuque’s Diamond Jo Casino and Clinton’s Wild Rose Casino.
Keeping one Hawkeye open for casinos, riverboat gambling in Iowa