Deadwood, South Dakota: America’s third city for casino gambling

Fun fact: After doing location shooting for “Dances with Wolves” in Deadwood, South Dakota, Kevin Costner himself bought a casino in the town, the Midnight Star. In 2004, the South Dakota state supreme court itself took Costner’s case in a management dispute that might have cost ol’ Ray Kinsella a few million dollars.
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South Dakota casinos – Casino gaming in Deadwood, off routes 14 and 85

Of all the states, South Dakota could well be second to only Nevada in terms of casinos – if measured per capita, that is. With a population of over 850,000 (putting it at no. 47 on the list of most populous states), South Dakota hosts a whopping 27 casinos, or an incredible one gaming outlet per 31,500 or so – and in Deadwood, slot machines outnumber citizens by a ratio of three to one!

Granted, the majority of these are low-stakes, touristy joints in historic Deadwood, but who would have expected such a seemingly sleepy little state to boast 10 large-scale gaming houses dotted throughout its land? Heck, we’re ready to call South Dakota a full-on gambling epicenter right there in the heartland of the United States.

Vital Statistics

Population: 854,000+ (2017 est.)

Area: 77,184 sq. mi.

Gambling Age (Casinos): 21

Gambling Age (Lottery): 18

Number of Casinos: 27


• In a 1973 protest, AIM and members of the Oglala Lakota tribe seized the town of Wounded Knee and held it for 71 days.

•  It is legal to shoot at Native Americans if five or more are on your property.

•  In 2005, Spearfish repealed a law which legally considered three or more Native Americans a “war party.”

•  Kevin Costner himself once owned a casino in Deadwood, and a management dispute involving the property was heard in the Supreme Court.

History of Gambling in South Dakota

During the European settlement and expansion to the West, the Dakota territory was never greatly populated by white folks – or even many Native Americans, for that matter. Until mining of coal and gold began in earnest in the areas we now call North and South Dakota began, most land was occupied by, well, buffalo.

When the mining rush and western expansion came to the Dakotas in the 19th century, a state of lawlessness similar to that experienced in the “Wild West” or on the rivers running southward into the Gulf of Mexico. Towns such as Deadwood became a haven for purveyors of vice, legal or otherwise. Heck, Deadwood might be a ghost town *today* if it hadn’t been for visitations by 19th-century American notables like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

After gaining statehood for the former territory in 1889, legislators went to work on illegalizing gambling as did most states joining the Union in the second half of the 19th century: First came the outlawing of all lotteries and games of chance, following by the introduction of legal pari-mutuel betting at race tracks in the 1930s.

In 1988, however, gambling law in South Dakota completely changed. At the federal level, passage of the Indian Gaming regulatory Act (IGRA) that year gave the state’s Native Americans the right to establish bingo halls immediately. Even more importantly, however, South Dakota voters passed a referendum to allow gambling in Deadwood, South Dakota, in hopes of providing some fiscal CPR to the regional economy and to draw more tourist dollars.

While the original law called for a max bet of just $5 per game in the Deadwood casinos, this was raised to $100 in 2000 and $1,000 in 2014.

Casino Venues

Seventeen of South Dakota’s 27 gambling venues are in Deadwood, a town known for hosting the final minutes of Wild Bill Hickok’s life and/or the HBO television series which ran for three seasons in the 2000s. And naturally these gambling houses, set in a tourist town with a population of about 1,400, add to the local color with names like Cadillac Jack’s, the Gold Dust, Miss Kitty’s, the Tin Lizzie and the Wooden Nickel.

Outside of Deadwood are 10 venues operated on Native American land; these essentially dot the state’s borders; most are within 50 miles of a neighboring state.

Casino Gambling Age Restrictions

Bad news, teens: If mom and dad have dragged you to Deadwood as tourists, you still can’t play on the low-end slot machines until you’re 21. Same goes for the Native American-run casions. All other forms of gambling, one may be 18 years old

Famous South Dakota gamblers

Come on, now: How many historical figures are known to have died at the card table? Additonally, how many are known to have died with a smile? Wild West legend Bill Hickok achieved both in Deadwood, South Dakota, where he spent the last couple months of his life after arriving by wagon train in 1876.

AS the story goes, one Jack McCall blew Hickok away through the back of the head, while Wild Bill was playing a hand of five-card stud. His two pair of aces and eights showing was immediately known as “Dead Man’s Hand” and poker players still recall Hickok to this day when the hand comes up. And if every single video poker machine in Deadwood *doesn’t* pay out a special bonus on A-A-8-8-x well, that’s crime.

South Dakota gambling law (as of 2017)

As we’ve seen, South Dakota gambling law provides for legal gambling in Deadwood, but no indication has been given that other areas of the state may someday provide gambling. The IGRA is by default the overriding law on South Dakota gambling, therefore, and this is now in the hands of Native American tribes, who may expand their offerings legally.

Future of Gambling in South Dakota

After single-digit decreases in income nearly every year between 2012 and 2015, Deadwood casinos saw a whopping 25% decrease year-on-year in revenues in ’16. As far back as 2014, the town has sought revitalization measures and has attempted to adopt marketing strategies to keep the tourist dollars coming, but there’s not denying Deadwood – and Deadwood-based casinos – are losing their popularity.

As of 2017, seven former gaming outlets have switched to some other tourist-appealing business, and further rollback seems inevitable before 2020.

Outisde of Deadwood, casino expansion is of course up to the Native Americans, but little impetus has been seen to open a new venue after the casino boom of the 1990s/2000s.

South Dakota casinos

Do you suppose two pair aces and eights might still be lethal in Deadwood casinos? If so, let’s hope you’ll meet your maker as Wild Bill Hickok did: with a smile on your face. (Seriously, the video poker machines there should give a special prize.)
Wild Bill Hickok lives on in Deadwood, South Dakota casinos. Sort of.