What Are Riverboat Casinos?

Back when state legislation banned gambling on land, ingenious people found a way to

generate revenue from gambling by setting and operating casinos on board paddlewheel boats, as these were cruising international waters and could thus circumvent local limitations forced by the law.

Where can we find riverboat casinos in the US?

Such casinos can be found in several states across the US, but mainly on the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers (in Louisiana, Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi and Missouri), or along the Gulf Coast. The first legal riverboat casinos were opened in the late 20th century, when the states didn’t permit gaming on land. Iowa was the state where the first legal riverboat casino opened its doors in 1989, followed by Illinois and Louisiana in 1991.

The beginnings

After the emergence of the railroads as a transportation means, paddlewheel riverboats were only used for excursions and entertainment, and besides live music and dancing, cruisers could also enjoy some card games and slot machines. At the peak of this gambling type, riverboat casinos were offering Las Vegas-style entertainment – Slots, Blackjack, Roulette, Baccarat and Craps – and were seeing a quite high customer traffic.  However, the type of games allowed on ships varies by jurisdiction.

To make an idea of how big this industry had become, know that after gambling on riverboats became legal, over 10,000 new jobs were created in Illinois with a yearly payroll of $250 million.  

Initially, in a series of locations, gambling was only allowed on paddlewheel riverboats when these were actually sailing. Over time, though, authorities began to loosen up legislation and gaming casinos could be built on stilts placed over navigable water.

Particularities of riverboats casinos in different states across the US

Mississippi riverboat casinos are different from those in other states as the legislation here requires them to be permanently docked. Basically, shipboard casinos are built on stationary barges, and gangplanks are used to connect them to land. Another difference for the Mississippi area consists of the fact that the state doesn’t limit the number of riverboat casinos that receive licensing.

In Louisiana, on the other hand, gambling can only take place on fully operational ships that boast the appearance of the nineteenth-century paddleboats, can host at least 600 passengers and conduct regular runs.

Meanwhile, in Indiana, gambling activities are allowed on cruising riverboats, so ships must cruise for around four hours so that the passengers can enjoy some table games or slot machines.

Finally, in Missouri, gambling activities can be conducted on both modern and historical riverboats, but there are strict limitations when it comes to the type of games of chance that are allowed, As such, only games where winnings do not depend primarily on luck are allowed, such as blackjack and poker which also require some skill. So no slot machines or other table games allowed here.