How The Gaming Control Act of 1959 Destroyed the Mafia Presence in Las Vegas

It was 1959. The year that signaled the end of days for mobsters running around unhindered in the paradise playground of cash that is Sin City. The installment of a new, dazzling (and now iconic) “Welcome Las Vegas Nevada” sign meant welcome - but only for some folks and not others.

Welcome to Las Vegas
The welcome sign that didn't welcome everyone.


It was in this year that the Gaming Control Act came into force and spelled the end of a mainly drama-free run for underworld figures, who had been moonlighting around the city at the various gaming establishments taking their cut off the top of profits and gaming the system.

It’s Cosa Nostra News served fresh from the files of history.
Introduction of the Nevada Gaming Control Act - and the Nevada Gaming Commission

In July of 1959, the Nevada Gaming Control Act was brought into effect which outlined a two-tier regulatory system that defined how gambling was going to go down from now on in Nevada.

The tiers were that of a Gaming Control Board - who perform investigations of licenses, approvals, and other such detective work, and the Nevada Gaming Commission - who oversee state regulations, law enforcement, and are the final word in licensing.

While the Gaming Control Board was the initial body that introduced the Act, they were originally overseen by the Nevada Tax Commission. The Gaming Control Act changed all that - establishing the Nevada Gaming Commission for the transferal of power.

But who would head up this new and powerful body? As the newly-minted Democratic governor of Nevada, it was Grant Sawyer who’d pushed through the Gaming Control Act. It was also his call on who would head up the Nevada Gaming Commission. As political historians would accurately recall, it was Sawyer who shaped the history of Las Vegas gambling as we know it today.

His pick for the chairman? That was none other than Ray Abbaticchio Jr., a former FBI special agent, and regional head. With a former FBI agent at the helm, backed by a progressive democrat in government, mobsters knew this would be tough times on The Strip, but they were yet to see just how tough times could get.
A new era

With the new year came a new agenda and a new directive. In January of 1960, the commission issued Regulation 5, rules for the operation of gaming establishments.

In it, the law was laid down, banning licensees from “Catering to, assisting, employing or associating with, either socially or in business affairs, persons of notorious or unsavory reputation...”
The Black Book

One of the ways in which this came into play was via the establishment in 1960 of the Las Vegas “Black Book,’ officially known as the List of Excluded Persons. The Black Book contained the names of figures barred from entering any Nevada gaming houses for life. The initial list included 11 mob figureheads, 8 of whom had Italian ancestry. It was a clear swipe at getting Mafia-types out of Vegas for good.

Persons on the list included Sam Giancana, a mob boss originally from Chicago with skimming operations at casinos up and down the strip totaling $2m a year, and John Battaglia aka Johnny Bats, a LA mob-man and multi-million dollar bookie. Battaglia was once arrested in a cocktail bar on the strip but released the next day, whereas Giancana had the unfortunate ending of getting gunned down before he was called before the Senate Intelligence Committee in their investigations into a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro.

You can take a look at a newspaper clipping from the Desert Sun, dated November 1960, which shows unscheduled inspections of strip casinos annoying their owners but deemed fully lawful under the new systems in place.

In effect, the list served to drive the mob presence out of town - for good - due to the constant tailing and watching by overseeing bodies. It was a change from letting the good times roll and making bank off the top of the casinos.
And across the decades

Today's gambling laws in the US are very different to those that existed before 1959. It’s now a hodgepodge muddied by the introduction of online gambling, advertising standards, and Know Your Customer legislation. But it has a succinct history to look back on.

While Abbaticchio stepped down from his position as chairmen of the commission after just two years, his and Sawyer’s legacy would live on. The Black Book still exists, although it only has a total of 35 people recorded on it. The Nevada Gaming Commission has gone on to rule across the decades and increase regulation to prevent both the punters and the government from getting scammed.

Vegas is a place of excess and seediness, sure, but it’s a lot cleaner than it could’ve been should the cards have been dealt another way.