With November’s pounding defeat of Measure 75, which would have authorized the state’s first private nontribal casino, and the plummeting of annual lottery revenues by roughly 15 percent since 2008, Oregon’s long winning streak with gambling finally may be turning cold.

Just don’t bet on it.

Oregon isn’t Nevada or New Jersey, but the Beaver State’s relationship with the sporting life is an old marriage. Its known history begins with Native Americans: tribes from across the entire West converged at major trading centers along the Columbia River, particularly at The Dalles, and wagered furs, shells, food, clothes, and slaves in games of chance and athletic prowess. For the tribes, gambling was a full-fledged part of the economy, for everyone, just like it is for Oregon now.

As Christian missionaries squelched Indian gambling, other immigrants brought new games to the table—the sort played in the back rooms of Portland bars and Chinese lottery dens. By the 1920s, reformers succeeded here, too, in outlawing most forms of gambling in the city. Yet the playing went on, and with it a rising tide of graft, greed, and violent territorial disputes that finally crested in 1957, when Robert Kennedy hauled dozens of Portland officials and criminals to Washington for televised hearings in the US Senate.

Now that gambling is legal for both tribes and the Oregon Lottery, the displays of wealth, power, and territorial imperative have been rewoven into both cultures’ fabric in less violent, more transparent, but still very muscular ways: Oregon has more noncasino video gambling machines than any other state. It ranks fourth in the country for the state budget’s reliance on lottery revenues. Of the profits reaped from Spirit Mountain Casino since it opened 15 years ago, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde have donated more than $50 million to Oregon nonprofits. And over the past six months, those tribes made some bets of their own, sending $50,000 to John Kitzhaber and $10,000 to Chris Dudley, in part because both candidates for governor opposed a rival casino proposed for the Columbia Gorge.

Oregonians like to play. And so we offer this look back at the historical Indian games, at the city’s dark years of graft and corruption, at the rise of legal gambling, and, last but not least, at the odds for the next big expansion of our game—the proposed Columbia River Resort Casino (see p. 79)—the decision for
which, odds are, will be made any day (maybe even as our magazine rolls off the press).

Ante up!