Hard to believe today, but a century ago the courts couldn’t settle on a legal definition of gambling. Were you really placing a bet if you didn’t hope to win money – but instead a beer, a handful of cigars, or even a cheek full of bubblegum? Apparently not, according to the 1906 Court of Appeals, ruling that a Petaluma man was innocent of a crime for dropping his nickel in a slot machine that could not give him hard cash in winnings.

The slot machines in question were apparently the sort invented in 1891. For a nickel, the five drums in the machine would spin, each holding the picture of ten playing cards. If the wheels stopped on a combination that displayed a winning poker hand, the bartender handed over a few cigars as the payout. According to several gambling history web sites – which freely plagiarize from each other, with never an original source cited – high-ranking cards were routinely removed from the drums, making a big jackpot impossible.

(Image courtesy SlotsDoc.com)

But because no payout was in coin, the machine was “a banking device,” according to the court. The law narrowly defined gambling as being paid in “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.” Cigars, beer, and gum, were apparently worthless in the court’s eyes.

Decision in the Slot Machine Cases by the Appelate Court Occasions Much Interest Here

In the case of C. C. Williams of Petaluma, the Appellate Court has decided that a slot machine played by the dropping of a nickel and the pressing of a lever to disclose the face of cards is a banking device, and is [not] a gambling machine. But where the machine pays in cigars or tobacco it does not fall within the inhibition of the law, the court holds…

…Williams was one of the Petalumans arrested on December 4, 1905 and fined $100. It was on the words “other representatives of value that the case rested. The Appellate Court held that according to the rules of law the words coming after the words ‘money’ and ‘checks’ means incorporated items of a similar nature, and [sic] did not embrace cigars and other merchandise.” In his opinion Justice Buckles holds as follows:

There is nothing in section 330 which prohibits gambling for cigars. It follows that the practitioner must be discharged.


Some of the points made in the opinion of Justice Buckles are set forth in the Sacramento Union as follows:

Williams was arrested for operating and conducting this machine and it was charged that a banking game was played upon it for “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.”

But there is no pretension, say the Court, that money or checks were played. It was charged that cigars are “other representatives of value.”

The machine was operated by dropping in a nickel and pressing a lever, and cigars were delivered according to a schedule of card showings. The machine was used for cigars only. The slot machine is, says Judge Buckles, a banking game. But it is not a crime to run such a device as described unless played for “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.” If played for something not included in these, it is not a crime.

What did the legislature mean by “other representatives of value?” The gaming is limited to the kinds mentioned in the law and the Court cannot extend the prohibition.

The ingenuity of man has devised a banking game in the cigar slot machine by which gambling may be carried on for property not included within “money, credits, checks and other representatives of value.” There is nothing in the law which prohibits gambling for cigars, hence the prisoner must be discharged, says the Court.

– Press Democrat, August 2, 1906

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