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Richard A. Canfield America's First Casino King

A century ago the greatest casino owner in America was Richard A. Canfield.

Although gambling was illegal, he was otherwise an honest operator who took gambling out of the mud and presented it in luxury and splendor.

In a new industrialized nation, his patrons became the wealthiest, most powerful men in the country.

And Richard Canfield became America's first Casino King.

Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1855, Canfield worked several different jobs before buying a piece of a poker room in Providence, R.I. It had one table and the limit was 10-cents. He augmented his small profits playing in neighboring games.

Successful on both sides of the table, it was clear to the young man that gambling was his calling. After a few years, Canfield had accumulated $20,000. He decided to use the money to visit the famous gambling houses of Europe.

Although he returned nearly broke, Canfield had acquired a considerable knowledge and appreciation for gambling among the aristocrats of business and society.

While almost every American gambling hall cheated players, Canfield learned that house-banked games assured the casino could be run profitably as well as honestly.

He was particularly impressed with Monte Carlo. Now he understood what high class gambling was -- elegant palaces, fine dinning and luxurious decor. Clearly, the best style and service attracted the best customers. Canfield realized that running a poker room was not nearly as rewarding as operating a casino filled with house-banked games like Faro, Roulette and Keno. He moved to New York City and opened the Madison Square Club in 1888. The top floors were living quarters. Poker wasn't offered; only housebanked games, Faro and Roulette, were featured.

The decor of the Club was dignified, comfortable, pleasant -- a stark contrast to the loud, gaudy "hells" that dominated New York. It was distinguished, too, for being an honest operation. Canfield was a gracious host and treated his guests to fine wine and lavish dinners. Popular with gentlemen of means, the Club soon became one of the New York City's premier palaces.

But Canfield wasn't done. In 1894, he became owner of the Club House and race track at Saratoga. Convinced that the property, neglected for years, could again be a thriving gaming resort, he sold his other casinos and invested a million dollars in renovating Saratoga.

Elegant fountains and beautiful landscaping, including an elaborate Italian garden, welcomed visitors to the Club House. Inside, an art galley displayed priceless paintings. Canfield was respected worldwide as a collector of fine art.

The public gaming room was on the first floor. It featured ten Roulette tables and four Faro games. Private rooms upstairs were provided for the highest rollers. Limits were twice those of Monte Carlo. All gambling was done with chips whose values ranged from $1 to $1,000. Canfield had his own security force.

Women and local residents were prohibited from the casino. But Club House patrons were treated to the very best cigars, wines and cuisine. Canfield lost $70,000 on just food. Of course, he made up for it at the tables. It's estimated that around $2 million was wagered each day at the tables.

Canfield developed Saratoga into the greatest gaming resort in the country. It was a favorite of the rich and powerful. Presidents Cleveland and Taft were frequent guests. Industrialist John "Bet-A-Million" Gates dropped $400,000 at the track one afternoon. Cornelius Vanderbilt once had an epileptic seizure while playing poker there. When he recovered, the game resumed.

Canfield kept his resort in good standing with the community by being a good citizen. He made "large and frequent donations" to churches, hospitals, civic, and charitable organizations. By the turn of the century an anti-gambling, anti-alcohol, conservative Christian reform movement reacting to the excesses of the 1880s and '90s, was gaining dominance in America. Saratoga was raided by the police.

Resort owner Canfield was irate. He considered himself an honest businessman and gambling an honorable profession. He reminded his critics, "They gambled in the Garden of Eden!"

Disgusted, Canfield sold Saratoga to the city in 1907. He decided to return to the more liberal, cosmopolitan New York City and open the finest casino the country had ever seen. Again he invested more than a million dollars into a building at No. 5 East 44th Street just a few blocks from Time Square.

No expense was spared. There were the richest, most luxurious furnishings including fine art, rare tapestries, Chinese porcelains, bronze sculptures, and exquisite etchings. In one private gaming room the walls were covered in Spanish leather handtooled in gold. Canfield's office was paneled in white mahogany inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

Massive, bronze, front doors greeted visitors. Other than private games, Poker was not offered. Roulette provided the greatest share of the profits. Ivory chips were used throughout the casino. The House of the Bronze Doors, like Saratoga, appealed to the wealthy and powerful. It was exclusive, classy, and the games were honest.

A few years after opening the House of the Bronze Doors, Canfield was nearly wiped out in another game - the Stock Market - after losing $12 million. He never fully recovered his finances or his health. In 1914, America's first great casino operator passed away.

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