Recreational gambling in New Zealand has been around since the earliest days of European settlement. Kororāreka (later Russell) in the Bay of Islands was the country’s first town. From the 1830s European sealers, whalers and ex-convicts, as well as some Māori, gravitated to its numerous grog shops, where they drank, sang, brawled, whored and gambled. Card games such as poker and vingt-et-un (pontoon) were particularly popular, but gambling on billiards, skittles and feats of strength was also common.
With the growth of towns and cities, working-class males played, fought and gambled inside and outside of pubs, penny-alley dens, billiard saloons and brothels.
Sir Julius Vogel, the New Zealand premier between 1873 and 1876, was an inveterate gambler. While he was editor of the Otago Daily Times, he often gambled at the Dunedin Club. Frequently at midnight, or later, a newspaper messenger had to lure him from the card room and tell him the paper was about to go to press and he still had his editorial to write. Vogel would excuse himself and dash off the piece before hastening back to the card table.
Towns also attracted remittance men, the spoilt offspring of wealthy British families, sent to the colonies to cure them of their reckless, extravagant ways, and supported financially by payments from home. Many continued to gamble to excess. These men often belonged to early gentlemen’s clubs where gambling on cards (including poker, whist and bridge) took place. Billiards was also a prime leisure activity. Merchants and runholders dominated this group. Such men won – or lost – thousands of pounds on these transactions.
During the 1920s West Coast miners were known to have two wages sheets. The miner kept the genuine copy, and took home the falsified copy, with a smaller total pay, to show his wife. The difference was spent on drinking and gambling. When some wives learned of the deceit they began accompanying their husbands to the pay office.
In 1861 gold was discovered in Central Otago, igniting a gold rush. As relief from their back-breaking work miners gathered in pubs to drink, gossip, play the fiddle, brawl and gamble into the small hours. Poker was their favourite game but whist, loo and forty-fives (an Irish game still played on the West Coast) were popular too. Raffles were keenly patronised and skittle alleys and billiard tables found a ready custom.
From the mid-1860s Chinese miners brought their own gambling games – principally fan-tan (which involved a croupier removing beans or pebbles four at a time and punters betting on how many would be left at the end) and pakapoo (similar to Lotto).
As Chinese moved into towns they created ‘gambling dens’, sometimes accompanied by opium smoking. Wellington’s Haining Street, Auckland’s Greys Avenue and an area round Dunedin’s Carroll Street (known as ‘the devil’s half-acre’) were Chinatowns – and gaming focal points.
Passengers on immigrant ships often turned to gambling to relieve the boredom of travel. Working-class men in steerage gambled on cards, dice and roulette. Middle-class passengers entered lotteries, raffles and sweepstakes, betting on such things as how far a ship would travel over a specific time.
Dice and coin games
Dice games became hugely popular. In the game of hazard the operator threw two dice, wagering on what numbers would turn up. The players bet against that possibility at odds determined by the operator.
Meanwhile two-up, easily organised and played at speed, involved gamblers standing in a circle staking their money on whether two coins tossed in the air on a small board (a ‘kip’) would fall heads or tails or one of each.
Gambling patterns varied little into the 20th century. First World War soldiers gambled to while away the boredom. The most popular games were two-up (each unit had its ‘two-up king’); housie, the dice game Crown and Anchor, and cards – notably poker and pontoon.
Second World War soldiers also bet on scorpion, camel, donkey and horse racing.
Many servicemen gambled constantly and games were played intensely. A few operators made thousands of pounds out of their fellows – sometimes fraudulently.
Housie was legalised in 1959. Players bought one or more housie tickets which comprised columns of numbers from 1 to 100. A caller called out the numbers and players marked them off on their tickets. The first person to get a ‘line’ (of numbers) shouted ‘Housie!’ and won the game.
The game became New Zealand women’s most popular gambling activity. Established as a fundraising activity for worthy projects, it attracted crowds containing hundreds of mostly working-class women to hotel bars and community halls.
During the late 20th century underground card schools operated in the main cities, run by ‘czars’ who made enormous profits from winnings and loans to feckless punters. By the 1970s there was an ethnic component to some of the larger schools. Wellington’s Greek population engaged in high-stakes poker (where cars or even restaurants could change hands); the Chinese played mah-jong, pai gow and poker. There were also countless informal ‘card schools’ that met socially and played for relatively low stakes.