America may have invented slot machines and Las Vegas is a gambling haven, but one form of wagering still remains largely off-limits – unless the Supreme Court backs New Jersey’s bid to legalise sports betting in a closely watched case.

The nation’s top court, on Monday, began considering whether a ban on sports wagering in 46 of the 50 states is constitutional, a ruling which could potentially legalise a business worth tens of billions of dollars annually.

Theodore Olson, the lawyer for Governor Chris Christie and his state of New Jersey, which is challenging the ban, argued “there is illegal gambling going on” all over the state, which “can’t regulate that activity” as things stand.

Opposing Christie and supporting the ban are the four major professional US sports organisations, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is also in flavor of the existing law, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act.

The arguments for and against reflect an issue which has persisted for more than two centuries in the United States: how to delimit powers of both the states and the federal government, the latter by definition pre-eminent.

Christie, a onetime ally of President Donald Trump, was in the courtroom audience to hear the opening arguments. His state has spent years and millions of dollars waging court battles after New Jersey voters approved sports betting in a 2011 referendum. The effort to open a new, legal revenue stream coincided with a downturn in casino revenues at the Atlantic City coastal resort where several gambling palaces have closed because of competitive pressures.

Trump once operated three casinos in Atlantic City but he lost control of all of them. Under a 1992 law, betting on university or professional sports is forbidden except in four states where it already existed: Nevada, Delaware, Montana and Oregon. Horse and dog racing was also excluded from the ban.