Winners &Losers

Winner & Losers
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Gordon Moody
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Percentages and Chances

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Nevada & New Jersey

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The Game of Life
Real Until


Lesson 2

In the ensuing investigations, the staff involved were suspended and the Golden Nugget fined.  Sinatra and Dean Martin, who was with him, after apologizing and pleading ignorance of the local additional poker rules, were absolved of any responsibility.  They were ‘just out to have a little fun’, said Steve Wynn.  But the gaming commissioner termed Sinatra an ‘obnoxious bully’.  The charge continued to rankle him.  Finally Sinatra decided that he wasn’t going to sing in a State which used him as a ‘punching bag’, as his attorney put it.  He cancelled all future engagements.  None of Steve Wynn’s blandishments could persuade him to change his mind.

            It took a week-long series of Doonesbury cartoon-strips by Gary Trudeau, that most brilliant satirist of American mores, mocking Sinatra’s alleged links with organized crime, to resolve the issue.  The gaming commissioner said the cartoons had gone too far and that Sinatra should not cast himself into exile because of one late-night confrontation on the casino floor.  Taking this as putting things in their proper perspective, Sinatra relented.  He would sing in Atlantic City again.  Indeed, his regular appearances at the Golden Nugget in Vegas helped Wynn transform this downtown dive into one of the classiest joints in town.  That ’s show business.
            It is significant that Sinatra greatly admired Bugsy Siegel.  The two men shared certain qualities, as Kitty Kelley acutely noted in her massive ‘unauthorized’ biography of Sinatra (His Way, 1986).  ‘Both were notorious womanizers who took flamboyant lovers but always returned home to their long-suffering wives.  Both traveled with entourages, possessed ferocious tempers, and had grandiose visions of empire-building.  Bugsy dreamed of a gambling metropolis in the Las Vegas desert while Frank envisioned himself the kingpin of a billion-dollar resort hotel two miles outside of Las Vegas.  Bugsy’s dream flourished  … Frank’s luxury resort   … was never completed.’  But he was cut in for a slice of the Sands back in the 1950s, thus obtaining a lucrative foothold in Vegas.  The avowed motive of the mob’s generosity was to tie him to performing there.
            Vegas has never inquired too closely who owns what.  The city fathers- sons and daughters too, if the high rate of juvenile crime is a reliable indicator do not care to look too closely at these things, provided the business itself is creating job and making money.  The community has expanded from a frontier township of 8,422 in 1940 to 64.405 in 1960 to a city of 300,000 in 1986.  An editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, seeking to explain away various criminal conspiracies that had been going on back in ‘60s, gallantly declared: ‘We do not think it is fair to imply the worst simply because someone has entered into a business transaction with a person in the gaming industry.  Just in case anyone has forgotten gambling in Nevada is a legitimate business conducted by responsible businessmen .’ Quoting this fine sentiment at the end of their expose in Green Felt Jungle, the authors note that the ‘legitimate and responsible’ businessmen tune never varies, whether sung by politicians, newspapers or gambling interests.  Or as a State Governor once put it, ‘Our attitude to life, save under the most urgent provocations, is relaxed, tolerant, and mindful that if others are allowed to go their way unmolested, a man stands a chance of getting through the world himself with a minimum of irritation.’

            Or as the same sentiment was expressed in People of Chance, in more academic language: ‘The industry benefited from the tolerance of state officials, who were generally reluctant to interfere with the business unless operators appeared to be injuring either themselves or the image of Nevada gambling …Permissiveness was most widely publicized in the matter of licensing casino operators who had either criminal records or alleged connections to organized crime.’  Quite so: not to mention the fact that the tolerance of state officials was often eased by bribery.  But who else was there, in those early days?  The dividing line was bound to be a bit smudgy between the legitimate operators and the mobsters who had always been involved in the numbers racket, illegal bookmaking, loan sharking and kindred neighborhood social works.  After Bugsy Siegel showed the way, though he did not survive long enough to enjoy the gold rush in the desert, the gambling scene was wide open.
            The sort of thing that went on, which the public never knew about until long afterwards, can be illustrated by the scandal exposed at the Stardust.  (My favourite casino in those days.  I spent many agreeable hours in its poker card room until various malpractices came up; I also liked the exterior which boasts the prettiest sign-board in town, radiating blue, red and gold stars.) What happened, as revealed by an investigator of the Gaming Control Board, was that every day all the taking from the slots were being weighed out in specially rigged scales in a back room, so as to skim off a quarter of the total casino win, without anyone on the security side being any the wiser.  The money was then shipped of to Mafia families in places like Detroit and St. Louis.  It was all very precisely done.
            The following vignette comes from a six-hour conversation at a ‘business conference’ in Kanasas City, taped by the FBI in 1978, quoted in extensor in The Boardwalk Jungle.  The speaker, one Carl Thomas, then owner of a couple of small-time joints in Vegas, was acting as a technical adviser to the family:

    ‘You can feed the computers the wrong weight on the scales.  You can snatch some money off, then you ’ve got the guy in slots that ’s a hundred per cent he’ll do business with you.  What we did at Argent (the corporation which previously owned the Stardust and the Fremont), and I think we’ll set it up again, is set up a separate bank and a separate count for the slots.  A little room with its own vault, everything separate count for the slots.  A little room with its own vault, everything separate from the tables.  With that scale, I think we can beat it.  I got the designs already on paper, space wise.

          ‘ … You skim off forty thousand a week in coins and grab forty thousand in C-notes and nobody knows that.  My concept of this place is these guys hit the slots one month and the drop boxes the next.  Never set a pattern…
            ‘ …The guy that reads the scales is your guy.  I bought one them (scales) myself, it cost me fifteen thousand, but my guy reads it … You pay this guy off anywhere fro five hundred to a thousand a month, he’s your guy.  He knows something is going on but he don’t know what or what magnitude or anything.  These guys want to make a living, too … ’
            Another member of the group remarked at one point that he  thought they had devised a system for the Stardust where they could skim a million dollars a year, or a million and a half.
            Kanas City Mafia boss Nick Civella gave a laugh: ‘The way you ’re making it sounds is like you think that ’s a lot of money.
            Most of the men involved in these scams were convicted in due course.  Civella died off cancer a few weeks before the trial in Kansas City.  How widely their elaborate system of skimming were applied in other casinos, by other people, can only be guessed at.  The point is that a casino might still be run properly, from the management ’s point of view, with checks and audits every step of the way, but the boll weevils are already in the food work.  The larceny at the Stardust and associated goings on in Las Vegas were certainly applicable elsewhere; the investigation had a direct bearing, in fact, on the proposed ownership of new casinos in Atlantic City.

            Atlantic City started out with the best of intentions, such ventures always do.  Casino gaming was the open sesame to rejuvenate a dying city – it would boost employment, broaden the tax base, cut welfare rolls, stimulate tourism. To persuade the people of New Jersey that gambling would be a good thing, an enormous campaign was mounted by the proponents of gambling. Well, they were entitled to lobby their cause.  The only snag was that the supporters of gambling always have a lot more money to play with than their opponents.  More than that, some of the supporters of gambling in Atlantic City came from very shady backgrounds.
            Like the Mary Carter Paint Company – what a sweet name.  This was a little paint manufacturer and retailer, down in Florida, which was transformed one fine day into the mighty casino empire of Resorts International.  The Mary Carter Company was brought in turn Paradise Island in the Bahamas into a profitable enterprise.  Resorts got things done: a bridge was built from Nassau to Paradise (formerly Hog) Island, a license obtained and a casino opened.  All this, obviously, required the right contacts and Resorts had them.  It was used to dealing with politicians down there, it had connections, some open, some more dubious, down Miami way.  The name of Meyer Lansky, ‘mogul of the mob’, and others cropped up in gamblers gossip.
            Nothing was ever proved: what was certain, whoever was behind it, was that Resorts had the driving force to get things moving in Atlantic City.  It aimed to be the first casino to establish itself when casino gambling was approved.  The first step was to secure public and legislative backing.  Resorts saw the way of the tide of opinion was running.  It bought an option on 55 acres of land on the boardwalk, it acquired the massive pile of the old Chalfont-Haddon Hall hotel, to be converted into a casino, it launched a PR campaign under the title ‘ The Committee to Rebuild Atlantic City.’  Riding the tide from the shoreline up to city hall, it promised the transformation of a crumbling old seaside resort into an economic marvel.  The campaign was hard but rewarding.  Resort succeeded in poker winning a temporary license to operate its casino; then, overcoming all objections to its past and present conduct, a permanent license, a year head of all its rivals.

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