Winners &Losers

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CROOKS AND CHEATS are drawn gambling like maggots to blue cheese.  So it was in the beginning, as the loaded dice founded dice found in prehistoric graves around the world over so frequently show: and so it always will be, until human nature changes.

            It ’s not that gambling is all that different from other human activities, simply that the cash is more accessible.  It ’s the stuff which gambling is made of, a cornucopia of ready money.  Everyone knows that corruption can occur in politics, or in government administration, as indeed it can in business or banking or the stock market; or, sad to relate, in little matters affecting our personal lives, like filling in one’s tax return; corruption may come to light in the police force itself, in the very office of the attorney-general, even in the White House.  So why should gambling be exempt?  There are many honest and honourable men and women in gambling, of course, just as there are in the government, in business, and the law.  But you know what I mean.
            The temptations in gambling are more open.  They invite chicanery.  It is no use lamenting human nature: it is as it is, like the laws of probability are as they are.  So it is not really surprising when the criminal element in gambling is exposed to view from time to time.  All that changes is the style and the method.
            One of the interesting characteristics of fraud in gambling is that it occurs all the way through the operation.  It comes in at the ‘top’ end, in organized crime.  Down the years, since gambling was legalized in Nevada, there has been a plethora of gangsters involved in running the casinos, or behind the casino, with their hands in the till.  It was one of them, bugsy Siegel, who right at the start, staked out in the desert sands the mighty money machine which became modern Las Vegas more productive by many billions of dollars than the turbines of the Hoover dam which provide the power the city runs on.

            Crime comes in at bottom end of the social scale too all the nameless little cheats and deceits practiced by the public who are constantly dreaming up new ways of turning a fast buck the compulsive gamblers, driven in desperation to ‘borrow’, steal or embezzle funds the croupiers and dealers who defraud the players or their employers.  Dishonesty of one kind or another occurs at all levels, all the time, and it can no more be ‘cleaned up’ than you can stop burglary.
            Nostalgia and cute musicals should not be allowed to romanticize the fact that it was one of the nastiest men who ever lived who founded modern Las Vegas.  Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo in 1946.  It lost for the first two weeks and he had to close down.  But one it got going properly the joint began to coin money; Bugsy, however, didn’t live long enough to enjoy the rewards of his labours.  He was gunned down one dark night at his home in Beverly Hills.
            Bugsy was as precocious in crime as some boys are in music, art or science.  ‘By the age of 21, ’ according to Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris in their classic account of the early days of Las Vegas, Green Felt Jungle 1965).  ‘Siegel had committed every heinous poker crime in the gangster’s handbook: mayhem, white slavery, dope pushing, bootlegging, hijacking, robbery, rape, burglary, bookmaking, numbers racket, extortion and numerous vicious murders.’  The Flamingo, with its eye-popping combination of gambling glitter and girls, became the model for every casino on the strip, and far beyond.  Such shapes! Such colours! Such signs! As Tom Wolfe enthused in his surreal reportage on Las Vegas:  ‘Two cylinders rose at either end of the Flamingo eight stories high and covered from top to bottom with neon rings in the shape of bubbles that fizzed all eight stories up into desert sky all night long like an illuminated whisky soda tumbler filled to the brim with pink champagne.’

            Twenty minutes after Bugsy was bumped off, and long before the police got to the scene of the crime, his heirs and successors were meeting at the Flamingo, cutting themselves into a new deal.  The show must go on.  There ought to be a statue of Bugsy Siegel at the start of the Las Vegas strip.  A strong fictional account of his life and times is given in the novel Las Vegas Strip by Morris Renek I’ve got this great idea for a fantastic money machine.  You ’ll get a hernia carrying your share.  And no one can hold us up for ransom again.  We’re free men and we’re rich.  Because what we’re going to do is on the side of the law.’
            But all those gangster going–on that gave the green felt jungle its reputation happened a while ago.  Nowadays, the visitors bureau will tell you, things are different corporate management, business–school execs, computer accounting, to say nothing of a network of state run supervisory and law enforcement agencies.  Maybe so, but twenty years after his exposure of Las Vegas.  Demaris produced an even thicker tome on the new resort of Atlantic City, which he called  The Boardwalk Jungle (1986).  Not a lot appears to have changed.  One mafia boss summed it up acutely in a long discussion about ‘ skimming’ in Vegas, which was wire-tapped by the FBI: ‘I believe that in time everyone out there, the fishes out there get corrupted.  They can’t help it.  you know they live right in the midst of it.’

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