Learning from Las Vegas

The Luck Business: The Devastating Consequences and Broken Promises of America’s Gambling Explosion

by Robert Goodman
Martin Kessler Books/Free Press, 273 pp., $23.00

The Black Book and the Mob: The Untold Story of the Control of Nevada’s Casinos

by Ronald A. Farrell, by Carole Case
University of Wisconsin Press, 286 pp., $44.00; $17.95 (paper)

Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas

by Nicholas Pileggi
Simon and Schuster, 363 pp., $24.00

Casino

a film directed by Martin Scorsese, screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi, by Martin Scorsese

Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn

by John L. Smith
Barricade Books, 352 pp., $24.00

Fifteen years ago, when I first began going regularly to Las Vegas, the town was strictly for adults. Sometimes you would see stunned waifs wandering around Glitter Gulch downtown or asleep on the carpeted sidewalk outside the Golden Nugget while their parents blew their week’s wages, but there was only one casino that made any pretense of catering to children. That was Circus Circus, which offered them a mezzanine crammed with carnival sideshows and video games, and a view of the casino and trapeze artists swinging around over the heads of the gamblers below. The place seemed to have been designed as a gambling-aversion cure by an unusually sadistic behaviorist. It was bewildering, batteringly noisy, and circular, a new level of Dante’s hell. My small daughter was taken there once by the mother of another girl she had met at the swimming pool of a neighboring casino. The mother gave the kids ten dollars each and went off to play blackjack. When the money ran out they went down to find her. Since it was an offense for a minor to enter the gambling area, the girls—both nine years old, and with long blond hair like Tenniel’s Alice—were promptly arrested by a security guard.

It was outrageous, of course, but it seemed oddly appropriate. In 1980, when the mob was still all over town, Las Vegas was a Wonderland in which even Alice could be arrested for a misdemeanor. That was one of its attractions. Back then, Nevada was the only state in the union where gambling was legal, and its gaming tables were the only places where people from the straight world could rub shoulders with gangsters and not get into trouble. The wiseguys were as much a part of the town’s non-stop pageant as the cascades of neon.

Not any more. Modern Vegas has been redesigned for the benefit of children, with pirate battles, jousting knights, and exploding volcanoes. It has become just another Disneyland, a family theme park with gambling on the side to keep the adults happy. Even the gambling is childish. Back in the 1980s, the center of the casinos was the “table games”—blackjack, roulette, baccarat, craps, poker—games that involve some social exchange with other people—players, dealers, croupiers—and varying degrees of skill. (Poker, at its highest level, is as sophisticated as chess, and even roulette players have to make choices.) There were acres of slot machines, of course, and armies of little old ladies, with Dixie cups full of quarters, grinding away at them. But the real action was at the tables and, for non-professionals at least, action was what the gamblers were there for. Sometimes the players won, sometimes they lost, but the pleasure was in the game itself: the stir of excitement at each new deal or roll of the dice or spin of the wheel, the competitive urge to beat the other players or the dealer or the house.

Gradually, however, casinos …

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