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 have cut back the space allotted to table games and filled it with slot machines. Although I go to Vegas often, I don’t consider myself a gambler; I never bet on anything I can’t shuffle and the only game I play is poker. So for me, the gloomiest moment of the Vegas year occurs just after the end of the World Series of Poker at Binion’s Horseshoe. The World Series is to poker what Wimbledon is to tennis—the oldest and most prestigious of all the tournaments—and players come from all over the globe to compete. For the three weeks the tournament lasts, the large space in front of the Horseshoe’s reception desk is filled with poker tables—dozens of them, all packed night and day, and with people lining up to play. The high-stakes side action before, during, and after the events of the Series itself is unceasing right up until the start of the main and final event, the $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em tournament, which begins on a Monday and ends on Thursday. Two hours after it is finished and the new World Champion has been crowned, the poker tables have vanished, as though they had never been, and in their place are ranks of slot machines. It is business as usual again, even at family-owned Binion’s Horseshoe, the Mecca of high-rollers.
For the casino operators, slot machines have distinct advantages over table games: they cost a mere $5,000 each and, in the words of a gambling official, they “show up every Monday and they don’t go out on strike.” But compared to traditional forms of gambling, playing the slots is an autistic activity—mindless, solitary, and addictive—and its popularity is growing at a terrible speed. “Between 1990 and 1992, table game betting at Nevada and Atlantic City casinos fell by about 15 percent, while slot machine revenues rose by nearly 40 percent,” writes Robert Goodman in The Luck Business, a sharp and informative survey of American gambling. “Today’s casinos are little more than theme-decorated warehouses…designed for mass consumption—the new ‘McGambling.’ ”
Goodman is only passingly interested in Las Vegas; his subject is the Las Vegasing of America, the spread of what he calls “fast-food,” “convenience” gambling, available everywhere on demand. These days it is no longer even necessary to go to a casino to gamble. There are slot machines and lottery terminals in bars, restaurants, and stores, and because “McGambling” is electronic, it will soon be available to anyone who has access to a computer:
As recently as 1988, casino gambling was legal in only two states: Nevada and New Jersey. By 1994, six years later, casinos were either authorized or operating in twenty three states and were proposed in many others…. Total yearly casino revenues nationally nearly doubled—from $8 billion to about $15 billion…. In the early 1990s revenues in the gambling industry were climbing about two and a half times faster than those in the nation’s manufacturing industries….
By the beginning of 1995, legal gambling in the United States [including lotteries] was generating over $37 billion in yearly revenues—more than the total amount Bill Clinton promised to use during each of his first four years in office to help rebuild America’s transportation system, create a national information network, develop the technology to clean up the environment, and convert the defense industry to a peacetime economy.
Goodman sees this explosion of legalized gambling as just the latest in a series of desperate attempts to find a magic bullet to cure ailing economies:
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was called “urban renewal”—cities were torn to shreds to eliminate slums and attract more business and more affluent residents. During the 1970s and 1980s, it became a game known as “industrial recruitment” or “smokestack chasing”—local and state governments pitted themselves against one another in an effort to woo companies with tax breaks, subsidies, and promises of low wages and lax environmental standards.
Legalized gambling has worked no better than its predecessors and, like them, it creates more problems than it solves. The casino operators have prospered, of course, but of all the communities that have tried to strike it rich through legalized gambling, only the Indian tribes who opened casinos on their reservations have truly benefited. Exercising their rights to open casinos under a 1988 act of Congress, the Indian tribes had a distinct advantage over other hopefuls: they had very little to lose. Most were destitute and dependent on government handouts. The casinos brought in visitors with money to spend, and, because the tribes owned the casinos, the tribal councils could decide how the profits should be spent.
The Connecticut Pequots, for example, whom the Puritan settlers once called “a stately warlike people” and then tried to exterminate, were virtually extinct by the end of World War II. Their two-thousand-acre reservation near Stonington had shrunk to 214 acres, and one family was living on it. Today the reservation is back to its original size and the Pequots are one of the most prosperous Indian tribes in America. They have their own police and fire service, a lavish community center, comfortable houses, and a number of thriving business enterprises. All of this has been financed by the Pequots’ casino, Foxwoods, despite the fact that the building itself goes against the basic principle of casino design: i.e., include nothing that might distract the players from the serious business of losing money. In practice this means no clocks and no windows. The Pequot tribal elders, however, are proud of their reservation’s pretty, wooded countryside and they insisted on windows. The Connecticut landscape is indeed charming, although whenever I’ve been there nobody has seemed to be paying much attention to it. Foxwoods is currently the most successful casino in the country (it grossed approximately $600 million in 1994) for the simple reason that it draws in customers from New York and all the major cities in New England. If you live in Boston or Providence or Hartford or New Haven and you want to gamble legally, there is simply nowhere else to go.
In other words, the tribal casinos have prospered for the same reason Las Vegas has become the fastest-growing city in the States. (In the early 1990s, Goodman says, nearly six thousand people were settling there every month and investors were pouring more than $2 billion a year into gambling-related projects alone.) You can gamble anywhere in Nevada, but Reno is also a cattle town and Carson City is the state capital. Las Vegas, in contrast, is strictly a one-product, purpose-built town. It sits there in the middle of the desert with its neon lights fizzing, and visitors flood in with the sole purpose of spending money. Looking after them and servicing the hotels—including thirteen of the twenty largest hotels in the world—gives work to a population of one million. Surprisingly few of the residents gamble much—they wouldn’t survive if they did—but all of them need houses and stores and restaurants and automobiles, doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Goodman calls Nevada’s gambling “an export product,” and this is something Vegas shares with some of the Western tribal casinos. It is surrounded by a cordon sanitaire of desert; if you want to go there to gamble, you have to hustle some money, pack a bag, and travel.
The new gambling towns lack this geographical advantage. Casinos and riverboats have sprung up across the US during the last decade in the hope of attracting tourist dollars to help failing economies, but none of them was sufficiently remote. The tourists came, lost their money at the casinos, then drove straight home, ignoring the local shops and restaurants. Meanwhile, there was a sharp rise in “impulse gambling” by local residents who dropped in to play the slots or the tables on their way home from work, thus wasting cash that might have been used for clothes or appliances or a meal out, and creating social problems—gambling addiction and crime—which had to be paid for by the community or the state.
Goodman is scathing about the economic illusions underlying “McGambling”: by legalizing gambling and promoting their own lotteries, state governments are encouraging what Goodman calls “the pathology of hope” and helping to transform the most powerful industrial nation on earth into “a scavenger economy.” One of the most serious effects of recent economic trends, he thinks, has been the collapse of confidence in the utility of work: “In a 1960s survey, nearly 60 percent of Americans believed ‘hard work pays off.’ By the 1980s only one in three people considered this to be true.” As companies are streamlined and workers laid off, young people don’t necessarily expect a long-term job; they take what they can get, and many have to become reconciled to the prospect of long periods of unemployment.
When work is no longer a reliable route to prosperity, a big kill in the lotteries or the slots becomes the one hope of escape from the economic trap. This has always been the lure of lotteries and one of the reasons why, since the sixteenth century, governments have used them when they were strapped for cash; they are an irresistible form of voluntary taxation on those who can least afford it. People with money to spare gamble for entertainment; the poor gamble to change their lives. Years ago, in London, a cheerful Cockney charlady, who worked for a friend of mine, told him that every week, for the whole of their married life, she and her husband had invested one pound in the football pools. My friend asked her if they had planned what they would do with the money if they ever won big. “Of course,” she replied. “We’ve known all along. We’ll split it down the middle and live separate.” The dream of affluent separation had kept them together for forty years.
These days, Goodman writes, nobody seems immune to the pathology of hope:
Speculation has now become as much a part of ordinary people’s lives as their music and sports. Our doctors have become as knowledgeable about real estate syndicates and tax shelters as they are about identifying viral strains; our religious leaders are as likely to know about accelerated depreciation as they are the rituals of their faith. And now more and more people are becoming as skilled at doubling down at black-jack as they are in the techniques of their trades and professions.
It makes sense that the smart money will invest in the gambling industry, which produces 30 to 50 percent yearly profits, instead of in the average American business, which earns 5 to 8 percent. Even Lee Iacocca, America’s most eminent captain of industry, is doing it. Soon after he rescued Chrysler from collapse, he wrote in his autobiography that within a few years the US economic arsenal was going to consist of little more than drive-in banks, hamburger joints, and video arcades. Ten years later, Iacocca has retired from industry and become a big player in the casino business.
Goodman is not opposed to gambling as a pastime—he does it himself, he says—but he is appalled by the prospect of Las Vegas as a blueprint for the future of the American economy. Playing the market is a form of gambling but at least it may finance business enterprises. Playing the slots or lotteries is different; it is investing in a dream—the dream of something for nothing—and the only people guaranteed to make a profit are those who run the games. During the recession of the early 1980s, Iowa’s farming and agricultural equipment industry suffered severely, its population loss was the highest in the country, and its unemployment rate rose to nearly 16 percent. To stop the rot, the state legalized riverboat gambling, although in a strictly controlled and limited way: “We are beating our plowshares into amusement centers,” the riverboat owner announced grandly.
Just over one year later, he moved his boats downriver to Biloxi, Mississippi, where there were fewer restrictions, and Iowa was left with six hundred unemployed casino workers and a hefty bill for the public improvements they had made to accommodate the boats. In the words of another casino developer, “The problem with this industry … is that it doesn’t create anything. It offers entertainment and leisure, which is obviously of great value, but it doesn’t create anything in the long run.”
It also has what public relations people call “an image problem.” Until governments got into the act by organizing lotteries, gambling had always been associated with organized crime. Consequently, when gambling was legalized and promoted as healthy entertainment, the illegal operators were delighted. William Jahoda, who worked for one of the Chicago mafia families, told the Chicago Gaming Commission that “any new form or expansion of legal gambling always increased our client base. Simply put, the stooges who approved Las Vegas nights, off-track betting, lotteries, etc. became our unwitting front men and silent partners.” This has been especially the case in Nevada since the state legalized gambling in 1931. The casinos in the original downtown Las Vegas were mostly run by West Coast underworld characters who had previously owned illegal clubs in Los Angeles and offshore gambling ships. They made money, of course, but not in a big way; although Los Angeles gamblers traveled to Vegas to play legally, the casinos in Glitter Gulch prospered most by catering to the workers on the Hoover Dam.
Modern Las Vegas was invented by an East Coast mobster, Bugsy Siegel, who had been sent to LA by the syndicate to take control of the racing wire to the West Coast. It was Siegel who had the bright idea of building a huge gambling palace out in the desert on the road into town, festooned with lights and impossible to miss. Siegel’s Flamingo was built in 1945, financed by his associates back east. And although the casino defied the laws of probability by losing money consistently for two years, and Siegel himself was murdered in 1947, the idea was too good to waste. Casino followed casino and the road west out of town became the Strip, which now stretches for six miles into the Clark County desert. The Mormons, who governed Nevada, did what they could to keep out organized crime. But in the years following the repeal of Prohibition the mob had accumulated huge amounts of money and Vegas seemed the best possible place to invest because it was flooded with that most desirable commodity for criminals, ready cash.
Nicholas Pileggi’s latest mafia chronicle, Casino, is particularly eloquent about the money that washes daily through the casinos and finishes up in the counting rooms, the windowless inner sanctuaries from which even the casino owners are legally barred:
Count room workers go about their tasks with the deadened glaze of people who must steel themselves against the dazzling daily experience of being immersed in the sight, smell, and touch of money. Tons of it. Stacks of it. Bundles of cash and boxes of coins so heavy that hydraulic lifts must be used to move the tonnage of loot around in the count room.
There is such a daily fortune of stacked paper bills pouring into the count room that rather than being counted, the cash is assembled into various denominations and weighed. A million dollars in $100 bills weighs 20 1/2 pounds; a million in $20s, 102 pounds; and a million in $5 bills, 408 pounds.
The coins are poured into specially made Toledo electronic coin-weighing scales manufactured by the Reliance Electric Company…that sort and count the coins. A million dollars in quarter slot machine winnings weighs twenty-one tons.
Every mug who buys a lottery ticket has a secret dream of his own counting room: quantities of cash so great that they must be weighed rather than counted, a fortune that would transform his dingy life overnight. In Vegas the dream is an everyday reality, though not for most players. According to Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the principal witness in Casino, the philosophy of Las Vegas is simple: “Give them a free drink and a dream, and they give you their wallets.”
Lefty Rosenthal is now living in retirement in a house next to a golf course in Boca Raton, which seems a fitting end for a bookmaker and professional gambler who spent his life studying form in racing and sports and working out the odds in obsessional detail. Casino is based in considerable part on Pileggi’s talks with him. Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro, Rosenthal’s friend from his Chicago childhood and the other main character in Casino, also ended in an appropriate way. Spilotro was a “widow-maker,” a five-foot-five, 135-pound killer who terrified practically everyone he met, backed down to no one, and, in the words of an FBI agent, “dared you to murder him.” In 1986, Spilotro and his brother Michael were savagely beaten to death and buried in an Indiana cornfield four miles from a farm owned by Joseph J. Aiuppa, exboss of the Chicago outfit.
For more than a decade, Rosenthal and Spilotro ran a large proportion of gambling in Las Vegas on behalf of the Chicago families. Both men had gone there when the heat back east became intolerable—Rosenthal in 1967, Spilotro in 1971—and both brought their particular talents to bear on the scene. Rosenthal, the numbers man, set up the first legal casino sports gambling facilities and acted as the mob’s eye-in-the-sky for the gambling operations; he ran the entertainment and even the catering with the same obsessional attention to detail—ten blueberries, no more, no less, to each muffin—as he organized the skimming of the casinos’ profits. Spilotro was the enforcer who terrorized anyone who got out of line and took a percentage from the street operators, the bookies, shylocks, dope dealers, and pimps. “In his first five years in Las Vegas,” Pileggi writes, “there were more murders committed than in the previous twenty-five.” As a side-line, he brought in a team of stickup men and burglars from Chicago—they were called “the hole-in-the-wall gang”—to break into houses and jewelry shops and pick up whatever loose cash was around.
So far as the bosses back in Chicago were concerned, Rosenthal and Spilotro were in town to look after the skim—the money illegally siphoned from the casinos’ daily take. A number of the casinos had been financed by the mob-controlled Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund, and the investors, Pileggi says, “wanted their dividends in cash to avoid FBI and IRS problems.” Skimming is a fine art, so Rosenthal brought in an artist, a wizard slot cheat called George Jay Vandermark, who managed to skim between seven and fifteen million dollars out of four casinos in less than three years. For the bosses, it was an ideal arrangement, but Rosenthal and Spilotro let their private lives and enormous egos get in the way of business, and the whole thing, literally, exploded in their faces.
If gambling is a victimless crime, then Rosenthal, unlike Spilotro, was not a criminal. But because he was a known associate of criminals and had a rap sheet for illegal bookmaking and attempted bribery, the Nevada Gaming Commission refused to license him as a “key executive” to run a casino. A front man was needed, someone with no criminal record, no criminal associates, and preferably no understanding whatever of criminal activities. The man Chicago picked was Allen Glick, a plump, balding, thirty-one-year-old minor league real-estate developer from San Diego. Glick had originally come to Las Vegas to buy a parking lot. He ended up as the nominal owner of four casinos, with a $62.7 million loan from the Teamsters’ pension fund. In those days, the ownership of Vegas casinos was all done with mirrors—companies within companies within companies—but Glick himself was a one-man hall of mirrors. Pileggi quotes a homicide detective who interviewed Glick in his ostentatious, mirror-lined office: “He was like a zombie. A nonperson. And the mirrors all around the room were reflecting the same nonperson. After a while I began to wonder which of these guys was the real Glick.” In other circumstances Glick would have been a buffoon, an uptight hustler besotted by the trappings of wealth—the company jets, the Olympic-size swimming pool at his California home, the Lamborghini in the garage. But, as Pileggi describes him, he was also transfixed by fear. Anyone who gave him grief was murdered by the mobsters—helpful, perhaps, but also a reminder of what might happen to him—and he himself had been summoned to Kansas City in the middle of the night to be threatened with death by the local mafia boss.
The scene in Kansas City is one of the strongest in Pileggi’s Casino, and like most of the other scenes it is both fascinating and puzzling. The speaker is supposed to be Glick, yet the voice is utterly unlike the transcripts of Glick’s various testimonies. The same is true of the principal narrator, Lefty Rosenthal, who also figures prominently in The Black Book and the Mob, an exhaustive sociological study of the “Black Book,” the Nevada Gaming Commission’s register of undesirables who were legally forbidden to enter casinos. Rosenthal fought long and hard against being listed in the Black Book, and in the extensive court transcripts he comes across as a powerful witness—aggressive, fast on his feet, and clever—but grammatical and dramatic he was not. In Pileggi’s version, Rosenthal is like the rest of the cast, a master storyteller with total recall for conversations that took place long ago. Will the real Lefty Rosenthal please stand up?
As in his other books about the mob, Pileggi is writing about real people whose lives and collected works figure in FBI files, court cases, police and newspaper reports, as well as in the transcripts of the McClellan Subcommittee on Gambling and Organized Crime. His method is to let the characters speak for themselves, interweaving their voices and shifting the focus with great skill to keep the narrative moving. Pileggi has a fine ear for the rhythm and vitality of gangsterspeak—“I’m driving with my heart in my mouth. I’m swallowing muscle”—and the book reads wonderfully well provided you remember it is a combination of fact and dramatization, not journalism. The author never says where or when the interviews took place and, although he thanks a pageful of people for their help, there are probably as many others who are quoted extensively and not acknowledged.
The result is a semi-documentary, with interviews recollected in tranquility, edited and rearranged, real life reconstructed as a gangster movie. And such a work, of course, has an advantage over fiction because real life always outstrips the imagination. No one could have invented a scene in which someone eats pasta while a vise is tightened around a victim’s head until his eyes pop out. But it happens in Casino. Tony Spilotro worked the vise, while Chuckie Nicoletti watched and ate, and Pileggi somehow makes it all sound terrifically macho, as if to say, “See how tough these guys were!”
In the movie of Casino, Scorsese keeps the head-squeezing but omits the spaghetti-eater. But then, he also omits most of the other details that give Pileggi’s book its edge. Glick, who might have been a richly comic figure, is edited down to a cipher, and Robert De Niro is fatally miscast as Lefty. Rosenthal (now called Sam “Ace” Rothstein) was interesting because he was obsessional, calculating, and also emotionally stupid. De Niro turns him into just another wiseguy, hard as nails but good with numbers, and too arrogant to play local politics. Joe Pesci does much the same with Nicky Santoro, the character based on Spilotro. In GoodFellas, Pesci was terrifying because he was bewildering; there was no telling when his amiability would tip over into murderousness. He plays Spilotro on one note, without a flicker of wit or appetite. His violence is terrible but monotonous.
First-rate directors usually do best when adapting second-rate books because first-rate books induce reverence and cramp their style. Robert Altman made a masterpiece, MAS*H, out of a negligible novel in the same year, 1970, when Mike Nichols was turning a masterpiece, Catch-22, into a grandiose flop. Pileggi is not comparable to Joseph Heller—or even to Elmore Leonard—but his book is well-paced, informed, and hard to put down. None of that survives in the movie, although he and the director wrote the script together. Scorsese’s Casino is just another Las Vegas spectacular, as noisy and purposeless and, at three hours, as seemingly eternal as the Kids’ inferno at Circus Circus.
At their best, both Pileggi and Scorsese have a talent for making crime seem sexy, for making the psychopath’s affectless violence look like casual wit. But the truth is that Spilotro was a cold-blooded murderer and Rosenthal, in his fastidious way, was a corporate thief. What they did may make for a lively read and an expensive movie, but a lot of people were casually murdered and fortunes were stolen. Shift the perspective just a little and you have a squalid story of greedy, egomaniacal thugs, and a great piece of propaganda for the anti-gambling lobby.
Scorsese’s movie ends where Running Scared, John L. Smith’s biography of the casino owner Steve Wynn, begins: with the dynamiting of the Dunes Hotel and Casino, once the shiniest of the mob’s Las Vegas investments. The demolition, which took place in October 1993, was one of the greatest shows the town had ever seen. It was done to make way for yet another of Wynn’s pleasure palaces—he already owned the Golden Nugget, the Mirage, and Treasure Island—but Smith sees it as a symbolic gesture: “With a single command, and $1.5 million in explosives, Wynn will do in thirty seconds what his wiseguy predecessors failed to accomplish in two generations: erase from the skyline and the public’s mind the memory of the old mobbed-up Las Vegas.”
Wynn was the right man to press the button because he presents himself as the acceptable face of gambling—immaculately dressed, barbered and smiling—the man who, almost single-handedly, has turned a huckster’s paradise into a gangster-free zone.
Smith, who is a highly respected Las Vegas columnist and a fourth-generation Nevadan, is not impressed. For him, Steve Wynn’s public image is as much an illusion as the disappearing elephant in the magic act of Siegfried and Roy. In private, the man portrayed by Smith has a vast ego, a short fuse, and dubious connections. The alleged connections—specifically, with the Genovese family—were too questionable for the British Gaming Board, who refused Wynn a license to open a casino in London. Smith himself never suggests that Wynn has had direct dealings with gangsters, but this is not true of some of Wynn’s executives. It is naive to think the situation could have been otherwise since one of the duties of a casino executive is to attract high rollers. You don’t have to be a mobster to love easy money—that is why people gamble—but mobsters tend to have unusual amounts of untaxed income to dispose of and casinos have traditionally made great laundromats for dirty cash. However strenuously regulated they may be, it is not their business to check the source of every $100 bill that is exchanged for chips.
Smith has been around Vegas too long to have any illusions about the purity of the operation. On the contrary, he admires old-time, casino-owning gamblers, like Moe Dalitz and Benny Binion, who had no pretentions about what they did. (Binion was boss of gambling in Dallas but moved to Vegas in 1946 because, he said, “my sheriff got beat in the election that year.”) What Smith seems to dislike most about Wynn is his Mr. Clean facade, his pretensions to be the Walt Disney of Las Vegas who has transformed the sleazy old joint into a fun place for all the family. It seems a reasonable objection: “We’re not U.S. Steel,” a colleague of Wynn’s said. “And we never will be. We’ll always be thought of as an industry on the edge of propitious behavior.” But Wynn is now the emperor of Las Vegas, and notoriously litigious. It took a brave man to question his clothes.
January 11, 1996