As a visitor toLas Vegas casts an eye northward along the glittering thoroughfare known as TheStrip, he may see, at a service station to his left, a neon sign with thismessage: FREE ASPIRIN—ASK US ANYTHING. The visitor may not discover until heleaves town that the reverse side of the sign also has a message. It is, FREEASPIRIN & OUR TENDER SYMPATHY. Thus the proprietor neatly plays on themoods of his prospective customers. Arriving, they are travel-weary, yet eagerand hopeful, and the sign hints of inside information about the gambling placeswhich lie so temptingly ahead. Departing, they have no need to ask questions.The majority have played and lost, and they need all the sympathy they canget.
"If you loseat Las Vegas," says the eminent nightclub comedian Joe E. Lewis, a man whospeaks from experience, "just remember there's more where that went."The mountain-ringed oasis in the badlands of southern Nevada is crowded,prosperous and expanding apace essentially because the ancient human passionfor gambling has never been daunted by unfavorable odds.
Needless to say,you can gamble anywhere if you try hard enough. Las Vegas is the particularsymbol, the glamour town of American gambling. It is unique. Along with thefascinations of legal craps, twenty-one and roulette (the big three casinogames), slot machines and half a dozen other gambling pastimes, Las Vegas weekin and week out offers the most lavish concentration of big-name entertainersin the country.
In the last yearthe town has also begun to cash in on the enormous popularity of Parisianextravaganzas. Legislative opposition—the so-called Bare Bosom Bill—died incommittee; the Lido show at the Stardust and La Nouvelle Eve at El Rancho Vegas(sharing billing with Joe E. Lewis) are doing gold-rush business.
May 10, 1959
No one pretends,however, that the shows pay their own way. They flourish in the luxurioushotels on The Strip for no other reason than that they bring customers into thehotel casinos. As the showgoers flood and ebb through the gaming rooms on theway to and from the twice-nightly performances (three on Saturday), theydeposit an alluvium of legal tender in the slot machines and at the tables assurely as the Nile enriches its delta.
On and off TheStrip the Nevada gambling "industry," as it is often called, appears tobe doing very well indeed. Gross profits reported to the State Tax Commissionlast year added up to a cool $147.7 million. More than half of this—$83.5million—was taken in by operators in Clark County, of which Las Vegas is theseat. It is impossible to calculate exactly the total gambling play in Nevadain 1958. A good guess is that the figure approached $750 million. Gamblingtaxes and fees collected by the state have soared from $1.1 million in 1948 to$7.1 million last year, or about one-fourth of the total state budget.
Las Vegas isbullish about the future, with good reason. The permanent population within thecity has more than doubled since World War II, to an estimated 55,000 today;counting suburbs the total rises to about 120,000. The chamber of commerceestimates that 8½ million people visited Clark County last year and spent $127million besides the $83.5 million they paid for the privilege of gambling. Animposing $5.5-million Convention Center opened this year with impressivebookings.
"This thinghas got to get bigger," sums up Jack Entratter, president of The Strip'sSands hotel.
No doubt it will.The little miracle of the desert is no longer miraculous. A hundred years agofrontier travelers on the perilous trail from Utah to California rested besidethe springs that made a green plot amid sand and sagebrush (Las Vegas isSpanish for The Meadows). Mormons built a settlement and mined for lead forammunition in the mountains near by. But the sun-drenched, bone-dry weather—soappealing now to tourists—and the dispiriting landscape frightened off othersettlers and commercial venturers for decades. Las Vegas had a whistle-stoppopulation of under 8,000 when a young craps dealer named Wilbur Clark openedthe Green Shack in 1938, seven years after Nevada legalized gambling.
"I lost$8,000 in three months," he recalls. "At the time I said anyone comingto this town ought to have his head examined."
Disregarding hisown advice has made Clark rich. He is today a partner in the group which ownsthe big Desert Inn and Country Club on The Strip and other gambling and hotelproperties.
Las Vegasgambling falls more or less neatly into four categories: the big operations onThe Strip; the big operations on Fremont Street downtown; the small-to-middlingoutlets all over, including drugstores and restaurants that have slot machines;and the bookmaking places.
Some of theworld's fanciest and gaudiest neon signery bugs the eyes on Fremont Street (seepage 26). The chung-whir-whir-whir-chung of the hundreds of slot machines,which give downtown operators their biggest profits, ceaselessly assaults theears. The most important casino games are the same big three that pull mostheavily on The Strip, but there are tables for poker, pan (a fast rummy game)and chemin de fer as well. Most of the patrons come in shirtsleeves and buckfor the brass ring with dimes and quarters and dollars, although high-rollinggamblers are not unknown.
It is The Strip,however, which gives Las Vegas its renown (or notoriety, depending on yourattitude). It extends southward from the city limits for the first four milesof the 300-mile highway to Los Angeles. Spaced out along it are the dozencelebrated hotels, each on an expensively landscaped piece of ground whichnuzzles against the wilderness. Timepieces are rare, calendars are nowherevisible, and opaque curtains are at the disposal of late sleepers. Since thecasinos never close, there are many late sleepers in Las Vegas.
By and large theblue-ribbon hotels owe nothing to the West in architecture and decor. Theoldest, El Rancho Vegas, is aggressively western, and so is the Last Frontierpart of the Last Frontier-New Frontier operation, but the rest are Miami orPalm Springs modern.
A typical Stripcasino is a large, carpeted room with five or six dice tables, about the samenumber of twenty-one tables and two or three roulette wheels. Squads of slotmachines line the walls. A bar and lounge adjoin each gaming room. In thelounges musical acts keep things jumping from dusk to dawn.
Tables in thecasinos are arranged in two parallel rows, usually with a table at each end toclose the gap, so that the house men, called inside men, have a clear aisle inthe middle from which to supervise the games. These sharp-eyed individualsrange downward in rank in this way: the casino manager, who often has afinancial interest in the hotel; the floor men—supervised on each eight-hourshift by a pit boss—who earn $50 a day and upward for overseeing the games,settling disputes diplomatically and preventing "leakage," as cheatinglosses are called; the box men ($40 a day), one at each dice table, whoexchange the customers' money for playing chips, or checks, and drop the greenstuff through a narrow slit into a locked but removeable box; and, finally, thedealers, who at craps accept and place bets and rake in or pay off losing andwinning wagers. The dealer called the stick man offers the dice to the shooterat the end of a short, hooked stick, calls the number after each roll and keepsup a running line of chatter ("Seven a loser; I'm afraid the lady hit arock"). Roulette and twenty-one dealers normally work unassisted. Dealersare paid $22.50 a day. They work in shirtsleeves and wear green aprons, whilethe other house men wear business suits.
It is an articleof faith in Las Vegas that any casino which dared to hire amateur dealers wouldbe cheated out of business by larcenous outsiders in short order. As a result,virtually all the house men are products of illegal operations elsewhere. Thispresents local law enforcement men with the ticklish problem of distinguishingbetween "good" and "bad" dealers. They are fingerprinted andtheir police records are reviewed, but there is no hard and fast rule governingclearance or denial. However, as Clark County Undersheriff Lloyd Bell says,"A man with a felony conviction probably could not get a work permitunless, say, the conviction was 20 years ago and he had behaved himself eversince." No inside man can work on The Strip without the county's"50" card, or downtown without the city's "A" card, signifyingclearance.
"We prefernot to have the wise guy working for us," says Carl Cohen, the Sands'vice-president and casino manager. "We want our dealers to meet the publicon its own terms."
Naturally, thecasinos abhor a cheating dealer. If he cheats he robs either the customers orthe house or both, and when caught he is thrown out and blacklisted. Inpractice, cheating seems to be quite rare. A more delicate problem is thepatron who regards the dealer as his natural enemy and adds an extra chip ortwo to a winning bet if the dealer momentarily looks away.
"In thisbusiness," says Alex Goldfine, casino manager at El Rancho Vegas, "youhave to protect yourself. After all, this is money, and wars have been startedover money."
Goldfine, by theway, might as easily be taken for a druggist as one of the shrewdest inside menin gambling. Small, late-fiftyish, clothed in businessman's blue, he revealsthe tensions of his profession only in the keenness of his eyes.
Like many anotherinsider, Alex Goldfine graduated from back-alley gambling to cheap sawdustjoints to more or less opulent but still illegal operations elsewhere beforegoing legitimate in Nevada. "I was living on the streets in Detroit when Iwas 9," he says, "and that's where I learned this business. Not out ofbooks. On my knees, in the streets. I've been arrested 300 times for gambling,but never for a felony."
Pointing toGoldfine the other day, an El Rancho dealer asserted to me, "There is themost honest man in the world. If he tells you something is pink, it'spink."
Now it would beridiculous to assume that the Las Vegas pros are earthly angels. Some of themare very tough eggs, and no doubt some chafe under the yoke of respectability.But the majority evidently are tickled to death to be legitimate wage earners,to be able to marry and raise families in a stable situation.
A few arecandidly nostalgic for the elegant casinos frequented by the prewar rich.Consider Joe Phelan, a Sands floor man whose erect carriage and ascetic facemight conceivably grace a pulpit. In the good old days, Phelan says, a dealerat Bradley's in Palm Beach received a contract in advance. He wore a black coatof clerical cloth and catered to the high and mighty. Formal dress was requiredof patrons after 8 p.m., loud talk and boisterous conduct were prohibited.
After Palm Beachit was north to French Lick, Saratoga Springs and Atlantic City, in season. Adealer might see an oil tycoon run through $98,000 of a $100,000 credit atroulette and then fling the remaining $2,000 to the boy who emptied theashtrays. On the other hand, a hoodlum might threaten to put "a nice littlered hole in your forehead" after tapping out at the wheel.
All in all,Phelan says, he enjoyed the old days.
"There was athrill with it," he maintains. "You got to know the customers. Out hereso many people are in and out it's as if they're on a conveyor belt."
This points up abasic truth about The Strip. Its existence depends on a large turnover ofmiddling gamblers, not on heavy play by a small number of colossally wealthyspenders; it is stamped with the egalitarianism, if not the mediocrity, of ourage. Men and women of wealth gamble on The Strip, to be sure. The point is thatthey alone could not sustain the ambitioushotel-casino-restaurant-bar-lounge-showroom establishments.
The Sands' JackEntratter, formerly a partner in New York's Copacabana nightclub, says he musttake in $25,000 a day just to break even, what with 750 employees who areprovided a total of 937 free meals daily and a show star who may be drawing asmuch as $20,000 a week. The Sands has 363 rooms, and a 72-room addition is inthe works. There is also the matter of having to keep some $300,000 in cash onhand to bank-roll the casino.
The two otherStrip operations invariably mentioned along with the Sands as having thebiggest play and thus the largest gambling profits—the Desert Inn and theSahara—have a comparable overhead. The Desert Inn has 500 rooms, the Sahara400, with 200 more to be added soon.
An average roomat the flossy hotels costs $10 to $14 a day, a sumptuous room $20, a suite $35and a sumptuous suite approximately $60, which is usually quoted as theabsolute top price for accommodations. There was a time when no minimum at allwas required at the after-dinner shows, but now the standard minimum is $3(plus 22% tax), and $5 is tops. Drinks are 80¢ to $1 in the lounges. Forgamblers they are on the house, but the cocktail waitress will be hurt if youdo not tip.
Ah, gamblers. Itis not coincidence that the most warmly appreciated stories told by Las Vegascomedians have to do with losing at gambling. Says Joe E. Lewis: "This isthe only town in the world where you can have a wonderful time without enjoyingyourself."
The heart of thematter is, of course, that in the long run no one can hope to beat theodds—usually figured as percentages—which always favor the house. In thecommonest bet at craps—that the shooter will make a winning roll, or pass—thehouse percentage is 1.41. In other words, the house stands to win $1.41 ofevery $100 bet on the pass line over a period of time.
Craps is oftensaid to be the most popular American casino game because of this relatively lowpercentage, but many bets on which the house has a much higher percentage canbe made, and are every day. Craps is the big game because it is so fast, and itprobably would remain the champ if the percentages were a bit higher.
The No. 2 game istwenty-one, or blackjack. Here the house percentage cannot be calculatedprecisely. The player's main obstacle lies in the fact that the house wins ifhe has a breaking hand (i.e., exceeds a point count of 21 in the draw) whetherthe house dealer's hand breaks or not.
In roulette, thethird-ranked game, the house percentage is almost invariably 5 5/19. This isbecause the payoff odds are figured on 36 numbers, divided equally between redand black, while the wheel actually has 38 numbers (including the 0 and00).
As for slotmachines, the house can make the payoff as high or low as desired but cannotfreeze the jackpot. It is sobering to realize that a nickel machine in DowntownLas Vegas must gulp 9,660 coins to pay the operator's yearly flat-rate tax andlicense fees—federal, state, county and city—before beginning to return aprofit, which is also taxed.
Half thebookmaking places in Las Vegas folded when the federal 10% tax on wagers (thisdoes not apply to casinos) was levied in 1951. Six remain—four downtown and twoon The Strip. These are prohibited by law from accepting other than walk-inbets, and really big bets are unheard of.
An engagingNebraskan named Jackie Gaughan, who studied accounting at Omaha's CreightonUniversity, handles the nonracing end of the Derby on First Street downtown. Hemust have been hopping mad if he saw a U.P.I, story thumping the "wise-guygamblers" of Las Vegas in connection with the odds on a golfer in therecent Tournament of Champions.
"Look,"he said when I stopped by, "we figure the bookmakers here are asrespectable as any stockbroker."
The difficulty ofbeating bookmaker or casino is admitted by the perennial optimist, whonevertheless insists: "O.K., O.K., but so far you've only told me I canlose. How can I win?"
The prosapparently agree that the best way to attempt to make a large, short-term gainin the casinos is to press your luck in a low-percentage game and get out fastwhen your luck turns. They always illustrate the point with craps. This theoryis tied to another Las Vegas article of faith, always stated in this way:"The American public will stand to lose more than it will stand towin."
Milton Jaffe,former manager of the fighter Billy Conn and now managing director of theStardust, elaborates: "A man coming out of our show may have $5,000 in hispocket. Say he wins a couple hundred dollars at craps right away. He quitsright there, thinking, 'Boy, that paid for the weekend.' But if he loses ahundred he may go on to drop the $5,000 just trying to make it back."
To win, then, saythe insiders, avoid panic betting to recoup a small original loss. Make nominalbets or quit for a while if the dice are running against the shooters. Forgetthe so-called field and proposition bets. But bet heavily when the cycle swingsback, when passes are frequent, when sevens are few.
It is notpossible to explore here all the subtleties of practical betting tactics—the"come," "place" and "buy" bets, the odds on a givennumber or situation. Suffice it to say that a gambler who has not masteredthem, who has not had some actual experience, who has not the patience or bankroll to last until a streak begins and who cannot count very well is not likelyto break any banks.
Over the longpull, despite the hot streaks—the long "hands" that every big casinohas lost hundreds of thousands on—the house stands to make a profit ofsomething over 20%" at craps, as well as twenty-one and roulette. Habitualcasino gamblers, no matter how shrewd, die just as broke as horseplayers.
"That's aheckuva way to tell me how I can win," says the optimist, "but I'mgoing to Las Vegas anyway. What is it really like?"
Well, the sky iswonderfully clear and the air is crisp at dawn, and it is cool again at sundownafter the heat of the day. Platinum hair seems to be on the wane. Silverdollars have a peculiar tendency to leap onto the gaming tables. The Parisianshow girls are mostly English. The Las Vegas Mormons are dead set againstgambling. Film stars who try their luck at the tables are all but ignored bythe other gamblers—a serious lot. The legendary Nick the Greek is in town,gambling away.
If by "whatis it really like?" you mean you have heard rumors about sinisterconnections between certain Strip hotels and the archracketeers Meyer Lansky,Frank Costello and Phil Kastel, first note what the State Supreme Court hassaid:
"For gamblingto take its place as a lawful enterprise in Nevada, it is not enough that thisstate has named it lawful. We have but offered it the opportunity for lawfulexistence. The offer is a risky one, not only for the people of this state, butfor the entire nation. Organized crime must not be given refuge here throughthe legitimatizing of one of its principal sources of income."
Says WilliamSinnott, acting chairman of the Gaming Control Board:
"Wediligently scrutinize each individual who comes in here for a license. He isfurther scrutinized publicly—with the press there—when his license comes up forboth preliminary and final approval. Once he gets his license, there is aconstant audit and investigative program going on.
"Actually,the gaming setup operates in a goldfish bowl. It isn't anywhere near asmysterious as people think. Sure, there are constant rumors of hoods, and whenthere are we move quickly under the breadth of the law to run these rumorsdown. Invariably, there is absolutely no proof.
"Thelicense-holders have millions of dollars invested here. Do you think they aregoing to jeopardize that? They are as much concerned about preserving theirinvestment as we are about preserving the state. They don't want hoods in theiroperation any more than we do.
"Costello,Kastel and Lansky were all either directly or indirectly here for a while—andthey left."
It is well known,of course, that the late, reprobate Bugsy Siegel controlled The Strip'sFlamingo hotel at the time he was rubbed out, in 1947. As a consequence of thescandal attached, Nevada moved to clamp down on hoodlum interests for the firsttime under a sweeping new code, which placed over-all responsibility forcontrol with the Tax Commission (this to be transferred in July to a new GamingCommission, which will include two former FBI men) and investigative dutieswith the Control Board.
As for Dandy PhilKastel, the racketeer whose name is most often bruited about nowadays inconnection with Las Vegas, it was discovered that he had invested $320,000 inthe swank Tropicana when it was to be licensed, in 1957. The Control Board toldthe other investors that a license would not be issued until Kastel was out,and the other investors bought up his interest.
In sum, Las Vegasseems to have been scrubbed reasonably clean, under a code which makes gamblinglegal and boldly lays it down that honest gambling cannot be had without theunlawfully acquired experience of many of its operators and most of the casinoemployees.