Tom Breitling with Cal Fussman. Double or Nothing: How Two Friends Risked It All to Buy One of Las Vegas’ Legendary Casinos. New York: Collins, 2008. 256 pp.
In honor of tomorrow’s Vegas Gang uber-podcast, which will feature Tom Breitling, I am at long last posting my review of his new casino tell-all. Enjoy!
Until Glenn Schaeffer writes his memoirs, I don’t think that “casino boss autobiography” is going to be an accepted literary genre. In fact, I can’t think of anyone with a major ownership stake in a modern Nevada casino who’s written a tell-all (or tell-some) book. Luckily we’ve got oral history interviews with key players like Bill Harrah, Warren Nelson, and Benny Binion, but answering questions is a bit different from writing an actual book with a beginning, middle, and end. Though Cal Fussman undoubtedly strung together most of the nouns and verbs, this is very much Tom Breitling’s book, so it rises or falls on his life story.
And Breitling certainly has a story to tell. He surfed the dot com wave along with (business) partner Tim Poster, developing a pioneering Internet travel site and cashing it, it seems, at just the right time. Then the pair bought the storied Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas (and Laughlin–people always seem to forget about that one) and had a brief, well-publicized, and, in the end, extremely lucrative career as casino owners.
As we learn, it’s not easy being young, rich, and famous. Regulators, obnoxious high rollers, and the petty details of running a casino strain but don’t shatter Breitling and Poster’s friendship. In the end, they’re still close, and there are even a few hints that they’re not done in the casino world just yet.
It’s a good read; Fussman’s obviously planed off most of the extraneous stuff and left us with a narrative with a real dramatic arc. As the book opens, we learn just how awful it feels to be on the receiving end of a run of good (for the player) luck. Seems like it’s watching gravity reverse itself without being able to stop it or understanding what’s happening: P&B know that the house advantage should lead to their winning back some money from “Mr. Royalty,” but they just watch the whale win, and win, and win. It’s a great entry point into the story.
Then we go back to Breitling’s early years and pick up the story from the start. He goes to school, meets Poster, teams with him on a start-up Vegas reservation service that blossoms into one of the first real online travel sites, and is on a roll. We get a peek into the office culture of the dot-com bubble. It might be a little too frat-house for some tastes: nearly every everyone’s got a nickname (one executive is called “The Sniffer”), and hijinks, practical jokes, and bonhomie are abundant. But hey, they’re not trying to cure cancer: they’re guys into their 20s working hard and getting paid very, very, well.
From here, we see the haggling as P&B sell their business and, flush with cash, start kicking a few casino tires. They end up with the Golden Nugget, and the best part of the book is right here: seeing the insides of the deal. Then there’s some good material on the challenges of ownership: hardly a how-to book, but enough to give you a sense of what it’s like. They even talk about the poorly-received reality TV show, The Casino.
Throughout the book, Breitling comes across as earnest and even serious. Even though his career seems like a joyride, he’s not doing anything on a lark here. And with the money and fame comes responsibility. There’s even a downside to dating a well-known Hollywood actress-model, as we learn.
One of Fussman’s strengths is that he’s a talented enough writer to keep the reader rooting for Tom all the way through. For better or worse, success stories usually breed resentment, and it’s easy to see how Breitling could have come off as smug and self-satisfied in the hands of a less capable co-author. But you never feel that Breitling’s lording it over you–even when he’s talking about dating a girl most guys know from magazine covers. There’s more a vibe of, “Hey bro, this is something really cool that happened to me, and I thought you might want to hear about it.” Well, some people might want to go light on the wunderkind for a while after reading this, but it is what it is: this is the story of two very successful young men, not a philosophical tome by an elder statesman.
So I recommend Double or Nothing. You’ll definitely get a new perspective on fame, fortune, high rollers, and casino ownership.