Book Review: Hit Me

Danielle Gomes and Jay Bonansinga. Hit Me: Fighting the Las Vegas Mob by the Numbers. Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 2013. 301 pages.

One of the most-asked questions for people who study Las Vegas history is “How did the mob get kicked out of the casino industry?” This book tells you a major part of that story from a man who was a key part of that process.

Full disclosure: I worked for Dennis Gomes in 1994/95 at the Trump Taj Mahal casino, though since I was a line employee and he was the property president, we didn’t interact much. I also gave the author, Danielle Gomes, some (free) research assistance with the book at UNLV.

HIT ME is a very personal story. Danielle based the book on her father’s notes, investigations, and recollections of his time as audit chief of the Nevada Gaming Control Board in the 1970s. These were crucial years, when the pressure to remove organized crime from the casino industry was building, yet many in the state preferred a “business as usual” policy. By the end of the decade, federal action, in particular the Strawman investigation, would do a great deal to banish the mob from the industry, and Gomes’ work at audit provides a glimpse into just how entrenched mob-related figures were at certain casinos and just how difficult it was for state investigators to pry them out.

The book’s most valuable quality, for me, is that it provides an insider’s look into the regulators-vs-mob struggle in a way that few other accounts have. Often you get the impression that the forces confronting the mob were brilliantly organized and had unlimited resources, but Gomes’s account of the GCB in those years seems anything but. Obviously, this is based on one man’s story, and those at other places in the organization may have something different to say (more on that later), but the inside look into one entrepreneurial division of the GCB provides a unique perspective. In some ways, Gomes and his crew seem more like a regulatory start-up—under-funded and constantly scrambling—than part of the oldest casino regulatory regime in the United States.

In the past few weeks, HIT ME has been in the news in Las Vegas. One of the figures mentioned in the book, a former governor, took issue with the impression given in the book that he was less than diligent in prosecuting those Gomes alleged to be associated with organized crime. That’s a reminder that this isn’t ancient history, and that, while everyone agrees that the industry is better off for having put its mob days behind it (well, expect for the people who think Las Vegas was better “when the mob ran the town”), this is still a very touchy subject.

The key to reading this book is to understanding it as the story of Dennis Gomes’s part in the fight against organized crime in Nevada gaming. You are seeing things through his eyes. I’ve been studying this stuff for a long time now, and I learned more than a few things reading HIT ME. Personally, I found the material on Jay Vandermark and several slot skimming investigations fascinating. It’s rare that a book like this handles the subject in so much detail, and Gomes really gives you a sense of just how ingenious the skimmers could be.

Overall, I found this an honest and gripping account of Gomes’s years with the audit division and his struggle to clean up Nevada casinos. Is this the last word on the topic? Likely not, and I’m sure there are many other people active in those years and later who could offer their own perspective on that time. For now, HIT ME has added a great deal of depth to our understanding of Nevada casino regulation in the 1970s. This is a book that anyone who is interested in Las Vegas casino history should read.

Go here to see Hit Me on Amazon.

The Book That Tried to End Las Vegas | Vegas Seven

There is no Green Felt Journal in this week’s Vegas Seven. But I did write the cover story, a historical dissection of the notorious Green Felt Jungle:

When Trident Press released The Green Felt Jungle on December 13, 1963, it promised to tell the real story of Las Vegas. Most residents winced; this could only be bad news.

For $4.95, readers could read tales of cash, crime and corruption. And sex—plenty of sex. Authors Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris meshed gossip, innuendo and rehashed reportage in a book whose premise—that the mob owned Las Vegas, body and soul—was anathema to Nevadans. Two talented writers—Reid won a Pulitzer in 1951 for his investigations into Brooklyn organized crime, and Demaris was in the midst of a string of best-sellers—were tackling the glitzy gambling oasis. It couldn’t miss.

via The Book That Tried to End Las Vegas | Vegas Seven.

I love the chance to write these in-depth feature stories for the magazine. Thanks as always to my editor, Greg Miller, who worked me through a few drafts to get the story to where it is. And Ed Walters was a fascinating interview subject–I’m looking forward to learning more about his life and times in Las Vegas.

Once Grandissimo is out, I’m going to pick my next book project. I’ve been leaning towards something contemporary, since that’s what experts say people want to read about, but the more I write historical pieces for Seven that get such a positive response, the more I’m convinced that it’s time for me to write the history of Las Vegas casinos that I’ve been talking about. I’ve gotten as far as sketching out chapter ideas, and I think that it would have a lot of material that people are interested in.

I’d really like to fill in the gaps in what most people know about Las Vegas casinos. For most, it goes cowboys–>gangsters–>corporations, without too much consideration of the interplay between those groups (and others) that created the industry we know today. Ten years ago in Suburban Xanadu, I said that there was a lot more continuity than change between the past and present of the casino business, and I think that’s true. I’d like a chance to really tell that story in a narrative, non-academic way, starting with the first gambling halls on Block 16 and ending with today. I covered much of this in Roll the Bones in summary form, but there is plenty more to say.

For now, though, I’ve got a book to publish and promote, so through October I’m 100% about Grandissimo.

And for today, you’ve got a nice little slice of 1960s Las Vegas to read about–including an appearance by Meyer Lanksy in the Fremont coffee shop. Here’s to Las Vegas history!

Author David G. Schwartz summarizes chapter 13, “The…

Author David G. Schwartz summarizes chapter 13, “The Burger King Revolution: Las Vegas bounces back for the first time,” of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (Casino Edition).

If you don’t see a video above, go here:

This chapter covers the changes that tranformed Las Vegas in the 1980s. First, it deals with the forces that led to the mob’s decline and eventual exit from the ownership of casinos in Las Vegas. Then, it discusses the trends that led to a crisis for Las Vegas in the early 1980s, and how Las Vegas rebounded by remaking itself to appeal to mass-market and family vacationers.

Some casinos discussed include the Stardust, Riviera, Circus Circus, and Tropicana.

Author David G. Schwartz summarizes chapter 13, “The Burger King Revolution: Las Vegas bounces back for the first time,” of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (Casino Edition).

If you don’t see a video above, go here:

This chapter covers the changes that tranformed Las Vegas in the 1980s. First, it deals with the forces that led to the mob’s decline and eventual exit from the ownership of casinos in Las Vegas. Then, it discusses the trends that led to a crisis for Las Vegas in the early 1980s, and how Las Vegas rebounded by remaking itself to appeal to mass-market and family vacationers.

Some casinos discussed include the Stardust, Riviera, Circus Circus, and Tropicana.

Vegas Mob Scrubbed Clean in Vegas Seven

A few weeks ago, I visited the Las Vegas Mob Experience at the Tropicana. I shared some of my thoughts here, and then thought about it some more. The result is a feature piece Vegas Seven magazine:

With fedora-wearing ticket-takers and an almost-Technicolor presentation, it’s clear that the Mob Experience isn’t a dry, academic colloquium on criminal justice. With costumed actors and sets straight off a Hollywood back lot, this is a haunted-house history of Las Vegas and the mob: Frightening ghosts of Mafiosi past glower at us, but there’s little danger that they’ll make us think as we pass through. It’s Fright Dome with wiseguys instead of wraiths.

So, like the billboards, the museum itself depicts the world in black and white, with blood-red added for effect. Perhaps it’s not the best approach for a city whose history is dominated by shades of gray

via Scrubbed Clean | Vegas Seven.

This was a hard essay to write. Certainly anyone trying to put together a museum or attraction about organized crime history that’s geared towards the general public has their work cut out for them. It’s a controversial area that, to put it mildly, was not well documented. It’s difficult, then, to put together something that’s as comprehensive as, say, a history of the Civil War, or even of the Union Pacific Railroad.

And I kind of had a good time interacting with the actors at the LVME. It’s just that boiling down the history of American organized crime to bootlegging and skimming from Vegas casinos doesn’t seem to do anyone justice. And claiming that “the Mob built Las Vegas” is a real disservice to all of the non-mobbed-up men and women who actually did build Las Vegas.

Book Review: I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse

Michael Franzese. I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse: Insider Tips from a Former Mob Boss. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009. 152 pages.

Books on how to success in business are plentiful and, I suspect, not that helpful. Most businesses probably don’t fail because of lack of motivation, but because they are undercapitalized. Time management is important, but having someone who can lend you enough money to get started is more important.

So I take business strategy books with a grain of salt. Like gambling strategy books, you’ve got to figure that if the author really had the secret of surefire business success, he’d be off starting more businesses, not hustling books.

Still, there are many things to be learned from reading about how others found success, so while there might not be too much help, you’ve got to figure that nothing you read is going to hurt you. In that spirit, I gave former mob moss Michael Franzese’s I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse a read.

Franzese, who knows more about producing and pressure than any CEO, illuminates this short book with many illustrations from his days as a capo in the Colombo organized crime family. These stories are both entertaining (to the extent that murder, extortion, and tax fraud are light entertainment) and engaging, because they show that Frazese’s points about respect, negotiations, and greed have great consequence.

The book is divided into eleven chapters, each covering a different aspect of Franzese’s philosophies. The best chapters are those that have the best application for readers: the introduction, which maps out Franzese’s “mobbed up” approach, “Lead with Your Brain, Not Your Mouth,” which counsels discretion and careful analysis rather than hot-headed boasting, “Master the Art of the Sit-Down,” a treatise on high-pressure mob negotiations that should be reading in every business school, and “Learn from Your Failures,” which points out that not every venture is successful. Like most business books, each chapter ends with a numbered recapitulation of the main points. (This is something I’ve never understood–the author’s pretty much saying he’s got no confidence in his writing, because if he did, you’d remember the crucial bits without a cheat sheet. It’s like they are their own Cliff Notes.)

Throughout the book, Franzese turns to two sources of widsom: Nicolo Machiavelli, whose The Prince is apparently read by mobsters in the joint as well as freshmen in Poli Sci 101, and King Solomon, whose Proverbs offer a countervailing compassion to Machiavelli’s cynical pragmatism. As the book progresses, one can see the struggle within Franzese himself between Machiavelli, who’s made him rich and powerful, and Solomon, who hopefully can bring him peace. It’s interesting, because in some ways Franzese in reminiscent of Solomon as author of Ecclesiastes, a man who’s been king an enjoyed everything that wealth and power can offer, but now realizes the futility of such aspirations.

While Franzese explains how you can be successful at organized crime or business, he is careful to remind readers that breaking the law has severe consequences and that eventually one’s misdeeds will probably catch up with him, one way or another. He makes this crystal clear in his “Closing Thoughts,” where he writes that, “The night I took the oath to become a made man, I was one of six recruits inducted into the family. I am the only one alive today. None of them died of natural causes” (151).

I’ll Make You an Offer You Can’t Refuse
is both a cautionary tale and a roadmap. Franzese shows where how got by following Machiavelli–rich and in prison–and where Solomon has brought him, to a less powerful but more rewarding place. It has a meaningful argument in favor of objective morals as opposed to situation-specific ethics, and, particularly in this age of corporate malfeasance, is recommended reading for anyone who has tough decisions to make.

Talking about the Mob at UNLV

If you can make it, we’re hosting a provocative talk at UNLV in two weeks. Here’s the info:

January 29, 2009
Gaming Research Colloquium Series:
Leslie Nino Fidance
William S. Boyd School of Law, UNLV
“The Mob Never Ran Vegas”
Thursday, January, 12:15 pm
UNLV Special Collections
Download flyer (pdf)

Center for Gaming Research: Special Events

If you can’t make it, I should have the audio posted as part of the UNLV Gaming podcast series. This is definitely a talk to remember–I’ve read the paper it’s based on and the author makes many good points.

Even if you don’t plan on going, click through to see the flyer, which I will accept full blame for. It’s the kind of thing that a serious academic probably wouldn’t come up with, but c’mon, the talk is about the mob in Vegas.

Mafia! The hat

While shopping at a local outlet mall, I noticed this wonderful chapeau offered for sale:
I’ve got a few problems with this. The chief one is that only a fool would advertise that they were part of a continuing criminal enterprise. The whole point of the mafia is that it’s supposed to be a shadowy criminal underworld. If you start wearing clothes that actually say “mafia,” you kind of lose the element of surprise.

On the other hand, this would be a great accessory if different organized crime groups were playing in beer-league softball. You could have caps for “Yakuza,” “Russian Mob,” “Triads,” and other well-known criminal organizations.

If you go around telling people that you’re in the mob, you’re most likely not. So if you wanted people to think that you were connected, this is would be the last thing you’d wear. In fact, I thought that maybe you’d want to change the hat to read “not in the MAFIA” to throw people off. But then again, if someone who really was in the mob wouldn’t wear this hat, maybe wearing the hat would be the best way to avoid getting picked up. My head hurts, just thinking about it.

I’ve got one last thing to say: as a proud American of Italian descent, I’m truly thankful that this hat wasn’t in red, white, and green. That would have been too much.

I am disappointed that it wasn’t in pinstripes, and there wasn’t a matching pinkie ring, though.

The trouble-maker that I am, I think that the next time a casino has a “wear sports stuff to work” day, an employee should wear this hat, and see just how long it takes someone to object or call the Gaming Control Board. Come to think of it, it would have been much easier for the Board to crack down on skimming back in the day if all of the mob guys had just worn identifying caps.

Gambling ref pleads guilty

Tim Donaghy, the NBA ref accused of gambling on games that he refereed, has plead guilty. From USA Today:

The Boston Celtics, favored by four points, faced the 76ers in Philadelphia on Dec. 13 and won 101-81 in what seemed to be just another NBA blowout featuring bad Atlantic Division teams.

On or about the same date in Pennsylvania, an NBA referee assigned to that game had spoken in code with someone by phone to give him his pick for what NBA team to bet on. The next day, that “top-tier” referee, Tim Donaghy, met with gambling associates in Pennsylvania to pick up his cash payment for the pick.

On or about Dec. 26, Donaghy made a similar call to give another pick. That night he worked the Memphis Grizzlies-Wizards game in Washington, won 116-101 by the 7½-point favorite home team.

And on or about March 11 of this year, Donaghy met with a man in Toronto and got a cash payment. That night he worked the game won by the 6½-point favorite Raptors 120-119 vs. the Seattle SuperSonics.

In a court very different from where he once worked, Donaghy, 40, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two felony charges in the gambling scandal that has stunned the sports world. Released on $250,000 bond from federal court in Brooklyn, he faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced Nov. 9 for conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce.

“Some of my picks included games I had been assigned to referee,” Donaghy said. It is not known if he made officiating calls during the game to help the team he predicted would win.

The “rogue” referee, as NBA Commissioner David Stern described Donaghy, must pay a $500,000 fine and at least $30,000 in restitution.

Former ref Donaghy details his gambling deception –

As with the Tocchet case, I would hope that some good can come out of what is an awful situation for everyone involved–namely, a serious discussion of the relationship between gambling and sports. But, since this is just a “rogue” referee, I guess we won’t be hearing too much more about gambling and sports—until the next “isolated incident” erupts into scandal.

NBA ref gambling scandal

This might put the kabosh on plans to bring an NBA franchise to Las Vegas…or not. An NBA ref has reportedly used his position to influence the outcome of games he had action on. From UPI:

An NBA referee is reportedly under investigation by U.S. authorities for allegedly fixing games over the past two seasons, the New York Post said Friday.

The newspaper’s report said the National Basketball Association was aware of the investigation but had been requested by the FBI not to comment.

The investigation allegedly involved members of New York’s organized crime community to whom the unidentified referee owed money because of a gambling problem. The Post said the referee allegedly made calls to affect the outcome of games he was betting on. The number of affected games was said to be “in the double digits.”

The FBI’s yearlong investigation was concluding and arrests were expected soon, the report said.
United Press International – NewsTrack – Sports – Report: NBA ref probed for gambling

That’s about the biggest crime you can pull in sports today–fixing games damages the credibility of the league itself.

That being said, it doesn’t look like this case has anything to do with legal sports betting. If the ref was in debt to New York’s “organized crime community” (what a euphemism!), he was probably betting with an illegal bookie to start with.

Still, it’s a bad way for the words “NBA” and “gambling” to be seen in the same sentence. I’m not sure this will hurt Mayor Goodman’s efforts to bring a team here, but it certainly won’t help.

Gambling and the mob

One question I get a lot is, “When did the mob leave Las Vegas?” I usually answer that organized crime is present in every major American city (and probably every major city in the world), so it is still here.

As I’ve said before, the idea of the mob “controlling” Las Vegas was and is a bit simplistic. Certainly several people involved with organized crime (Meyer Lansky, most significantly) had hidden interests in Strip casinos, but did “the mob,” as an entity, systematically acquire, build, and control the major resorts of the Strip? I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure, but it sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory to me, the sort of thing that is not falsifiable–can you prove that a secret cabal of mobsters DIDN’T control Las Vegas?

So I was interested to read a story in the Star-Ledger about sports betting (which is in the headlines so much these days) and organized crime:

One operation served working-class clients in North Jersey. The other sprouted in the state’s southern end and catered to millionaire athletes.

But police say the two disparate gambling rings dismantled this month shared an attribute: organized crime.

The multimillion-dollar betting operation run by a state trooper and former NHL star Rick Tocchet had ties to the Bruno/Scarfo crime family in Philadelphia, according to the State Police. And Bergen County prosecutors said a reputed Genovese family solider oversaw a sports book that processed $1 million or more a week in bets.

When it comes to illegal sports wagering, experts say, it’s a safe bet the mob is involved.

“They may get involved in more lucrative schemes here and there, but the day-in and day-out rent is paid by the gambling,” said Kevin McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor who headed the U.S. Attorney’s organized crime strike force in New Jersey.

The takedown of both rings was the latest proof that, even with the proliferation of legalized gambling and online wagering, the mob’s stranglehold on sports gambling remains intact.

These days, the agent said, some of the sophisticated rings are following the lead of corporate America. “They’ve outsourced some of their labor,” he said.

Instead of shelling out thousands each month to rent and protect an apartment in the Northeast, such groups are paying meager fees for wire rooms and phone banks in places like Costa Rica, where the gambling is legal and the bookmaking operations go unnoticed.

Still unclear is how the explosion of online betting will affect traditional bookmakers.

“The mob doesn’t like competition and those groups provide easy competition,” said McCarthy, the former prosecutor who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “The mob lost control of Las Vegas. I think the same thing might happen in sports betting.”
Gambling busts show mob is still a big player

I’m not privy to the same kinds of data as those involved in law enforcement are, but I imagine that Antigua would probably take exception to the claim that bookmaking is “unnoticed” there. In fact, the Antiguan government filed suit against the United States to force the recognition of its online bookmaking.

As I said in Cutting the Wire, the whole illegal gambling/organized crime problem boils down to a fundamental ambiguity: if placing wagers isn’t a crime, but profiting from accepting them is, there isn’t much of a stigma attached to the business of illegal betting. Coupled with the fact that most citizens would prefer to see finite resources directed against higher-priority targets (terrorist groups at the top of the list), and it’s easy to see why illegal gambling flourishes.