"There may have been mob money in the Dunes as late as the early 1980s," says Rob Goldstein, President of the Venetian, one of the new breed of dapper young marketing men who run the city. "[Anthony] Spilotro was probably the last big guy. As a kid I remember all these guys around in sharp black suits."
He chuckles, as though recalling a familiar family legend about a wild uncle. "Always lots of hookers around. Very cheesy. Fedoras and everything. These people were pervasive. But then Wall Street sanitized the town."
But just because Anthony "The Ant" turned up dead in a wheat field in 1986 doesn't mean that wise guys with bankrolls aren't still attracted to the desert. Just as Vegas turned international in the late 1970s, so did crime itself.
Of the 800 "whales" in the world--gamblers who spend a million bucks at every session -- very few are American, mainly because this country's tax laws penalize a heavy winner. Roger King of the King World television company --which syndicates "Oprah," "Wheel of Fortune" and "Jeopardy" -- is a notable exception. So is NBA great Michael Jordan.
"In the 60s they were ALL Americans," recalls Wayne Newton, who has met just about every whale in the world. "You know how Frank always called himself a saloon singer? That means he sang for gamblers. He had arrangements by which he made special appearances just for gamblers. I guess I'm a saloon singer, too. But you always knew who the high rollers were at every show, and you always met them, and you always did meet-and-greets. Not just here, but in cities all over the country. And then the Internal Revenue Service became very active here, and it was no longer a safe place for Americans to gamble large sums in cash. They didn't want to arrive with cash, and they didn't want the IRS to see them leaving with cash. And overnight those guys were gone. The market became foreigners."
The reason the preferred high-roller game today is baccarat is that 80 percent of the whales are from Asia. (The game was introduced to Asia by the Colonial French, who called it "chemin de fer.") Baccarat is a game of pure chance. It can be played with lightning speed, and is so simple that you make one decision and then simply watch the cards unfold.
But that's not the way it's played in Las Vegas. Baccarat has such a highly stylized ritual that hands are drawn out forever, with a complicated method of shuffling and burning, with the actual dealing of the cards done by the players, with traditions like bending certain cards for luck, and it's all done in an elegant room that is raised above the casino floor and designed somewhat like a temple.
When you ask a casino executive what this is all about, he'll mumble something like "It's part of their culture" or "They have a different attitude toward gambling than we do." And what he means is that the ethnic Chinese gambler believes his cards are being directed by a higher power, and that if fate is in his favor, at this moment of his life, then he will win, but if it's not, then he will lose. Suffice it to say there's not much talk about the 1.37 percent house edge.
The vaguely religious aura of the baccarat parlor is intentional. The big casinos have established what is essentially a carnie game at the very heart of their empires.
Ironically, given the attitude of Las Vegas toward the Mafia, many of these men are criminals. The Japanese Yakuza love Vegas. So does the Russian mafia. A Korean athlete named Kenny Mizuno reportedly lost $90 million at the Mirage, and he comes from a country where athletes with access to that kind of money are frequently tied to organized crime.
There are Colombians and Mexicans whose principal income probably doesn't come from coffee plantations. An elderly Macao gambler named Yip Pon, with ties to Chinese organized crime, has been seen in several casinos. Former leaders of the Hong Kong mob have been spotted at the tables.
Many others, who live in legal gray areas like offshore banking, are major line items on the balance sheets of MGM/Mirage and Park Place Entertainment, which owns Caesar's and 24 other casinos, including one in Punta del Este, Uruguay.
Adnan Khashoggi, the Middle Eastern businessman with a $30 million line of credit, once booked an entire floor of a Strip hotel to provide individual rooms for all the women he brought with his entourage. The women spent so much on jewelry and furs in casino-owned shops that the host discounted his gambling tab a record 75 per cent.
The famous Black Book, whose sole purpose is to keep people with criminal reputations out of casinos, doesn't list any of these guys. A professional slot cheat or an elderly Italian mobster rotting in prison is more likely to be blacklisted than anyone involved in overseas organized crime.
Two years ago Jack Binion -- son of the legendary Benny Binion, who for years was the best friend of the high roller with his liberal betting limits at the Horseshoe -- was denied a gaming license in the state of Illinois because of his friendship with a Mexican gambler named Nasif Kamel. Kamel had been arrested a few years back for income tax evasion but suspected of drug trafficking. Gaming regulators were disturbed that Binion had bailed Kamel out of the Las Vegas jail and then walked him over to the Horseshoe, where the Mexican whale proceeded to lose a great deal of money at Binion's tables.
The party line in Las Vegas is that Binion was shafted by naive Illinois regulators: the gaming board there should GROW UP and look at this realistically. Kamel had been arrested but not convicted of anything, and how could Jack possibly know where the money came from?
Yet women who describe themselves as "luxury prostitutes" know where the money comes from, because they've been present at many a high-roller gambling session.
"I would constantly chain-smoke during those sessions," said one, "because of how much I did know. They would tell me what they did for a living, and I didn't want to know. I would go to my room and lock myself in the bathroom and sit in the tub and just shake. I wanted them to finish with me and send me home. Sometimes these men wanted me after they'd done something terrible, because they knew I wouldn't judge them. But later I would think 'Now I'm a threat to him.' I almost had a nervous breakdown. I don't care if I never see a casino or a yacht or a jewelry store the rest of my life. Some of them still call, and we chat, but if I've had any problems with anyone in my life, I don't mention it to them. I'm always thinking, 'What if they decided to teach him a lesson?'"
That woman must have been a tad more perceptive than the casino "host" who arranged her shopping schedule.
Organized crime has not left the building. It's just moved to the other side of the table and acquired an accent.
(Email Joe Bob Briggs, "The Vegas Guy," at JoeBob@upi.com or visit Joe Bob's Web site at joebobbriggs.com. Snail-mail: P.O. Box 2002, Dallas, TX 75221.)