From Nicholas Pileggi, author of Wiseguy —the #1 bestseller that became Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award–winning film GoodFellas—comes the brilliantly told true story of love, marriage, adultery, murder, and revenge, Mafia-style . . . the shattering inside account of how the mob finally lost its stranglehold over the neon money-making machine it created: the multibillion-dollar casino gambling industry of Las Vegas.
No one knew more about casinos than Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the gambling mastermind who, along with his best friend and partner, Anthony Spilotro, virtually ran Las Vegas for the mob. For years, it was the perfect arrangement—Lefty provided the smarts, while Tony kept the bosses happy with their weekly suitcases filled with millions in skimmed cash. It should have lasted forever, but Lefty’s obsession with running the town—and Tony’s obsession with Lefty’s beautiful showgirl wife, Geri—eventually led to the betrayals and investigations that exploded into one of the greatest debacles in mob history.
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Love and Honor in Las Vegas
By Nicholas Pileggi
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Pileggi Literary Properties, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"My pals thought I was the messiah."
Lefty Rosenthal did not believe in luck. He believed in the odds. In the numbers. In probability. In the math. In the fractions of data he had accumulated copying team statistics onto index cards. He believed that games were fixed and that referees and zebras could be bought. He knew some basketball players who practiced the art of missing basketball rim shots for hours every day, and he knew players who bet the middles between the odds spread and got a return of 10 percent on their money. He believed that some athletes played lazy and some of them played hurt. He believed in winning and losing streaks; he believed in point spreads and no-limit bets and card mechanics so good they could deal out cards without breaking the cellophane on the deck. In other words, where gambling was concerned, Lefty believed in everything but luck. Luck was the potential enemy. Luck was the temptress, the seductive whisperer taking you away from the data. Lefty learned early that if he was ever to master the skill and become a professional player, he had to take even the remotest possibility of chance out of the process.
Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal was born on June 12, 1929, just a few months before the stock market crash. He was raised on Chicago's West Side, an old-world, syndicate neighborhood, where bookie shops, crooked cops, corrupt aldermen, and closed mouths were a way of life.
"My dad was a produce wholesaler," Rosenthal said. "An administrative type. Good with numbers. Smart. Successful. My mother was a housewife. I grew up reading the racing form. I used to tear it apart. I knew everything there was to know about the form. I used to read it in class. I was a tall, skinny, shy kid. I was six foot one when I was a teenager and I was kind of withdrawn. I was sort of a loner, and horse racing was my challenge.
"My dad owned some horses, so I was at the track with him all the time. I lived at the track. I was a groom. A hot walker. I hung around the backstretch. I mucked out. I'd get there at four thirty in the morning. I became a part of the barn. I started hanging out there when I was thirteen and fourteen, and I was an owner's son. Everybody left me alone.
"I got some resistance at home when I started getting into sports betting. My mother knew I was gambling and she didn't like it, but I was very strong headed. I wouldn't listen to anyone. I loved going over the charts, the past performances, jockeys, post positions. I used to copy all that material onto my own eight-by-ten-inch file cards in my room late into the night.
"I cut school one day to go to the track. I went with two pals. Smart guys. We stayed for eight races and I punched out seven winners. My pals thought I was the messiah. My dad turned away when he spotted me there. He wouldn't talk to me. He was pissed that I had cut school. I didn't say anything to him when I got home. It wasn't discussed. I didn't say anything about winning, either. The next day I cut school again and went back to the track and lost it all.
"But I really learned gambling in the bleachers of Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park. There were about two hundred guys up there every game and they bet on everything. Every pitch. Every swing. Everything had a price. There were guys shouting numbers at you. It was great. It was an open-air casino. Constant action.
"If you were talented, and you had some ego, and you knew your game, you'd be tempted to take them on. You've got money in your pocket and you feel like you can take on the world. There was a guy named Stacy; he was in his fifties and he had a pocket full of cash. He'd fade anybody. 'Hey kid, they gonna score this inning or not?' Instead of passing, your pride gets in there and you make a bet and you pay the price. Stacy always got you to make a price.
"Say Chicago is winning six to two in the eighth and you want to bet they score again, or that they'll lose in the ninth. Or that they'd hit into a double play to end the inning. Or hit a home run to win the game. Or a double or a triple or a flyout. Whatever. Stacy would take the action and he'd lay the odds. He'd make a homer twenty-five to one. Bam! Just like that. A fly ball was twenty to one. An 'out' was eight to five. If you wanted the action, you made the bet and he gave you his odds.
"I didn't know it at first, but every one of those bets Stacy faded had odds backing them up. A strikeout at the end of a game was, say — I don't remember the real odds now, but say it was a hundred and sixty-six to one, not thirty to one, which was what Stacy was laying.
"A home run on a game's first pitch could be three thousand to one, not seventy-five to one. And so forth. If you were betting Stacy, you had to know those odds, or you'd be picked clean.
"After I caught on, I'd just sit and listen to him make his odds and I'd write them all down and keep a record. After a while, I started making proposition bets out there on my own. Over the years, Stacy made a little fortune in the bleachers. He cleaned up. He was terrific at getting everybody all around him to start betting. He was a great showman.
"Back then, you didn't have sports channels and magazines and newspapers and radio shows that specialized in betting sports. If you were in the Midwest you couldn't easily find out what was happening to the East and West Coast teams behind the scenes. You'd get the final score and that was about that.
"But if you're betting seriously, you've got to know a lot more than that. So I started reading everything. My father got me a shortwave radio, and I remember spending hours listening to the play-by-play of out-of-town teams I was thinking of betting. I began subscribing to different papers from all around the country. I'd go to this newsstand where they had all the out-of-town papers. That's where I met Hymie the Ace. He was a legendary professional. I don't call people legends unless they are. Hymie the Ace was a legend. He would be there at the same newsstand buying dozens of papers, just like me. He'd get into his car and start reading. I'd be there, too, except I didn't have a car. I had a bike. After a while we got to know each other. He knew what I was doing.
"Hymie was about ten or twelve years older than I was. I made it a habit to always say hello to him and to the other pros, and I was lucky that they'd all talk to me. I was still a kid, but they saw that I was serious and I had an aptitude, and they were willing to help me. They were very kind. They allowed me into their circle. I felt great.
"But I'm also getting chesty. I'm doing pretty well. I'm feeling good. There was a Northwestern-Michigan basketball game that was coming up. I had people at both schools feeding me information and I felt really strong. I liked Northwestern.
"Now I don't mean I liked Northwestern. That I was a fan. That I had their pennant in my room. I mean I liked them as a bet. That's all teams were to me. Bets. I'd been waiting for this game. I'd been watching it. So I bet Northwestern to beat Michigan State. It was a sellout crowd. I walked in and I saw Hymie the Ace. Hymie knows more about basketball than any man alive. We say hello. It's ten minutes to tip-off.
"I told him I played Northwestern and asked what he was doing. I was so certain about my information that I had made what I used to call a triple play — I'd bet two thousand dollars. It was as far as I could go with my bankroll. A single play for me at the time was like two hundred, a double play was five hundred, and a triple was two thousand. I'm just a kid. It's my limit. We're talking about a time when my whole bankroll was eight thousand.
"'What?' Hymie says, surprised. 'Why are you playing Northwestern? Don't you know about Johnny Green?'
"'Who?' I asked him.
"'Johnny Green. What's wrong with you?'
"Now Johnny Green was a black player who had been ineligible for the whole season. It turned out he had suddenly become eligible a couple of days before the game. I'd missed it.
"'Green's going to take every rebound in the game,' Ace said, and my heart sank.
"I ran to the phones, but there were just two booths and there were twenty-five people waiting at each booth. I'm looking to lay off some of my bets. Get rid of them. Balance some of the action. I'm still standing in line waiting for the phone when I hear the announcer and I know I'm dead. I can't get off.
"I go back and sit down. I watch Green. Just like Ace said, he controlled both backboards. At halftime I had seen enough. Michigan annihilated Northwestern. Ace had done his homework and I hadn't.
"Ace not only knew that Green was eligible, he knew what kind of a player he was, knew that he was a great re-bounder, knew that that was the element that could beat Northwestern. Green went on to be an All-American and top pro player.
"I learned a hell of a lesson. I found out I wasn't as smart as I thought I was. I had depended upon people for too much. I had given them the power to make up my mind for me. I realized that if I wanted to spend my life gambling, pitting myself against the best bookmakers, there was no such thing as listening to people. If I was going to make a living doing this, I was going to have to figure it out for myself and do it all myself.
"So I started out with college basketball and football. In college games I subscribed to all the school newspapers and went through the sports pages every day. I'd call the reporters at the different schools and make up all kinds of stories to find out extra bits of information that didn't get into the papers.
"At first, I didn't tell them why I wanted the information, but pretty soon they caught on, and I picked up some sharp kids out there and I brought them along. When I won, I threw them a few bucks, and after a while I had a whole network of people who kept me informed about college games.
"As I got older I'd go to games with a tape recorder. I had spotters working for me. I'd tell some guys to just watch specific things. I'd have them watching two or three players only. I didn't care what else was happening; they had to watch who I told them to watch. I'd take their notes. Then I'd fly to the next town where the team played and I'd watch them again. I'd match lineups. The final score's never the main thing to look at if you want to make money instead of losing it. I knew if a player had hurt his ankle and was playing slower. I knew when a quarterback was sick. I knew if his girlfriend got knocked up or left him for somebody else. I knew if he was smoking dope, snorting coke. I knew about injuries that didn't get in the papers. About injuries that players kept from their coaches.
"Now, with this kind of information, it wasn't hard for me to see when the bookmakers had made an error in their odds. I didn't blame them. They were covering lots of sports and lots of games. I was concentrating on a few. I knew everything there was to know about a certain limited number of games, and I learned a very important thing — I learned that you can't bet on every game. Sometimes you can only bet one or two games out of forty or fifty. Sometimes, I learned, there wasn't a good bet on the whole weekend. If that was true, I wouldn't bet or take a serious position.
"I used to hang around a cigar store on Kinzie. George and Sam ran the place. Out front they had cigars and stuff. But in the back there was a Western Union wire, telephones, and a tote board. In those days, they had the most up-to-date information. During the baseball season, the latest list of starting pitchers would come over the wire just before game time.
"George and Sam were really big bookmakers. They had come to Chicago from Tarrytown, New York. And they had an okay from the powers that be to operate the book. It was wide open. They even had the okay from the local police captain to run poker games, which were very illegal.
"They had a bar and they'd serve drinks and food for free. The wire was always banging away. It was like a stock market ticker. The Western Union machines were hard for a bookie to get. They were meant to be sold to newspapers, but if you filed certain papers with the company and knew how to go about it, you might be able to get one. At that time I was so dumb I tried to get one for my house, and I was turned down.
"George and Sam were independent operators, but they still had to pay protection. All the card rooms and bookie rooms paid off in those days. Bookmakers took care of the cops and they took care of the outfit. And sometimes the outfit took care of the cops. In the end, everybody could wind up taking care of everybody, just as long as everybody made money.
"When I was nineteen," Rosenthal continued, "I got a job as a clerk at Bill Kaplan's sports service, Angel-Kaplan. It was great. We would be on the phones all day giving out our line to bookmakers and players. Everyone from all over the country was hooked into each other. We had special phone lines set up by retired telephone company workers. We all knew each other's voices and code names, but after a while, you get to know everybody's real name.
"I'm just a kid and still in Chicago, but now I'm hooked into the biggest office in the United States at the time — Gil Beckley's in Newport, Kentucky. Gil had the whole town of Newport locked up. The coppers. The politicians. The whole fucking town.
"Gil was Newport's main industry. He had thirty clerks working. He ran the biggest layoff operation in the country. It was where every bookmaking office in the country called to lay off bets if the action on one side was getting too heavy.
"For instance, if you're a bookmaker in Dallas, you are naturally going to get more Dallas bets than you want, because you won't have enough people betting on the other side to offset any win. So a Dallas bookmaker would call Gil Beckley's layoff operation, and Beckley's clerks would pick up enough of the Dallas bookmaker's bets to balance his book. Since Beckley is national, he can offset the Dallas bets against their opponents that week, and everything becomes even again.
"Wherever he went, Gil was the boss. In the winter he'd be in Miami. He'd invite twenty or thirty guys out to dinner. 'Let's go to Joe's Stone Crab!' 'Let's go here!' 'Let's go there!' He always had an entourage with him, and he always picked up the check.
"Naturally, I got to meet Gil Beckley only by phone. For a couple of years we're talking and he recognized that I was an up-and-coming kid. A whatever-you-want-to-call-it kid. A handicapper and a player. And my little reputation was building. But the more I talked to Beckley, the more I realized the most unbelievable thing. If you asked Gil Beckley how many men were on a baseball team, he'd have to ask someone. Literally.
"He could not tell you. That wasn't one of his things. I'm being honest. Mickey Mantle? Who? Beckley just didn't know. He didn't have a fucking clue. But then, he didn't have to know. He was a bookmaker and layoff man. He didn't bet. He just ran the biggest accounting office in the country. I was stunned.
"But I found out pretty soon it didn't matter. All a layoff man's gotta do is make sure he keeps the bets balanced and take his ten percent. You don't have to be an expert on teams or even know about the games. I was amazed, but it turned out to be true of lots of layoff men and bookies. Some of the biggest guys didn't bet. In Chicago we had Benny the Book. Benny was the biggest bookmaker in town. Benny made millions and millions as a bookmaker, and just like Gil Beckley, Benny couldn't tell you who Joe DiMaggio played for. I'm serious.
"I was betting and getting good information at the time my friend Sidney was Benny's top clerk, and he asked me, as a favor, if I would call his office if I learned something about a game, something that might affect the outcome, like that there was a fix or one of the players was injured.
"So, one day I came up with an injury that hadn't been reported, and I called my friend Sidney, but he wasn't there. Instead, I got Benny. The big boss himself. So I told Benny about the player. I remember the player. Bobby Avila. Second base for the Cleveland Indians. I said 'Avila's out.'
"I wanted to alert him so he could adjust his line and not get smashed by all the pros, who, I can assure you, would have already gotten the same information I had.
"Benny takes the information like he knows what I'm talking about, but when I finish he asks me, 'Don't they have another second baseman?' I think, 'Another Bobby Avila? Is he serious?' I couldn't believe it.
Excerpted from Casino by Nicholas Pileggi. Copyright © 1995 Pileggi Literary Properties, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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