The House Always Wins : TEMPLES OF CHANCE: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. to Win Control of the Casino Business, <i> By David Johnston (Doubleday: $22.50; 312 pp.) </i>
Before I knew how to gamble, I used to gamble a lot. I remember approaching a blackjack table in an after-hours joint on Sullivan Street in New York about 15 years ago. I bought in, and I asked the dealer what the house rules were. Every illegal game seemed to have a slight variation on the push-goes-to-the-house policy that separated illicit from licit blackjack.
“The house rules?” the guy said. “The house rules are the house always wins.”
And he was right. Irrefutably, succinctly, plainly right. The late John Scarne, the world’s greatest gambling expert, said much the same: “The house percentage guarantees that the operators can’t lose, because they are not really gambling.” This is something that the legendary Benny Binion, operator of the Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas, well understood. David Johnston quotes Binion in “Temples of Chance”: “Better to have a little joint and a big bankroll than a big joint and a small bankroll.” And, as Johnston himself wryly observes, this “was the kind of advice no one ever gave to Donald Trump or Merv Griffin.”
“Temples of Chance” is one of a small armful of books--it joins Ed Reid’s and Ovid Demaris’ “The Green Felt Jungle” (1963), Wallace Turner’s “Gamblers’ Money” (1965), Demaris’ “The Boardwalk Jungle” (1987) and the work that outweighs and overshadows them all, Scarne’s “Complete Guide to Gambling” (1961)--that not only bare the machinations and intrigues at the heart of the world’s greatest sucker’s racket, but also, in doing so, illuminate that most undying marriage of those most deeply rooted and defining of human traits, stupidity and greed.
Johnston, a former Atlantic City bureau chief and presently an investigative business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, tells a story that is as timely as “The Green Felt Jungle” was 30 years ago. Back then, Bugsy Siegel’s dream and demise, the Flamingo, the lurid birth of modern Las Vegas itself, was barely 15 years old, and the casino business was still very much the sovereign domain of men who best understood and best served the needs of vast, illimitable suckerdom.
Such men today are for the most part gone or receding into the shadows, and the casino business is now the domain of corporate America. In 1989, not long before he died, Benny Binion, who had been convicted of murder early in his career, bragged to a Texas newspaper reporter: “I’m still able to do my own killings.” Donald Trump, licensed by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission in the decade of Binion’s death, represented the new regime, a spoiled, chalk-striped punk who, as Johnston says, “grew up riding through New York’s outer boroughs in his mother’s Rolls-Royce.” “Temples of Chance” takes us from the days of immensely lucrative dumps such as Binion’s Horseshoe to the grotesque fiasco of the Taj Mahal Casino Resort, the bankrupt plastic cathedral of kitsch erected by Trump as a monument to, as it turned out, his own purblind pomposity and folly.
Casino gambling is now a socially acceptable, all-American pastime, and Las Vegas and Atlantic City have become Disneyworlds of venality. In the 1980s, Las Vegas, in a national television advertising campaign, began promoting its new, improved sucker’s racket as “The American Way to Play.” (As Johnston points out, Sig Rogich, the Strip publicity agent who concocted that phrase, later was hired as an image-maker during George Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign and subsequent presidency.)
Part theme park, part mall, part Lourdes--just stand amid the slot machines and watch the endless caravan of old ladies in wheelchairs rolling themselves faithfully, desperately toward redemption--the gaming industry of the Merv Griffins and the Trumps and the junk-bond kings and the bold-suspendered yuppie accountants is testament to the power of America’s lust for mediocrity. It is sin made bland, a pastel dream world in which the hoi polloi might catch a whiff of Robin Leach’s cologne or a glimpse of Frank Sinatra Jr.'s gleaming ring.
Beneath the patina of this sucker-friendly dream world, however, the cold-blooded nature of the racket has grown ever more calculated, by means of computerized odds-stacking, subtle psychological lures expertly devised to attract and evoke compulsive behavior in the addictive (and the just plain dumb), and a variety of other methods introduced by the graduate-schooled, spreadsheet-spewing minions of the new order.
Johnston’s story is by no means one of business alone. If those who now run the casinos are less colorful than in the old days, those who set out to bust them are not. “Temples of Chance” recounts the tale of Akio Kashiwagi, the new casino era’s most notorious gambler, who once wagered $14 million an hour for days at a time. Hacked to death with a samurai sword in his native Japan earlier this year, Kashiwagi went out owing Trump the Chump $6 million. Recounted as well are the gambling careers of Debra Kim Cohen, who began a compulsive seven-year Atlantic City blackjack spree when she was 13, and of Farayala Janna, the controller of the Medellin cocaine cartel’s second-largest bank account and perhaps the biggest casino welsher of the past decade. But, throughout, Johnston never strays far from his central precept that “licensing an enterprise does not change its nature.”
Concluding that “Bad as the mob is, having corporate America dominate the casino business is worse,” “Temples of Chance” lays bare the industry of corruption, avarice and malfeasance that churns ever onward beneath the grinning Up-With-People mask of the American Way to Play. The truth, as that guy in that after-hours joint said, is simple: Things were more honest back when men did their own killing and nobody referred to a sucker’s racket as quality leisure time.