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Gentlemen I Knew

Las Vegas New Bureau

Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas New Bureau

Former casino dealer and cop-turned-writer H. Lee Barnes reflects back on the good old days of Las Vegas.

Long before corporations took over, Las Vegas casinos were run by men who’d learned the business during the Great Depression in places such as New Orleans, Butte or Cleveland. They were dapper dressers, with Italian silk suits, a handkerchief in the outer breast pocket and gold Swiss watches on their wrists. They couldn’t quote Shakespeare or Twain, but they could tell a good story and never forgot a face or name. When they greeted you, they shook your hand, looked straight in your eye and held the grip an extra heartbeat. That kind of human-to-human relationship is now rare in the industry. Today, Ivy League MBAs run casinos and the hosts rely on computer matrices to measure a player’s worth.

But back then, in the early 1970s, there were plenty of “gentlemen gamblers” who made customers feel welcome, and the flashiest may have been Abe Schiller, host at the Dunes. He had points at the Dunes, a way of implying that he was connected. But then again, just about every top boss in the Dunes was mob-connected. Though the closest he ever got to a cow was a slab of rare prime rib, Abe billed himself as the "Cowboy Jew." He dressed in custom-tailored western suits—usually black or white with silver brocade on the lapels and sleeves. He topped his head with a black or white Stetson. On any given night, ladies from the showroom lined up at the bar by the craps pit and Abe could be seen weaving his way through the throng that gathered around them. He’d buy rounds of drinks, shake hands with the customers and entertain them with a story or two. 

I was working as a private detective for Griffin’s Investigations, and my job was to spot cheaters and notify the bosses. I never paid for a meal. More often than not, the hostess would come to my table and say the meal was on Mr. Schiller. Back then, the only matrix that applied to getting a comp meal was being recognized. 

       
Major Riddle in 1953. Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas New Bureau.        

The Dunes had a host of characters. Major Riddle, also a point holder in the place, was another one. He made my job difficult, because he’d sit in the poker room playing with the very cheaters I was supposed to catch. Night after night, he’d go up against them in a high-stakes game. The best he had going for him was taking on the best hand among the others. Who knows how often one of the cross-roaders ran a hand in on him? Fortunately, as the owner of the Silver Nugget and other smaller joints, he could fade the losses, which could exceed ten grand.

Another colorful character at the casinos was Frank Portnoy, a host at the Sahara who often told the story of his rise in the industry. One night, according to him, the backroom joint where he was dealing blackjack in Cleveland was raided by vice cops. As the police axed their way in, the mobster who ran the casino handed Frank a suit jacket. “You just became a boss,” he said. Frank protested that he was just a dealer. “No, you’re a boss or you’ll be floating face down in the river,” the man retorted. Frank took the beef and someone paid his fine. Like many of his kind, Frank was glad to move to Vegas, where he could finally be “legit.”

Out of all the colorful characters, the king was Benny Binion, the Texas cowboy gambler who was the "Emperor of Fremont Street" and boss of the Horseshoe Casino—and a yarn-spinner of the first order. My favorite story is the one he told about picking up a hitchhiker on a highway in Utah. He was on his way to his ranch in Montana and figured a little company would make the drive pass faster. About half an hour after he picked up the man, the fellow said he needed money and leaned forward. “Suppose I was to tell you I got a gun?” the hitchhiker said. Benny, who packed a chrome Colt .45 auto, pulled it out and said in his Texas drawl, “Then I’d say we’s even.”

The hitchhiker said that he’d be pleased to get out and forget what he’d said if Benny would pull over. “Pulled over once for you,” Benny said.

“You expect me to jump out?”

“Your choice.” Benny didn’t bother looking back as the man rolled onto the shoulder of the highway.

Benny was really the only gambler among the boys who owned or ran joints. Anyone with enough guts and enough bankroll to test the Horseshoe’s luck could bet whatever limit he wished. Benny once booked a million-dollar bet on the roulette wheel—and the guy lost. Benny liked to say that it would have been better for the casino if he'd won; winners were welcome back then, because the old hands knew that winners become losers, but the secret was never to make them feel that way.

Some people miss the mystique the mob brought to the city. Me? I miss the gentlemen. //


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