A section from
‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II
‘You can’t run a casino without all kinds of ancillary businesses, you’ve got to have all kinds of people who understand how to run the floor, how to find the employees who are discreet, how to get the employees that have been buffed up and run past a couple of other regulatory bodies, how to get the limousine services to work, how to get the buses to work, how to get the comped guys here and there, who can go to whose network and launder the money, who can get the casino skim to Las Vegas or the Bahamas of the Caymans. The whole thing. They need to set up an entire mechanism. All you have to do is look around and see who has that mechanism in place, who knows how to do that. Certainly not the (native) Indians.’
- The Merger by Jeffrey Robinson
Las Vegas was a military rest-stop in the middle of the desert. Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel saw an opportunity in Las Vegas while overseeing a project coming up there. He gained control after he muscled out the owner. Already a reputed and feared mobster, Siegel quickly realised that the casino business was different from his other ventures. Unfortunately for Siegel, he couldn’t make a profit and his bosses had him removed.
The movie Casino is about the beginning of the end of organised crime (as we know it) in Vegas. After the events of the movie, as Sam Rothstein puts it, the corporations moved into Vegas and getting into a casino became like checking into the airport. ‘Today its like Disneyland.’ Rothstein remarks.
‘Casino’ traces master gambling handicapper - Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein’s adventure in managing the Tangiers Casino. Hailing from the mid-west Sam was involved in all sorts of illegal gambling. Academic, calculating and hands-on in his approach to work, Sam’s moves are shadowed by most bookies, and his bets make more money for the Kansas City mob-bosses than their other riskier ventures. The Tangiers is controlled by the mid-west mob-bosses lead by Remo Gaggi and headquartered in Kansas City. Philip Greene is their front man on the board of directors and Sam is sent to look after their interests in the operation.
Sam has his own ideas for the business and his hands-on methods which developed by being involved from a young age, and avoids violence generally associated with the mafia.
The Tangiers gets a taste of Rothstein immediately. Sports-betting is introduced, the placement of games is rearranged and sloppy managers and out-of-shape showgirls are fired. With an elaborate security system installed in the casino, cheaters are made an example of and cowboys are expelled. Rothstein’s contempt for lazy and arrogant locals doesn’t win him many friends. His methods however pay off and he is rewarded with considerable success and influence in Vegas
‘Back home they’d put me in jail for what I was doing. Out here they’re giving me awards.’ He remarks.
In direct contrast to Sam is his childhood friend and mob-enforcer Nicky Santoro, who is prone to violence and impulsive. Nicky is also despatched by the bosses back home in Kansas City to keep an eye on their casino interests, especially to look out for the ‘golden Jew’ as Nicky refers to Ace. Nick is involved in burglary and extortion, and sees a fortune to be made in Vegas. Because Vegas is so far away from the bosses back home, he sees opportunities to stake his own independence and make money. Despite warnings from Ace about the authorities and their ‘black book’ Nick is adamant as ever to make his presence felt.
After things settle down for Rothstein he marries Ginger, a well-known hustler. She is reluctant to marry him but Ace convinces her after insuring her future in case things don’t work out for them. Nevertheless, Ace places a great deal of faith in his new wife and gives her access to a great deal of his wealth. Unfortunately for Ace, her former pimp still controls her and she develops an alcohol and drug problem. Their young daughter bears the brunt of Ginger’s out-of-control behavior, which deteriorates throughout the movie.
Meanwhile Nicky wants to generate some income of his own and starts a loan-sharking operation and a high-stakes poker game. Eventually he moves his younger brother Dominic to Vegas and their crew graduates to burglary, extortion and murder. He sets up a restaurant as a front for his income.
Ace tells Nicky that his actions attract the attention of the law enforcement agencies. Though Rothstein warns him that his actions could jeopardise a lot of people, Nicky continues with his ways, sending some of his earnings back home to the bosses in Kansas to keep them happy. Nicky’s actions however land him in the ‘black book’ and he is banned from entering any casino. Thereafter he doubles up his focus on his other illegal ventures.
Things start moving downhill soon after.
Front-man Philip Greene’s old partner shows up and sues him. Her suit leads to scrutiny of the Tangiers’ books but the bosses decide to ‘settle out of court’. Nicky is tasked with killing her. This doesn’t prevent the authorities from focusing more on the casino; Ace’s past and his newly made enemies create more trouble. Childhood connections between Ace and Nicky – the newly crowned boss of Vegas, don’t help matters and Ace’s gaming license application is rejected. His actions become irrational, upsetting the bosses back home and a confrontation with Nicky creates a lot of bad blood.
Nicky nevertheless runs to help Ace when Ginger runs away from home taking their daughter Amy with her. By this time however Nicky and Ginger are becoming friendly behind Ace’s back and start an affair soon after.
Gaggi, an old-fashioned mobster who suspects the relationship tries to confirm his doubts, but has already got Nicky in his bad books.
Back home in Kansas City, a long-term bug placed in mob-boss Arthur Piscano’s shop starts paying dividends when Piscano complains to his family about petty misgivings amongst the bosses. The FBI move in on the outfit’s operations on Kansas City and Las Vegas. The bosses are rounded up and taken to court. The scam in the Tangiers is exposed and heads begin to roll.
Fact Behind Fiction
The movie is based on Nicholas Pileggi’s book - Casino, about organized crime and the gambling industry, focusing on the life of Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal - a pioneer of sports-betting.
The right-handed guy named Lefty
Frank was born in 1929 in Chicago. He had a strong association with organized crime in Chicago (Capone’s legacy) and was arrested on several occasions for trying to fix football and basketball games. He acquired the nickname ‘Lefty’ after he pleaded the 5th Amendment 37 times before the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington DC in 1961, all the while holding up his left hand.
Some sources credit the nickname to the fact that he took the 5th amendment when asked if he was left handed. Others say that he simply was left-handed.
He was associated with Anthony Spilotro from early on in his criminal career and this association would return to haunt him in his professional and personal life.
Frank Rosenthal moved to Las Vegas in 1968, aged 39. Six years later he was in-effect the boss of four casinos.
However the authorities weren't too happy about having Frank in Las Vegas and they made their displeasure abundantly clear to him from the time he first landed at his new job. He was cuffed and held in an interrogation room where he was told that he and his friends from Chicago weren't welcome in Vegas. Frank however decided to stay in town, and it took the authorities 20 years to get rid of him. Meanwhile though, he had to live with his every move being watched, especially by Sheriff Frank Lamb.
He is notorious for having managed four casinos (The Stardust, Fremont, Hacienda and Marina) at the same time, from the early 1970s onwards. These casinos recorded extraordinary profits with Frank’s innovations like sports betting and female card dealers. All casinos in Vegas ended up copying his moves.
How did Frank end up in control of these casinos? The Chicago-based mob put him there. The mob controlled the Teamsters Union Pension Fund which financed the Argent Corporation’s purchase of the casinos. The boss of the Argent Corporation was informed of Mr. Rosenthal’s position by Frank himself in a conversation as follows (as recollected by Mr. Glick to Mr. Pileggi):
‘It is about time you become informed of what is going on here and where I am coming from and where you should be. I was placed in this position not for your benefit, but for the benefit of others, and I have been instructed not to tolerate any nonsense from you, nor do I have to listen to what you say, because you are not my boss.’
‘When I say you don’t have a choice, I am just not talking of an administrative basis, but I am talking about one involving health. If you interfere with any of the casino operations or try to undermine anything I want to do here, I represent to you that you will never leave this corporation alive.’
Frank married Geraldine McGee - a high-stakes hustler, in 1969, and they had a tumultuous relationship, not helped by Geri’s alcohol addiction.
Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal became adept not only at dealing with the police on his back, but also at catching scam-artists who themselves constantly innovate to cheat the casinos. Once when a group of professional scam artists were caught red-handed at the casino, Frank ordered one of their hand crushed with a rubber mallet as a signal to all con-men and scamsters.
Frank also launched himself on TV with ‘The Frank Rosenthal Show’. He was reputed to have a large ego, an ice-cold glare and laconic wit. Once when asked how he kept in good shape he replied with ‘By keeping my mouth shut.’
Frank Rosenthal had an old-fashioned mafia style business sense which didn't take kindly to being second-guessed or undermined by his own people. His grip on the functions of the casinos was firm and the feedback to his employees was unforgiving.
From the 1970s till the turn of the century (Sept. 11, 2001) Las Vegas remained immune to the health of the nation’s economy, never fearing recessions, and indeed thriving in them. Several casinos were in the hands of organized crime syndicates, and there was virtually little else to do other than gambling or other vice. There were no business conference halls or any real-estate market to speak of. This was the Las Vegas that Frank Rosenthal operated in, and probably helped further.
In 1971 Anthony Spilotro (‘Tony the ant’) was appointed as the Chicago Outfit’s Las Vegas representative and his association with Frank was re-established. Spilotro’s violent nature was at odds with Frank’s temperament, and Spilotro’s affair with Geraldine was the final straw in their association.
Frank’s marriage to Geraldine ended in 1981 and she died, aged 46, of drug overdose the next year.
In 1982 Frank survived an assassinated attempt by fluke when a car bomb failed to kill him.
Spilotro was killed, aged 48, in 1986 along with his brother during a turf war.
By then Frank had already wrestled with the authorities several times over his position in the casino and a gaming license. In 1988 he was blacklisted by the Nevada Gaming Commission and banned from being in the vicinity of any casino for running a casino on behalf of organized crime and skimming off profits illegally. After a failed appeal to the Nevada Supreme Court, Frank was deemed ‘persona non grata’ and left for Florida from where he operated his sports betting business through his website.
Frank died in 2008, aged 79, of a fatal heart attack.
Las Vegas today is different from what it was back then in several ways. Ownership of casinos lies with large publicly traded multi-national corporations after organized crime itself was muscled out. It has become essential to the nation’s financial well-being and suffered in the 2008 credit crunch with projects being stalled and newly developed business facilities remaining unused.
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