|Feature by Willard Manus|
was ten a.m. but it could have been midnight, so jammed was the hotel casino
with people standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the rows of blinking, beeping
poker and slot machines.
"Look at those grinders, those nickel and dimers!" George R. muttered contemptuously as we picked our way through the huge, garishly lit arcade. George, a college buddy, had come to Las Vegas forty years ago to work as a security guard at the Sahara Hotel for thirty-four bucks a day. Now, though, he was president of his own guard company and was a wealthy man, but he kindly agreed to take some time off and show me around The Strip.
"Vegas has changed completely in the time I've been here," he said. "It's gone from being a casino town with hotels to a hotel town with casinos. The mob is gone and the corporations have taken its place. Everything's cleaner and bigger, but a lot colder and more bottom-line oriented. Everything's gotta show a profit, not just the gaming rooms but the hotel itself, the lounges, even the crummy coffee shops."
These days most of the gamblers were tourists, conventioneers, and honeymooners. "Not many high-rollers among them," George complained as he led me around the casino. "These people are squares, bingo-players, churchgoers. Nobody would dream of flying them here on a gambling junket, comping them for their room and board. It's strictly a numbers game today, a mass-market thing."
The IRS was also to blame for the demise of the high-rollers. "Anybody who wins 10K or more must go to the cage and fill out a 1099 form, giving his social security number and other ID to the tax man. Few serious gamblers would put up with that kind of bullshit. They've taken their action to the offshore casinos, the Bahamas and places like that, where few questions are asked," George said.
Mexico's economic problems have also hit Vegas hard. "Many of the fat cats were from south of the border, guys who'd regularly hit town with suitcases full of cash and go for broke at the tables. But the tough times in Mexico have kept them many of them down on the farm."
Still, the casinos don't like to lose, not even to the squares. That much became evident when we hit the crap tables. A woman shooter was on a hot run and the look on the faces of the dealers and stickmen was not pretty. The woman, a hefty, middle-aged blonde, was raking in the chips for herself and the people who were betting on her. She threw the dice left-handed: fabulous combinations, boxcars, sixes the hard way, hitting everything she went for.
"Should we get in on the action and bet on her?" I asked George. "Maybe we can make a few bucks."
"Go ahead if you want," he said. "But I don't gamble. Anybody who tries to beat the casino is nuts. It's like holding a loaded gun to your head."
When the woman finally crapped out and went to cash in her chips, George said, "If she's smart she'll leave Vegas right now, because that's the only way she'll hang on to her winnings. The word is already out on her. Every casino in town knows how much she's won and what she looks like. If she sits down anywhere else they'll be ready for her, ready to put their best team on her, real killers, pit men who almost never lose."
"Will they cheat her out of her winnings?"
"The casinos don't cheat any longer," George said, "but they'll do everything short of cheating to take your dough. I've seen them changes dealers six times in twenty minutes to try and stop a hot blackjack player. The player screamed bloody murder, but the house makes the rules and he had to play by them."
"They'll pull every trick in the book," George added. "They'll spike your drink with triple shots of whiskey and have it served by a half-naked waitress with tremendous boobs--anything to distract you, interrupt your rhythm, fuck up your luck."
Seeing Vegas through George's eyes was an education. We spent the day together, going from Circus Circus with its $1 blackjack tables to the elegant baccarat room at Caesar's, where players and dealers alike wore tuxedos. George knew all of the dealers and many of the gamblers.
"See that guy?" he whispered. "He's a drug-dealer who comes up from Texas once a month with a picnic-cooler stuffed with cash." And: "See that old geezer? He's a retired investment banker who once hired me to bodyguard him for a weekend. He won a hundred grand at baccarat and tipped me five thousand bucks. He's got so much dough he doesn't give a shit whether he wins or loses. He just loves the action."
George showed his acumen when we hit another casino and he sniffed out a cheater. We'd been watching the blackjack action at a nearby table when George suddenly grabbed my arm and said, "Something's wrong. I can smell it."
Sure enough, when he checked with the pit boss, he learned that the crew felt the same way. They'd been watching the suspected cheater, a bland-looking guy in a blue suit and black horn-rims, for some time now. They had not only put an "eye in the sky" (a ceiling video camera) on him, but had slipped a couple of shills into the game to spy more closely on him.
They couldn't get a thing on him, though, just stood by watching and glowering while he kept winning hand after hand, his takings approaching six figures.
George moved this way and that around the table, studying the guy from every possible angle, a hunter stalking his prey. Then, about ten minutes later, he went over and spoke to the pit boss again. The latter signaled to a nearby security guard, who moved in and took hold of the gambler, escorting him to a nearby office.
What George had noticed was a speck of color reflecting in the gambler's eyes. It came from a row of tiny lights embedded along the top of his horn-rims. The gambler was a counter, someone who illegally kept track of the cards by tapping out a code with his foot and sending the impulse up a wire from his shoe to a sensor implanted in his neck, which in turn relayed the impulse to his glasses and made the tiny lights blink, reminding him which cards had already been played.
"He took the risk of having surgery on his neck just to win a few bucks?" I asked.
George grinned and said, "That's Vegas."