Two Way Hard Three | Las Vegas Casino & Design Blog

October 21, 2011

The mob & casinos: time heals all wounds

Posted by daveschwartz

Mulling the Las Vegas Mob Experience while writing yesterday's post on the Tropicana, a little incongruity that had been nagging at me for two weeks suddenly game into focus.

Hopefully that nags at you enough to keep you reading after the jump.

Here's the thing. On the third day of the Global Gaming Expo, the industry's trade show/conference, admitted former mobster Henry Hill was signing autographs on the "Fremont Street Experience" section of the Expo. At the time, I didn't think too much of it; after all, there are plenty of celebrities on-hand at G2E every year; earlier that week, Dan Ackroyd had helped unveil the Ghostbusters slots for IGT.

Hill, whose story was brought to the public in Nicholas Pillegi's Wisegy and, subsequently, Martin Scorcese's gangster epic Goodfellas, might have been brought in to bring a touch of "old school" mob charm to the proceedings. But he's a curious choice since his exploits go beyond the vague leave-the-gun/take-the-cannoli shenanigans popularized in mob movies since The Godfather. He was, by his own admission, was extensively involved in illegal gambling in the 1970s and was a pivotal figure in the Rick Kuhn/Boston College point shaving scandal late in that decade. So he was a curious choice to put front and center the same week that the American Gaming Association was urging the public to support efforts to legalize online poker.

Frank Sinatra surrendered his Nevada gaming license in 1963 rather than fight charges that he had hosted notorious alleged mobster Sam Giancana at his Cal Neva casino. Gaming Control Board chairman Edward Olsen thought the harm that could come to the state should a known mafioso like Giancana be permitted to circulate unmolested through its casinos was infinitely greater than the benefits the goodwill Frank Sinatra, one of the most popular entertainers in the country, brought it.

In the 1970s, Nevada regulators worked to push organized crime out of its casino industry. The forced sale of the Stardust from mob-aligned interests to the Boyd Group in 1985 is usually reckoned as the end of the "mob era" in Las Vegas. And, for years before and after that, the gaming industry was sensitive to charges that it was controlled by organized crime. The American Gaming Association itself was created in the late 1990s to help the industry share its perspective with the Congressionally-chartered National Gaming Impact Study Group. And, among its triumphs, was a statement included in the NGSIC's final report that found:

All of the evidence presented to the Commission indicates that effective state regulation, coupled with the takeover of much of the industry by public corporations, has eliminated organized crime from the direct ownership and operation of casinos.

That was in 1999. The casino industry couldn't have worked harder to distance itself from the mob.

Fast forward ten years and all things organized crime are, it seems, embraced. There's been a Godfather slot machine. There's been a Sopranos slot machine. In Atlantic City, Resorts is embracing a "Boardwalk Empire"-inspired Roaring Twenties theme, paying tribute to Prohibition-era law-breaking. The Tropicana, which once hid secret interests from reputed mob bosses Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky and was, in the 1970s, implicated as mob-tainted as part of the Strawman investigation, went all-in with a "Mob Experience" that not only celebrated organized crime, but made it seem as natural a part of the industry as comp buffets for slot players. And Henry Hill was part of the industry's biggest showcase.

Partially, this is because time really does heal most, if not all, wounds. Both Ed Olsen and Frank Sinatra are gone. Most of the mob figures who state and federal law enforcement sought to keep out of the casino business are gone, as well. The connection between organized crime and gambling remains--ask any FBI agent what he things of illegal sports betting--but it is no longer as immediate as it once was. And, because of a string of popular films and television shows, it's quite salable.

And that, surely, is at the heart of it all. Once, it paid casinos to keep the mob as far away as possible. Now, at least when it comes to fictional and retired mobsters, it pays to embrace them. It's surely one of the greatest historical ironies of the past half-century of casino history.