|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Antiques And Arts News||Home|
So Far In Play
WHEN Richard Canfield died in 1914, the nineteenthcentury code of gambling died with him. Men had shot and killed each other across gaming tables on the Missis sippi and in the gold fields of the West, but it took the twentieth century to make gamblers mobsters and to parlay the man-to-man duel into the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. In 1937 "racket" was denounced by Wilfred J. Funk as one of the ten most overworked words of the time - which it still is. Overworked or not, it has a deadly ring, though its most violent practitioner, officially branded by the Chicago Crime Commission as Public Enemy No. 1, also used it as a term of opprobrium. Scarface A1 Capone, a madman when playing dice, never gambled on the stock market. "It's a racket," he said.
America had come a long way since George Washington bought the first lottery ticket for the first Federal Lottery in 1793. Gamblers like Jimmy Hines held the power of appointing judges and public officials. Through Tom Prendergast gamblers controlled Kansas City's police department. Men like Frank Costello, Lucky Luciano, "and friends" attended the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago in style. Their opponents were large men but few - honorable public servants like Herbert Hoover and Fiorello H. LaGuardia.
The operations of the underworld bore a chilling likeness to legitimate national and international procedures. At a ten-day conference in 1928, in Atlantic City, the powers of darkness held a peace parley. They agreed that they were first-class chumps to kill each other. Instead they parceled out the United States among the Mafia and other mobs and adopted a big-business approach to organized racketeering.
Even race-track touts, who originally worked largely out of their pockets, organized and turned to Capone for protection at a price. Parenthetically, in the end it was gambling that finished Capone. The United States Government had no shred of evidence to hang a rap on him for income-tax evasion - far less his more lethal crimes - till he himself flaunted ownership of the Hawthorne Smoke Shop gambling joint during a raid. A nosy cop picked up a little black book in which were recorded the receipts for 1924 and 1925. Here was proof of undeclared income and it sent him to Alcatraz.
The new-style mobsters's names were as quaint as any that sounded in Sherwood Forest - St. Louis Dutch, Bugsy Siegel, Loud Mouth Hymie, Sonny Boy Quirk, Lucky Luciano, Big Greeny Greenberg-but their forest was a concrete jungle.
Not everything changed. When the law at last caught up with Bugsy Siegel and he was awaiting trial, he spent much of his time whooping it up in Hollywood hot spots precisely the way George Devol had whooped it up in New Orleans hot spots in 1862.
The propensity to gamble was never stronger than from 1929 to the end of World War II. In Philadelphia the wives of city officials complained that take-home pay was slim after the bookmakers got their share and, on investigation, it was found that city-hall phone booths were clogged with would-be bettors. The building was accordingly divested of public phones.
Big-time gambling was brutal and pernicious, but small-time gambling went placidly ahead, taking on zanier and zanier forms. At Harvard a pool was based on how many authors the professor of comparative literature would cite in a lecture. Nine students in Lowell House were found to be operating a roulette wheel. Though the wheel was confiscated, no action was taken against the student-croupiers, in accordance with a Harvard tradition of patience and lenience.
In times of emergency American ingenuity rises to brilliant heights. The Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department barred all females from gambling houses, so one bookie piped race results into a doughnut shop next door to his headquarters and the consumption of doughnuts and coffee grew brisk while ladies waited. After Minneapolis gambling joints were shut down, a sympathetic and profit-minded cabdriver invited several crap shooters to use his hack as a dice arena and even set up a small table in it. Other cabs also obliged and all went well till warm weather led to open windows and the police caught on. Rolling bones clicked no longer in counterpoint to the meters of Minneapolis taxis thereafter. Foreign lottery tickets were mailed illegally into the U.S. -the post office seized millions, many of them counterfeit - one cache in a Bible that was said to be "hallowed but also hollowed."
The depression, far from having a sobering effect on gamblers, stimulated them. They reasoned that it was better to dispense with what little they had for a chance of hitting the jack pot than to worry along with less than enough. Chicago's mayor, Big Bill Thompson, tried to apply this principle on a large scale: he promoted a lottery to return prosperity to his town and, through a medium, invoked the spirit of Grover Cleveland to back up the plan. Unimpressed, the citizenry thwarted him. However, in the depths of the depression, when there were not enough jobs to go around, Chicago had another sort of lottery. Job seekers were assigned numbers. If a man's number was drawn he got a job.
To prop up sagging movie attendance and to hold out golden dreams to the depressed, "Bank Nights" were instituted. The real gold went to their inventor, whose royalties on the idea ran into millions a year. From dishes to dollars, the prizes made even Class C pictures seem like bargains and a stock joke was that "What's on tonight?" meant not what movies but what prizes.
In 1935 a brand-new lunacy erupted in Denver and, before it had run its course, resulted in unexpected pay rolls for U.S. post offices all across the country. Mailboxes began bulging with letters beginning "Scratch out the top name and send a dime," and the deluge of chain letters was on. The principle of a chain letter was that each recipient made a number (originally six, later ten) of copies of it and mailed them to friends, charging them to continue the process under dire threats. As the letters fanned out and multiplied, so did the number of dimes, quarters, dollars, etc., enclosed in them - if the chain were not broken, which, of course, it always was.
Before chain letters ended, the dime jumped to ten dollars and the Sweet Adeline Club and the Liquid Assets Club promised "good cheer" and urged their members to send a pint of whisky to the name at the top of the list. In a letter to end all chain letters Dr. H. E. Coakly asked for a bail of hay and got it, while W. D. Gott received a chain letter from an old sweetheart and ended by marrying her.
Chain letters died before a legal way was found to combat them, but the law was a trial to gamblers on other fronts. Massachusetts courts upheld a statute demanding that double a gambler's winnings over five dollars be paid to the state, though the law had been enacted in 1740 and never before invoked. The director of Buffalo's Public Welfare claimed Irish Sweepstakes winnings for the poor and the winners scuttled across the border to Canada to live. However, the Bureau of Internal Revenue was kinder and classed unsuccessful horse bets and losses at French casinos as deductible.
As gamblers mobilized to hold their own, they were not without signs of honor. A resplendent and lucrative benefit was held in Washington, D.C., for four of their number who had gone to jail rather than squeal. All talent was donated.
Betting on elections is as old as elections, and the 1936 campaign between Landon and Roosevelt was no exception. What was exceptional was that the Literary Digest, on the strength of its pollsters got into the act, pro-Landon, with such aviditythat many Landon supporters were emboldened to overbet on their man. What happened to them was nothing to what happened to the Literary Digest, which died. While the losers were paying off bets Sim Hudson, of Burlington, Colorado, who had won $4000, was so elated he invited everyone in town to lunch. Between eight and nine thousand showed up and one wag said, "Sim would have come out better off backing Landon."
With hard times an old question invariably recurs: why not legalize gambling and give the government a share of the take, since it cannot be stopped anyway? Florida, in bad shape financially, decided to make hay from its 12,500 slot machines in 1935. During the next two years they rolled up more than $65,000,000 and the state raked in $1,000,000 annually. Counterbalancing this was an influx of gamblers and other questionable characters, a sharp rise in crime, and a lot of hungry school children. The young were spending their lunch money on one-armed bandits. Two years was enough. The legislature outlawed gambling in 1937. The merchants were in a bad spot since machines in shops had lured customers who now turned to bolita, an illegal numbers game. The police failed to make a dent in the bolita racket.
Horrified at the findings of a Gallop poll of 1938, which showed that 29 per cent of the adult American populace had gambled the previous year, Dr. Robert W. Searle, of the Greater New York Federation of Churches, spoke to members of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice against legalizing this "deeper curse than drink." Despite dedicated efforts for reform, gambling was not to be downed, even officially. Nellie E. Lefller, a woman mayor of E1 Monte, California, licensed rooms for draw poker (though it was illegal to play it at home) and other towns followed suit. The premises were designed to be eminently respectable with liquor and minors barred and a free ladies's day. Stud poker was adjudged too naughty to be legalized, but draw got under the wire as a game of skill.
For obvious reasons it has always been difficult to assemble accurate statistics on professional gamblers, but census takers in 1940 did their best. In at least one area - Burlington, New Jersey, - "numbers writing" was listed as an occupation.
Though America was not at war in 1940, certain Americans were already deeply involved through ancient ties. In December the police rounded up thirty-seven Chinese devotees of chance from as far away as Lancaster and New York who had been building up a "war kitty" for China in a Philadelphia gambling house.
With war on the horizon the average American continued to gamble with or without altruistic motives. The gambling population climbed to 54 per cent of American adults, the American Institute of Public Opinion found, the commonest categories being church lotteries (24 per cent), cards or dice for money (24 per cent), slot machines (24 per cent), punchboards (23 per cent), elections and athletic events (21 per cent), numbers (8 per cent). These percentages, lower than they would have been if the Irish Sweepstakes had not been discontinued on account of the war, in no way reflected the actuals sums involved. A more staggering statistic was that only one in seven who gambled admitted coming out ahead.
The brass of the armed forces in World War I had perforce adopted a moralistic tone. Houses of prostitution and houses of gambling were alike off limits. The M.P.s would get you if you were not an angel. A new approach was apparent immediately after the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor when congressmen offered lottery bills to help finance the war effort. Though these got nowhere, Colonel Henry B. Barry, of the Jersey City Quartermaster Depot, described 750,000 pairs of dice purchased for Americans in uniform (which disquieted some noncombatants) as a "comfort item." Many of the nearly 61,000,000 decks of cards sold in 1943 were bought at post exchanges. To circumvent sharps of all kinds in uniform, professionals gave exhibitions and lectured in various army camps and navy bases on how cheats :ould gamble and take all your money on pay day. Yank, the army weekly, used John Scarne, American magician, reputed to be able to do anything with dice or cards except make them sing "The StarSpangled Banner," in its efforts to weed crooked gambling out of the army. Of the $300,000,000 it was estimated passed from hand to hand in gambling each month, $75,000,000 was believed to be salted away by dice cheats and cardsharps who were in for the duration.
World War 11 was no different from any other war in one way. Gamblers included nearly everybody. General Dwight D. Eisenhower's popularity with the G.Ls zoomed in 1943 when one Simon Davis wrote and asked him the odds of being dealt a particular poker hand. The general paused in his main occupation long enough to write back: "Although I'm afraid my power of gauging percentages in filling poker hands is a bit overrated, I do like to figure them in my spare time. I haven't had time to go too deeply into the exact figures of your chances of drawing three kings and a pair of jacks - but I'd say they are about 1 in 1,082,900 times. Any mathematician will prove I'm completely wrong, but, anyway, don't count on doing it in a pinch." Said one admiring poker-playing soldier in the Fifth Army in Italy, "I've always thought a lot of the General, but now he's tops on my list of greats."
In 1944 General Eisenhower, filled with a buoyant optimism shared by many on his staff - British as well as American - backed with a five-pound bet his belief that our troops would reach the German border by Christmas. "Well," he later told the National Press Club in Washington, "they didn't, and I lost my 5 pounds. . . ."
Amateur gamblers in the army bet anything they had on anything they could. One sergeant bet another sergeant that Roosevelt would be re-elected, the odds four hundred foxholes to one hundred foxholes, the loser to do the digging. In the China-Burma-India Theater on the Burma Road a horse-racing game was played in the native huts the G.Ls used as clubs. The prizes were whatever the Red Cross girls had baked that day, maybe a pie, maybe doughnuts.
World War II contributed a new phrase to gambling language, "Elk River," meaning three tens in a poker hand. Elk River is exactly thirty miles from St. Paul, a geographic fact unknown to most of the soldiers in European and Pacific theaters who picked up the phrase.
American soldiers were often suckers, but not always. A tall Kentuckian, possessed of $3500, won shooting craps, stowed it in a little handbag and went off to see New York with two buddies. The next day he reported to Colonel Cassell C. Kingdon that they had switched bags on him and his money was gone. The colonel held out little hope of retrieving his money since he couldn't identify it.
"Oh yes, I can,"' said the Kentuckian. "I punched a pin through one eye of the man on each bill and there won't be another batch of money like it in the country." He got his money back.
On the home front our gallant legislatures gambled in their own fashion. State Representative Benjamin Bubar, Jr., of Maine, found himself tied for Republican nomination and pulled the "nomination card" .in a gambling settlement. Maryland's Republican J. Glenn Beal picked the daily double for a lady Democrat and won her vote forever after.
Many race tracks contributed to the war effort. Herbert Bayard Swope, as head of the New York State Racing Commission, pledged $2,000,000 to war relief organizations, and organized racing was proud when it turned over $3,000,000. The first double-header in American turf history, at Little Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, realized $80,000 for army and navy relief funds, and a Fourth-of-July program at Arlington Park added $126,000. The fund was swelled in various ways, -like the Bay Meadows forty-day meet, and extra races at a number of tracks.
Even such good works failed to appease New York's fighting mayor, LaGuardia, who tackled gamblers in his regular Sunday broadcasts, "Talk to the People," on the strength of a letter from "a little boy named George." George's trouble was that Daddy was squandering money George saw better uses for, on off-track betting. His was the first of many letters and lectures against "thieving tinhorns." Said His Honor to the rookie cop: "Keep away from punks and tinhorns and keep them away from you. Don't give a tinhorn a break. If you see him on your beat, sock him on the jaw. I'll stand back of you." His warnings against bribe-taking were equally blunt and effective since everybody remembered the $1,000,000 graft paid annually to the plain-clothes division of the Brooklyn Police Department and brought to light by Special Prosecutor John Harlan Amen. One of the most startling findings was the differentiation made by the offenders between the "clean" dollar and the "dirty" dollar. The cops did not consider it improper to take money from men who broke the anti-gambling law but bribes connected with moral turpitude were dirty.
Nevada took a sensationally different approach to the evils inherent in gambling when, in 1931, the state made gambling legal. Most adult Nevadans were less than a lifetime away from Western pioneer days when people rip-roodled around doing openly what people in older communities did on the sly. The professionals welcomed their change of status and the abolition of graft payments.
Open gambling in Nevada during the 1930s was not excessive and worked well under a legal licensing system. The wartime boom of the 1940s translated it into big business and the out-ofstate underworld attempted to seize control. This malignant growth was largely extirpated in 1945 when the state legislature took the licensing of gambling resorts away from the state sheriffs and county boards and turned it over to the State Tax Commission. It was so strong that when a crook like Bugsy Siegel tried to take over in Las Vegas it could cancel licenses and hound him and his henchmen out of operation.
Unfortunately criminals did manage to rig up respectable fronts and Governor Charles H. Russell told the state legislature emphatically in 1955 that members of Chicago, Detroit, Miami, and St. Louis underworld mobs, and of New York's Murder, Inc. had moved in on Nevada. If this was a guess, it was a good one. When Costello was wounded in New York by a gunman, he went to jail rather than tell a grand jury what a slip of paper found in his pocket and covered with cryptic figures meant. Three weeks sleuthing in Nevada proved to two of the district attorney's aides that they referred to the swank Tropicana Hotel Casino's take. The president of the Tropicana denied that Costello had any interest in the $110,000,000 hotel. However Costello's oldtime partner, ex-convict Dandy Phil Kastel, had supervised its construction and been a stockholder. When the Gaming Control Board held up the license because of his record, he withdrew, supposedly selling his shares. After the Costello arrest, investigation revealed that Dandy Phil had at least one dummy shareholder in the Tropicana, Louis J. Lederer a Chicagoan in charge of the Tropicana's gambling casino. Mr. Lederer's small, neat handwriting appeared on the slip of paper. The Gaming Board booted Mr. Lederer out of his Nevada activities.
Legalized gambling paid off in Nevada, provided almost 20 per cent of the state's income, and drew customers to the resorts. Columnist Red Smith noted with awe: "What flabbergasts the visitor, and would even daze Phineas T. Barnum, is the incredible abundance of suckers, the limitless, inexhaustible flow of raw material that pours through Nevada's gigantic cream separators twenty-four hours a day." Nevadans liked it that way and had no intention of relinquishing the cream, but were sobered by the fact that the suicide rate in their state was twice the national average, that broke out-of-staters who did not kill themselves frequently went on relief and petty crime was on the increase.
For the most part such sordid facts were invisible. The gambler lived a pampered life, as long as his money lasted ... food and drink were brought to him to the tables, a barber was on hand in the casino to keep him looking his best. In 1955, Jack Entratter, manager of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, received a forlorn call from a guest who was too ill to come down to gamble at the tables. "We'll send a table and a dealer to your room," Entratter replied soothingly. Room service was up to anything in Nevada.
Anybody on his feet could gamble twenty-four hours a day, though he might have to stand in line to get to a table. Slot machines were in airports, candy stores, coffee shops, drugstores, and wherever people went. Hotel bellhops directed visitors to the bar with "Ten slot machines ahead, two dice tables to the right, and one blackjack table to the left."
The never-never extravagances of Las Vegas rivaled Monte Carlo in 1957 when a mob met in Apalachin, New York, and got the order: Clear out of narcotics-it's too risky and the penalties are too severe. Concentrate on gambling. The leaders of the mob then coolly planned to take control of the state of Nevada. This breath-takingly brazen scheme fell apart when the Department of justice succeeded in sending the key men to jail under stiff sentences for refusing to talk.
The result was a standoff between the massive forces of organized crime and the latent forces of reform. Prosperity was making money plentiful. Gangsters and mobsters were in control of professional gambling, though their behavior was less flamboyant than in the wild days when illegal liquor was great big business, and everything else merely contributory. Legalizing of off-track betting was being argued with vehemence in various states. Gin rummy, as a private game, was on the wane and one no longer saw intent couples dealing across night-club tables, oblivious to their surroundings. Poker went on as usual. Churches were still debating the virtue of raising money with bingo games. National elections were three years off.
Everything was normal, with Las Vegas a gaudy and isolated experiment in legally removing excess profits from citizens' pockets - and on occasion stuffing- them. One great, overriding gamble dimmed the simpler glitter of losing and winning money at games.
The world was gambling on survival in the atomic age. The big bet was on whether survival would come up - or the end of the world. Whichever was ahead, America prepared to meet in her own wry way. A sign, scotched-taped to a one-armed bandit in the Midwest, read: "IN CASE OF AN AIR RAID, STAND NEXT TO THIS MACHINE. NO ONE HAS HIT IT YET."