Casino, by Nicholas Pileggi

casino

Casino is an easy read—plenty of action, compelling characters, reasonably easy to follow, well-written, flows well, short-to-medium in length.

It is the nonfiction story of the last years of full-fledged Mob control of Las Vegas casinos. At its center are Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the bookie extraordinaire put in charge of running one of the Mob’s casinos, his wife Geri, and his long-time associate and sometime friend Anthony Spilotro, a major Las Vegas crime figure.

I saw the Martin Scorsese movie before I read the book, and naturally I was comparing the two the whole time I was reading this.

The movie changes quite a few things, including the main characters’ names. On the whole it probably fictionalizes the story to about an average degree compared to movie versions of true stories in general.

As I understand it, Rosenthal had significant ties to the Mob, but he was not so much a member of the Mob as someone they employed because they trusted him and he was something of a savant at making money running a casino.

I’d say in the book, which is presumably closer to the facts, Rosenthal is not as sympathetic a character as in the movie. I mean, he’s mixed in both, but I remember when I watched the movie I was mostly on his side in his fights with his wife, his complex relationship with Spilotro, and his battles with the corrupt gaming regulators. He came across as a dynamic, suave, charismatic, super sharp figure devoted to excellence, principled in his own way.

He’s not hugely less appealing or admirable in the book, but he’s somewhat less so. There’s a little more malice to him, a little more sense that he didn’t just have affiliations of convenience with the bad guys because it benefited both him and them, but that he could be something of a bad guy himself.

Geri if anything comes across as even more repellent and pathetic than in the movie. She was a real lowlife who was able to make a considerable amount of money—even before her connection with Rosenthal—due to a lack of any moral scruples and the fact that greed was seemingly her strongest trait, but no matter how fancy the house she lived in, or how expensive the clothes and jewels she wore, she never acquired any of the class or refinement associated with people of means.

She had the stereotypical attitudes of a whore and never grew out of that. If you had the willingness and means to spoil her, like Rosenthal, you moved to the head of the line, but at the same time that got you classified in her mind as a john, as someone she had contempt for and coldly manipulated with her sexual attractiveness, and not someone she could respect or have any genuine feelings for.

It didn’t help that, as portrayed accurately in the movie, she was wasted on drugs and alcohol much of the time. Pretty much a loser through and through.

One thing you can say about her, at least based on the apparently very few existent photos of her, is that she was quite a looker. Probably better looking than Sharon Stone, who portrayed her in the movie.

On the other hand, Rosenthal in real life was a dweeby little Jewish guy who looked at least late middle aged during his Las Vegas years, decidedly less visually impressive than the Robert De Niro version of him.

When you see them together in a photo, you immediately get that sense of a coupling that could never happen in a million years if the guy didn’t have lots of money. They were only seven years apart in age, but you’d think it was far more. In the movie, there’s not nearly as visually striking a difference in their basic attractiveness.

Spilotro was nicknamed “Tony the Ant.” “Ant” could be taken as short for Anthony, but really the nickname came from an FBI agent who referred to him as “that little pissant.” He was every bit the scary, homicidal, loose cannon he’s portrayed as in the movie.

Law enforcement was convinced that Spilotro was the Mob’s man in Las Vegas, that he was running their operations out there for them, and that it was just a matter of getting the evidence to prove that. So they had him under massive surveillance for years, as depicted in the movie.

Really, though, he was not what they thought he was. Certainly he was connected to the Mob—more ensconced in it than Rosenthal, for instance—and some of what he did was at the behest of the bosses back east, but he mostly acted as a free agent.

Las Vegas was something of a backwater for the Mob back then, which is part of what appealed to him. He could operate with little or no supervision. So he set up his criminal gang and lived his life as a virtually continuous crime spree, with most of that crime having little or no connection to his nominal superiors in the Mob.

Ultimately both Rosenthal and Spilotro came to be seen as more trouble than they were worth to the Mob. In different ways they were drawing too much attention to themselves, Rosenthal with his high profile fights with the casino regulators, and Spilotro with his out of control crime that brought escalating countermeasures from law enforcement. The Mob just wanted to collect their skim from the casinos and not have anybody rock the boat.

So they took out Spilotro—something like in the movie, but the details are changed—and attempted to take out Rosenthal with a car bomb. (It’s not a hundred percent certain that was a Mob hit, but it’s very likely. There are a few other lesser suspects, like friends of Geri.) Presumably they would have finished the job on Rosenthal, but then the whole thing blew up (so to speak) and a lot of even the higher echelon guys in the Mob were convicted of crimes related to their activities in connection with Las Vegas casinos.

As a matter of fact, Rosenthal died fairly recently of natural causes. Late in his life he had some involvement with one or more offshore bookmakers, and I think lent his name to one of those sham tout outfits that sells sports picks to suckers. The offshore sportsbetting world is something I was intimately involved in for over a decade, at pretty much the same time he was involved in it. It wouldn’t have been far-fetched for our paths to cross, but they never did. I’m sure I knew people who knew him, or knew people who knew people who knew him, and without knowing it I may well have played at a sportsbook he was affiliated with, but I never met him or talked to him or anything.

One of the things that reading this book brings home to me is that there is more myth than reality to the notion of honor in the Mob. You know, the idea that they’re hard guys living a hard life, but that they’re also very principled folks who keep their word and are loyal to their own and all that. Really, though, they seem like a bunch of psychopaths who will break their “code,” double cross each other, wantonly victimize those who’ve never crossed them, etc. any time they perceive it as being in their self-interest. Chazz Palminteri in A Bronx Tale they ain’t.

Furthermore, the awareness of how dangerous they are and how quick they are to torture and kill and such seems to have surprisingly little deterrent effect on how they behave toward each other. They routinely steal from each other and take what you’d think would be incredibly reckless risks.

Crime at that level apparently isn’t just morally reprehensible, it’s also a very unpromising life even if you totally lack a conscience and care only about material success and your own survival. Even if you’re lucky enough to not spend most of your life in prison, you may well end up with your head in a vise or buried alive. But I guess it’s one of those things where everybody thinks they’re so smart and so tough that they’ll be the exception who makes it to the top and stays there forever.

Casino is definitely an interesting read. It’s not a world I want to spend a lot of time in, even vicariously, but in occasional small doses I can handle it.

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