There is a popular enduring image that virtually everyone knows; a cigar smoking, Tommy gun wielding old school gangster, one you would very likely encounter in a Las Vegas casino. This man would very likely do unspeakably horrible things to you, given the slightest chance, and also likely say things like; “Eat lead, ya filthy mutt.”
But I realised recently that I really didn’t know much about the actual connections between the mafia and casinos. I mean, in the modern world there really isn’t much chance of an online casino being run by the mafia, so it isn’t a concern that enters my mind. But, what actually created that famous image of the casino dwelling mafia man?
The Mafia Created Las Vegas
I have to say that I was genuinely startled to learn that Las Vegas, viva and all that business, was literally built by the mafia. Or, at least it was given the initial bit of financing that lead to Las Vegas being what it is today.
Prior to World War 2, Las Vegas was nothing more than a dusty, halfway point for travellers to stop when going somewhere more inviting. There wasn’t much to see, very little to do, and anyone living out there was likely best friends with a rock, or horse. Gambling was legalised in Nevada in 1931, which triggered a wave of the many dusty Vegas establishments bringing in some slot machines, but the area still largely remained unnoticed. The regular visitors mostly consisted of soldiers from the nearby military base, which didn’t exactly set the town on fire.
It was none other than the mafia, still in existence after Capone had been jailed, who saw the potential of Las Vegas. Yes, the mafia, who you have likely seen many movies about, portrayed as a mad, aggressive lunatics who smash in heads with a baseball bat. And, the mafia very likely were people who did exactly such heinous things. But, say what you will about them, they made that initial big investment into Las Vegas.
Members of the mafia realised that if you wanted a good time in the United States, the kind of good time that involved great deals of alcohol and gambling, you pretty much had to travel to Cuba. Yes, there was gambling to be had in Vegas, but only if you were willing to deal with drunken soldiers. Drunken soldiers who were mostly concerned with seeing as many boobs as possible before having to return to base… There was, in other words, not much in Vegas drawing your average person.
Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, names you have also likely heard, were the masterminds behind The Flamingo. Lansky first, but in a crafty effort to avoid responsibility if the Flamingo failed, he enlisted the help of Siegel. Ah, the mafia; getting things done by avoiding taking a bullet in the head for potential failure.
A Bullet In The Head For Failure
Of course, as already mentioned, this was a mafia project, and someone had to get shot in the head at some point. There were many rumours about Siegel skimming money off the Flamingo funds, and upon initial opening, the Flamingo was not the explosive success imagined. Blame fell on Siegel, and he managed to get himself “whacked.” Responsibility again fell to Meyer.
Meyer, it turns out, knew what he was doing. He spread work of the Flamingo far and wide, boasting about the amazing luxury and impressive splendour, something no one had ever seen anything before. And, amongst this luxury, all the legal gambling you could hope for. It went down well.
Mafia Out, Howard Hughes In
Throughout the 40s and 50s the mafia saw enormous success in Vegas, growing, expanding, erecting more resorts, and otherwise doing what the mafia did best; rolling money. There is a long, interesting story about how mafia families shared power across Vegas, but there is not enough room in this blog to go into the details.
In the 1960s the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes made his own move on Vegas, and offered the mafia families their first real competition. Mafia owned businesses took major strain, and many of their locations were forced to close. There is, again, a great deal more t the story, but ultimately Hughes himself decided to pull out, and more or less returned Vegas to the mafia.
In the 1980s, however, the mafia was cleaned from Vegas once and for all, in an enormous police operation that virtually changed the face of Vegas from one run by crooks, to one that was legitimate.
Let us never forget, however, that much of the face of Vegas looks the way it does thanks to a few crooks, a few bullets in brains, a great deal of investment and time. Thankfully, as already said, the mafia would have a very difficult time trying to capture the internet, so rest assured online casinos are mafia free.