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The End of the Game


Romano must have been pleased, too, because everyone said the trip had been worthwhile, even though he died four days later in Las Vegas. Stuey, profoundly sad, bought a bronze casket and flew East for the funeral. In New York, as if in farewell to Romano, he visited the few remaining card joints -- most, by then, were giving way to Atlantic City. "I did good, didn't I?" is what he'd tell everybody. "I really showed them."

In the early eighties, "Stuey was Mr. Las Vegas," said Price, who'd relocated to town. Stuey's Vegas routine was like that in New York, just fancier, and also, of course, legit. In the casinos, tourists ran tripping down aisles of slot machines just to shake his hand. He appeared on The Merv Griffin Show, hamming it up with Merv over bundles of cash. To outsiders, Stuey liked to explain his celebrity in terms of buying power. "I'm rich, and I can do anything I want," he told one reporter. When Madeline wanted a house, she recalls, "he told me to go buy a house. The second one I looked at, I just fell in love." It was an English Tudor, for $175,000. To get a $40,000 down payment, the Realtor squeezed in at a poker table at the Dunes. Stuey signed his name and peeled $100 bills off his bankroll. Madeline built a swimming pool and covered the walls in peach-colored suede. Stuey refused to visit the house till it was done. After a couple of months, Madeline said to him, "Do you want to see what you bought?"

He loved the house. All he added were TVs -- six of them -- which he'd run between in his bathrobe, following the ballgames on which he'd bet.

Stuey upgraded his own image, too. Once Romano had encouraged him to dress nice. Now his wife laid out Versace shirts and cuffed pants, altered for his 29-inch waist. He had his hair cut in a pageboy and washed weekly at the Dunes's beauty salon -- and, while there, he got a proper manicure.

Usually interviewers wondered if all this made Stuey happy. The question seemed to confuse him. "Yeah, I get in good moods," he told one, then laughed. "I like to spend money. You could say I'm a young philanthropist."

The truth was, Stuey shared not at all the middle-class sense of money: hard-earned thing that might disappear. In 1981, when he beat the odds -- six to one -- and repeated as World Series no-limit champ, he was asked what he'd do with the booty, $375,000 that year. Reflexively, he muttered, "Lose it." Asked to repeat that for the cameras, he straightened up, smiled and said, "I'm going to put it in the bank and give it to my kid, what else?" Then he laughed uncontrollably.

Really, though, for Stuey money was an entry fee to action. Luckily, he'd run into a bunch of gamblers who felt the same. "We'd lose track of how high the stakes were," says Mickey Appleman, a New Yorker with two master's degrees, whose real love was gambling. "Action was an end to itself." Stuey would play Ping-Pong for $50,000. He'd bet $1,000 on a coin toss. People in his group bet on pool played with broom handles or golf with hammers. "I'm too embarrassed to tell you some of the things I've bet on," Stuey once said, quickly adding, "but I'm not as bad as Doyle." Meaty Chip Reese had once bet a meatier Doyle Brunson $50,000 over who could lose more weight -- the bet to be settled on the meat scale at the Dunes. (Brunson collected.) Once, Stuey beat casino owner Bob Stupak out of $10,000 at poker, then, while waiting to cash in, gave it back by pitching chips against a wall -- closest chip wins -- in about ten minutes. Stupak remembered Stuey's reaction: "Fuck it."

And then there was golf. Stuey may have been from the Lower East Side, where golf was never played, but in Vegas, 20 or 30 guys would hit the golf course every afternoon. A handful played while a wagon train of carts followed along, betting on the match.

Stuey couldn't stand to miss out, so a friend took him to the private Las Vegas Country Club. "Now watch -- this is the most important thing about golf," he said, and putted the ball into the hole. Two hours later, Stuey had lost $80,000 on the putting green.

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