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The End of the Game


In golf, his skill level lagged so far behind, and still he wanted so badly to compete, that he was given an advantage. He could put a tee under his ball -- wherever it was. "We were playing for $40,000," recalls Reese. "It was the thirteenth hole, a dogleg par four with a fast-running creek about a hundred yards from the green. Stuey hit his ball in the water, and I thought he was just dead. Then he reaches into his bag and takes out a foot-long tee. He took his shoes and socks off and got into the creek."

For the most part, Stuey seems to have been in a state of near-constant joy in Las Vegas. Stuey loved these gamblers who, like him, intended to make a killing but hardly seemed interested in a living. It was as if Las Vegas in the eighties was, finally, the place little Stuey was meant to be, they were all meant to be, people who'd dropped out of other lives or, like Stuey, long been preparing for this one. "It was so exciting," says Reese. "It was so much fun." Stuey would never in his life own a credit card, never operate a computer. He walked around with thousands of dollars in his tiny pockets and came home to find the lights turned off, having forgotten to pay an electric bill. (How would he remember? He rarely opened the mail.) "He was like a guy coming out of the jungle," said Jack Binion, former owner of Binion's Horseshoe Casino.

Games lasted for days on end, and Stuey would simply stay at the table, sometimes snorting a bit of cocaine to stay alert, though one time Stuey fell asleep, his dainty chin plowing through his chips, and had to be carried, in his chair, to his hotel room three blocks away. All his group owed, and staked, one another. Nobody recorded the debts; everyone simply remembered them, squaring them in cash, of course, and always these guys, who'd be the greatest names in the gambling history, were in the biggest action possible.

"One time we were just playing and playing," Appleman recalled, "and one guy said, 'What's going on in the rest of the world?' Someone else said, 'Who cares? This is Heaven right here.' "

By the mid-eighties, Stuey had won millions of dollars -- perhaps $10 million. "I saw him win a million dollars a couple times," says poker-playing friend Mike Sexton. People remembered Stuey's victories because, always, they led to grand celebrations. Once, after winning $800,000 in poker, he hired a girl. He gave her $30,000, says Arifoglu, adding, "It was just sex for one night, but he was happy he'd won." (Stuey was separated at the time.)

Truth was, though, Stuey had started to go in and out of money. "When there wasn't big action," Reese explained, "Stuey would try to create it, because that's what he craved. And the only way he could create it sometimes was to take a disadvantage. Then he'd lose his money. He did that a lot."

One way to take a disadvantage was to bet on sports. "It's stupid to bet sports," Stuey knew, "because it's all dumb luck." Still, one Thanksgiving weekend, he lost $1 million betting football, some of it to Tony "the Ant" Spilotro. Stuey was tickled to call Spilotro his friend; it was another matter to owe him money. Spilotro would be arrested for killing twenty people, and though he'd be acquitted, his reputation for violence would endure, especially since, it was said, he'd squeezed one victim's head in a vise until his eyes popped out. Tartaglia, Stuey's protector, could be of no help here. Stuey had to work the debt off.

Losing depressed Stuey. "If you could measure the joy when you make a big score, as opposed to the depression when you go broke," he once told Price, "the broke is so much bigger." A doctor would later prescribe lithium, an antidepressant, but Stuey's friends thought they knew the true source of his trouble. "Being out of action," Reese said. Depressed, Stuey slept -- for days. Or else, friends said, he binged.

Eventually, Stuey would get reconstructive surgery to fix a drug-battered nostril. Just hours out of the hospital, though, he indulged again, damaging his new nose, according to Madeline's brother.

By the end of the eighties, Stuey and Madeline were through. "The only thing that got between me and Stuey was the drugs," she'd say later. In 1989, Madeline and their daughter moved out of town.

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