from the archives

If You’re a Stiff or a Welsher, Don’t Fly to Vegas

“Give us action is all we ask. If you wanna play, play. If you don’t, just go as a tourist …”

Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald
Photo: Marcus McDonald

This article was featured in Reread: New York Hustlers, a newsletter miniseries that resurfaces classic tales of scammers, grifters, and strivers from the New York archives. To read more stories like this, sign up here.

Sy Geller, a natty, fast-moving New Yorker of 58, his wrists and fingers agleam with gold adornments, plays a highly specialized role in the Nevada gambling industry. He is a junketeer, an indispensable adjunct to one of the most artful devices ever contrived for relieving gamblers of their money.

From his Manhattan headquarters, Geller distributes every month, in behalf of Las Vegas’s Flamingo Hilton Hotel, 500 puce-bordered cards reading:

We would be most honored if you would join us at a private V.I.P. party …

The dates of departure and return by chartered jet cover four days.

Please R.S.V.P. within ten days of the receipt of invitation. For men only. Non-transferable.

No word hints at the true nature of the excursion.

If you require additional information please contact Sy Geller, (212) 594-8223.

Callers are assured that they need pay nothing whatever for the round-trip flight, deluxe accommodations at “the Fabulous Flamingo,” entertainment in its “Casino Lounge where entertainment is a byword,” food and drink galore in any of its three restaurants, including the “Candlelight Room, a gourmet delight in luxurious atmosphere.”

Nothing to pay? There is a slight qualification. The prospective guest must hand over before takeoff $2,500 “front money,” in the form of cash or cashier’s check. Upon arrival he can then draw chips against this deposit. “Give us action is all we ask,” explains Geller, no man to mince words. “If you wanna play, play. If you don’t, just go as a tourist and pay for your room and food.”

Since the “vigorish” — the odds favoring the house — range from 1.41 per cent for craps up to 25 per cent for keno, many guests will drop not only their original $2,500 stake but whatever additional chips the casino may care to lend them. The casino always stands ready to accept a “marker” up to the limit of the player’s ability to pay as verified through his banks, a credit agency, or Vegas’s Central Credit, which keeps a file of thousands of personal gambling histories. Geller himself declines to assume any responsibility for the solvency of his passengers, leaving it entirely up to the Flamingo. “I wouldn’t vouch for my own father,” he says.

Geller receives a set monthly payment irrespective of the number of customers he delivers, unlike the majority of his 200-odd fellow junketeers scattered around the country (of which New York City has by far the heaviest concentration), who get $50 to $75 a head. Geller’s view of his charges mingles tolerant amusement with faint contempt. The one-time director of a Catskills children’s camp, he says, “I now run a children’s camp for adults.” Once an action player himself, he renounced gambling in 1959 after he took up junketeering. The date places him among the oldest practitioners in the business, for in that year Morris Lansburgh, then secretary-treasurer of the Flamingo as well as a co-owner of Miami Beach’s Eden Roc Hotel, introduced the junket system. No shepherd then herded the customers en route. Geller eventually assumed that function. “Ten months of the year I had no children’s camp to run,” he recalls. “I needed occupational therapy.”

In 1972 a federal grand jury charged Lansburgh and several other former Flamingo associates with conspiring to underreport (by skimming casino profits, as the practice is commonly termed) almost $32 million between the years 1960 and 1967 (when the Los Angeles billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian, bought the hotel). The co-defendants included the reputed “Chairman of the Board” of national organized crime, 72-year-old Meyer Lansky. Lansburgh and a former Flamingo president, Samuel Cohen, pleaded guilty. Each was fined $20,000 and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. Nearly all the other defendants got off with light sentences or none. Meyer Lansky has yet to stand trial.

The Flamingo, first of the grandiose Vegas hotel casinos, was built in 1946 under the direction of Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, a veteran of New York’s “Murder, Inc.,” with the backing of Lansky and the national syndicate. Siegel’s own handsome head was blown apart not long after the opening. Before the Hilton corporation acquired the Flamingo from Kerkorian, the hotel had passed through many hands, few of them clean.

On a wall of the executive offices, beyond public view, a playful Hiltonian has hung a photograph of Bugsy, looking, in his wide-brimmed fedora, classically gangsterish. The caption identifies him as “Our Founder.”

On a recent morning, Sy Geller, the glass of sporty fashion in a baby blue turtleneck under a navy blue Eisenhower jacket, waited behind a counter at Kennedy airport for his monthly batch of junket riders to check in. The turnout was a trifle light — only 107 passengers, five of them first-timers. Until recently there were no women. “Who needs them?” says Geller. “You never get any real action play out of ’em. They just cramp the old man’s style.” If, however, a couple insisted on spending the four days in Vegas together, Geller would book the wife or girlfriend separately on a scheduled flight for an all­-inclusive bargain rate of $275. But except for the stewardesses, the Flamingo’s chartered plane had remained a strictly male preserve. Today, protocol has changed. Women may now accompany their men for an all-inclusive $300.

By 11 a.m. the last passenger had arrived and paid his front money. Half an hour later Geller led the way into the plane. Before fastening his seat belt a squat, dark-jowled man stepped up to him, wanting to know if his credit line, established at $5,000 during his last junket two years before, still applied.

“No way,” Geller told him. “A guy’s credit picture can change completely in two years. He can go broke. They’ll have to run a new credit check on you.” A rangy youth in a scarlet blazer and violently clashing tartan slacks was grinning proudly. “I never put up no front money,” he confided to his seat mate. “They know me.” Across the aisle a tiny, frail octogenarian was reminiscing glumly. “The food used to be wonderful when the gangsters ran Vegas. They’re cutting too many corners nowadays.” Then he brightened. “I go maybe four, five times a year. Always lose, of course, but it relaxes me. Takes me out of my troubles.”

No sooner airborne than one stewardess rolled out the liquor cart while another distributed souvenir decks of cards. Some passengers fell at once to playing gin rummy. The flight proceeded boisterously as the all-male V.I.P. party consumed gallons of alcohol, sang, kidded the stewardesses, and indulged in glowing previsions of the good fortune beckoning to them.

The Flamingo boasts six craps layouts, a baccarat table, sixteen black­jack tables, two roulette wheels, a wheel of fortune, a keno lounge, and 300 slot machines; and the junket guest is expected to devote a good many hours of his sojourn to his preferred games, staking at least $20 on a throw of the dice or the turn of a card. What if he doesn’t? What if he accepts the Flamingo’s free bounty without risking a penny? It is possible to convert all the chips drawn against the front money back into cash bit by bit and depart financially intact. Another dodge, practiced for appearance’ sake but readily spotted by any experienced dealer, calls for two accomplices. Playing, say, roulette, one bets consistently on  red, the other on black. They later split the payoff, thus neither winning nor losing, and meanwhile luxuriating in the free diversions.

Such parasites, known to the trade as “stiffs,” leave the casino management quivering with righteous indignation, but few junketeers possess the psychological acumen to distinguish them at the outset from the genuine gamblers.

Geller estimates that the average plane­load will carry a dozen or more stiffs. “We die with them,” he says. Not so very long ago, when hoodlums dominated Vegas somewhat more obviously than at present and crude methods of discipline prevailed, a stiff courted mayhem. But the Strip wears a more dignified face today, and the worst risks he runs are harsh looks, stern reproval, and his name on the casino’s “D.N.I.” (Do Not Invite) list.

In contrast to the ebullient spirits that enlivened the westward flight, gloom prevailed on the return trip. Indigestion, hangovers, fatigue, and a guilty conscience compounded the pain of gambling losses. A few players, to be sure, had broken even and some had even won respectable sums, but the majority had lost thousands.

The kind of junket rider the Flamingo appreciates wagers at least $1,000 a day. According to Geller, a 707 plane­load will normally  leave behind about a quarter of a million dollars. During a recent Flamingo junket, for example, the action of the 149 guests ranged between $4,000 and $7,000 each in the four days. The front money totaled almost $130,000, of which only $15,000 was won back. The markers came to $300,000 in round numbers, more than $200,000 of it lost by the borrowers. The hotel’s hospitality cost it nearly $60,000, leaving a gross profit of approximately $255,000.

The junketeer’s chores do not end with the junket. There remain the markers to be collected. During the Flamingo junket fifteen players signed markers totaling $40,000. Geller contends that less than 2 per cent of his junket passengers will welsh and that the habitual gambler always pays up. “You know why? Because he’s a degenerate, he’s sick, just like an alcoholic who needs his bottle, and he knows if he don’ t pay they’re not gonna let him play anymore.”

Collections may nevertheless require time and patience. This explains Geller’s reluctance to make social or business engagements more than an hour in advance. During the weeks following a junket he feels he must stick close to his telephone. “My motto is ‘Go pick up the money.’ Suppose a guy calls and says he wants to pay off the ten grand he owes. You don’t tell him, ‘Let’s do it Monday.’ He may spend it by then. He may die over the weekend. Go pick up the money!”

Not all collectors or collection agencies retained by the casinos exercise Geller’s restraint. A number have been known to harass debtors and their families with threatening middle-of-the­-night phone calls, to blackmail them, or to inflict physical punishment.

For some of the men who run junkets the occupational hazards have been severe. In recent years one of the best­ known barely survived a savage beating; another escaped a volley of bullets and a later attempt to booby-trap his car; and eleven were strangled, bludgeoned, shot, or fell to their deaths. Since junketeers frequently carry wads of cash collected from casino debtors who prefer not to write checks, robbery may have been the motive in several cases, but in most of them both state and government investigators suspected the efforts of organized crime to control the junket business. So far there have been few arrests and no trials.

Julius (Big Julie) Weintraub, a gigantic ex-professional basketball player whose cavemanly features seem to have been chopped out of rock with a dull chisel, runs a jewelry store with his brother Charles on 47th Street west of Fifth Avenue — Manhattan’s diamond center — as well as one of the longest­ established and most successful junket operations. Morris Lansburgh may have invented junkets, but some old Vegas hands credit Big Julie with personally bringing in the first. The year was 1959. Then as now he represented the Dunes Hotel. On a March night nine years later, as Big Julie stepped through the door of his New York apartment building, unknown thugs, wielding baseball bats, battered him senseless, broke both his legs and left him near death. To this day his informal account of the assault remains sparse. Without specifying the amount stolen, he claims to have been the victim of an ordinary mugging. According to High Roller, a now defunct newsletter published for gamblers by a flamboyant publisher, Lyle Stuart, the junketeer’s assailants made off with his briefcase containing $100,000 in cash.

On the evening of November 23, 1969, Bernard Dunn, a Chicago horse-race handicapper and an arranger of junkets for the highest of high local rollers, left his office on the second floor of a South State building carrying almost $25,000 in cash. A moment later he lay at the bottom of the elevator shaft, bleeding from his nose, ears, and mouth. He died the next day, unable or unwilling to tell what had happened to him. But few of the bookies, handicappers, or gamblers Dunn dealt with believed he had fallen down the shaft accidentally. No robbery had occurred. The cash was recovered near the body. Execution by mobsters appeared to be the likeliest explanation. As the then chairman of Nevada’s State Gaming Control Board, Frank Johnson, declared after several crimes involving junketeers as victims or offenders, “Some junkets are mob controlled, without qualification.

In his testimony in July, 1971, before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Vincent (The Fat Man) Teresa, a top-ranking New England Mafioso-turned-informer, drew a vivid picture of international junketeering as exploited by the Esquire Sportsmen’s Club, a syndicate-controlled company. “With the permission of our bosses, Raymond Patriarca [now serving a five-year sentence in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta for conspiracy to murder] and the rest,” Teresa explained under examination by Republican Senator Edward J. Gurney of Florida, “we opened an office to take people who wanted to gamble in casinos in foreign countries. For example, we made arrangements in London at George Raft’s Colony Club to bring twenty people to gamble … Naturally, most of them lost money in the casinos, and we got 15 per cent of their losses.

“They paid very little for the junkets, since they got most of their fee back in chips, but the chips were not negotiable — they had to gamble and they usually gambled for more than they expected they would. We didn’t want anyone on the junkets who wasn’t going to gamble. We didn’t want tourists, or ‘sun worshippers,’ as we called them.”

“How did you get rid of them?” Senator Gurney asked.

“We slipped them a couple of Mickeys and made them feel sick enough to go and hide in their rooms …

“In February, 1968, we were in a  junket to London. We were having a party at the Mayfair Hotel, a big cocktail party with 20 or 30 people. A crap game started, and out of a clear blue sky, Joe Schwartz walked in and asked if he could join the party. Joe Schwartz is a building contractor from Baltimore … The game was rigged and we beat him $17,000 in a half-hour.”

One junket to Haiti started from Miami’s Hilton Plaza Hotel, where the customers spent the first two or three nights. “… We arranged a crap game in the suite … Stewart Harrison [a Baltimore insurance agent], who was feeling no pain, got into the game and said he was going to bet against himself. So we switched dice. He bet against himself and lost $12,200 in twenty minutes. He was very depressed and was going to jump out the window. We stopped him … I told him I would get him even in a couple of weeks.”

“Why were you so considerate about Harrison that you didn’t want him to jump out the window?” Senator Gurney wanted to know.

“He didn’t pay us yet. We would let him go then.”

Not long before Teresa began divulging his trade secrets, F.B.I. agents in Buffalo, New York, were investigating what one of them termed “a flying fleece.” It consisted of junkets from Buffalo to Vegas organized by Joseph (Lead Pipe) Todaro, the regional agent for Trans Global Explorers, a New York City travel bureau. Among his regular junket passengers were three upstate New Yorkers — Sam Minkoff, a former real-estate salesman, and Angelo Vaccaro and Dominic Chirico, who listed themselves as employees of an auto repair shop. Vaccaro had once been convicted of burglary; Minkoff had a minor police record that included two traffic violations and disorderly conduct when police disrupted a crap game during an Elks Club outing. Chirico belonged to the local Cosa Nostra family of Frank Valenti, having served as his driver, as a loan shark, and as an “enforcer.” In 1962 he drew two concurrent eighteen-­month penitentiary sentences for counterfeiting.

What instigated the F.B.I. investigation were the complaints of two high­rolling businessmen, Steven Silverstein and Floyd Raeon, that they had been cheated at cards during three flights to Vegas organized by Todaro. The games played were of two kinds, neither widely known — “Skin” and “Banker and Broker.” In Skin you bet that your opponent will not match the card dealt to you before you do; if you draw, say, a queen, and your opponent draws one of the three queens remaining in the deck before you do, you lose, and vice versa. In Banker and Broker the bet­tor’s simple object is to draw a card of higher value than his opponent’s. Floyd Raeon claimed that with Chirico as a partner, playing against Vaccaro and Minkoff, he dropped $8,000, and Silverstein put his total loss at $30,000. In January, 1971, a federal grand jury indicted the New York foursome on charges of conspiring to gamble aboard interstate flights and by so doing violating the laws of the nine states over which they flew — the first in-flight prosecution ever pressed. The government’s star witness was businessman Silverstein. But the prosecution lost its case on technical grounds. The defense successfully argued that the government had no jurisdiction, after all, and that the state gambling laws did not apply to airborne gambling. The matter of cheating at cards proved extraneous, since such cheating violates no federal law. All four defendants went free.

At about eleven o’clock of an autumn evening, eighteen months later, Dominic Chirico left his girlfriend’s apartment in Rochester. As he approached his car, a Ford station wagon drew up alongside, the barrel of a twenty-gauge shotgun protruding from a window. The blast, fired at a range of barely three feet, killed him instantly. The occupants of the station wagon were never identified.

Further indications of Mafia involvement with junketeering had come to light meantime in St. Louis, when Primo Frank (Larry) Caudera, a 49-year-old junket organizer and collector for the Flamingo, went to the local F.B.I. He told the agents that he handled six trips a year for which the Flamingo paid him $22,000 plus a commission on every debt he collected. Following each of these trips the mob had obliged him to hand over $1,000. They claimed he was cutting into the junkets they themselves ran to the Dunes and the International. Before his last flight on September 22 with 118 customers aboard, the extortioners had instructed him to demand $5,000 per junket thereafter from the Flamingo. Upon his return to St. Louis four days later he assured them that he had complied, but that the hotel had refused to pay more. No matter what it might pay him, the mobsters had then insisted, they wanted $3,000 a junket. Caudera named as his tormentors three local Mafia captains — John Vitale, James Giamanco, and Anthony (Tony G.) Giordano, and Giordano’s bodyguard, Paul Leisure.

On October 2, 1971, Caudera’s body was removed from the trunk compartment of a Cadillac. He had been blind­folded, then shot six times, one slug passing through the blindfold and emerging from the back of his head. The police arrested Vitale, Giamanco, and Giordano. The three were charged with homicide and released under $10,000 bonds. Today, almost three years later, they have yet to  face trial.

Nevada’s economic health depends chiefly on gambling. During the fiscal year 1972–73, gambling provided $62.2-million of its tax revenue, or more than half the total. It also provided employment for about 65,000 Nevadans, al­most a fourth of the work force. Thus the state is understandably reluctant to inhibit a system which every year entices hundreds of thousands of gamblers to the casinos, where they leave many millions of taxable dollars. Ac­cording to a joint declaration of policy by the Gaming Commission and Gaming Control Board, “… the operation of junkets in connection with gaming is economically beneficial to the state of Nevada and its citizens, and constitutes activity permitted under the laws of the state of Nevada.” The present chairman of the Gaming Control Board, Philip Hannifin, has put it more succinctly: “We have no intention of banning them.”

At the same time, Nevada’s image is of paramount concern to the gaming authorities, and the series of felonies involving junketeering and organized crime has scarcely embellished that image. As a result dozens of new regulations have gone into effect. They require the casinos to submit quarterly reports enumerating the junkets they have sponsored, the fingerprints and personal histories of the junketeers, the amount of credit extended, the identity of any collection agencies used.

Last May the Gaming Control Board filed a complaint with the Gaming Commission against the Dunes Hotel. It counted 43 junkets organized since the preceding January, which brought to the hotel 4,575 customers. Thirty-eight junket representatives were cited, among them Hawaii’s David Lum and New York’s Big Julie Weintraub. None of them, the board charged, had been properly registered under the new regulations. The commission imposed a fine of $25,000.

Except for a raid on Sy Geller’s office by I.R.S. agents investigating Lansburgh, Lansky, and others, and a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury (Geller was one of the few witnesses who did not take the Fifth), no very grievous contretemps has beset the New York junketeer during his fifteen years in the business. In that period, however, he has acquired considerable cynicism concerning his steady customers. “Take Maxie Goldbloom,” he says, describing a typical specimen under a pseudonym. “At home he’s a nothing. Before he drives to his office, his wife yells at him, ‘Maxie, don’t forget to put out the garbage.’

“Maxie’s a hot shot in the garment district. He employs four, five hundred people. He’s successful, he’s rich, and he just loves to gamble. Grade-A junket material. So he’s always calling me. Can I take him next trip? After five or six tries — because we’re usually loaded solid — I book him.

“The great day arrives. The old lady accompanies him to J.F.K. He hugs her good-by, checks in with his front money, all smiles, waits quietly to board the plane, politely takes his assigned seat. Then as soon as the plane takes off he goes ape. He’s grabbing at the stewardesses, he’s boozing like it’s his last drink.

“When our Vegas limo deposits him at the hotel, he lets a bellboy take his luggage to his room. Maxie, he heads straight for a crap table. He’s betting two, three hundred bucks a throw. He tips the cocktail waitress $5. Before dinner he slips the maître d’ $50 for a good table. The waiter can expect at least $20. He’s spending money like it’s going out of style.

“Now he wants a girl to dine with him, fool around a little after, you know. Her charge is a hundred bucks. He gives her $300.

“Comes the flight back. Maxie is a changed man. He don’t budge from his seat. He leaves the stewardesses alone. He’s saying to himself, ‘What the hell did I need this trip for? I’m out $12,000. My daughter wanted an $80 bike. I wouldn’t spend more than $50. My God, what if she’s hurt herself riding the cheap contraption? So I saved 30 bucks. I got to be insane. Maybe the plane will crash. Then I won’t have to pay my markers.’

“At the terminal, waiting for his luggage, he asks the guy next to him, ‘Got change for a dollar so I can tip the porter?’ He’s back to reality, back from Vegas, the adult Disneyland. ‘Maxie,’ his wife tells him when he leaves for work next morning, ‘put out the garbage.’ But driving along he begins to feel better. ‘Gotta call Sy,’ he promises himself, ‘gotta make that next junket.’”

For Sy Geller and his colleagues in other major cities, the junket cycle repeats itself on the average of once a month. Recently, having forwarded to the Flamingo the markers collected from his last junket, Geller was assessing the quality of the approaching one. As he scanned the list, a smile of gratification suffused his rakish features. Among the 132 junket riders he had signed up, he recognized eleven “degenerate gamblers.”

If You’re a Stiff or a Welsher, Don’t Fly to Vegas