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The Connection Between The Mafia and Gambling

mafia man playing pokerYou do not need to look far to find some sort of connection between gambling and the Mafia. After all, it is the basis of the plot of The Godfather movie franchise, starring Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Of course, movies don’t always depict reality, and it is likely that some people took those films as being a fabrication. In reality though, the Mafia does have a lot more to do with gambling than one might initially expect.

Perhaps the connection to the Mafia is another reason why gambling is frequently connected with crime in general. Countless stories have been told of gangs that partake in gambling as a way of building up their money, fixing games on the way so that they can never lose. Naturally, when you visit a casino yourself, you are not usually thinking about what sort of connections it may have had or still have to the Mafia. You are usually more interested in discovering the games and betting opportunities within.

Why is gambling associated so much with the Mafia? Here we take a look at some of the historical mobsters and their actions that have linked these two together.

The Bugs and Meyer Mob

bugsy siegel

Bugsy Siegel – KirkAndreas, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bugs and Meyer Mob was a Jewish-American street gang in Manhattan, New York City. The gang was formed and headed by two mobsters – Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky – during their teenage years. The gang was formed shortly after the start of Prohibition – the nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages. While many believe that Prohibition didn’t work, it did lead to a rise in underground establishments being set up for drinking purposes.

At the same time, it led to Lansky and his friends organising a protective society in order to defend against the Italian and Irish gangs of Manhattan. Lansky formed up with his younger brother Jacob, and they were joined by Meyer “Mike” Wassell, Samuel “Red” Levine, Irving “Tabbo” Sandler and various others. Siegel came on board at a later time, although the accounts of his first meeting with Lansky are quite varied. In the end, Lansky was considered as the brains in the gang, while Siegel was the brawn. Siegel was the youngest of the gang, but he was known in his own neighbourhood as “chaye” (Yiddish for “untamed” or “animal”). This was due to his short temper and being outright crazy at times.

Together, the gang handled protection, truck hijacking, murder and illegal gambling within the Manhattan area. Working alongside Charles “Lucky” Luciano and his right-hand man Frank Costello, the Bugs and Meyer mob was also the enforcers of Costello in both New York and Louisiana.

Once the ban on alcohol was finally lifted in 1933, Lansky needed something else to set his sights on. That is when he turned his attention to the gambling world, which was still outlawed in most of the USA. As a maths whiz kid, Lansky’s love of gambling (and winning) saw him develop a gambling empire that stretched around the world. It is thought that in the end, he ended up owning percentages in casinos based in Las Vegas, Cuba, the Bahamas and London. Even though, he operated for 50 years in the organised crime world, Lansky was never once found guilty of anything more than illegal gambling. This has made him known around the globe as one of the most financially successful gangsters in US history.

With the money that the Mafia made from all its dirty work, Bugs Siegel ended up opening the Flamingo Hotel and Casino in 1946. Unfortunately, he was better suited to doing the dirty work instead of being a businessman. The project went well over budget and it leaked money left and right. The Flamingo shut its doors just one year later, with Siegel being shot and killed a few months afterwards.

Tony “The Hat” Cornero

tony top hat cornero

Tony “Top Hat” Cornero

You don’t need to look much farther than Tony “The Hat” Cornero for someone who fits into the role of The Godfather perfectly. Based in Las Vegas, Cornero was known as a bootlegger and gambling entrepreneur from the 1920s through to the 1950s. During his career, he both bootlegged liquor into Los Angeles and ran legal gambling ships in international waters and legally operated casinos in Nevada.

He was responsible for opening The Meadows, one of the very first casinos and hotel complexes in Las Vegas. Yet, the Depression was a huge factor in this circumstance, and Cornero went back to LA where he took his novel approach to avoiding the no gambling laws by purchasing cruise liners. These were then designed as casino ships and they were moored just off the coast. The state attorney general then shut them down, leading to Cornero taking his trade back to the area of Los Angeles.

Even though Cornero was not part of any mobster family, he was definitely involved with such. One attempt was made on his life in 1948, but he was not so lucky second time round in 1955. At that time, Cornero was in the middle of the construction of a new casino project in Vegas – The Stardust Hotel. He ran out of money during the construction, so turned to his mob investors for an extra $800,000 in funds. Later on that same day, he died while playing craps at the Desert Inn Casino.

Rumours abounded that someone had poisoned his drink, and those rumours gained even more credence when his body was removed from the casino floor before anyone contacted the coroner or sheriff. His drinking glass was also taken and washed before deputies had a chance to examine it.

The Gambino Family

carlo gambino

Carlo Gambino 1930’s – New York Police Department, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As one of ‘The Five Families’ of the American Mafia, the Gambino Family dominated organised crime throughout the United States, starting in 1910. Over the years after then, they have adapted with the times. Bootlegging during the ‘20s has turned into the online sports betting of the 2010s. However, the Gambino family has had quite the issue with its involvement in illegal gambling, even right up into 2013.

The FBI proceeded forward with arresting 20 mob members of the family for being involved with illegal online sports betting websites. Basically, the family had taken the decision to set up various websites based in Costa Rica with the aim of processing online sports bets placed in the United States. This would thereby get around the UIGEA law of the US, and the FBI investigation into the operation discovered that the turnover from it amounted to $1.7 million between October 2010 and June 2011.

Even more recently, in July 2019, Thomas Gambino was one of 15 suspected members of the Inzerillo crime family arrested in coordinated raids taking place in Sicily and the United States. According to the Italian police force, Gambino was supposedly caught on video meeting with various members of the Inzerillo clan on the coast of Palermo one year prior. Furthermore, the Gambino family capo Andrew Campos and nine others were arrested in a federal mob crackdown in the Bronx and Westchester County. Allegations of threats of violence to extort money were thrown at them.

Frank Rosenthal

casino filmIf you have ever seen the Martin Scorsese film featuring Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone, then you may be intrigued to find that it was inspired by the real-life story of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. He was one of the most interesting characters in Las Vegas, having started his career by skipping school to watch sports on Chicago’s West Side. Because he had a keen eye for great odds, he obtained a job with the Chicago syndicate. However, beyond this, he soon ended up running the largest illegal bookmaking office for the Mafia.

While in Las Vegas, Rosenthal secretly ran the aforementioned Stardust started by Cornero, as well as establishments like The Fremont, The Marina and others. All of these were owned by the Chicago syndicate, and Rosenthal was also responsible for opening up the very first Vegas sports betting establishment within The Stardust. He also introduced female dealers for the blackjack tables, and this doubled the casino’s profits in less than one year.

However, even though he had a variety of innovative ideas, mob bosses were not happy with such. Rosenthal only just managed to survive an attempt on his life in 1982. A bomb was attached to the petrol tank of his car and it detonated upon the vehicle being started up. Rosenthal likely only survived due to a manufacturing device unique to his particular car model. A stout metal plate had been placed underneath the driver’s seat, and this shielded Rosenthal’s body from most of the blast impact. There is a potential that Milwaukee mob boss Frank Balistrieri was partially responsible for the attempt on his life, although nothing was ever proven.

Lefty made an attempt to go straight and acquire a licence so that he could legally run casinos. In 1988, he was ‘black booked’ meaning that he was unable to enter any Nevada casino for life. An apparent heart attack finished him off in 2008 at the age of 79.

Why Gambling is so Connected with the Mafia

retro mafia graphic forget about itHow exactly does the Mafia make its money? While the prime route for this income is generally via the drugs trade these days, gambling is only second in line. It remains a huge moneymaker for mobsters in various locations. High-stakes poker games that take place in the backroom of social clubs are frequently seen as the way for these mobsters to earn their cash. However, poker is only a way to get gamblers through the door. Once gamblers are inside the gambling establishments, mobsters tend to push them towards the video gaming slot machines, which is where they earn their real money.

At the same time, sports betting is another avenue for income. You only need to look towards the Winnipeg bus terminal arrest that took place in 2012 for this. At the time, $1.3 million in cash was found in the backpack of Erwin Speckert when he boarded a bus that was going from Winnipeg to Vancouver. While the source of that money was never officially revealed, the court proceedings after his arrest confirmed that it was money being couriered west by the Platinum online sportsbook. The Platinum sportsbook boss was then jailed for two years and ordered to pay a $3 million fine.

During the court case, it was revealed that computer servers based in Costa Rica were responsible for the illegal sports betting setup. Through toll-free phone lines and a downloadable phone app, thousands of bettors were able to place bets at the Platinum site. In a few years, it managed to gross around $103 million.

Going hand-in-hand with gambling, loansharking is often considered big business for the Mafia. As an age-old practice, this sees mobsters lend cash to people on the street with exponential interest rates attached. Collections are enforced by threats and violence, which makes borrowing from these mobsters a very dangerous route to take.

Of course, all of this combined makes those connected with the Mafia very wealthy. And that is just the start of how they make their money. When you also consider that not all of them are caught out for engaging in gang behaviour, it’s quite natural to wonder exactly how much money is out there that does not legally belong to these people.

In 1970 though, the US government passed what was known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisation (RICO) Act. This changed the way that the authorities were able to combat any organised crime. Essentially, they could now prosecute any related crimes, such as the aforementioned loansharking, harassment, assault and illegal gambling, among others. To convict a defendant under RICO, the government needs to prove that the person or people in question engaged in two or more instances of racketeering activity.

While the Mafia still exists today, their influence in Las Vegas, New York and so on has been dramatically reduced, thanks to FBI efforts against organised crime.  How much does the Mafia have to do with gambling today? Well, it is very hard to know simply because the idea is for you not to know.

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