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Best of Mark Pilarski

Gaming Guru

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The ups and downs of the suitcase man

24 February 2006

Dear Mark,
On one episode of the television show CSI, Grissom talks about a guy who goes into a Las Vegas casino and bets one million dollars on one roll of the dice and loses. Is that a true story? Ralph S.

Ground zero for plenty of Las Vegas legendary lore was Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, a favorite amongst folks whose preference was no-frills gambling with some of the best odds in town. One factual account at this grind joint on Freemont Street was that of an adventurous gambler named William Lee Bergstrom from Austin, Texas.

Bergstrom heard that Benny Binion’s latest gimmick was that "the sky’s the limit” when it came to maximum betting amounts at the Horseshoe. Bergstrom called to ask Binion if he would really accept a bet of a million dollars. Binion assured Bergstrom he would book a million-dollar wager, so long as it was his first bet.

So one day in comes Bergstrom with $777,000 stuffed into a suitcase, plopped it down on the craps table (they never bothered to convert the money into chips) and told the dealer to put the entire amount on the don’t pass line. On her third roll, cinco dos, adios, an elderly woman sevened out. Bergstrom was handed an additional $777,000, then walked straight out the casino front door escorted by Benny’s son Ted.

Naturally, no fevered gambler can forget and forgo that kind of action for long, so Bergstrom returns and wins another $590,000 all-or-nothing bet; then he comes back and wins a similar $190,000 wager, then beats Binion’s again for an additional $90,000.

In November of 1984, Bergstrom finally had his $1 million war chest to wager. He calls Binion’s to ask if he could once again bet the whole shebang, and Binion, already down over $600,000 to Bergstrom, backed up his often quoted phrase: “Your biggest bet is your first. After that, let it roll” and said yes.

Bergstrom returns with one million buckaroos and tells a dealer to once again to put the whole million dollars on the don’t pass line. It was the come out roll, meaning, no point had been established, so on the initial roll, Bergstrom had only four ways to win (by a 2, 3, 12 rolling) and eight ways to lose (if a 7 or 11 rolled). The lady roller tosses a six-one: a front line winner, back line skinner. He was done. Bergstrom’s $1,000,000 was gone.

Three months later at a Strip hotel Bergstrom committed suicide, although one version of the incident that I have read had him playing Russian roulette with his six-shooter and he drew the short bullet. Either way, he wagered his own life, and lost.

True, plenty of players with a million-dollar loss would pull the plug, but do the math: Bergstrom was $647,000 to the plus, at least against Benny Binion.

Dear Mark,
Considering you have worked for several casinos, who is to say that you are not under some kind of gag order prohibiting you to give any information considering gambling? I know several people that have and still work for casinos and they are prohibited from telling any information whatsoever. MJ

My casino work history files mimic the citizenship portion of my elementary school report card. He talks too much! All too often I heard the “Hey, Pilarski, shut up and deal.” Those verbal slap-downs had nothing to do with me lending a customer a helping hand, more like me kibitzing with another employee who is also dealing on a live game.

As for offering assistance, every casino has its own set rules, yet of the seven casinos where I was employed, none had any problem with us rank and filers offering customers advice, with maybe the single exception of whether a player should hit or stand in blackjack. That was the extent of my restrictions on offering comment on play to patrons.

As for here and now regarding a gag order from casinos affecting this column, you obviously don’t read it often enough. But once a coalition of casinos offers me some payola, well...

Gambling quote of the week: "If you got talent, Las Vegas is the land of milk and honey. If you don't, it's a burial ground.” Benny Binion

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Best of Mark Pilarski
Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.