Your Neighbour—the Gambler

Damon Runyon

“One day it’s milk an’ honey,

Next day haven’t got no money;

Every gamblin’ man he knows

Easy comes and easy goes.

One day you’re a great big winner,

Next day hustlin’ around for dinner—

An’ when you die there’s few will sigh

For a gamblin’ man!”

—Old Song

One hot summer night, two young gentlemen in their shirt-sleeves faced each other across a table in a hotel room in the heart of Manhattan’s Roaring Forties. The Roaring Forties encompass what is left of New York’s night life.

On the table between them, crisscrossed and crumply, like a pile of soiled handkerchiefs, stood a tall stack of loose currency.

Meantime, the Roaring Forties throbbed with commotion. My friend, “Smitty,” a lean-faced man with a babbling tongue, who always knows everything that is going on, stood on a corner hard by the hotel explaining why.

“That big gambler from Chicago’s come to town,” he said, breathlessly. “That Nick the Greek. Him and Arnold Rothstein’s tied up in a crap game, and last I hear he’s got Arnold hooked for $96,000. Man, that’s a dude of a game! Them’s two gamblin’ fools, them are!”

His news was important to the Roaring Forties.

Out of the West had been coming at intervals, word of a new and spectacular figure in the world of chance, a man familiar as “Nick the Greek,” a strange, mysterious fellow who quoted Socrates and Plato, and who would gamble you high and gamble you wide on any proposition under the sun.

In the East had arisen one Arnold Rothstein, a young chap whose gambling ventures were making the best traditions of “Dick” Canfield and other notable gamesters of another day seem trifling. He owned a couple of gambling houses, but on the side he played any other man’s game that offered.

The Eastern gambling men said his gambling like had never before been seen. The Western gamblers listened to tales of his prowess, and laughed, and said:

“Well, wait’ll he runs up against Nick the Greek!”

And here they were.

Seeing Mr. Rothstein across the table from the Greek, and seeing the Greek, too, you might have realized that Bret Harte once described both very accurately before either was born. Only, of course, Bret Harte did not have Mr. Rothstein or Nick the Greek in mind when he wrote the description. He was speaking of Mr. Jack Hamlin, the famous gambler of his fiction, when he spoke of him “with his pale Greek face, and Homeric gravity.”

That is both Mr. Rothstein and Nick the Greek to a T. Perhaps pale Greek faces and Homeric gravity run in the gambling family. However, Nick comes honestly by his pale Greek face, because he is Grecian by birth. Mr. Rothstein is a Hebrew, New York born.

The money on the table was at the moment the property of the Greek, by virtue of a happy turn of a pair of dice. He had Mr. Rothstein “hooked,” as Smitty related, for $96,000. There it lay, in cash. And now the Greek, tall, slender, and darkly handsome, spoke as follows:

“You can have any part of it!”

Meaning that Mr. Rothstein, if he desired, could “shoot” with the chance of getting even, or of losing $192,000 at one roll, a sporting offer indeed. History is not clear as to Mr. Rothstein’s exact words in replying, but in speaking of the matter to me afterwards, he remarked, casually:

“I wiggled out.”

The translation being that he lost no money, and the inference that he rolled for “the chunk.”

A fairish crap game, you may say, yet but a passing incident in the lives of Mr. Rothstein and the Greek, merely a step toward their better acquaintance, in fact. Afterwards they met in other social sessions of this nature, until it is estimated that upwards of a million dollars has passed back and forth between them.

I introduce these two men with a definite purpose. I present neither as an heroic or romantic figure. I introduce them because they are representative cases of an epidemic which has been sweeping America for some years—because they are peculiar to, and their little dice transaction typical of, a singular period in the history of the country, a period of high rolling in a gambling way such as the land has never before known.

That period is partly the present.

I say partly, because after about six years of a frenzy of gambling, during which the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker were flipping thousand-dollar notes around in wagers as carelessly as mere words, the inevitable has set in.

They are still gambling with all the old frenzy, but with not so much of the old money. That is being gradually gathered up by the few.

Gambling men, including Mr. Rothstein, tell me that the “biggest” gambler proportionately to his means that the world has ever seen is this strange Nick the Greek. He is not as “big” a gambler as Rothstein in point of operations, because he hasn’t Rothstein’s means with which to operate.

But Nick the Greek will gamble you with all he has at any time, at any game, asking nothing more than an even break, and a man can gamble no higher or more desperately than that. No one seems to know much about his life. It is believed he came to this country from Greece some fifteen years ago, and that he is of good family. In his mid thirties, suave, polished, well dressed, and well mannered, quoting his Socrates and his Plato, he roams the country restlessly, always gambling, and always gambling “big.”

The gambling world, which is the underworld, keeps track of its children and their financial condition by word of mouth, which travels more swiftly than the telegraph. Now Nick the Greek is in Los Angeles, losing $150,000 to the “Kansas City Kid” and the Kid’s associates; the Kid being a lofty roller from the Missouri River, and the game at which the Greek loses, “low poker.” This diversion is ordinary draw poker, with the exception that the low instead of the high hand wins.

Now he is in New Orleans, playing the races. Now he is in Chicago, broke, but rapidly digging up a new bank roll. Now he is back in New York again with plenty of money, and the Roaring Forties simmer with tales of his activities.

In one crap game involving a number of players, Nick the Greek is said to have won $185,000. On another occasion he lost $105,000 which is believed to have represented his entire bank roll at the time. It was early in the morning when the game broke up, and Nick arose with his stock remark after a losing, and which probably sums up his gambling philosophy.

“Well,” he said, “it’s all even.”

Then he returned to his hotel with a friend, and got out a deck of cards.

“I can’t sleep now,” he said. “Let’s play pinochle.”

So until noon, the loser of what most persons would regard as a comfortable fortune sat there sedately playing pinochle, and the stakes were a penny a point!

Rothstein started his gambling career by betting a few dollars at a time on the horse races. He was then quite young. Presently he was knocking around with the professional gambling element, playing pool for high stakes, cards, craps—anything that involved gambling.

Inside of a few years, and before he was thirty, Rothstein ran his bank roll into a considerable fortune. Some rate him several times a millionaire. Unlike Nick the Greek, he does not move around. He stays in New York, and has fixed haunts. He is now thirty-eight years old, small, dapper, and as nervous as a cat.

I had a talk with Rothstein not long ago, and found him somewhat depressed, not to say despondent about the gambling situation. A gambler, he said, is misunderstood.

And misrepresented. For instance the name of Rothstein had been dragged into the baseball bribery scandal, which at that time flared across the sport pages in furious headlines. Mr. Rothstein seemed downright pained by this publicity.

“Why,” he said: “I only had one small bet on the World Series they say was fixed and I lost that. I lost $6,000.”

Because of misunderstandings, and misrepresentations, Mr. Rothstein explained to me, he has retired from gambling, and is in real estate, with a racing stable as a mere source of amusement. I subsequently noted in the newspapers tales of a glowing victory of one of the Rothstein horses, with the report that the owner has won well into six figures on the result.

If you can explain Nick the Greek, and if you can explain Arnold Rothstein, you may be able to explain the disease of gambling.

I asked Rothstein why he gambled, and found him a bit inarticulate.

“Why,” he said, “it’s exciting. I get a thrill out of a big bet.”

Perhaps the thrill is the life of the germ of the disease which has had such a hold on the country the past few years.

It began with the War. It followed the convulsion of buying in the days when, as it was said and, as it seemed, “everybody had money.” Finally satiated with the novelty of buying, men with their fists full of fat bills turned to gambling for new excitement.

The whole world seemed quite mad about them, but none so mad as the Americans at their gambling. With our entry into the great conflict, there was a slight cessation. The war over, it began again with renewed frenzy.

New millionaires, home grown, or imported from South America, Cuba, Spain and the other countries that had grown fat on the war, were on every hand with fresh-laid bank rolls, seeking action for their money. Men and women had become accustomed to big prices, in everything, and they gambled big. Some played the market. Some went to the races. Some shot craps. Others played cards.

Forty-five years ago, oil was struck on the premises of one John W. Steele, a poor farmer in Pennsylvania, and a thousand dollars a day, and more, began popping in on the astonished Steele. Before he had fully recovered from his amazement, he had $100,000 in the bank, and set about spending it.

As “Coal Oil Johnny,” with a loose and careless way of tossing bank-notes to the public, buying saloons and opening them to one and all free of charge, and acting the part of a “nut” generally, he gained much notoriety. For many years his name represented bogie in the spending line in America. He was considered the highest of all high rollers.

Coal Oil Johnny died in January 1921, seventy-seven years old, and broke. He was a station agent for the Burlington railroad at Fort Crook, Nebraska. His wife estimated the amount he tossed off during his career at $150,000.

Coal Oil Johnny’s total expenditure was not the price of one of the late “Diamond Jim” Brady’s jewelry sets, and was $50,000 short of a losing at roulette made by a modern oil man at a single sitting the night after the echoes of Coal Oil Johnny had been stirred up in the newspapers by his death. The player himself remarked on the circumstance, laughingly.

“And it wasn’t a button off his vest,” he added, with some pride, meaning his departed $200,000.

The losing was made in an exclusive “club” at one of the Florida winter resorts, a club being a gambling house, polished up some.

In the old days, a gambling house was a public institution, not infrequently fronting on a street, with tables efficiently tended by bulky, gruffish men with bristling moustaches and soft black felt hats. Anyone could walk right in and play the whirring roulette wheels, the crap game, faro bank, or chuck-aluck, and no questions asked.

With progress have come the “clubs,” swagger, softly carpeted places indigenous to the playgrounds of the rich. Only English hazard and roulette are played in these clubs; and one must be properly introduced to get in. If one is not well known to the management, one is led aside and politely questioned as to antecedents, connections, intentions, and bank roll, especially bank roll.

With the dealers, who have suddenly become croupiers, in evening attire, and gentlemen players similarly arrayed, and with the bare shoulders of the beautiful women present gleaming beneath the subdued lights, such a “club” presents an impressive scene, and the financial losses there are sometimes equally impressive.

The reason is simple enough. A person will invariably lose more, when he is losing, than he will win when he is winning. The gambling fever runs higher when one is on the losing side. The night before the oil man lost his $200,000, he won $8,000 and was content to quit.

These new oil men came bobbing up out of the mesquite of Texas and the undergrowth of Oklahoma in numbers a few years ago, heavy with money. They bought town houses, country landscapes, motor cars and yachts, and meanwhile they gambled.

The race tracks of the East are the real padded cells of the gambling insanity, with thousands of men and women rattling furiously at the bars of fortune. I have before me an estimate of the amount of money handled by the pari-mutuel or betting machines during the hundred days of racing at the four tracks in Maryland in 1920, and this estimate is $70,000,000! The average was $700,000 per day.

No one knows how much money is wagered daily at the New York tracks. Betting is supposed to be illegal on these tracks, but it goes on just the same, and it is on a bigger scale than in Maryland. It is believed that if they had the pari-mutuel machines in New York state, the “iron men,” as the machines are called, would be handling an average of $2,000,000 per day of the public’s money at one track.

The betting system employed at the New York tracks just now is called “oral betting.” You can find a bookmaker without any trouble at the tracks, in fact you might have difficulty avoiding them, for they are all over the premises, and if the “bookie” knows you, or you are properly vouched for by someone he knows, you can make a wager with him.

This is accomplished by the simple expedient of writing down the bet you desire on a slip of paper and handing it to him. You settle after the race, or the following day. Naturally there has to be a good deal of trust to this system, and when a bettor fails to meet his obligations, the bookmaker has no recourse. He simply has to forget it.

The result has been to make thousand-dollar bettors out of normally two-dollar men. The return to normalcy is now setting in to some extent, but in the meantime the bookmakers are holding worthless slips of paper supposed to represent millions.

For a spell, waiters, and newsboys and bootblacks were betting hundred-dollar bills with such frequency that one old bookmaker was moved to remark:

“I think everybody must have a private printing press nowadays.”

The immutable law of the races is that you can’t beat ’em. Only one man ever made a lasting success of the beating process, and he died to make it lasting. The shade of “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith must have been stirring uneasily in the Valhalla of plungers during these many mad months of play at the tracks.

Prohibition has become an established fact, and some persons claim that Americans, denied the excitement of drinking, have gone in for gambling more strongly than ever as an outlet to their excess energy.

I doubt that theory. America has always gambled, if only in a comparatively small way. Thirty years ago every town of any size in the country had its wide-open gambling houses. The stories of the steamboat gamblers of the Mississippi, and of the golden days of California and the Rocky Mountain West, when the mining kings and the cattle barons played poker for huge amounts, are part of American literature. Once every cigar store had slot machines in front and policy shops in the rear.

The average American seems to be born with germs of the gambling fever in his blood. Sometimes the germs remain dormant throughout a lifetime. Again they take on early manifestations in the reprehensible form of marbles for “keeps.” Most of us, I think have experienced moments when the germs were stirring violently.

An ingenious inventor, recognizing the national trait, recently put out so simple a device as a top, converted into a gambling instrument by a little lettering on the sides. This top, called “put-and-take,” has been eagerly purchased by millions of persons, and millions of dollars have changed hands on its gyrations.

The spinning of the top took too much time for some players, so another inventor promptly put out a pair of dice which answer the same purpose. The American gambler wants speedy action, which is one reason why craps is so popular.

Long ago reformers said gambling was worse than drink, so they set about making bonfires of the gambling apparatus and outlaws of the gamblers who once had definite business status in every community. Presently open gambling disappeared, though of course it merely hid out. You can still find it, I regret to state, in almost any town in the country, if you look long enough.

Men gamble when they have the money to gamble with. It is one pastime that requires above all things money. After the money goes, they sometimes toss in their honor, and even their lives.

Prohibition did not produce gambling, but oddly enough prohibition is the source of the money that produces one of the biggest gambling games that goes on anywhere in this country. It is a crap game in New York in which the participants are mainly bootleggers from the Lower East Side.

They all have plenty of money. Whisky is now an article dealt in only for cash, and so the crap shooters come with big, coarse notes in their pockets. Two men, heavily armed, guard the door and escort each player, who must be known to them, to the gambling room. About this room are eight other men, with guns not unostentatiously displayed.

It is not uncommon to see as much as $100,000 in cash in sight on the table, and in the hands of the players. If a man makes a big winning, say $20,000, and desires to quit, he is escorted in a taxicab to the place where he wishes to go by two armed men. All this display of force is to avoid a holdup. Holding up crap games was long a popular amusement with the gorillas of Manhattan.

My friend, Smitty, who plays in these games, once owned a gambling house, and had $200,000 to his name. He was of the old regime, and went broke when the murder of Herman Rosenthal, the gambler, played hob with the business in New York, and sent Becker, and “Lefty Louie,” and “Gyp the Blood,” and the rest to the electric chair.

Now Smitty occasionally has money, but more often he hasn’t. An old gambler, once broke, rarely comes back. Youth, with its nerve and verve, is a tremendous asset in a game requiring exactly these things, the gambling men say. They point to a young Chicagoan, for example.

They call him “Slats.” He is a quiet little fellow, about twenty-five, and one of the big bettors of the land just now. Occasionally he hooks up with Nick the Greek in terrific tilts. Once, it is said, he beat Nick out of $97,000. A few years ago Slats was penniless, bustling around Chicago, and doing the best he could.

“Now you can’t stop him,” says Smitty. “It’s his youth. When you’re young you’ve got the courage to do anything. When you get old you lose your nerve. You can’t win because you’re afraid of losing. Youth is a wonderful thing in gambling.”

So I asked him a question.

“If a young man should come to you,” I said, “and told you he wanted to start out as a professional gambler, what would be your advice to him?”

Smitty never hesitated.

“I’d tell him to hang himself first,” he answered.