Gaming Goliaths

If you are a historian setting out to chronicle a city, your instincts are to document the formation of the government structures, the major political movements, the rise of commercial and residential neighborhoods. It's an important job to record these things, and in many cities this may be the most pertinent history available.Not so in Las Vegas. Area historians have worked hard to chart the Mormon settlement in Las Vegas, the city's railroad beginnings, the early political squabbles, the impact of Hoover Dam, etc. But not nearly enough genuine nonfiction has been written about the men who really put Las Vegas on the world map.Since the mid-1940s, the casino business has been synonymous with Las Vegas. Not much else has mattered in the past 50 years, except possibly the federal government's above-ground testing of nuclear weapons only 60 miles away.Las Vegas gaming is flush with fascinating characters and stories, yet it has long lacked a well-written and trustworthy book profiling these men, their accomplishments, their setbacks and their eccentricities.The Players: The Men Who Made Las Vegas (University of Nevada Press, $18.95) is a worthy attempt at providing such a book. Anyone interested in a gambling-oriented history of Las Vegas will benefit greatly from reading this 211-page volume.But The Players, edited by local writer Jack Sheehan and written by half a dozen journalists, is still not The Book, faltering in its unevenness. Some chapters are very good, while others have no business being in the book.Most of the chapters profile a casino mogul who played a major role in Las Vegas becoming a gaming and tourist mecca. Those chapters are the most informative and entertaining.John L. Smith's chapter on Moe Dalitz is a competent and uncompromising sketch of the man who built the Desert Inn and Stardust casinos, as well as having a hand in the creation of Sunrise Hospital, the Las Vegas Country Club and the Boulevard Mall. Smith doesn't shy from Dalitz's mob associations, painting a picture of a man who grew up in the tough underworld of Detroit and Cleveland and rose to the top of an industry full of unsavory characters, yet was never convicted of a major crime.A.D. Hopkins' chapter on Benny Binion, cowpoke founder of the Horseshoe, is entertaining, detailed and contains numerous sources, including a few thoughts from the man himself before he died in 1989. Sheehan's profile of Sam Boyd is solidly reported but perhaps a bit too gushing in its praise for the man responsible for Sam's Town and several other casinos that now are run by his son, Bill. Hopkins' chapter on Jay Sarno is an intriguing look at the eccentric but visionary casino man responsible for Caesars Palace and Circus Circus. For good or ill, Sarno is largely responsible for the theme motif that has become required window dressing for Las Vegas casinos.I particularly appreciated the chapters on Bugsy Siegel and Howard Hughes. There are numerous other books that profile these men, but not everyone is eager to slog through a 500-pager on either to glean the gritty details of their years in Las Vegas. Though not breaking any new ground,The Players provides detailed but condensed profiles of the two legends.The chapter profiling Cliff Jones seems misguided. Jones was an attorney in the '40s and '50s who was nicknamed "The Big Juice" because he helped so many local businessmen "get things done." That's fine, but he never built or ran a casino, always working on the periphery. Ironically, the chapter provides glimpses of several casino developers from the early years who may have deserved chapters of their own.The chapter on Mirage Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn, by Dallas-based Mark Seal, is probably the best written in the book, but it reads more like a magazine article than a substantive history -- a case of style over substance. The chapter provides an outsider's point of view, which works well for a national magazine but seems out of synch with the rest of this book.There are two glaring omissions from the book: Parry Thomas, the Valley Bank founder who dared to finance much of the casino construction in Las Vegas; and William Bennett, the longtime Circus Circus Enterprises chief who is largely responsible for the success of the Circus Circus hotel-casino and who oversaw the creation of the Luxor and Excalibur resorts. (Bennett now owns the Sahara.)Sheehan notes in his introduction that a chapter on Thomas was prepared, but the banker -- who had agreed to an interview on the condition that he could proof the final product -- "insisted on revisions in the chapter that we were not comfortable making."The chapters that don't directly profile casino owners focus instead on key players in the development of gaming regulation, sports betting, the trend toward marketing to families and how Las Vegas is portrayed in literature. The first two are well done and blend nicely with the rest of the book. Sergio Lalli's history of gaming regulation is complete and easy to digest. The latter two, however, are poorly done and seem out of place in a book about the men who made Las Vegas.Especially troubling is the piece by UNLV English Professor John Irsfeld on how popular literature has treated Las Vegas. Although Irsfeld is a highly regarded novelist, the chapter is surprisingly disjointed and lacking in inspiration. Irsfeld's inclusion in The Players seems more calculated to get a big name in the mix than to advance the book's purpose.Perhaps if the book sells well, as it should, a second edition could give the editors a chance to improve the product. By axing the chapters on Cliff Jones, literature and marketing to families and adding a couple, perhaps one on the casino pioneers of the '40s and one on William Bennett, the book could become more coherent and complete.With the state's most respected historians focused on Northern Nevada, Las Vegas is still waiting for a comprehensive history to be written. Local historians are said to be salivating at the chance but awed by the enormity of the project.In the meantime, journalists and academics are working on pieces of the puzzle. John Smith has done quality work with his popular biographies of Steve Wynn (Running Scared) and Bob Stupak (No Limit), while Nicholas Pileggi's Casino is an important take on the mob's involvement in Las Vegas casinos in the late '70s and early '80s and its eventual demise. On the academic side, Eugene Moehring's Resort City in the Sunbelt, Alan Balboni's Beyond the Mafia: Italian Americans and the Development of Las Vegas and M.L. Miranda's A History of Hispanics in Southern Nevada are recent contributions to the genre.The Players is good enough to join that group. With an ambitious revision, it could be one of the most valuable of the bunch


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