The Phantom High Roller Of Glitter Gulch
Binion's Horseshoe Club is the antithesis of the flashy casinos lining the Las Vegas Strip. Located in the heart of downtown Las Vegas's "Glitter Gulch", the Horseshoe has no showgirls, no theme parks, and no erupting volcanoes. The decor of the club, from the giant horseshoe in the lobby, framing $1 million in $10,000 bills, to the old-style hardwood walls, is pure pre-Rat Pack Vegas. At the Horseshoe, the attraction is gambling, pure, plain and simple. The Horseshoe boasts they are "the one true gambling hall in Las Vegas willing to accept any wager.". It was a fitting stage for the brief, yet fabled career of one of Vegas's most legendary gamblers.The story started with a quiet young man, casually dressed in Levi's and cowboy boots, walking into the casino early one evening in 1980. In his late 20s, he differed from the thousands of other gamblers strolling Fremont Street that evening in but one detail. He carried two suitcases. One was empty; the other was filled with 777 neatly bundled $1000 bills. He'd called ahead to see if the Horseshoe was willing to accommodate him. And, in keeping with founder "Benny" Binion's philosophy that no bet was too big, they were. For the $777,000 wasn't a bankroll; it was a single bet.Accompanied by a security guard, the anonymous gambler converted the contents of his suitcase into a generous stack of gray $500 chips and walked over to a craps table. Taking a position at the edge of the table, he told the dealer and the boxman that the entire stack was on the "don't pass" line. He was betting "wrong", wagering that the woman throwing the dice would lose. Her first roll came up six. She would keep rolling the dice until she "made her point" and won by throwing another six, or lost by "sevening out" -- throwing a seven. The odds favored the nameless big bettor.Silently he watched as the next roll came up nine -- no decision. The woman threw the dice for a third time. They bounced off the back rail, tumbled across the felt table and came to rest. The numbers totaled seven. Mechanically, the stickman announced, "Pay the back line" and the two dealers set to paying off the victorious "wrong" bettors. In less than 10 minutes, the big bettor had doubled his money to over $1.5 million.The casino filled the nameless gambler's two non-descript suitcases with cash at the cashier's cage. After shaking hands with casino president Jack Binion, the mysterious stranger stepped into a car outside the club and was driven off into the night. Coyly, Binion denied knowing the young man's name; IRS regulations did not require reporting the names of big winners at craps. But the Horseshoe club wouldn't forget the quiet man with the suitcases soon. Admiringly, Binion told reporters "He was cool. He had a lot of gamble in him."Thus began the saga of the man who would come to be known as "The Phantom High Roller". Four years later, the drama repeated itself on a slightly smaller scale. In early 1984, the Phantom High Roller reappeared at the Horseshoe, this time armed with a $538,000 stake. After one quick bet on the "Don't Pass" line he was $538,000 richer. He quickly vanished into the night, now over $1.2 million ahead.Yet he couldn't, or wouldn't stop. He had to tempt Chance a third time. On November 16, 1984, after calling ahead, he walked into the Horseshoe carrying his trademark two suitcases. One was, as always, optimistically empty. The other held $550,000 in cash, $150,000 worth of South African gold coins, and $300,000 in cashier's checks. The total: a cool million.This time, the casino dispensed with the formality of chips. The Phantom High Roller went directly to a craps table, with a security guard and club manager Ted Binion in tow, to place his favorite bet. He reached over the rail, pointed to the don't pass line, and informed the dealer "One million dollars". With this simple gesture, he placed the largest single public bet Las Vegas had ever seen up to that time.The shooter, startled by the amount of the money riding against him, turned to Binion and asked, "Is this square?"Binion indicated yes; a million dollars of the Phantom High roller's money said the shooter would lose.The action would be short, fast, and final. The man shook the dice, cocked his arm and threw them across the table. When they skittered to rest, one showed six, the other an ace. Seven -- a natural, a winner for the shooter on the first roll. As the stickman raked the dice back to the successful shooter and the dealers paid the "right" betters off, the enormity of what had happened sank in. The Phantom High Roller had lost $1 million on a single toss of the dice. He seemed to take his staggering loss in good spirits. He left the club quietly with two empty suitcases. Binion later recalled: "He acted like it was nothing. He said he expected to lose."There was no hint that the Phantom High Roller had placed his last bet.**** Three months later, a maid at the Marina Hotel on the Strip found a note on a room door, asking her to report a suicide. Inside, police found the body of 33-year-old William Lee Bergstrom, dead of an overdose of unspecified pills. He was quickly identified as the mysterious Phantom High Roller.The story that emerged was more mundane than glamorous. Bergstrom came from a solid upper-middle class background in Austin, Texas. After the break-up of an early marriage, he dropped out of college to fling himself into a single-minded campaign to make a million dollars. He started by managing an apartment building. Adding his earnings to a small inheritance, he bought a run-down building of his own. He refurbished it unit by unit, doing all the work himself and plowing his profits back into his rapidly growing empire. After five years of working day and night, he cashed out. Bergstrom had achieved his goal of one million dollars in the bank before his 29th birthday.Ostensibly, Bergstrom switched to a life of leisure. Dividing his time between travel and managing his investments, he traveled all over the US, Far East, and Caribbean, even buying a house in Hawaii. Like many others with time and money on their hands, his itinerary included frequent junkets to Vegas. But he kept the magnitude of his gambling well hidden from his friends and family. Even without his "Phantom High Roller" bets, Bergstrom was getting in lots of action at the tables.The state of Bergstrom's finances during his years as "The Phantom High Roller" was never clear. He appeared to be a youthful millionaire enjoying the fruit of his labors. But he later told Ted Binion that he was broke when he made his first big bet in 1980. His million was long gone, eaten up in a series of disastrous silver and gold investments. Every penny of his $777,000 bet was borrowed. And if lost, well, he brought 70 sleeping pills along just in case.By the time of the $1 million bet, cracks were appearing in Bergstrom's cool, high-rolling facade. As he walked to the table to place his final bet, he kept repeating "I think I'm going to lose this time". The loss left him devastated emotionally and financially. A week later, he staged a bizarre suicide attempt in Austin involving sleeping pills and a pair of shotguns, surviving only because the guns didn't go off.In February, he made a final attempt at being the "Phantom High Roller". He showed up at the Horseshoe with a cashier's check for $1.3 million, trying to place that one last bet. The club, suspecting a forgery, told Bergstrom they'd have to contact the bank before they could honor it. His bluff called, Bergstrom backed down. He walked out as penniless as he'd entered, his fate now sealed.The next day, he called Ted Binion. He told him the reason he'd bet the million dollars was that he was depressed over the breakup of an intense romantic relationship with a man he only identified as John -- another side of his life carefully concealed from his family. Although Binion remembers Bergstrom as being despondent, he still seemed to have hope as he talked about the future. But, ominously, Bergstrom also said, "You don't know what it's like to have a million dollars one day and not have it the next."As it turned out, a failed love affair wasn't enough motivation for what he felt he had to do.Bergstrom committed suicide the next day. In his suicide note, he asked to be remembered as the Phantom High Roller of Binion's Horseshoe. He had more than earned the title.