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Collecting the Debt

Missing payments for gambling loans can be just as painful on the books as it is off
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

Maybe you’re a gambler who likes to bet high but you don’t relish the thought of traveling to Las Vegas with $50,000 in your pocket. Or else you’re the kind of person who likes to live his life on credit. Or maybe you’ve figured out a loophole that makes gambling with borrowed money an advantageous play. For these reasons and others, you may be a good candidate for signing a so-called marker, the slip of paper you approve when you get casino credit, which translates to borrowed chips for blackjack or craps or any other table game. It’s the gambler’s equivalent of a cash advance, minus the interest, and it sounds alluring—until you have to pay.

Denny Mason remembers his first time. It came via a telephone call from a casino host at the Las Vegas Hilton. The come-on was simple: I have a $50,000 loan, interest-free for a month, waiting here for you. Come and get it! Mason, at the time, had a retail business in town and was doing quite well with it. In the casinos, however, he experienced less success. So the opportunity to score that kind of a float for 30 days, with no juice, well, it was the sort of deal that made Mason drop what he was doing and head right to the Hilton. In fact, it sounded like such a good deal that he called a friend to come along for his share as well.

As promised, the money awaited both of them. No strings were attached, and the host couldn’t help but offer what came across as a bit of friendly, inside information. “Look over there,” he said, gesturing toward a bank of high-stakes slot machines. “That one seems like it’s just about ready to go off.”

Of course, Mason and his pal couldn’t resist the prospect of turning their interest-free loans into a major score. “We were led like a couple of rats to the machine and immediately lost $2,500 each,” Mason recalls, now munching a veggie burger from the Burger Blast food truck behind the Crazy Horse III strip club. “The funny thing is that we still left the Hilton thinking that we had a $50,000 line of credit each month. Of course, practically speaking, that is not true. You go into the casino, sit down to play, usually you’ve had a few drinks, and the last thing you want to do is quit a loser. So you just keep on signing those markers.”

Mason has since toned down his marker habit—at his peak he was signing for up to $100,000 at a time and had credit-lines from one end of the Vegas Strip to the other—and he now considers them to be a necessary evil. “The good thing about playing on casino credit is that the casino knows exactly how much you’ve lost, so you get all your comps,” says Mason, not needing to mention that the bad thing is the ease with which you can keep playing and keep losing. “Usually you wind up with an entourage of 20 people and you want everybody to be taken care of. I’ve had some good times at the casinos—like when the Hilton gave me a top suite and threw a 25th birthday party for my girlfriend—but I can tell you that it really wasn’t worth the money I lost.”

To the untrained or careless or bleary-eyed, it might look as if you are signing a credit slip when you sign the marker that gets you casino chips. But if you are focused enough to read the disclaimer, you will see that you are actually signing a check. While the casino does indeed float you for 30 days without interest, after that period of time elapses, if the marker remains unpaid, you have just passed the equivalent of a bad check. Conveniently, in Las Vegas, the district attorney’s office has a Bad Check Unit that devotes much of its attention to the collection of outstanding casino debt. And for good reason: each collection reaps up to a 10 percent reward for the office. So if you owe $20,000 on an unpaid marker and the bad check unit comes after you for it, you suddenly owe $22,000 ($2,000 of which will go toward supporting this division of the DA’s office).

Lawyers from the office cannot put a lien on a gambler’s paycheck, but they can prosecute it as a felony. That means you may end up in jail for failing to make good on a casino chit.

If you wonder how out of control a gambler can get with markers, start by looking at the most extreme example: an Omaha-based high-roller by the name of Terrance Watanabe. He got in deep at Caesars Palace and the Rio. Over the course of 2007, Watanabe lost close to $127 million. He paid $112 million and had $14.7 million outstanding in markers, which he refused to make good on. Unlike most marker fiascos, the Watanabe case went public, amid accusations that a casino host had given him painkillers and encouraged him to play while intoxicated (the latter claim gained veracity in light of Watanabe’s insistence that the management at Wynn Las Vegas barred him for compulsive drunkenness and gambling). Whatever the case, Watanabe wound up settling for an undisclosed sum in the end, and the DA’s office received $500,000, directly from Watanabe, for its trouble.

Handling these cases is an amiable, young attorney by the name of Sam Bateman. Over coffee at a Starbucks near the courthouse, where he operates out of a basement office, Bateman insists that people who get stuck with markers are hardly gambling world naïfs. “Very rare is it that a person has not been a gambler for a long period of time before he takes out a marker,” says Bateman, emphasizing that it’s just as rare for a person to reneg on his first marker. “They often have done it across a multitude of casinos, using borrowed money from one casino to win back the money to pay the first casino. The fact of the matter, though, is that these people often can’t afford to pay any of it.”

He’s been at the job for about two years and has already seen his share of strange doings, like the time recently when an Asian gambler played off the rim—a courtesy extended to big-money casino customers in which their credit is tallied and signed for at the end of each gaming session—and bolted from a strip casino without signing for the $10 million in losses that he had accrued. “Then there are the people who take markers and declare bankruptcy right before it’s time to pay,” says Bateman. “They may say that they never intended to defraud the casino, but that sudden bankruptcy tells me that they had no intention of ever paying it off. Nobody who files for bankruptcy doesn’t know he’s in financial trouble 60 days earlier. Criminal restitution is not discharged through bankruptcy. Suddenly file for it, and I’m coming after you!”


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