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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

(continued from page 2)

Sally Soldi’s glory days as a collection man are behind him. But he still does the occasional job of delivering envelopes and picking up cash from gamblers. His last foray into this world took place just a few weeks before we spoke. Clearly, he loves recounting day-to-day life as a collector, trailing debtors to Yonkers Raceway and leaning on them as soon as they cashed in winning tickets, or waiting for guys on the docks of Miami gambling boats and getting heavy when the situation warranted it. “I miss the action,” he acknowledges. “What’s cool, though, is the adrenaline rush after the fact. That’s when we would go to somebody’s house for dinner or go out for stone crabs.”

To judge by the home of Las Vegas casino host Steve Cyr, the marker business is a good one to be in. He lives in a ritzy, gated development. Behind his house is a small, private swimming pool. Hanging on the wall of his home office is a Xerox copy of a $640,000 check from Larry Flynt (Cyr, as Flynt’s host, kept a percentage of that money). Sitting at a poker table in the dining room, he says, “If all my players had to play with green cash, they would stop. But when you just need to sign for markers they seem like they’re not real.” He explains that he makes sure his players have lines of credit available because, “If it’s 2:00 in the morning and you’re drunk and you have credit somewhere, that is where you’ll play.”

There are other reasons why Cyr pushes players to sign up for so-called free credit. For starters, he uses it to learn about his customers and to manipulate them later on. “It exposes the gambler,” he says, explaining that it reveals the amount of money he is willing to lose. “Then I know what kind of suite to put him in and how much to spend on him. If he wants to play in a [free tournament, put on specifically for big players], he needs a line of credit. And I love when guys owe me. I call and collect and stay in contact. It’s play and pay, play and pay. If guys owe me money, I say, ‘Steve Cyr is your boy now.’ We work out a payment plan but he doesn’t go to Caesars or the Mirage. He stays and plays with me [Cyr freelances to casinos such as the Cosmopolitan, Hard Rock and Golden Nugget]. I had a guy owing me $60,000 at the Hilton once. The deal was that he’d pay $6,000 a year for 10 years, but he still came in to play with cash. Whenever he won, the profits would be split—half for him and half toward the debt. And if he ever went to another casino, he knew I would go to the DA’s office and turn the marker over as a bad check.”

A Vegas-based gambler who’s asked to be referred to as Joe Davis explains that for all that the casinos do to use markers as leveraging devices, there are gamblers who come up with their own work-arounds. Some guys use borrowed cash from one casino to pay another. Others take out large markers specifically to get into high-value tournaments put on for big players—if there are 100 players and the prize pool is $200,000, then each seat is worth $2,000. Davis points out that the payoff can be even higher than the value of a seat. He recalls a tournament at the Hard Rock in which those with the largest lines of credit got to skip to the semi finals, giving them an increased chance of winning. “Just because you have a $100,000 marker, it doesn’t mean that you have to gamble the whole 100K,” he says. “There’s one guy who figured out a way to play roulette, with very little downside, and he uses casino credit to get into loads of tournaments.”

Then there was the player who meticulously established credit all over Las Vegas, using a multimillion-dollar brokerage statement that tied back to his grandmother. Though the player may have looked degenerate to the casinos, he was anything but. He would play blackjack for $5,000 per hand and quit as soon as he had logged $10,000 in profits. As everybody who has bought into a blackjack game is aware, it’s easy to get ahead by two units over the course of a session at the table. The hard part, of course, is quitting at that point. But this player had no problem doing it. “The casinos didn’t like his hit-and-run ways,” says Davis. “Finally they cut him off.”

Unless you have a foolproof strategy for using markers to your benefit, are they really wise to get involved with? I pose this question to Cyr and ask him to give the answer that he’d give to a nephew visiting Vegas for the first time. “My advice would be to not go home owing the casino,” he says, acknowledging that it’s one thing to lose money while having a good time in Las Vegas but another to pay off your gambling debt 30 days later. “That,” he agrees, “is the real Vegas hangover.”

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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