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Hits and Runs

Many wish to win in Vegas, few have the brass it takes to score big.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

(continued from page 1)

He displays far less generosity toward showy Americans who like to brag about their wealth. When a Texas oilman once sidled up to him in a Vegas casino and bragged about being worth $100 million, Packer considered that for a moment before replying, "Are you really worth $100 million? Tell you what, I'll toss you for it."   Considering that Packer is said to be worth $3.6 billion, that's a bet he could lose without forsaking too much sleep. In light of that, even his biggest casino wagers are the relative equivalent of pocket change. Maybe for that reason, the real high-stakes heroes are anonymous rich guys who willingly put good chunks of their money on the line, amounts of cash that have real meaning and real consequence for them.

Such was the case with Bill Bergstrom, a diminutive fellow in his 20s who came into money via the gold and silver boom of 20 years ago. He sauntered into the Horseshoe wearing Western duds and a cowboy hat, carrying a pair of suitcases--one empty, the other loaded with $777,000. He placed it all on the "don't pass" (a craps wager in which you bet that the seven will come up before the point number). He made that single bet, won, and left the casino with two suitcases full of hundred dollar bills.   Soon after Bergstrom's big score, a call came in to the bedside phone of Benny Binion. It was Bergstrom on the line.

He wanted to know if he could pop by Becky Binion Behnen's home--where Benny, whose health was failing, had been convalescing--for a visit. Benny OK'd it. While at the house Bergstrom proved to have a bit of a Binion obsession. The hat he wore during his visit had once belonged to Benny, and the three sevens in his craps wager corresponded to the phone number of Benny's ranch in Montana. Despite the creepiness of all that--Benny, after all, had seen far weirder--the visit went fine.   When Bergstrom called again, it was to inquire about making another big bet. "He came to my house, laid $540,000 on the kitchen table, and wanted to bet that money," says Behnen, recalling that Benny OK'd the wager, and Bergstrom once again cleaned up on the "don't pass."

For Benny's 80th birthday, Bergstrom had something special in mind. "He plopped down $1 million on the 'don't pass,'" remembers Behnen. "But this time we won, so he ended up $300,000 ahead, and that was the end of the story." But it really wasn't the end of the story. "He had a complex emotional life," Behnen continues. "I know that he had a male companion, but I don't know if he was 100 percent gay. And a couple years later he committed suicide. In his note he said that he wanted to be cremated and to have his ashes put in an urn that would be displayed at the Horseshoe. On the urn he wanted a plaque that said 'The Million Dollar Kid.' His parents wound up burying him in a cemetery, and I'm really not sure whether or not we would have put the urn in the Horseshoe anyway."

Those who were at the Horseshoe when Bergstrom raked in his craps winnings remember that he took it in stride and left the casino alone, his money in hand. Others, though, treat their big wins in more celebratory fashion. For instance, on the night Stu Ungar hit a pick-6 horse race for $870,000, he packed his friends off to the Olympic Garden, a topless bar where the VIP room happened to be having its grand opening. "We went in there and Stuey ordered Cristal champagne," recounts Mike Sexton. "He asked for them to send in the prettiest girls, and he immediately slipped a $100 bill into each of their G-strings. We drank so much Cristal that the bar ran out and Stuey had to slum down to Dom Perignon. I remember him being furious about that."

Nobody else really seemed to mind. "The girls," continues Sexton, "who were usually happy if you bought them a beer, that night they drank Dom like it was water. The bar tab came to $9,600 and there's no telling how much Stuey spent on the girls. I think you can say it was a career night for each of them. For me it was one of those nights that you put in a frame and hang on the wall."

Another memorable evening was a New Year's Eve back in the '80s, when Ungar and Chip Reese aimed to turn a profit as they rang in the year. They each put up $5,000 and began playing blackjack with the agreement that they would get it up to a million or go bust. They didn't quite hit their target, but they did manage to clear $500,000 before deciding to divide the proceeds.

For Ungar, though, wins like that one quickly slid through his fingers. He was a notorious sucker when it came to sports betting and golf. From his very first day on the golf courses of Las Vegas, he provided serious windfalls for his fellow gamblers. It all began when one of them, a high-stakes poker player named Jack Strauss, convinced Ungar that the really big action was at the Las Vegas Country Club. "But," he warned Ungar, who was New York­bred and a total stranger to the game, "before you bet anything, get a fundamental skill level and practice a little bit."

He began by taking Ungar to the LVCC's putting green and showing him how to hone a short game. "Next thing you know," remembers Sexton, "Jack's giving him a stroke a hole on the putting green and they're betting $200 on each putt. Then they went from $200 to $500 to $1,000. In two hours' time Stu Ungar lost $78,000 without even getting onto the regular golf course. In the history of America, I guarantee you, that has not happened before or since."   One of the most notorious gold mines for golfers was a huge-stakes player named Jimmy Chagra. Texas based, Chagra was a high-rolling drug dealer who liked to recklessly wager his ill-gotten gains. He was famous for showing up at the Las Vegas Country Club carrying two shopping bags full of cash and being flanked by bodyguards.

In the casinos he was known as a lavish tipper. Following a sky-high run at a Caesars Palace craps table, he tipped the croupier $600,000. In his locker there, he routinely stashed $900,000 in cash. "He'd go into gambling situations with $1 million or $2 million on him," remembers a Vegas-based career gambler. "It was possible that he could win, but usually it was a question of how much you could take from him. If he lost $200,000 or $300,000 to a couple of us, well, that was a pretty good day for Jimmy Chagra."

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