Collecting the Debt

Missing payments for gambling loans can be just as painful on the books as it is off

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!”

Like a lot of things that eventually make their way to the legal casinos of Nevada, markers are rooted in the murkier, illicit world. From the earliest days of gambling, folks liked to wager with credit, whether it was hotel room poker games, back-alley craps or 8-ball at the local VFW. Initially, in Las Vegas, it was the junket operators—trip organizers bringing people out to Sin City for gambling—who issued credit. “Mob guys and bookies ran the junkets,” says David Schwartz, author of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling (Casino Edition). “So if you got in deep with a junket operator, it would be like getting in deep with the mob.”

According to Schwartz, casinos in Nevada began issuing their own credit to gamblers in the 1940s. It may have taken the most overt mobsters out of the picture, but it didn’t mean that you were accepting loans from particularly savory characters. “Before 1982, the casinos [in Nevada] had no legal recourse for collecting money,” says Schwartz. “They could damage your kneecaps if not your credit rating. But when New Jersey legalized casinos, it was mandated that debts could be collected legally”—just like bad checks. “Nevada decided to do the same thing. It made sense. It seemed like a cleaner way of doing business.”

Nevertheless, gamblers in need of quick cash cannot always get it from casinos. Maybe a person’s credit rating is shot. Or else he wants to bet at the racetrack or with a bookie on sports. Or perhaps he doesn’t want his family to know that he is borrowing money with which to gamble. That is when he might take a loan from a bookie or loan shark and come into contact with a man who likes to be known as Salvatore “Sally” Soldi.

Born in the Bronx, relocated to Pompano, Florida, where he currently lives in semiretirement, Soldi has the physical proportions of a refrigerator, carefully groomed facial hair and a cane with a sword hidden inside it. Now 55, he has been collecting money since the age of 16. Quick to insist that he is not a thug, Soldi immediately points out that he has never gotten involved in retrieving debts for drug dealers. His clientele has always consisted mainly of degenerate gamblers.

You may arrange to borrow money from a shylock, but the person who delivers it to you will be Sally Soldi or someone very much like him. He brings the cash in an envelope. If casino gambling is your thing, he’ll go away from the prying eyes of surveillance to hand you the currency. Soldi likes to convene with clients in retail establishments where he can do quick handoffs. You’ll meet him to pay back the loan—which accumulates interest at a rate of 20 percent per week—at the same location. “When I bring money to a guy, I’m God,” Soldi says. “But when I need to collect, I’m the Devil.”

He relates this inside the Humo Cigar Company in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a shop owned by a friend of his named Paulie S. In deference to the delicate nature of our conversation, Paulie locks the door of his shop. Puffing on a prelunch Romeo y Julieta cigar, Soldi recalls the first time he had to get aggressive with a client. He was 16 when a gas station owner in the Bronx refused to pay. So Soldi and his partner began staking out the place at 5:30 in the morning.

“We jumped the owner and his mechanic as they walked in and made them turn on the pumps,” he remembers. “Then we tied them up, gagged them and put each one into a car trunk. That’s when my partner and I began pumping gas. We kept pumping it until we had the $6,000 he owed. Then we let him and his mechanic out of the trunk. They were still tied up, hopping around, as we drove away.”

In case I have any doubts about the impact his presence can have on slow or elusive payers, Soldi pulls a long-barreled Colt 45 gun out from inside the waistband of his pants. Then he shows me a hat that has human teeth adorning the band above the brim. Gnarly and browning and definitely real, the teeth once belonged to people who failed to settle their debts quickly enough. “We didn’t want to break the arms and legs of guys because then they couldn’t work and couldn’t earn the money to pay back what they owed,” says Soldi, pointing out that such outlandish forms of retribution add drama to movies but do not work in the real world. “Instead, my friend Masio would have a wrench that he’d stick into the back of your mouth. He’d pull out a tooth. I’m assuming it was painful. I know that the guys didn’t want to have it happen again. It sent a message but at the same time allowed them to go to work the next day.”

Things did not always go exactly as Soldi wanted. He admits that he served time behind bars, convicted of extortion, but most of the time, he adds, “Plaintiffs figured it was a good idea to call it a day. Most of them never made it to court.”

While the bottom line for Soldi was always to get the job done and retrieve the money by whatever means necessary, he does pride himself on his ability to get creative. Like the time he walked into a deadbeat’s meat shop, perfectly dressed for the occasion in pristine butcher’s whites, and left with a side of beef as a partial payment. Or when he and a partner donned Con Ed uniforms in order to gain access to the Co-Op City apartment of a losing gambler who was poised to skip town with his wife. “His packed valise was on the bed,” remembers Soldi. “We hung him by his ankles, off of the edge of an 18-story balcony, and then he decided to give us our money. In the end he walked us downstairs before splitting—just like a banana.”

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.