In the early 1940s, Las Vegas was a backwater desert town with very little going on. New York mobster Al Capone once had a plan to turn the town into a haven of casinos, convinced it would bring the tourists in – but he never got as far as putting the plan into action.
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The Luciano family’s Meyer Lansky was the one who put Capone’s plan in play – enlisting Bugsy Siegel to bring the other families onboard, to raise both the capital the project needed, and the passion for his vision.
The Flamingo hotel and casino opened in 1947 – although it was already operating at a loss, as Bugsy had embezzled far too much money from the project. He was killed just six months after it opened – and many assumed this was retaliation from the investors, convinced they would never see a return on their money.
Under Lansky’s management, however, it wasn’t long before the Flamingo was bringing in an astonishing amount of cash. A lot of this was down to sheer luck, and timing: Fidel Castro had just staged his communist coup in Cuba – and with that country no longer a viable destination for tourists looking to gamble, they flocked instead to Las Vegas.
The Flamingo was the first in a long line of mafia-owned casinos – and it is thanks to the mafia that the city developed into the tourist haven it now is.
CHICAGO OUTFIT MUSCLES IN
By the time the 1950s came around, the Chicago Outfit were making their own presence felt in Las Vegas – with three of their own casinos – the Desert Inn, the Stardust and the Riviera.
The families began to get concerned about how the steep rise in the number of casinos would affect the profits they could each make. They met, and agreed a deal – giving each shares in all of the other families resorts. It made sure that every one of these Vegas Casino Mobsters could get their piece of the pie – and meant they could keep their disagreements from spilling over into bloodshed.
The mafia’s involvement in the casino business soon caught the attention of a number of politicians – but their efforts to crack down didn’t slow gambling’s growth – and so the mafia’s investments continued to grow. But those with Vegas’ casino gangsters in their sights didn’t give up.
THE BLACK BOOK
In the 1960s, Nevada’s gambling regulators introduced a ‘black book’ of people banned from all casinos – via which a great number of high profile figures were prevented from stepping into their own establishments.
In that same decade, the law was changed to allow corporations to invest in casinos, hotels and resorts – which marked the beginning of corporate america’s own attempts to push the mafia out of Vegas, to make way for their own interests.
Despite the intense scrutiny they were under, the casinos mafia owners were all able to move vast amounts of money out of the buildings, and away to be laundered. This was thanks in part to enigmatic figures like Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro, and Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal.
During the 1980s the FBI made one final attack on the mafia and their casinos – clearing out those owners they could prove were linked to organised crime, and forcing the sales of those premises to legitimate businesses. With the majority of Mafiosi now behind bars, the state of Nevada insists the town is no longer in the mafia’s pocket. Whether or not that’s really the case remains to be seen.