On September 24th, 1980, a man wearing cowboy boots and carrying two brown suitcases entered Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. One suitcase held $777,000 in cash; the other was empty. After converting the money into chips, the man approached a craps table on the casino floor and put everything on the backline. This meant he was betting against the woman rolling the dice. If she lost, he’d double his money. If she won, he’d lose everything. Scarcely aware of the amount riding on her dice, the woman rolled three times: 6, 9, 7.
“Pay the backline,” said the dealer. And just like that, the man won over $1.5 million. He calmly filled the empty suitcase with his winnings, exited Binion’s into the desert afternoon, and drove off. It was the largest amount ever bet on a dice roll in America.
“Mystery Man Wins Fortune,” the Los Angeles Times reported. No one knew the identity of the fair-haired young Texan who’d just made history, and so he became known as the “Phantom Gambler.” “He was cool,” said Jack Binion, president of the Horseshoe. “He really had a lot of gamble in him.” But it would be years before the phantom would be seen in Vegas again.
There’s a particular romance to all-or-nothing gamblers. They lend themselves easily to myth. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades wagered the division of the world on a game of dice. In the second book of the Mahabharata, the ancient Indian epic, the king Yudhishthira is tempted into a dice game in which he wagers his kingdom, his army, and his slaves, along with the freedom of his brothers, his wife, and himself—and loses. Is it better to have rolled and lost than never to have rolled at all? As Nietzsche asks in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “A throw failed you. But you dice-throwers, what does it matter?” To roll the dice is to submit to chance. The grander the wager, the starker the confrontation with the mysteries of fate at the core of the cosmos.
Nearly four years later, on March 24th, 1984, the Phantom Gambler returned to the Horseshoe. This time, his suitcase contained $538,000. Again, he put it all on the backline. And again, the red dice rolled across the baize.
Casinos like to control just how quickly gamblers can ruin themselves. The conventional wisdom is that a slow drain is superior to the sudden flush. The house wants you to lose just enough that you’ll come back and lose again tomorrow. Casinos therefore limit the amount you’re able to bet on a single game—usually no more than $10,000. The table limit protects the house’s interest—if the gambler happens to win, it isn’t always easy to come up with that much cash—while restraining those recklessly seeking the ecstasy of Zarathustra, like moths to the flame.
But not Binion’s. At the Horseshoe Casino, none of the usual limits applied. Away from the touristic Vegas Strip, in the downtown area called Glitter Gulch, the Horseshoe was known as a gambler’s gambling joint. Its regular customers, said one dealer, were all “tough monkeys and weirdos” with names like Silent Harry, Texas Dolly, and the Kid. There was a hotel, but no luxury suites, no spa, no swimming pool. The dealers wore blue jeans. “We got a little joint and a big bankroll,” said the founder Benny Binion, “and all them others got a big joint and a little bankroll.” The “sky’s the limit” policy was one of the Horseshoe’s signatures. And to prove the house was good for it, Binion encased a million bucks in an enormous plastic horseshoe and put it on permanent display, as if it were extraneous.
Benny Binion and his daughter in front of the plastic horseshoe.
Not that anyone questioned Benny Binion’s wealth. When he died in 1989, he was said to be worth at least $100 million, not bad for a man who’d started down in Dallas as a Prohibition bootlegger and numbers runner. It was better not to ask how he got all that money. Binion once poked a pencil through the eye of someone who held out on him. He pleaded self-defense to one murder charge, went free on yet another, and was only forced out of Texas when the sheriff in his pocket got voted out of office. Benny landed in Vegas in 1946, in the very same month the gangster Bugsy Siegel helped open the Flamingo Casino on the Strip, and the modern image of the city began to take shape. Even while fighting extradition to Texas, Binion was allowed to open the Horseshoe in 1951.
By the time the Phantom Gambler returned to place his second bet, Benny Binion had been convicted of tax evasion and couldn’t technically own the Horseshoe. His sons ran the place. Ted Binion, patrolling the casino floor with a snub-nosed, .38-calibre revolver, watched the Phantom Gambler put it all on the backline and win again.
Before this highest of high rollers could stalk away, Ted Binion managed to get a few details out of him. The Phantom Gambler’s real name was William Lee Bergstrom. He was a thirty-three-year-old who’d made some money flipping apartment buildings in Austin. Bergstrom had dabbled in trading gold and silver, and said he’d borrowed half of the original $777,000 by telling the bank it was for gold. He let Binion know that if he’d lost the bank’s money, he’d planned to kill himself by swallowing seventy pills.
Bergstrom was an unusual gambler in several regards. Repetitive action is the norm. In “Seduction,” Jean Baudrillard observed that “the true form [of games of chance] is cyclical or recurrent.” The eternal return is the pleasure of playing—and the hazard. It’s been reported that gamblers will keep playing slots while the fire alarm is sounding, and even the sharpest players regularly go broke because of an insatiable urge to keep going. No doubt it’s this compulsive quality that inspired Freud, in his study of Dostoyevsky, to link gambling and masturbation. William Bergstrom, on the other hand, would take the plunge with everything he had, and then split town.
But Bergstrom’s numerological obsessions stood firmly in the ancient gambler’s tradition of omen-seeking. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he told Ted Binion that he’d made his bet for $777,000 because he’d purchased a bar of silver with three sevens in the serial number. “He woke up in the middle of the night for thirty days thinkin’ about these bets before he made them,” Binion said. Bergstrom’s superstitious reasoning extended to his vision of the world, which, today, might be called survivalist. After winning his first bet, he was overheard to say “inflation was going to eat up all that money anyway,” and in the years between his two wagers, he drove around in a motor home with a cache of silver coins, Krugerrands (South African currency), and nutrition pills, preparing for economic collapse.
The number that truly fascinated Bergstrom wasn’t 777 or 538. It was a million. On November 16th, 1984, the Phantom Gambler materialized once more at the Horseshoe with $550,000 in American dollars, $310,000 in cashier’s checks, and $140,000 in Krugerrands. As usual, he converted everything into chips, and as usual, he put it all on the backline.
Yet something was different. With his first two wagers, he’d predicted a win. But as if he’d seen it all in a dream, he said this time, he was going to lose.
With a flick of the wrist, the shooter rolled a seven—a losing number for Bergstrom. All in an instant, the Phantom Gambler had lost a million dollars (about $2.4 million today). Ted Binion described a reaction of eerie calm: “He just signed those cashier’s checks smooth as glass and went down and got the enchiladas the Mexican cook had left him.”
Five days later, Bergstrom’s brother, Alan, got a call in the middle of the night. William had attempted suicide at the La Quinta Motor Inn in Austin. He’d swallowed pills and arranged two shotguns to fire when he slumped forward. The plan didn’t work, but the attempt didn’t surprise his brother. In a recent conversation, Alan told me how different he’d always felt from William, who “grew up under my mother’s wing.” A self-described “working stiff,” Alan’s work ethic contrasted sharply with his brother’s all-or-nothing bids for glory.
In the aftermath of the suicide attempt, their father made the regrettable decision to counsel William himself (he had no therapeutic training). It was during these amateur sessions that the family learned of William’s wagers. It was also when they learned of his heartbreak. For several years, William had been seeing a teenage boy named John. They’d lived in Hawaii, toured the American continent in the motor home, and even stayed on the Binion ranch in Montana. But friends described William as overbearing, even abusive (“I just thought [John] was Bill’s servant,” said Ted Binion), and John finally left him.
Perhaps the most typical thing about Bergstrom’s gambling was that for him, as for so many others, the money seemed to signify something else. Gamblers often describe how, when the chips are on the table, money is transformed into a potent symbol for other psychic forces. In Bergstrom’s case, the action on the craps table seemed, like a love affair, to be a referendum on his self-worth. “[John’s] leaving me was the only reason I gambled the $1 million in the first place,” he wrote to a friend. “I knew that if I lost the million dollars that I would for sure fully and completely do away with myself.”
After weeks of his father’s counseling, William borrowed his mother’s Buick and immediately took off for Vegas. But this time, his suitcases were empty. At the Horseshoe, he tried passing off a $1.3 million cashier’s check, which was quickly identified as a forgery. His father had already called ahead and told Binion not to take any more bets from the Phantom Gambler.
At 9:55 AM on February 4th, 1985, the maid entered room 442 at the Marina Hotel on the Strip, and found William Bergstrom dead from an overdose of pills.
In the years since his death, Bergstrom’s wins have passed into gambling legend—and promotion. He’s been featured as a kind of James Bond figure in commercials for Horseshoe-brand casinos (the original Binion’s was purchased by TLC Casino Enterprises in 2008, and there is now a $3,000 table limit). To a snappy bass line, an actor struts across the casino floor with a suitcase of $777,000—and wins it all. “Horseshoe Casinos ignite the true gambler’s soul,” says the voice-over. Naturally, no mention is made of the man’s later suicide.
In the commercial, and occasionally elsewhere, Bergstrom is referred to as the “Suitcase Man.” The name evokes the cool self-assurance that would cause a gambler to come equipped to haul the winnings home. It makes Bergstrom seem practical, professional, more like his brother. It gives him the air of the real-estate broker he formerly was, as if to convey to customers that they can come to the casino straight from work, without even changing clothes.
But it was the wild will to wager that finally defined Bergstrom. The play was the thing, and he knew it. Although he’s been described as intensely competitive, Bergstrom didn’t ask for his funeral urn to commemorate the $777,000, or the $538,000. He didn’t ask to go down as a winner. He wanted the urn to read “The Phantom Gambler of the Horseshoe, Who Bet $1 Million on Nov. 16, 1984.” Let the record show he’d risked everything, and turned into a ghost.
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.
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