But the 5-year-old was told nothing and he wouldn't find the courage to ask his mother about it for years. The Tassones, though, quickly felt the sting of this major loss. The house had to be sold and they moved in with his grandmother, and, eventually, to a drafty trailer home Bruce was ashamed of. His mother worked two jobs, his father three, because in the Tassone household, paying back your debts was part of the gambler's code of honor.
In gambling, they conversed in another language: Patriots, five times and under. How many other little North Adams boys knew what that meant? It seemed so exotic, glamorous. His father worked at Sprague Electric Co. Once, it was where seemingly everyone's dad worked -- over 4, employees in a town of 18, -- before integrated circuits arrived and jobs fled North America.
On weekends, Tony Tassone played endless poker games at a social club, where the air was thick with the succulent smell of cigars and Italian sausage. Here, men swore, drank, told stories and, of course, gambled. I thought that was normal. As a teenager, Bruce's every-day after-school poker games with his buddies and evenings at the social club evolved into trips to the track at Saratoga or Green Mountain, where his father would place bets for him.
He was happy when he won. When he lost, he wasn't. Even when he wasn't happy I got to see that. I got to see the change in moods and how he reacted. I saw that human side of him," Tassone recalled. By the time he was at Skidmore College, Tassone had the Daily Racing Form delivered to his room and spent all his time placing bets, going to the track. He flunked out by the end of the year.
The same thing happened at the University of California, Berkeley, where a second chance at college evaporated in a noxious mix of horse tracks, card clubs and all-night drives to Vegas and Reno. When he returned east, the pattern repeated itself at the University of Massachusetts. As a kid, I can consciously remember this. My father was such a horrible gambler and a loser that I thought God would not let me be that same loser. I was smarter. I did really well on my SATs.
I felt that I was smarter and more educated. I felt that I wouldn't fall into the same traps that he did. Much later, a psychiatrist would write that Tassone was in "an altered state of consciousness in which he simply did not think or care about his obsession with gambling. Still another would conclude that a "two-year residency at Foxwoods and chronic out-of-control gambling" culminated in an "inability to consider the consequences of his actions. But in the fall of , in the small realm of the world's largest gambling casinos in southeastern Connecticut, reckless behavior is handsomely rewarded.
A man who drops thousands of dollars per bet is a respected player. And this is Mr. Tassone -- master of his gambling domain -- a man with so many comp points he can live for free at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, eat at the best restaurants, stay in the best rooms. It is also a moment when his gambler's reputation is immense: The posh Bellagio casino in Las Vegas comps Tassone's entire stay after learning of his spending habits in Connecticut.
Can we get you the suite this weekend, Mr. If you need something, just give us a call. When his sister doesn't understand craps, a special table is set up with an instructor for her to learn. When he wants to bring his mother down to Mohegan Sun from North Adams, a limousine is sent to pick her up. I'd get the nice food. And I could live it up and forget about all the destruction and the pain I had caused my wife, my family, my kids," Tassone recalled recently.
After his marriage implodes in , Tassone more or less lives at Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, making the drive to work in Watertown, outside of Boston, every morning and then racing back in the evening. Broke and unable to think beyond the craps tables, during the summer of Tassone begins to use his company credit card to purchase computer equipment that he then hocks at pawn shops in Providence and New Haven, taking the cash to go and gamble more.
By September, however, the credit card scam is slipping out of control, and he comes up with another scheme: a phony construction company that bills Bright Horizons for work at a real construction project he is supervising in Florida. As the vice president in charge of construction, Tassone signs the invoices and payment is wired to his bank account.
That was what the intention was. But I got the money and I gambled it and lost it. Over the fall and winter of , Tassone's gambling -- and his stealing -- escalate. In April , Tassone leaves Bright Horizons as federal investigators begin to close in.
Tassone's mad gambling spree continues unchecked, as he wins and loses huge amounts of cash through the summer and fall. When he isn't embezzling from his company he is conning friends who wire money directly to Tassone at Foxwoods. I was manipulative as hell when I gambled," Tassone said. At the casinos, "they always knew who I was.
I liked that. It was all a reinforcement of some crazy image of who I thought I was. He's come to gamble with a friend, perhaps to climb back on the winning track again. The money belongs to his buddy, who has cashed in his retirement, chasing a last big score with Tassone. But his mind is on all those big paydays of the past, the expense check he parlayed into a week-long binge and three weeks last summer when he could not lose at the craps tables.
It's like this for compulsive gamblers, always thinking about that next shot at redemption. Except that now Tassone is under indictment for mail fraud, facing years in prison. Tassone is no longer welcome at Mohegan Sun, but here at Foxwoods the room is still comped. The memories of those few big scores that linger out there are enough to keep you thinking I can do this one more time. Tassone calls maintenance and tells them he forgot the safe combination.
He loses that, too. The tables are stone cold, but Tassone cannot quit. Staggering to his buddy's SUV out in the parking lot, Tassone finishes off a bottle of Tanqueray and gulps a handful of Trazodone, antidepressant pills he's been carrying with him for months. It's his birthday -- March 12 -- and the radio is blasting into the clear cold evening. Tassone dials a phone number and blacks out, alone in a car in a parking lot at the world's largest casino.
The money is finally gone and there's no kindly blackjack dealer to nudge him awake so he can make another bet. They won't hold his mail for him, or take his laundry. Butler, 35, played football at the University of Connecticut, earned a degree in finance and serves on the board of the local United Way.
He is analytical and low-key, a contrast to Skip Hayward, the tribal leader who cut the deals that built Foxwoods in a joint called Mr. Pizza and held court late into the night at local bars. I told Butler that I found the Pequot Museum impressive.
Well, yes, but the exhibits make clear, in a way a casino never could, that the Pequots were a significant people whose reach once extended across much of southern New England. The Pequots, even with their substantial political clout in Connecticut, may not have been able to keep the Mohegans out of the casino market. But they never really mobilized against them.
The Mohegan Sun enjoys several advantages, starting with its location. It is just off an exit on I, while Foxwoods is a minute ride down a winding two-lane road. Mohegan has a younger clientele and a hipper vibe. When you enter its main hotel lobby, you notice right away that the lighting is better and the music more current. Mohegan is smaller, but in recent years it has generated more revenue.
The Mohegans own a second casino, in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, and are expected to compete for a license in Massachusetts. Casinos came to Nevada in and were not legalized anywhere else in the U. In , casinos opened in a second location, Atlantic City. It is not coincidental that the seaside resort was already a fallen place, poor and crime-ridden and hanging on to its one unique attraction, the annual Miss America Pageant.
You can still hear echoes of a time when gambling was widely considered wicked. When Rodney Butler raised the prospect of dropping the gambling age in Connecticut from 21 to 18 and allowing liquor sales until 4 a. Resistance to gambling, however, has been overwhelmed by the need for new sources of public revenue in an era when it has become nearly impossible, at any level of government, to raise taxes or even to let temporary tax cuts expire.
Butera reacts to the debates over gambling with a sense of amusement. Casino gambling exists in 36 states. Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in , and around Indian casinos now dot the American landscape. Some are no more than trailers on barren, remote land, but several are large resort casinos near major population centers.
The main action at Foxwoods and everywhere in the U. While casino opponents in Connecticut have attributed increased traffic, crime and gambling addiction to Foxwoods and Mohegan, those problems would have to be breathtakingly deep and costly to equal the dollars that have flowed to the state. About half of that is estimated to have come from out-of-state residents, the majority of them from Massachusetts and New York.
Barrow, director of the Center for Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and an expert on the New England casino market, told me. They understood the potential. It would be on the banks of the Potomac, about 10 miles south of the White House. Most people probably would not guess which state reaps the most revenue from its casinos. The state had just 10 casinos, but Rendell negotiated an agreement that requires them to turn over 55 percent of the hold from their slots to the state — an advantageous deal for the public and one that showed other states what casino owners will tolerate to gain entry into a market.
The silver-haired Fahrenkopf, a chairman of the Republican National Committee in the Reagan years, is known as an adroit Washington player, the type who can make light of his high status while also fully inhabiting it. The A. That represents money that individuals bet, lost and left behind in casinos.
Those figures come from only commercial casinos. Foxwoods, Mohegan and other Indian casinos were not included. But you see the contribution we make, in terms of jobs, and the taxes we pay. There are, for example, the so-called riverboat casinos that get around prohibitions against gambling on land; most of the boats never leave the shoreline.
The racino, a more recent innovation, is a slots parlor built at an existing horse-racing track — ground already touched and therefore tainted by gambling. Even on a Monday afternoon, thousands of people — white, black, Asian and Hispanic, drawn from the great melting pot of Queens and nearby boroughs and suburbs — were playing the slot machines.
Under New York state law, however, slots are illegal. With a V. That somehow makes it legal. Governor Cuomo wants New York to change its state constitution to permit Las Vegas-style gambling with table games, live dealers and slot machines that can be called slot machines. His pitch is based on the prospect of gaining new revenues for the state — and overturning the hypocrisy of the current system. You have gaming!
A casino floor can seem like a throwback to a time decades ago when personal habits were judged less harshly and physical fitness was not considered such a virtue. Our crowd wants to sit in front of a slot machine, smoke a cigarette and drink. A substantial number of casino patrons have mobility issues, and you see a lot of wheelchairs.
People who work on casino floors take pride in getting to know their regular customers, the names of their children and grandchildren and even their health issues. The featured icons in its companion game, Guys Night, were things meant to get men excited: dancing girls, cigars, overstuffed hamburgers. Foxwoods does have table games, including blackjack and poker. Most casinos of any size court big players, those who will risk hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
High rollers are brought in by private jet and helicopter, installed in sumptuous suites with butler service and sometimes granted specially tailored rules on their game of choice. The table games pose some risk for casinos. The word in the industry was that Johnson benefited from his own solid strategy, a run of great luck and rules that were tilted too much in his direction.
Johnson was allowed to split aces a third and even a fourth time. The lesson that Butera and others on his management team drew was that the Atlantic City casinos had negotiated away too much of their house advantage, something they said was common at Foxwoods under previous management teams. We were on the gambling floor, and Butera was focused, as he often is, on his dealers. Butera, who has an M. Singh, a mathematician and professor of gaming at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, advised a roomful of casino executives that they could probably increase the hold on their slot machines by a percentage point or two without losing business.
He said that some academic literature suggested that skilled slots players would notice, but he disagreed. The difference between table games and slot machines is that slots are entirely predictable. The gaming confab, known as G2E, offers a sort of crash course in the state of the industry.
But much of the rest of his presentation was about the uncertainty gripping the business, what casinos cannot control. His remarks, in fact, were a bit grim — they reminded me of the despair you hear in the newspaper business over the advanced age of the core customers and the fear that younger people do not like the product enough to replace them. Millions of younger Americans who like to gamble are playing online poker, hosted on offshore sites. So at the same time that brick-and-mortar casinos are proliferating, the demographics may be working against the industry.
The strategy would likely put those who already own casinos in a favored position in the new online world. Fahrenkopf, the A. How much is too much? The market will decide. Las Vegas, still the anchor of the gambling industry in the U.
The biggest winner in Las Vegas in recent years has been Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the company that owns the Venetian, but what has made him one of the wealthiest men in the world is not his U. At least four casinos have been in bankruptcy, and people are no longer crowding onto buses to head south down the Atlantic City Expressway.
Gaming is an aged community. Anyone who has ever wanted to try a casino has tried a casino. In better economic times, these might seem like lower-level service-industry jobs. In the current climate, they just looked like jobs. When Butera showed me around the property, it was clear that much about it irritates him. The restaurant choices, for starters. What encourages Butera is the immensity of the property and the richness of what has already been built.
The business needs to evolve, but the foundation that exists is unbelievable. A successful turnaround artist does more than negotiate favorable terms with lenders. He must tell a story.
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