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Gaming: The Class of 1960

The first Black Book entrants were a motley crew — and one of the first tests of Nevada’s desire to build a grown-up gaming industry

Gov. Grant Sawyer was tired of the muckraking exposés that painted Nevada as a den of iniquity run by organized crime. The stories were accompanied by mugshots bearing nicknames like “Momo,” “Johnny Bats,” and “Trigger Mike.” On the cusp of the 1960s, the state’s legal gaming industry was undergoing a dangerous evolution — and it threatened the state’s fragile reputation.

“After a while it began to get to me,” Sawyer said in his oral history. “You consider yourself an honorable person surrounded by honorable people, and to be constantly accused of being something less gets to be very annoying. I developed the attitude, ‘By God, I will show these people that Nevadans are like everybody else, with the same principles and the same standards — maybe better than some other people. We are not the riffraff that they make us out to be, nor are we for sale to anybody!’”

Sawyer knew the score: The mob had bankrolled much of the gaming industry, and they wielded clout in many casinos through associates and front men. The FBI and Department of Justice were also bearing down, increasing the pressure on Sawyer. As governor, Sawyer called out organized crime in his inaugural address and pushed through the Gaming Control Act of 1959, setting in motion the regulatory apparatus Nevada uses today. Federal and local law enforcement, along with intrepid Gaming Control Board investigators, would spend the next two decades ferreting out the last vestiges of traditional organized crime within the casino industry. Between arrest, attrition, and the mob’s own violent retirement plan, the industry ultimately emerged from the shadow of mob ties.

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But that was the long game. In the short term, Sawyer had a big PR problem. The hoodlum element had to be forced out. And from that, the idea for Nevada gaming’s “list of excluded persons” — better known as the Black Book — was born. Praised by some as an anti-corruption tool and decried by others as a merely cosmetic (not to mention unconstitutional) fix to Vegas’ mob problem, the Black Book turns 60 this year. It’s a distinctly Nevadan document that reflects a serious desire to grow up, one of our most emphatic attempts to separate gambling as a responsible form of leisure from its stigma of vice and criminality.

The first iteration of the Black Book was a rogue’s gallery of 11 men who represented several of the biggest organized crime concerns in the country. From Chicago, Outfit boss Sam Giancana was joined by business genius Murray Llewelyn “The Camel” Humphreys, and a short-fused killer named Marshall Caifano, also known as Johnny Marshall. From Kansas City came brothers Nicholas and Carl “Cork” Civella, who already had their eyes on the Tropicana and other Strip properties. Their lesser-known partner, Motel Grezebrenacy, aka Max Jaben, was considered a master of the group’s illegal gambling activities in Kansas City and Las Vegas. Spotlighted by the Kefauver Committee, New York-born Genovese family mobster Michael “Trigger Mike” Coppola enjoyed his syndicate’s influence in Miami Beach and Las Vegas, where he was said to hold points in casinos on Las Vegas Boulevard. He was arrested here after visiting pals at the Riviera and Stardust.

From Los Angeles, mafia man John Louis “Johnny Bats” Battaglia and bookmaking baron Joe Sica were barred, along with handsome Louis Tom Dragna, who would become known as “the Reluctant Prince” for his unwillingness to dive into the messy end of the family business. Dragna encountered his share of legal trouble, but managed to live in seclusion before checking out in 2012 at age 92 as the last living member of the first class. There were seemingly odd additions: former club fighter Robert L. Garcia of Southern California, reputed to be friends with Mickey Cohen, the Hollywood hoodlum. Denying links to the “Mickster,” Garcia lamented that he was just an honest guy trying to keep the lights on at his own illegal gaming parlors located outside the city limits of Palm Springs, but regularly visited by the authorities. His many complaints didn’t change his Black Book status. The same was true for the rest of the class of ’60. Not that they didn’t try.

Marshall and Dragna separately tested the constitutionality of the ban by making public appearances at Las Vegas casinos where they’d once received VIP treatment. They were wined and dined up and down the Strip — until they weren’t. After Dragna returned to Los Angeles, Marshall was arrested. The ensuing litigation played out over six years, ending with a court decision that upheld the constitutionality of the Black Book.

The book’s strength was tested again in 1963, this time at Lake Tahoe’s Cal Neva Lodge. After a supposedly private rendezvous in Chalet 50 between Giancana and his singing star girlfriend Phyllis McGuire went public, the Cal Neva’s part owner Frank Sinatra went ballistic. Sinatra’s epithet-laced dressing down of a gaming agent led to the effective yanking of his gaming license — until 1981, when the state Gaming Commission, with substantial ceremony, restored Sinatra’s license with no restrictions.

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The Black Book has always had its critics, none larger than former Las Vegas mayor and unabashed mob lawyer Oscar Goodman. His list of Black Book-fighting clients includes Tony Spilotro, Frank Rosenthal, and Joey Cusumano. “It was a cosmetic device established by people who couldn’t care less about who went into a casino unless there was a cheating element to them,” he says. Which may make you wonder why so many people fought so hard to stay out of the book.

If anyone knows the answer, it’s Control Board Deputy Chief of Enforcement James Taylor, who’s spent most of his 24-year career investigating Black Book characters. He’s personally handled 13 successful cases, and supervised many more, and has watched Black Book nominees go from being predominantly mob-connected to being accused of cheating and stealing from casinos.

“It’s withstood a lot of challenges over the years, and it remains. It still helps us identify people who pose a threat to the interests of the state, or the interests of the gaming industry. And I think there’s always going to be a place for it in the industry. It’s a good tool for us.” In which case, a “happy birthday” is in order.