We’d done the wine-tasting — eurgh — and our coach party was being whipped between the tasting room and the dining room for a traditional Croatian luncheon. I fell in step with a man I recognised as my brother-in-adversity on the painfully prolix excursion (it was a press junket) and as we hadn’t yet said hello I extended a hand. He was stocky, tanned, white-haired. His face was somehow innocent and worldly at the same time. I guessed he was about 60 years old. ‘Ivan,’ he said. ‘Pleasure to meet you.’ In the initial exchange of information, Ivan told me he was 86, nearly 30 years older than he looked. He also told me he had practised as a doctor in Las Vegas in the late 1950s and early ’60s.
Only the week before I had reread with undim–inished pleasure Nick Pileggi’s Casino, the book on which the Scorsese film was based. It’s an account, based on interviews, of the mob’s clandestine control and ‘skimming’ of the Las Vegas casinos in the late Fifties and early Sixties — the Stardust Hotel in particular. The story of the rise and fall of gambling genius and mafia front man ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, and his boyhood pal, the violent lunatic Tony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro, reads like a Shakespearean tragedy. In the right mood, I would take Casino as my desert island book. As we filed in for lunch I asked Ivan whether it would be OK if I joined him.
‘Sure, buddy,’ he said.
‘So you must have met mob guys while you were in Vegas at that time,’ I said, barely restraining my hard-on as we sat down.
‘Sure,’ he said. ‘I was the in-house doctor to all those casinos for many years. I treated those guys.’
‘Please go on,’ I said.
He began at the beginning.
‘I went to Vegas as a newly minted medical doctor in 1957,’ he said. ‘My original employer there turned out to be a charlatan who would operate on anyone for money. He would cut open anybody to “Let the butterflies out” as he termed it, whether they needed it or not. I realised I had made the worst decision of my life. And here I was with three babies and a pregnant wife and no money. The sky looked black.
‘My first month’s paycheck went on rent, groceries and car payment. This left us with $250. To cheer ourselves up, we hired a babysitter one night and I took my darling wife out on the town. The Stardust Hotel was newly opened and we two kids from Canada went in gawking and rubbernecking just like all the other naïve tourists. As we wandered the casino floor, I saw a game I was familiar with — chemin de fer. I had played it as a college kid ten years earlier on holiday in France. My wife rolled her eyes at me. “Oh no, Ivan,” she whispered.
‘I went to the table and placed a modest bet of $20. The table limit in those days was a thousand dollars. I won, bet again, won, bet again. An hour later I walked away $73,000 ahead, which in today’s value is about half a million. From being two poor kids new in town we were practically rich.’
With his windfall, Ivan set himself up in Vegas as an independent general practitioner. A lot of his patients were casino employees. He was a good doctor, and he was kind. He gained a reputation for waiving the fees of the indigent. His practice grew. One day he successfully treated a woman for chronic back pain and she turned out to be the wife of an outfit guy. The mafioso called him on the phone to express his gratitude.
‘Doc, I’d like you to come to dinner with me,’ he said, naming one of the casino restaurants and a time.
Ivan arrived at the restaurant and was directed to a table. The mobster was presiding over a convivial table occupied by, among others, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. As Ivan approached and saw that there was no spare seat, his courage nearly failed him. But the gangster saw him hovering, grasped the situation immediately, and yelled at Sinatra: ‘Frank! Frank! Move your dumb ass over, will ya? Squeeze over and make room for a very good friend of mine.’ Then, ‘Doc! Doc! You’re standing there like a fucking prick. Squeeze in here next to Frank. You think his breath stinks or something? You know what? You’re right. Frank, shut your fucking mouth, will ya?’
So Frank Sinatra budged up a bit and Ivan squeezed in beside him.
If Ivan was a run-of-the-mill sort of a bloke, or hadn’t had a sense of humour, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed himself. But he isn’t, and he has, and he did. He passed the examination. At one point, the outfit guy looked significantly at him and said: ‘Doc, you really fixed my wife up good. She’s a different person. Now she even allows me to sleep in the house sometimes. Tell me, what can I do for you, Doc?’ Then as now, Ivan had his razor-sharp wits about him. ‘Give me the casinos,’ he said. And so Dr Ivan Mindlin became the official in-house doctor to the mob-run casinos on the
‘I learned how I should conduct myself very quickly. There were rules and I learned them. Never gossip. Speak only about what must be said. Never lie. Never make excuses. Never explain. Most important of all was the adage that once you have made a commitment you must be sure to honour it.
‘Aaron Wiseberg, one of the bosses who was my mentor, once said to me, “Doc, if you say you will do something, be sure you honour your word. Never break your word to these gentlemen. Break your word and you will never get into their good graces again.” I learned fast and I was accepted. Just as I took care of their medical needs, so too did they take care of me.’
‘You picked up the pieces,’ I said.
‘Sometimes, yes, you could say that is what I did.’
There was the showgirl found dead in a lift, stabbed through the heart from behind with a sharpened knitting needle. And there was Walter Kerr, playboy brother of Oklahoma senator Bob Kerr, found unconscious in his high-end, comped (complimentary) suite. At that time, Walter Kerr owned Round Table, the most celebrated racehorse in US turf history.
‘I had a call in the middle of the night. A voice on the other end said, “Doc, we got a problem,” and gave the suite number. I went right over. I let myself into the suite, found the guy lying on the bed out cold. As he regained consciousness, he told me he had taken a hooker back to the suite and they’d had a fight and she’d brained him with a bottle. We looked for his wallet. Gone. His situation was a compromising nightmare. But the guy was so cheerful. I couldn’t believe it. I told him that the sheriff was outside the door waiting to take a statement. Was he going to press charges? “Aw, the poor woman has probably got young mouths to feed and was feeling a little desperate,” he said. “I feel sorry for her. No, I won’t be pressing charges.”
‘I said, “You’re from Oklahoma, right, Mr Kerr?” He said, “Sonny, I own Oklahoma.” I was a little green in those days. What a nice, nice guy, I thought. It wasn’t until I went home and told my wife, and she pointed out that it wasn’t in Walter or Bob’s best interest to have it splashed all over the papers that Walter Kerr had been robbed by a hooker in a casino hotel room that I realised how naive I was. But 99 per cent of the time it was just regular general practice: venereal disease and heartburn and so forth.’
‘But what about Spilotro?’ I nagged. ‘Did you ever meet him?’
Tony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro is one of the most notorious hoodlums in US history. (In the film Casino he is played to insane perfection by the great Joe Pesci.) The mob was making so much easy money from skimming their Vegas casinos that they forbade any other mafia-associated crime in the city, to keep the police from looking too closely. But when Tony the Ant arrived in Vegas, he went on a murderous one-man crime spree that attracted attention from both the media and the FBI. The worst fears of the mafia bosses were realised. Their casino operations were busted and the elderly bosses of three crime families died in the penitentiary. Spilotro and his brother were beaten to death with baseball bats and buried in a shallow grave in a cornfield.
‘He was around. I met him once and once was enough. I was at one of the Stardust bars one evening with a friend, when another guy came in and started talking to a group of guys further up the bar. My friend, who was Jewish, said to me quietly, “The kleynike has just walked in.” Kleynike is Yiddish for “little guy”. I looked over. It was Spilotro. Now he came over to speak privately with my friend. And I tell you, for the first and last time in my life I felt that I was in the presence of pure evil. After that I strenuously avoided that guy. Until Tony Spilotro arrived in town, the outfit guys lived and ruled like dukes and duchesses. But that fucking lunatic pulled the roof down on top of everybody.’
I liked Ivan very much. I liked his combination of courtliness and street-smartness. He was funny and frank and modest and forgiving — of my persistent, inane questioning about the mob, for example.
A month later, Ivan invited me to dinner at the Ritz in Piccadilly. In the meantime I had googled him. From the humble beginnings described to me, astonishingly, Ivan went on to become one of the most successful gamblers in US history. In the early 1980s, he and associates Billy Walters and Michael Kent were the first to bet successfully on college football games as predicted by a statistics-fed computer. The US betting exchanges didn’t know what had hit them. For five years until they were arrested by the FBI and falsely charged with bookmaking (which was illegal), they took bookmakers from coast to coast to the cleaners. The Computer Group, as they became known, are to US sports betters what the Beatles are to pop music. When the trio fell out under the stress of the trumped-up charges, their split was a sensational as the Fab Four’s. The man to whom I had offered my hand in Croatia was nothing less than a US legend. How very typical of him it was not to have thought the Computer Group worth mentioning.
Also seated at the table in the Ritz casino restaurant was Mike, introduced to me as the world backgammon champion. Mike offered me half of his salad. Next, I was introduced to Carol, a professional poker player and TV poker commentator.
Ivan had a cold and sneezed continuously, but at the first opportunity, I asked him: ‘So how much money did the Computer Group make in those five years?’ He thought for a few seconds, sneezed, thought about it a bit more, sneezed three times more. ‘Hard to say exactly,’ he said. ‘But I would hazard a guess that in the end we probably took them for around $200 million.’