By Byron Craft


Long before there was the Bellagio and even before there was the Horseshoe and the Aladdin, there was the Dunes.  It was “the place” to play poker in Las Vegas.

When the Dunes Hotel and Casino first opened in 1955, the critics hailed it as the “classiest resort on Las Vegas Boulevard.”  It featured a 35-foot tall statue of a sultan out front with his hands on his hips staring out at the horizon.  Inside, the famous Hollywood actress and dancer Vera-Ellen performed in the “Magic Carpet Revue”.  The casino attracted a steady stream of high rollers from all across the country.  In spite of its outward appearance of opulence, the casino struggled to make a profit during its early years.

The hotel was built in part with financing from movie mogul Al Gottesman and the Teamsters Pension Fund.  The major investors were Joseph Sullivan, Alfred Gottesman and Bob Rice;  it was later believed that Raymond Patriarca, the head of a Providence, Rhode Island crime family, was the source of Sullivan’s outlay.  The resort soon ran into financial difficulties and the casino closed after a year.  It was purchased in 1956 by two businessmen, Major A. Riddle and Jake Gottlieb, who had dealings with the Chicago Outfit.  “The Outfit,” also known as the Chicago Mob, was a crime syndicate that dated back to the 1910’s;  it was part of the American Mafia.

The modified resort boasted an 18-hole golf course, a rooftop health spa and a 90-foot long pool.  The Hotel’s slogan was “The Miracle in the Desert.”  In its early years, many top performers, such as Dean Martin, Jayne Mansfield, Liberace, George Burns, Pat Cooper, Judy Garland, Violetta Villas, Phyllis Diller and Frank Sinatra performed at the hotel.  While it opened to great fanfare, it struggled from the start – a chief reason was that it was located at, what was then, the southernmost part of the Strip…way out in the boonies for its time.  The hotel frequently had to borrow money, and even The Sands Hotel and Casino lent its executives to help out, as well as bringing in numerous famous celebrities and entertainers such as Frank Sinatra’s surprise appearance dressed as a sultan.  In an effort to drum up more business, its co-owner, the notorious Major Riddle, wasn’t afraid to try a few gimmicks.  In 1957, in a desperate move to keep the resort afloat, the Dunes became the first hotel casino in Nevada to offer a topless cabaret, called Minsky’s Follies.  The State Legislature was in an uproar, but the show set a record for attendance in a single week at 16,000.

Then along came Sidney “Sid” Wyman, born on June 1, 1910 in St. Louis, Missouri, who worked briefly as a legitimate businessman, but later became successful in the illegal bookmaking business.  Wyman had migrated to Las Vegas during its formative years.  Along with two other fellow bookmakers:  Ed Levinson and Michael Shapiro, and some initial backers that were reputed to have ties to organized crime, they invested in the Dunes.

Big Sid Wyman had pieces of various joints in Sin City, but in 1968, he acquired a big piece of the Dunes.  Sid Wyman brought Johnny Moss, the famous poker champion, to the Dunes, to spread the “Big Game” in front of the main showroom.  It was the biggest cash poker game of all time.  The early World Series of Poker was like pitching pennies by comparison.

Major Riddle was still one of Sid Wyman’s partners.  Major was a huge poker player.  He was one of the biggest producers in the poker game and the biggest sucker of all time.  Major lost so much that he lost control of the Dunes.  It was rumored that Major Riddle lost $40 million.  And of course, Johnny Moss got his share.  Sid Wyman took over principal ownership of the casino from Riddle and devised a publicity stunt influenced by the famed poker duel between Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos, staged just outside the entrance of Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in 1951.  Wyman hoped that the sight of men betting thousands of dollars against each other would attract more gamblers to the Dunes.  To parlay the marketing stunt, Sid Wyman allowed a few of the Texas road gamblers to spread a high stakes game of no-limit Texas hold’em just outside the entrance of his main showroom.  Texas hold’em is a variation of the standard card game of poker.  The game consists of two cards being dealt face-down to each player and then five community cards being placed face-up by the dealer.  A series of three (“the flop”) then two additional single cards (“the turn” and “the river” or “fourth and fifth street”, respectively), with players having the option to check, bet, raise or fold after each deal;  i.e., betting may occur prior to the flop, “on the flop”, “on the turn”, and “on the river”.

This was the first big no-limit game ever played on the Strip and it proved to be highly profitable.  The Golden Nugget in the late 1960’s failed to achieve adequate revenue and a steady game.  They became the original caretakers of no-limit hold’em and they were happy to give this new venue a try.  Unfortunately, what their game needed to survive simply didn’t exist downtown on Fremont Street.  They didn’t get the “drop-ins” at the Golden Nugget of any consequence…no producers.  The move to the Strip infused new life, and more importantly, more money into the game.  When they spread the game at the Dunes, they began to get drop-ins who would often lose $100,000 to $200,000.  They might have won at the craps table or playing blackjack and then they’d come to the poker tables and lose it all.  The game at the Dunes possessed what the game at the Golden Nugget never did:  fish for the sharks to feed on.  

Once the game began to attract a steady supply of producers, local players such as Jimmy Casella, “Suitcase” Sam Angel and Tom Abdo abandoned any pretense that they would only play razz and stud and became regulars in the no-limit hold’em game.  The presence of these players ensured that the game would not only survive, but flourish.  It flourished so well that the high stakes game at the Dunes eventually got so popular that management had to set up several more tables and cordon off the area with a rope, so that the railbirds couldn’t get too close to the players.

From the outset, the biggest supporter of the game at the Dunes was always the casino’s owner, Sid Wyman, and under his tutelage, it finally realized a sense of stability it had never managed to attain at the Golden Nugget.  When Wyman wasn’t busy overseeing the game at the Dunes, he would on occasion sit down and play in it.  A novice at no-limit hold’em when it first started getting played at his casino, he taught himself the nuances of the game by observing how the road gamblers from Texas played it.  And he did.  Within months he proved capable of holding his own in the game.  At the very least, he didn’t lose control of his casino in a card game as did his predecessor, Major Riddle.

While the players loved the game, it wasn’t a very big hit with the casino’s accounting department.  Poker simply didn’t generate enough income for the casino.  In those days, management charged the players by the hour, instead of taking a rake – a system that wasn’t very cost effective for the casino.  When the big corporations moved in, they had their accountants calculate the number of square feet on a casino floor, to see which games generated the most revenue per foot.  No-limit hold’em was not one of them.  

In the small world of Las Vegas during that era, the solution was simple.  In 1973, Wyman moved the game directly across the street to the Aladdin, which he and his mob buddies also had a hand in running.  It was the perfect venue for the game, because the casino floor of the Aladdin didn’t have much of a footprint to begin with.  The Aladdin then was not the Aladdin of today, which is now the Planet Hollywood.  The Aladdin in 1973 was a small casino and the facilities were motel-type facilities.  Having suffered through some difficult times, the property on which the Aladdin sat welcomed any opportunity to better its circumstances.  The location got off to a promising start in 1962, when Edwin Lowe, the creator of the game Yahtzee, spent 12 million dollars to erect the 450-room English Tallyho Motel.  Lowe sought to prove that a resort in Las Vegas didn’t need an attached casino to be successful.  He was wrong and his resort closed for business in October of 1963.  The following year, the motel was renamed the King’s Crown Tallyho Inn, but the name change couldn’t offset the fact that its new owner was unable to obtain a gaming license.  The endeavor failed after only six months.  So bleak was the outlook concerning the property’s prospects, that many in town started referring to it as the “The Vegas Jinx.”  

Milton Prell was the one who finally got it right.  It was 1966, he was able to get a gaming license, and he spent three million dollars renovating the place.  Prell ditched the English theme for an Arabian Nights one.  In April of that year, the newly refurbished hotel enjoyed a grand re-opening, featuring the comedian Jackie Mason and a nonstop waterfall of flower petals dropping from the ceiling.  Elvis married Priscilla there the following year, which caused a media sensation that attracted an influx of new customers from all over the world.  The bad times had passed.

In 1972, a group led by the local businessman, Sam Diamond, purchased the property for five million dollars and spent an additional sixty million on renovations and new construction, including a 29-story tower.  It was in the wake of this major overhaul that the biggest poker game in Las Vegas arrived on its doorstep, thanks to Sid Wyman.  

The game at the Aladdin will always be remembered for two things:  It became known for its big six-figure pots and as the place where Tom Abdo, a famous high-stakes player from Las Vegas, died in the middle of a game.  Abdo stood up from the table and was trying to reach the rope, when he had a massive heart attack and hit the ground.  According to legend, he was heard to say, “Count my chips.  I’ll be back.”  He died in the hospital later that day.

This game was essentially the same as the one that took place at the Dunes, only bigger.  The stakes were so high that some of the locals couldn’t participate in it.  That didn’t mean it lacked willing participants.  Along with Texas road gamblers such as Doyle Brunson and Crandell Addington, it attracted a steady supply of drop-ins who faithfully pumped money into the game.  “It was so well attended, that games often ran for days at a time and many fortunes changed hands,” said Addington.  For three years, the Aladdin was the center of the poker universe, but after the casino underwent another major overhaul in 1976, the game was abruptly shut down.  Johnny Moss, the game’s host, was asked to move it on down the road, a request he must have taken literally, for he merely relocated it to the Flamingo, which was still on the Strip, just down the road from the Aladdin.  At this point in its history, the game had become its own entity, capable of migrating from one location to the next, without very little drop-off in the level of participation.  It would continue to move around town, jumping from casino to casino, until 1989, when it finally found a semi-permanent home in the newly opened Mirage casino.  At some point during its travels, it also acquired a name that remains with it to this very day…The Big Game.

During Sid Wyman’s Las Vegas career, he became co-owner of several other casinos, including the Sands, the Riviera and the Royal Nevada.  He always owned a very big piece of the casinos and knew how to run them.  He dealt exceptionally well with the press, unions, celebrities, high rollers, movie stars and junkets.  When Wyman passed away in 1978, the Dunes died with him.  In less than a decade, the hotel casino went from being a high-class resort to a shabby relic of a bygone era.  Steve Wynn bought the property in 1992 and put it out of its misery, by razing the decrepit structures and starting anew.  In its place, he built the Bellagio, where the spirit of the game lives on in the mythic encounters that take place inside Bobby’s Room where The Big Game is still played.  The value of Sid Wyman’s contribution to the game was recognized in 1979, when he was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame as a charter member.

The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft, chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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