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Poker in the Past: The Dunes Casino

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Poker in the Past

The Dunes Hotel was the tenth resort opened on the Las Vegas Strip. The Bellagio now stands on the former grounds and the famous Dunes golf course is split between several casinos. The Dunes opened on May 23, 1955 and was designed by architect Maxwell Starkman. Although the resort was popular, initially they struggled to stay afloat. In a desperate bid to capture public attention, or outrage as the case may be, The Dunes became the first hotel in Nevada to offer a topless show, called Minsky’s Follies. The show set a record for attendance in a single week at 16,000, a record that remained unbroken until 1990. Despite their modest topless success, the resort soon ran into dire financial difficulties. The hotel was one of the largest and most opulent on the strip. The major investors were Joseph Sullivan, Alfred Gottesman and Bob Rice although it would come to light some years later that Raymond Patriarca, the head of a notorious Rhode Island crime family had intimate dealings with the casino also. The casino closed down due to money troubles in 1956, only having been open for one year.

The casino was purchased by two ambitious businessmen in 1956, Major A. Riddle and Jake Gottlieb. Major A. Riddle was an important figure in the development of Nevada as the universal center of gambling. Riddle grew up on farms in the rural south, mostly around Kentucky and Indiana before moving to Chicago and founding a successful shipping company. In 1929, the Great Depression cast it’s long shadow over the Golden Era of American growth and invention. Once great and profitable companies fell by the wayside overnight. Bankers threw themselves from their tall towers onto the streets below in their melancholy. Hard working men and women stood in long lines waiting for a hot bowl of soup, or news of a job for the day. It was in this era that Major Riddle became an incredibly rich man. In these troubling financial times, hard work was not enough to get ahead of the pack. Chicago was ruled by the mafia at the time and hushed whispers spoke of certain connections to Major Riddle. To phrase it nicely, his business practices were dishonest, but to put it plainly, his business practices were illegal. Riddle would urge his drivers to pay for their trucks from their own salary. When they got close to paying them off, he would fire them and keep the vehicles. Rumors persist that Riddle used part of the Teamsters Trade Union pension pool to front his initial investment in The Dunes.

The resort boasted an 18 hole golf course, a rooftop health spa and a 90ft long pool. The Hotel’s slogan was “The Miracle in the Desert.” The Dunes was widely known for the 25ft tall fiberglass Sultan which stood sentinel above the main entrance. Many world famous singers and acts of all kinds performed at the casino, including Liberace, Judy Garland and Dean Martin. In 1961, a 24-storey Northern tower was built, bringing the number of rooms up to 450. The casino was located at the Southernmost end of the strip so bringing large numbers of customers in was troublesome. All sorts of promotions and concerts were held to try and keep The Dunes above water, including one famous instance when Frank Sinatra made a surprise appearance dressed as a Sultan.

Johnny Elvis Foster was on site as an Elvis impersonator. In fact, Johnny was the first Elvis impersonator working the club scene before Elvis had even passed away. He had a residency at the club between 1976 and 1978. 

Major Riddle knew how to promote his business, even going on Johnny Carson to coincide with a book launch and steering the conversation towards The Dunes. Riddle had a great passion for poker but was a notoriously bad player. Mobsters and gamblers from near and far would travel down to The Oasis and take thousands of dollars from him at the the felt.

One Vegas journalist wrote, “Millions were cheated from the Major.” Even the in-house dealers were in cahoots with the mobsters to empty Riddle’s wallet. Riddle had been a lifelong Stud player and couldn’t wrap his head around No Limit. Riddle’s lack of skill and cunning at cards did not stop him from betting high-stakes every chance he got. One night while playing at the Sahara, Riddle bet his ownership certificate of The Dunes. Thankfully, Riddle won this hand but it was this type of spontaneity that would eventually lose him his casino. When the biggest poker game in town moved from The Dunes to The Aladdin, a casino directly across the road, Riddle followed. The Aladdin is famous for two things: Poker Hall of Famer Tom Abdo dying there during a high-stakes game and Major Riddle gambling away a complete casino at the poker tables. Within a year, Riddle’s 90% ownership share had dropped to 15%, he would later go on to lose this as well.

Major Riddle, as he had during the Great Depression, picked himself up off the floor and soldiered on, purchasing holdings in several casinos and hotels. Then in 1977, he bought the Thunderbird Casino and renamed it Silverbird. Riddle brought in famous pros Doyle Brunson and Eric Drache to establish new big games. The buy-ins at the Silverbird were not as high as in the Aladdin or The Dunes. They were not so high that a man might lose a whole casino, but not so low that a man would leave completely unscathed. Riddle made wise investments and was a wealthy man when he passed away in 1980. With Riddle’s death, the biggest fish in Vegas was gone, and many mobster’s wallets were lighter from then on. Riddle was one of Las Vegas’ most colorful personalities.

In 1979, The South Tower was constructed, bringing the room count to 1300. Various people attempted to purchase the club, including unrealized rumors that Howard Hughes was in talks to purchase it. Stuart and Clifford Perlman, the founders of Caesars World agreed to buy the Dunes in 1983 for $185 million but the sale ultimately fell through. Also in 1983, a second casino called The Oasis Casino at The Dunes was built on site. The famous Sultan statue caught fire in 1985 due to an electrical fault. A Japanese investor, Masao Nangaku, purchased the casino in 1987 for $155 million but failed to make it a financial success.

In 1992 on November 17th, The Dunes was sold for the last time to property developer Steve Wynn’s company for $75 million. The Dunes could no longer compete with the megaresorts that were being constructed in Nevada so the club was demolished accompanied by a grand ceremony of fireworks and cannon blasts. Over 200,000 people watched the once-beloved casino collapse to the ground. The neon sign was left illuminated and read ‘No Vacancy.’ Cannon shots from The English ship ‘HMS Britannia’ of the Treasure Island Hotel and Casino were simulated to coincide with the explosions from the demolition. Everything was destroyed except for the 15-year-old South Tower. One newspaper described the ceremony, saying the building fell “amid a shower of fireworks never before equaled west of the Mississippi.”

The demolition of the South Tower one month later, a less extravagant ceremony, marked the end of the era of mafia controlled gambling in Nevada. During the construction of the Bellagio on the old Dunes site, workers found four bags of casino chips buried in the dirt.

Mike D

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