America's Richest Gambler, Murdered Over a Poker Game

America's Richest Gambler, Murdered Over a Poker Game

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

By Johnny Hughes

Arnold Rothstein (1882 to 1928) was called “the Brain” and “the Big Bankroll”. He owned many gambling houses, was the biggest bookmaker in New York, and owned a fancy casino in Saratoga, New York, called the Brook.

He could keep changing the odds on horseraces until he had a tremendous advantage because he was the layoff man, the bookmaker’s bookmaker. He financed many underworld operations, especially bootlegging during prohibition. He also fixed the 1919 baseball World Series.

Rothstein was the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. He was also the model for Nathan Detroit in Damon Runyon’s Guys and Dolls. His close friend Titanic Thompson was the model for Sky Masterson in the same hit play and movie. The current HBO Series, Boardwalk Empire, has Arnold Rothstein as a historical character.

Johnny Moss told his biographer that Nick "the Greek" Dandalos “broke” Arnold Rothstein and all the gamblers on the east coast. Many poker historians parroted this silly statement. Although they gambled often – Rothstein's biographers agree that the Greek was Rothstein’s pigeon – the Greek was up and down 73 times. Rothstein loaned him $25,000 when he was broke to bet on the fixed World Series.

Rothstein won the biggest pot in poker history at that time, $797,000, from the Greek playing stud. The Greek started with back to back kings; Rothstein with the ace and king of diamonds, the ace in the hole. Both were raising all the way. With one card to come, all the money was in the pot. The Greek had the kings and Rothstein had a diamond flush draw, and could catch one of the three aces or the last king if the Greek didn't help. With the odds way against him, Rothstein built the pot and made the flush. I suspect cheating, maybe a cold deck. These early gambling giants coppered the odds anyway they could. Basically, they’d steal a hot stove or lay down beside it and claim it.

In a series of poker matches, Rothstein always beat the Greek, usually for sums over $100,000. He attributed his success to his superior bankroll. As the pots got bigger and bigger, the Greek had to play unlucky sooner or later.

Arnold Rothstein was murdered because of one of the most famous poker games of all time. They started out playing high-stakes bridge and switched to poker. It started as all cash, no-limit five-card stud. However, it was different from any poker game because Rothstein was using IOUs, or markers. As Rothstein got off big loser, the pots had lots of his small initialed chits. Titanic Thompson set up the game and was secret partners with everyone involved, including Rothstein at the start. When he was $12,000 ahead, Titanic ended the partnership with Rothstein in the bathroom. His major confederate was another card sharp, Nate Raymond. Also in the game was future Poker Hall of Fame member Joe Bernstein. Doyle Brunson has written that Bernstein was a “likable and entertaining fellow, if something of a compulsive card cheat.”

When the game ended after three days, Rothstein owed $475,000 in markers or IOUs, accounts vary. The “house man”, or man running the game, was Hump McManus, who was responsible for collecting all debts.

Rothstein knew and said he had been cheated. Remember, he was also known as a swindler, cheater, and the fixer of the World Series. He said he would not pay and then claimed he would pay later. In those days, big gamblers paid off whether they had been cheated or not. During the game, Rothstein would take cash out of the pot and put in his markers. He’d also demand all the side bets he could get as to highest spade for $10,000. At the end of the poker game, Rothstein and Nate Raymond cut high card for $40,000 and Raymond won. Raymond, like Titanic Thompson, was an expert card mechanic. They could mark those old paper playing cards while the game was in progress. Basically, Thompson became partners with everyone in the poker game except Rothstein, so he was owed most of the Big Bankroll’s markers. Those guys were close friends, but they would cheat each other.
Rothstein’s friend Nicky Arnstein, big gambler and boyfriend of Broadway Star Fannie Brice of the movie Fannie, told Rothstein he must pay or his word would be bad on the street. Also, he would be labelled a sucker for being cheated. One reason that Rothstein gave for being slow to pay was the half million he had tied up in bets on President Hoover's election.

After many days, Rothstein went to a meeting in a hotel room with a drunk McManus. The two men were shouting and cursing. Rothstein went for the gun and there was a struggle. McManus shot him. True to the underworld code, Rothstein would not tell who shot him. He died a few days later. He would have won over half a million the next day on the state and federal elections of 1928.

It took a year to put McManus on trial for first-degree murder, and it was a huge national newspaper story. Titanic was really owed half of the markers, almost a quarter of a million dollars. He promised to testify for the state and was released from jail as a material witness. At the trial, prosecutors expected Titanic to testify that he had seen McManus at the hotel shortly before the murder. Titanic said he didn't remember when he'd last seen McManus, citing his bad memory. He said he could bet $10,000 on a horse one day and not remember its name the next. To the Judge’s dismay, Titanic’s testimony had the whole court room laughing. Newspaper photos of a dapper, handsome, perfectly-dressed Titanic, with diamonds on several fingers, coming and going from court were in newspapers across the country. This made Titanic nationally famous which hurt his cons and prop bets. Titanic said, “Publicity is not good for my business.”

George “Hump” McManus was ruled innocent by the judge when his attorney asked for a directed verdict of acquittal. None of the poker players were good witnesses. The one witness changed her story saying McManus was not the man she saw leaving the hotel room. McManus had thrown the pistol out of the hotel room window. A witness had seen it and turned the pistol in to police. There was a Chesterfield overcoat found in the hotel room monogrammed with McManus' initials, although the prosecution could not prove it was his. It had the hotel room key in the pocket. McManus had registered in a fake name, naturally.

After he was acquitted, McManus asked for his coat back. He wore the prosecution’s main exhibit as he left the court room. It’s a wonder he didn’t ask for the pistol back, too.

Johnny Hughes, is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom which is now available on Amazon Kindle for $3.99. His new book, Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories, will be published shortly.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Arnold Rothstein, Boardwalk Empire, columnist