Gambling

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IF ANY one man could be said to have coloured Las Vegas's image of sex, corruption and gambling it was surely Mario Puzo. Fools Die, about a modern casino named Xanadu, modelled presumably on Caesars Palace, was a best-seller at airport bookstalls for years. It was this schlocky but entertaining novel, rather than The Godfather, that established Vegas's lurid reputation.

Puzo was a gambler himself and certainly knew gambling from the inside. He did not, he claimed, know the Mafia, and had to invent all that side of his books. The feature of Fools Die is that everyone is on the make and every woman in Xanadu is ready to offer cheap sex, at $100 a shot.

The book has some fine descriptions. "White-dotted red square dice were dazzling flying fish over the whale-shaped crap tables." A house shill, winning and losing house money, is described as "boringly immortal". High up in the hotel room, "the faint roar diffused through the huge casino like surf on a distant beach."

Best of all is the casino manager's explanation of Xanadu's success. "Percentages never lie. We built all those hotels on percentages . . . You can lose faith in everything, religion and God, women and love, good and evil, war and peace. You name it. But the percentages will always stand fast." True, yet this same casino manager decides, before he retires, to splurge a million bucks of his own money, to have one last crack at beating the percentages. If anyone can do it, he can. By the end of the first week he is $600,000 ahead. By the end of the second week, he has lost it all. He seems delighted. "It's the only way to live . . . use percentage as your god."

Puzo, who died last month, did not romanticise gambling, which he evidently enjoyed so much. In his introduction to Inside Las Vegas, a wonderful photographic record of both the glittery and the tawdry sides of gambling, Puzo says he believes gambling has improved his character, kept him out of prison and helped him bring up his children.

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