A lot of people in Las Vegas and Reno today think my father must have been a genius. A lot of others in the undergrounds of New York, Philadelphia, Palm Beach and Miami during the '30s and '40s thought he was nuts.
My father was a professional gambler. No, not the kind who tries to beat the horses or hustle you at gin rummy. My father was a real pro. For almost 30 years he was the manager of the Maryland Athletic Club, which was one step across the District of Columbia line in Prince Georges County, where the law has always been winked at. It was the largest, most sophisticated casino between Saratoga and Havana. Nobody ever called it the Maryland Athletic Club. It was always known as Jimmy's Place—or simply Jimmy's—and if you used either of those names, any cabbie in Washington would know immediately where you wanted to be taken.
Once you got near Jimmy's, you couldn't miss it, even though there was no sign out front. It sat there mysteriously silent, surrounded by a 10-foot board fence on three sides and a spur of the Pennsylvania Railroad on the fourth. It had a well-used seven-acre parking lot, evidence enough that the casino was popular among Washington's gentry.
I say gentry because my father ran his club for the elite. He had three strict rules. It was these rules that made gamblers of his day think he was crazy and gamblers of today think he was a man alone when it came to running a gaming house. The rules were: no women, no booze, no guns. As far as I know, no other casino has operated under such stringent regulations. The result was that my father's place had an almost funereal silence about it, broken only by the dealers saying sotto voce, "The point is four, gentlemen," or some such thing. I have been in cathedrals that were noisier.
The casino was a big, ugly barn of a building three stories tall with hardly a window in it. There was only one door, and it was guarded by a platoon of heavies, the biggest of whom was a flush-faced Irishman who easily weighed 300 pounds. Everybody who entered was frisked. There were no exceptions to this rule, even if the visitor happened to be J. Edgar Hoover. This held true for Congressmen and such celebrities as comedian Joe E. Lewis. They even used to frisk me. While one man was doing this, another would scan a large picture frame filled with photographs of men who were persona non grata, perhaps because they once had been drunk or boisterous, or both, but more likely because they had lost more money than they could afford. It was not uncommon for a weeping woman to show up at the door and claim that her husband had blown their life savings the night before. To get a refund, the wife had to bring back a snapshot of her husband and agree to make sure that he would never return to the casino. This was a practice other casino operators considered laughable, but that made no difference to my father, not even after one of those wives turned out to be a prostitute who had rolled a customer after he had left the place.
When a patron had been frisked, he was allowed to pass through another, steel-plated, door. This led to an elevator that took him to the third floor, where all the action was. One wall was covered with the entries for every horse race at every track in the country outside the state of Maryland that was holding a meeting. The limit on bets was $50, but the house paid track odds, another unheard-of practice at casinos then. Out of deference to the state, my father closed down the casino whenever one of the major Maryland tracks was open. In those days their meetings lasted only a few weeks.
In the middle of the room were seven craps tables that always buzzed with business, and a gambler was expected to curb his enthusiasm even if he rolled 10 straight 7s. Behind them were three blackjack tables and a lone card table reserved for employees, who played a game of hearts from the minute the place opened until it closed. Dealers and ladder men worked an hour and a half, then took 30 minutes off. Hearts was their favorite game because a man could get in or out at any time. Another room was used for the customers' poker games, of which the house took a percentage of the pot. Next to the hearts table were three roulette tables, plus a smaller table for Bird Cage, a nickname for Chuck-A-Luck, which I never learned how to play. As a matter of fact, to this day I can't play gin rummy without dropping the cards on the floor. Cardplaying was not forbidden at our house; you just never play when your dad is a professional. And my father was a pro all right. Many gamblers have told me he was the best cardplayer they ever saw.
There was one exception to the no-cards-at-home rule. My mother once tried to start a bridge club among the neighborhood ladies. My father, who despised the game, nevertheless allowed himself to be talked into teaching them bridge one rainy afternoon when the casino was closed. After two hours of shaking his head in disbelief and tearing at what little hair he had left, he stalked out of the house, jumped into his black Cadillac and roared off to a saloon, where he spent the rest of the afternoon quaffing beer with his favorite drinking companions: racetrack touts, off-duty cops and free-lance bookmakers.
The second floor of my father's casino contained a lunch counter, presided over by a young black woman. To my knowledge, she is the only female who ever set foot in the place when it was open for business, and it was open all afternoon and all night long, except Sundays or when the Maryland tracks were running.
My father's office was also on the second floor. Next to it was a pied-�-terre kept for my father's boss, James A. La Fontaine, after whom Jimmy's Place was named. La Fontaine was known as Mr. Jim, out of respect for his age, or as Unks to his close friends and employees.