The Man behind De Niro’s Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein
Any fan of casino cinema is sure to have Marin Scorsese’s 1995 film “Casino” on his short list. The eighth collaboration between the legendary director and actor Robert De Niro, Casino follows Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, a Jewish-American gambling handicapper, as he oversees day-to-day operations at the fictional Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas for the Italian Mob. What you may be less familiar with, however, is the real-life personality that served as the inspiration for De Niro’s classic portrayal.
Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal was a professional sports bettor, former Sin City casino executive and known organized crime associate. Born in Chicago’s West Side, Rosenthal honed his sports betting skills in the bleachers of Wrigley Field as a youth. In his early twenties, his expertise in the field landed him a position with the Chicago Outfit, an extremely powerful Italian-American crime syndicate with origins dating back to 1910. Shortly after, Rosenthal found himself at the helm of the biggest bookmaking office in the country where, under the guise of Cicero Home Improvement Company, he bought contracts to fix sporting events on behalf of the American Mafia.
After being indicted on multiple counts of sports bribery, Rosenthal left Illinois in his rearview mirror. For nearly a decade, he established a national reputation as a sports bettor, oddsmaker and handicapper while operating in Miami. Eventually, however, the heat began to rise. He was issued a subpoena to appear in court on accusations of match fixing before being barred from all racing establishments across the state of Florida. Despite the considerable attention Rosenthal garnered from authorities, he was only convicted once for illegal gambling and bookmaking. In 1963, he pled no contest to charges of bribing a New York University basketball player to shave points in a college game. In 1968, Rosenthal once again relocated to escape police attention. This time, he headed for Las Vegas, where the most famous chapter of his story took place.
Rosenthal in Las Vegas
In the late 1960s, a number of casinos in Las Vegas were under the control of the Chicago Outfit. Building on his prior workings with the organization, Rosenthal was tasked with secretly running the day-to-day operations of the Stardust, Fremont, Marina and Hacienda casinos. His position at these casinos remained secret until 1976, as he wasn’t legally permitted to operate casinos without a Nevada gaming license. When authorities discovered his position, they held a hearing to determine his legal ability to obtain a license. As a result of his past offenses and known reputation as an affiliate of organized crime, Rosenthal’s request was quickly denied. He was also denied, in part, because he was a childhood friend of Anthony Spilotro, an American mobster and enforcer responsible for protecting the Chicago Outfit’s illegal casino profits. In Casino, Joe Pesci’s Nicky Santoro was based on Spilotro.
Despite his tumble out of the casino business, Rosenthal is credited with a number of innovations that helped drive the casinos he operated to record financial growth. He created the first sports book that operated within a casino at the Stardust. As a result, the Vegas casino was transformed into one of the world’s leading destinations for sports gambling. Rosenthal also introduced female blackjack dealers to Las Vegas gamblers. In just one year following the introduction of female dealers, the Stardust’s income reportedly doubled.
The Later Years
Following his time as a casino manager, Rosenthal remained in Las Vegas for just over a decade. In October 1982, the honeymoon with Sin City came to an abrupt end when he was the target of an assassination attempt. A car bomb was detonated when he started his car, and his survival is attributed primarily to a manufacturing irregularity unique to his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado. To correct a balancing issue, General Motors installed a metal plate under the driver’s seat in that particular model, effectively shielding Rosenthal from the blast. Though no arrest ever came in connection with the bombing, experts point to Frank Balistrieri as a likely suspect. Balistrieri was overheard via wiretap discussing plans to get revenge on Rosenthal for his role in the legal problems mob-controlled casinos were enduring.
A few months after the assassination attempt, Rosenthal took the hint and got out of town. He moved to Laguna Niguel, California, and retired. In 1987, he was formally banned from Las Vegas, earning a place in the infamous ‘Black Book’. As a result, he was no longer permitted to work in or enter any Nevada casino due to his alleged ties to organized crime. Eventually, Rosenthal returned to Miami, where he operated a sports betting website and served as a consultant to numerous offshore sports betting firms. In 2008, at the age of 79, Rosenthal died as the result of a heart attack.
Las Vegas has worked diligently in recent years to scrub away the negative influence left by organized crime and its associates, such as Frank Rosenthal. Today, Sin City visitors don’t need to worry about catching the attention of mobsters when enjoying a winning streak at the blackjack tables. The gambling paradise has transformed into a family vacation destination, and the events of the recent past have largely been relegated to books and movies. Even so, the impact and innovations of figures like Frank Rosenthal still reverberate throughout the new casinos across the city. The list of casinos featuring sports books demonstrates this fact. As for the addition of female blackjack dealers, let’s just say that idea was a positive contribution to the industry as a whole.
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