In a five-part series writer Christian Henkel digs deep into Las Vegas history to uncover the truth behind some of the gambling world's most notorious figures. Next up: Major Riddle. Check back regularly for more profiles.
By Christian Henkel
When it comes to poker losses, Major Riddle played in his own league. In the 1950s/60s there was a whole society of people trying to make money from the pockets of the legendary casino owner.
He opened the first “Topless Cabaret” in Sin City and battled with the authorities. He was the godfather of poker's first “Big Game." He was also its first victim.
He co-owned the legendary Dunes Casino and then lost it piece by piece. These are the stories of the men who made Las Vegas what it is today – the greatest and craziest city on Earth.
Not Just Hard and Honest Work
Riddle grew up in Kentucky and Indiana. He then moved to Chicago and started a shipping company. Within years it became one of the biggest in the Midwest.
During the depression of the 1930s that ruined the lives of hundreds of thousands he became an incredibly rich man. Of course, this wasn’t possible with just hard and honest work.
Chicago was ruled by the mafia and some people said Major Riddle had certain connections. The methods he used in his company were also a little dubious at times.
For example he would urge his drivers to buy the trucks they were driving by spending part of their salary. When they had almost paid them off, he fired them and kept the vehicles.
In 1956 Riddle left Chicago and went to Las Vegas to invest into the brand new Dunes casino that at the time was struggling to get by.
There have always been rumors that Riddle used part of the pension pool of the Teamsters trade union to invest in Vegas. The Teamsters, of course, was highly influential in Chicago and led by Jimmy Hoffa.
Hoffa later fell victim to his own proximity to the mob. He simply disappeared from a restaurant in Michigan in 1975.
First on Strip to Offer Topless Dancing
In Vegas Riddle’s career really took off. In the year he arrived he became a co-owner of the Dunes and turned it into a huge success.
One of his best ideas was to sign the successful burlesque dance group “Minsky’s Follies." This turned the Dunes into the first casino resort on the strip that offered topless dancing.
The Catholic Church and the Legion of Decency were furious. “Barebreasted girls on stage in Las Vegas, we can’t have that!” they shouted when they called the authorities.
To this day it sounds bizarre that these institutions worried about a bit of uncovered skin while tolerating everything else Sin City offered.
Riddle didn’t care, anyway. The show had 16,000 visitors per week - a record that stood until 1990.
Riddle also knew some things about promotion.
He went on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to promote his book The Weekend Gambler’s Handbook and dropped a couple of words about the Dunes, too.
Crazy About and Notoriously Bad at Poker
There could hardly be a worse author on gambling, though, than Riddle. Riddle was crazy about poker, and also notoriously bad at it.
Whenever he sat down at a table a rapidly expanding waiting list followed. He was a player with a large bankroll and little knowledge.
Mobster Tony Spilotro and his companions took thousands of dollars from him. Others lured him into bets that he couldn’t win.
Journalist and Vegas insider Frank Rosenthal declared that there has never been a more efficient cheating system in the city than the one targeted at the co-owner of the Dunes.
“Millions were cheated from the Major,” Rosenthal claims. Dealers like John Martino were part of the system along with tricksters like Marty Carson.
But even when things were going straight Riddle was a fish like no other. As a lifelong Stud player he was prey for the Texas Hold’em players. He just couldn’t wrap his head around No Limit.
One hand he played is still famous in the poker world. It happened in his own casino.
Major Riddle vs. Johnny Moss
His opponent was Johnny Moss, one of the most famous players of all times. Moss was playing at his best at the time. Game selection was clearly one of the Riddle's major problems.
On a K-K-9 flop Moss fired the first bullet. It was folded around to Riddle, who called. Another 9 on the turn triggered another bet from Moss and Riddle came along.
A jack appeared on the river and Moss went all-in. Riddle almost snap-called with almost $300,000 in the pot. With a broad grin Moss showed pocket nines for quads. Riddle? Pocket deuces!!! Pocket deuces???
They say that everybody at the table was trying not to laugh. After the turn Riddle had played the board with little chance of improving.
Joe Rubino, a bookie from Alabama, made the mistake of voicing his concerns about Riddle’s erroneous play.
“He should get the money from second and third street back, as he didn’t have a chance to even beat the board,” Rubino said.
Moss, pretty well-known as a choleric and bad guy, exploded in Rubino’s face.
“What the … are you talking about? Sometimes the board is the strongest hand!” He also told him a couple of words about minding one’s own business.
How to Gamble Away a Casino at the Poker Table
So Riddle was apparently not suited to sit at a poker table. That didn’t keep him from betting everything he had whenever he had the chance to, though.
One night he was playing at the Sahara. At one point he raised with the ownership certificate of the Dunes.
He won the hand, luckily, but it was this attitude that made him lose more and more of his property in a pretty short time.
When the biggest game in town moved from the Dunes to the Aladdin, right across the street, Major Riddle followed.
Enlisted Drache and Brunson for a new big game
It was about that time that Riddle lost any form of control over his casino. Within a year his shares shrank from 90% to 15% of the business. And he went on to lose that, too.
Today the Aladdin counts as the birthplace of the Big Game. And it’s mostly famous for two incidents.
One: Poker Hall of Famer Tom Abdo died there of a heart attack during a high-stakes game. His last words were, reportedly, “count my chips, I’ll be back."
Two: Major Riddle gambled away a complete casino at the poker tables.
Riddle Shrugged Off His Losses, Started Over
But Riddle, as on countless occasions before, shrugged off his losses and started something new.
In 1977 he bought the Thunderbird Casino and renamed it Silverbird.
He brought in Eric Drache and Doyle Brunson to establish a new Big Game. The stakes weren’t as high as at the Dunes or the Aladdin, but high enough.
You could lose a car or maybe a house in the Silverbird, but not a whole casino.
Riddle continued to be successful in business. He purchased holdings in several casinos and hotels and when he died in 1980 he was a wealthy man.
With Major Riddle gone Las Vegas lost one of the biggest fish, but also one of its most colorful personalities.