If the following story of the rise and fall of an anonymous gambler reads like a movie script, it may be because its setting is Las Vegas, a town that recently began taking its cues from Hollywood instead of its own sleazy past. It also may have something to do with its protagonist's striking resemblance to Popeye, or simply the fact that the movie and video rights are already owned by Steve Wynn, CEO of Mirage Resorts Inc. and the best-known Maryland bingo parlor operator turned millionaire casino owner on the Vegas strip.
This is a gambler's tale, and since every great gambler exits the table surrounded by myth, it is appropriate that the plot points are hazy.
The outline, as related in hushed whispers and boisterous bar conversation by dealers and waitresses and fellow players, goes like this:
On Sunday, April 2, a barefoot man who looked to be in his eighties entered the Treasure Island hotel and casino. He cashed his $400 Social Security check at the house bank and walked with the aid of a metal cane to a blackjack table.
At Treasure Island, bets at the blackjack tables start at $5 and go as high as $10,000, and it was quite possible that the old man, who fellow gamblers assumed was homeless because of his appearance, could have lost his entire monthly pension on one hand. That didn't happen. He started winning. And winning and winning.
Drinks are free at the 21 tables, and the man started off ordering a Jack Daniel's and Coke plus four Macanudo cigars. Such an order is called "Bubba-style" in Las Vegas, a phrase that might also describe the man, who identified himself simply as "Joe." At the table, he was grouchy and, when he was losing, emitted a steady stream of profanities in the direction of the dealer.
Joe made a memorable sight, with his small head, pink and hairless, his pinpoint lizard eyes, his thin, wide mouth showing
teeth that looked like twin rows of cigarette butts -- white and yellow and brown-tipped. In the beginning, Joe took breaks between hands, walking frequently to the restroom, causing hotel guests to stare. He brought in a takeout dinner of pork chops and threw the bones on the carpet. One player from Vernon, N.Y., who sat next to Joe while he was betting $5,000 a hand, said he was later astonished to see Joe standing at a urinal in his bare feet.
That was before Joe started winning big, before his government check had turned into $900,000 in chips by Thursday, April 7, and then passed the million-dollar mark. It was before the casino supplied him with a complimentary room, clothes, security guards and a limousine, and before casino owner Wynn bought the rights to his story for $10,000. Wynn's pal Kevin Costner was said to be present at the signing, and Costner's production company confirmed he was at Treasure Island at that time.
Then, as luck tends to do at the gaming table, Joe's changed. He started losing. Betting as furiously as ever, he is now said to be down to around $60,000.
These details, most of which are unverifiable since neither Joe nor the casino will speak to the press, have proved remarkably accurate in the instances they could be checked.
Fact: Last week, Joe was betting several $5,000 hands at a time.
Fact: He was accompanied at all times by several plainclothes security guards supplied by the hotel.
Fact: He had a suite to which he retired between gambling bouts, and a limousine, which he took out on jaunts.
Fact: He had in his pocket a contract for the film and video rights to his story.
Fact: He was still swearing.
Joe was then wearing crisp khakis and a long-sleeved Izod shirt, argyle socks and brown leather loafers, said to have been provided by the hotel. But the shopping trip had come too late to shake his bare-soled image: He had already been dubbed "Shoeless Joe."
Even if the staff of Treasure Island were talking to the press about Shoeless Joe -- which they are adamantly not doing -- it would be difficult to discern just who is the man currently enjoying perhaps the most incredible streak of luck in Las Vegas history. Many locals say he's homeless, but others claim he is just an old man who lives month to month on government assistance. A dealer at the Golden Nugget remembers seeing Joe being removed from that casino for his profanity at the table a few weeks ago, but that seems to be as far back as the man's known history stretches.
What appears certain is that at the end of a hard-luck life, Shoeless Joe is enjoying an extremely comfortable two weeks. (As of Saturday, he was still playing.)
Everyone in Treasure Island seems to know about Joe. The elderly women with processed hair playing Volcano and Haywire and Quartermania have heard of his luck. The slot cowboys playing Jackpot Jungle and 4th of July tell the story of Joe instructing his limo driver to take him to a local park one evening, where he spent the night sleeping on a bench.
The waitresses wearing pink and purple and yellow at the Battle Bar and the bartenders in black at the Gold Bar can discuss in detail his gambling skills. They say he is a fairly good player, although he is known to veer wildly from accepted strategy: When dealt two 10s, Joe will invariably split them into two separate hands instead of resting on 20. The bartenders at the Gold Bar always drop their jaws in disbelief when they tell that story.
In the neon whoosh and blur of the casino, tales of Shoeless Joe are as pervasive as the constant ponging noise emanating from the slots. It is said that his winnings went as high as $1.3 million before he started losing. He is said to have bought two $50,000 certificates of deposit at a nearby bank, then cashed them out two days later at a substantial penalty.
When Shoeless Joe plays at the top of his form, he is known to play several $5,000 hands at a time. He never tips dealers. When another player suggested he leave a tip after a big win, he replied, "When I lost $100,000, the dealer didn't tip me."
The stinginess Joe exhibits toward the dealers does not extend to his security guards. Last Tuesday, he placed a $900 bet on a blackjack hand, declaring, "This is for you, Lyn," to the plainclothes man at his side. He got a blackjack, swept up the $2,250 in chips and handed them to the dumbstruck guard.
There are not many tales like Joe's in Vegas -- stories of big wins built on such a small investment. Locals remember the gentleman who walked into a casino with $25,000 in a suitcase, put it all on red at a roulette table and a while later walked out with $250,000. They speak of a pit boss from the Golden Nugget who strolled over to the Mint casino one night with $200 and built it up to $78,000 before losing the money, his job, his car and his fiancee. But gamblers, if they win in the millions, usually start out prepared to bet the big bucks.
In Las Vegas, it is believed the odds of being struck by a giant meteor are better than the odds on turning $400 into $1 million at a blackjack table. Lucky streaks in blackjack usually last between 30 and 45 minutes. Joe's reportedly lasted 96 hours.
"It's just incredible, just phenomenal, I can't liken it to anything I've ever heard," said Eddie Olsen, editor and publisher of Blackjack Confidential magazine. "It is possible, of course.
"You're talking about a lot of hands, a lot of bets, and the more bets you make, the more difficult are your chances of overcoming the house odds."
The most frequent theme in conversations about Joe is his recklessness, which made him a big winner and now threatens to make him a big loser. "There's something wrong there," said Mike, a bartender at the Gold Bar. "If you walk in with $400 and bet it up to $50,000, would you walk out the door with it, or start betting $5,000 hands and take the chance of losing it all in 10 minutes? You'd have to be cracked or crazy or rich. No one does that."
Most gamblers assert that, in Joe's place, they'd have stashed away a million and quit when they lost the rest. It is this belief that keeps Las Vegas thriving. Joe's story provides hope for the dreamers at the tables, who in his place would have known better.
After spending days attempting to uncover Shoeless Joe's "system," casino security finally gave up and started comping him. Casinos do this for big winners in the hope of keeping them playing until the casino gets its money back. Investing in an Image
Treasure Island typifies the new Las Vegas. Thirty stories high, it opens like a pink conch shell onto the Strip. The hotel's entrance is an imitation 17th-century sea village named Buccaneer Bay, complete with faux wisteria, a lagoon, a pirate ship and British Man of War stocked with young actors in beards and long tresses. A wooden boardwalk leads out to the sidewalk, which is also made of wood.
Treasure Island is the kinder, gentler appearance of Las Vegas that Steve Wynn is credited for creating. It has more to do with Mickey Mouse than the Rat Pack and Bugsy Siegel, and it's one of many new hotels that cater to families with wholesome shops, restaurants and shows.
A homeless man with a filthy mouth doesn't fit into this town's new script, and perhaps this is part of the reason Treasure Island is so closemouthed about its big winner.
"I bet I know what you're calling about: the homeless man," cried a woman who answered the phone before passing a reporter on to the public relations department, which was more reticent. "No one from the hotel will have a comment on this," read Wynn's eventual statement to The Washington Post. "It is improper for us to talk about our customers."
Shoeless Joe represents an outlaw image the city is trying to shake, the guy who gets one shot at the end of his life and then blows it. His story is more film noir than family values, and it likely will come to a close on what Hollywood calls a "downbeat" ending.
Joe's story may turn out to be interesting not because of the money involved, but because it reveals Las Vegas stripped of its pirate shows and its new roller coasters and volcanoes that erupt every 15 minutes along the Strip. Despite all the accolades this town has received for its new family style, it is still a city built on losers.
"I've got to go to the bank," Joe told his guard Thursday, and the little gnome with the cigar walked out of the casino while his guard called for the limo. Approached by a reporter, Joe announced gruffly that he couldn't talk about his life or his luck at the casino because Steve Wynn had already bought the rights. Joe's guard helpfully offered directions to a corporate lawyer for clarification.
"Here, you want to see it?" Joe asked, pulling a printed contract out of his pants pocket. "They gave me $10,000. I can't talk to you. Where'd you say you're from?"
"The Washington Post."
"Can't talk to you. What do you want to give me, money?"
"No, only fame."
"There's only fame in it?"
"Naw, don't want to talk to you."
And retrieving his contract before the name on it could be discerned, Las Vegas's newest legend waved his cigar, withdrew into his stretch limo and disappeared into the blinding desert sun. Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report. CAPTION: Treasure Island, where "Shoeless Joe's" lucky streak began earlier this month, prompting Las Vegas entrepreneur Steve Wynn, top right, to buy the film and video rights to the story. Kevin Costner was said to be present at the signing.