Is the movie ‘Casino’ based on a true story?

The simple answer is yes, it is. Although by no means a biographical account, the movie ‘Casino’ was inspired by the non-fiction book ‘Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas’, written by Nicholas Pileggi, which wasn’t published until after the fictionalised film version had been released. Fanciful though the narrative may be, each of the main protagonists in the movie is based on a real-life individual and most, but not all, of the memorable events really did take place.

Mobster Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro, was inspired by Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, who did indeed manage Mafia-controlled casinos in Las Vegas – albeit the Fremont, Hacienda and Stardust, rather than the Tangiers – in the Seventies and Eighties. Rosenthal, like Rothstein, had no gaming licence and, following a hearing with the Nevada Gaming Control Board, at which his application for a licence was denied, he was subsequently officially banned from all casinos in Nevada in 1988.

So, too was his associate, Anthony ‘The Ant’ Spilotro, who inspired the character Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, who suffered the same fate in the movie. In reality, Spilotro was included in so-called ‘Black Book’, which lists those banned from entering casinos in Nevada, in 1978. His high-profile misbehaviour ultimately led to his demise; he was beaten to death – as was the Santoro character – along with his brother, Michael, in 1986 According to real-life hitman Frank Cullota, played in the movie by Frank Vincent, Spilotro did actually put the head of Billy McCarthy, one of the men who had committed the unauthorised murders of the Scalvo Brothers, Ronnie and Phil, into a vice and tightened it until his eyeball popped out, as graphically recounted on the screen.

When was roulette first played?

‘Roulette’ is the French word for ‘caster’ or, in other words, a small wheel. Given the French name, it should really come as no surprise that conventional wisdom dictates that roulette was created by French mathematician Blaise Pascal, in 1655, during his investigations into hypothetical perpetual motion. Pascal was an inveterate gambler – in fact, the previous year he and Pierre de Fermat had invented probability theory to solve a gambling problem – so was familiar with two popular contemporary games, known as ‘Roly Poly’ and ‘Even/Odd’, which had many similarities to modern roulette.

Roulette became popular in French casinos, as it did in the gambling houses opened by Prince Charles of Monaco, in the late eighteenth century. By that stage, the roulette wheel had evolved into a recognisable form, with 36 numbers, coloured red or black, but with both a single zero and double zero. The next stage in the evolution of the roulette wheel came in the middle of the nineteenth century, when it was overhauled by two French brothers, Louis and Francois Blanc. The Blanc brothers removed the double zero pocket, thereby creating what is traditionally known as the French, or European, roulette table. The single-zero version offers a house edge of just 2.7%, compared with 5.26% for the double-zero wheel – which is still used in modern casinos, to play so-called American roulette – and was created to compete with other casinos of the time on that basis.

How long have slots been around?

The first slot, or slot machine, in the sense of a coin-operated gambling machine, to achieve national popularity in the U.S. was an automated poker game introduced by Sittman and Pitt in 1893. The machine, which cost a nickel, or 5¢, to play, consisted of five drums, or reels, with a total of 50 playing card symbols. Players inserted a coin, pulled a handle to set the reels in motion, and the object of the game was to align a winning poker hand. However, unlike later games, which released the payoff into a receptacle at the bottom, the machine had no direct payout mechanism, so prizes were collected from an attendant.

However, the man credited with the invention of the first slot machine to automatically pay out coins, rather than tickets or tokens, was Charles Fey. In 1894, Fey designed his own version of the ‘Horseshoe’, previously patented by fellow German emigrant Theodor Holz in 1893 and, in 1898, the famous ‘Liberty Bell’. The Liberty Bell consisted of just three reels, each with a series of just five symbols, diamond, heart, spade, horseshoe and, of course, an authentic, cracked Liberty Bell. By reducing the complexity of the payout permutations, Fey incorporated an automatic payout mechanism, making the Liberty Bell more appealing, and lucrative, than contemporary coin-operated machines. Indeed, the Liberty Bell was the most popular slot machine of its day and formed the basis of modern slots. Naturally, three Liberty Bells produced the highest payoff, of 50¢.


What is the eye in the sky?

The term ‘eye in the sky’ was coined to describe casino surveillance in the early days of gambling houses in Las Vegas, Nevada. The original ‘eye in the sky’ was simply a space in the casino ceiling fitted with one-way, or half-silvered, glass through which surveillance operatives could covertly view the floor below for signs of suspicious activity. As the casino industry grew, the surveillance function was performed by small teams of operatives, armed with binoculars, who prowled security catwalks above the casino floor in search of dishonest employees or guests.

Nowadays, the term ‘eye in the sky’ refers to the hundreds of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras that provide a major security countermeasure in modern casinos. Sophisticated, high-definition CCTV cameras cover every square inch of the casino, including not only the tables in the casino pit, but also other sensitive areas, such as the soft count room, where banknotes are counted, or the casino cashier, or ‘cage’, where players cash in their chips.

The network of CCTV cameras dotted around the casino operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and, effectively, provides surveillance of every employee and guest. Modern surveillance operators tend to focus on one area of the casino at a time, but on the instruction of security personnel, or a pit boss, can switch to a specific camera at any time. Indeed, modern surveillance cameras typically use video analysis software, including facial recognition technology, to identify card counters and other ‘undesirable’ guests and generally protect the assets of the casino.

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