Until just a few years ago, Michael “Roxy” Roxborough would not touch a ghastly Grant. The mere sight of a $50 bill, bearing the image of President Ulysses S. Grant, would turn the eminent sports-betting figure a whiter shade of pale.
“The fifty-dollar bill is anathema to old-time gamblers like me,” Roxborough wrote on his Twitter page in September 2019. “Similar to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Black Spot, they are considered the kiss of death.”
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Chuck Gelleher, a dealer for 30 years at five Strip properties who in 2013 retired from a post as pit boss at the MGM Grand, calls fifties an endangered species.
“Saw very few of them,” says Gelleher, 75. “We never had ’em.”
Fittingly, having logged fifty total years dealing at five casinos, including two stints at Benny Binion’s Horseshoe, 71-year-old Terry Fairbanks knew many gamblers who wouldn’t take a fifty.
“Neither would handymen,” he said. “Nobody would take fifties.”
So why the hate? Why is there an anti-Grant sentiment in the gambling universe?
Roxborough, 68, learned about the cursed note soon after landing in Las Vegas in 1972 from late mentor Herb Lambeck, the legendary oddsmaker known as “Herbie Hoops.”
“Back then, all bettors shunned fifties as bad luck,” Roxy said from Phuket, Thailand. “It was just a given. Bookies and the sportsbooks never paid anyone with them. (Lambeck) would rather trade his fifty for a twenty-dollar bill, if the alternative was he had to keep the fifty. That superstition still holds today with certain gamblers.”
Mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and racecar driver “Littleoe” Weatherly contributed to the legend. Siegel had four “frogs,” the derogatory term some reserve for the bill, in a shirt pocket when he was assassinated in Beverly Hills in 1947. At Riverside in 1964, Weatherly had two fifties in his driver’s suit pocket when he suffered a fatal crash in his No. 8 Mercury.
The jinx’s thickest roots, however, lie with the country’s 18th president. As Union general, Grant had accepted Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.
Grant’s lack of business acumen became common knowledge when his banking and brokerage firm — with a son, and notorious swindler Ferdinand Ward — failed in 1884. Ward went to Sing Sing. Grant was left with more debts than assets. Some claim he is the lone U.S. President to have declared for bankruptcy, but Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Lincoln and Truman were all familiar with penury.
“The bankruptcy angle makes sense,” says Jay Kornegay, vice president of the Westgate SuperBook. “I hadn’t heard that one. Our tellers, at times, will ask (patrons) if they mind being paid with fifties. Some get offended by the thought, others just don’t care.”
SuperBook ticket writers do not begin shifts with fifties in their cash trays.
“They’re not part of our banks,” Kornegay said.
They only accumulate Grants from customers who make wagers with them. They ask bettors if they mind the bill among their winnings or as change. That’s Circa’s tack, according to Jeffrey Benson, who manages its sportsbook operations at the Golden Gate and The D.
“Most gamblers refuse them when offered out of superstition,” he said in a text when asked about the bills.
South Point oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo says the bills aren’t part of his property’s banks, either.
“Never bet with one, (or) accept or give one as change,” he texted. “Goes right along with not telling a bettor ‘good luck.’ Does that tell you what I think? LOL.”
Handicapper Kenny White’s father Pete informed him how to make odds and bet, and he also mentioned the $50 bill jinx.
“Sure enough, I always lost when receiving a fifty back from a teller,” White said. “I think it is very important to believe in superstitions, but I’d love to have a Brinks truck full of fifties!”
Roxy’s note triggered a hail of Twitter responses.
“Gotta rip a corner off,” wrote someone … “Ain’t worth two dead flies” … “Now that explains everything about my poor gambling record” … “Was convinced from the start that these were horribly unlucky” … “A casino near where I lived had an ATM that only spit out fifties. Awful.”
Many casino ATMs spit out Grants.
“I honestly thought that I was the only person who felt that way about the (expletive) things,” someone else wrote … “Sure way to lose most tipping punters … the fifty is currency’s red-headed stepchild.”
And the coup de grâce: “I don’t believe in superstition — it’s bad luck.”
About 15 years ago, Long Island handicapper-bettor Tom Barton was playing roulette with a buddy in Las Vegas. They were following their usual superstitions — when 0 hits play red next, etc .— when Barton plopped a Grant on the felt for more chips.
Barked a fellow punter, “For someone with so many rules, you throw out a fifty?!”
“He told me how it’s bad luck,” said Barton. “Since then, I haven’t entered a sportsbook with a $50 bill in my pocket. That’s garlic to a vampire for a bettor.”
Five days after Appomattox, on April 14, 1865, Grant and wife Julia were expected to join Abraham Lincoln in his balcony box for Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre. Had the Grants attended the play, Victor, as Julia called her husband, would not have seen another sunrise. He would not have begun a two-term Presidency four years later. He never would have appeared, starting with a gold certificate in 1913, on a fifty-dollar banknote.
Ulysses canceled, but it hadn’t been his call. Julia Grant — flashing garlic at the caustic Mary Todd Lincoln — made him decline the invitation. They instead took a train to Philadelphia, her husband’s fifty-dollar fate secured.