Detroit native George Joseph came to Las Vegas in 1974, stayed, and made his mark as an entertainer, gambler and troubleshooter for the casinos after years beating them.
“No doubt, I had the right friends,” Joseph said last week over breakfast at Bagelmania. “In those days it was who you knew and who they knew. It could not happen today. The gaming industry back then was only Vegas. Everyone was connected to gamblers.”
His slick book “Vegas, Lounge Cut,” describes our city as “having a dress code of suits and evening gowns. Now we have bikini clad dealers and sexy girls on stripper poles.”
Joseph was a magician who told funny stories that centered on the celebrities he met. Within a few months of his arrival he was paling around with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Liberace. He made all the entertainment magazines and was on the marquee of Strip casinos.
“I was with the people running the Aladdin hotel back then,” Joseph said. “They were from Detroit, my cousins and friends. It was a hangout for all the wiseguys, Arabs and Lebanese. Meeting Joe Louis was like shaking hands with a god.”
That first encounter with the iconic heavyweight boxing champion spawned a relationship with Louis’ daughter Candice, who he described as “the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”
“The biggest chapter in the book is about Joe Louis, the guy who changed my life the most in Vegas. I had the honor of knowing him a while, and the greater honor of marrying Candice. We’ve been together 33 years, which means I haven’t won a fight in 33 years.”
Joseph also developed a relationship with Ash Resnick, who was a big host at Caesars Palace. Knowing Resnick provided Joseph with the in he needed to become a celebrity himself.
“Once I saw Frank Sinatra sitting with Ash and I went up to Frank,” he recalled. “Next thing I know I’m having dinner with them. Ash introduced me to both Joe and Frank.”
Joseph would later publish several books about poker, always including funny stories. George knew so many it was suggested he put some together. And that’s what Lounge Cut is, a compilation of some 400 asides along with amazing photos of all his interactions with the Vegas elite.
“I was the double for George Burns’ hands in one of the Oh God movies,” Joseph said. “I was a magician and he told me he knew Harry Houdini personally. George did a card trick and the whole crew stopped. He told me to think of a card. I said the four of hearts.
“He puts his hands to his head and says, ‘The four of hearts is the 27th card in the deck.’ He said, ‘Go ahead and count them.’ Now I’m fried. There’s no way in the world he could know this. I get to the 27th card, it isn’t the four of hearts. I looked at him in silence and he says, ‘Sometimes I f— up.’”
“The whole crew died laughing and kept asking me if I wanted to see a card trick. One of the actors said to put a few of those stories in a book, they’re funny. So I did.”
To simply focus on the entertainment side of Joseph, would be doing him an injustice. No, he has become a significant figure in this town for his gaming knowledge.
“You could never run a casino today with the same attitude or mindset of the ‘70s,” he said. “We brought in nothing but gamblers. Today, we’re spread too thin. It’s a lot harder getting licensed.”
1970’s Vegas was a glorious time. Today, Joseph says the gaming industry is, “a template for why this country is in trouble.”
“We’re down 10 to 15 percent in gross gaming revenue because of the economy,” he said. “The good news is we’re up 3 or 4 percent every year in tourism. We still have the magic, it’s just that people aren’t gambling as much. It always takes people longer to get out of credit debt than money debt. They’re still doing markers, but are much more cautious now.”
The games are the same, only the attitudes are different.
“Games haven’t changed since they were legalized in 1931,” Joseph said. “The house still has the advantage. You can still get your nose opened and go a little bit too far. Beating the house today is the same with the exception of blackjack. The old casino owners didn’t believe card counting worked. They didn’t understand we were only thinking big and little, not the actual value of each card.”
Joseph believes the emergence of card counting caused the house hold to go down steadily in blackjack. That said there’s an upside.
“We’re making twice the money because everybody thinks they can beat us,” he said. “At best card counters will get a 2 to 3 percent advantage. All the other games have exactly the same advantage as in 1931.
“In slots the only thing that hasn’t changed is the hold percentage in denomination,” Joseph continued. “There’s only so much money spent before players say I don’t like this joint. They don’t know the math just that their pockets shrink too soon. Machines are more volatile today because they are electronic.”
Joseph said he’d take dumb luck over skill any day.
“There are three ways to make money gambling,” he said. “In poker be more skilled than the other player, in sports betting get the right information or, third, own the casino.”
Entertainment in Vegas has also changed.
“Vegas priced themselves out of big headlines starting with Johnny Carson,” he said “The entertainers wanted bigger money ever since. The A-listers got it, the B’s didn’t and casinos were forced into magic shows. Some outstanding, some boring.
“Jerry Lewis said it best. More people saw him in one TV appearance than in his whole career live. If you overexpose yourself on TV, there’s no mystique. Elvis for years when he was hot didn’t do TV. You couldn’t see him for free. The performers who have depth make the grade. The ones that don’t, don’t.”
Mark Mayer has over 35 years covering sports events and is the sports editor at GT. Reach him at [email protected].