by John L. Smith
Table of Contents
Author’s Note: A View from the Top
Prologue: The Cruelest Month
1. A Gambler’s Son
2. The Million-to-One Shot
3. Only at Vegas World
4. The Huckster in Paradise
5. The Big Idea
6. The Huckster in Hell
7. Selling the Tower
8. Towering Inferno
9. Enter Berman
10. Coming Through
11. Street Legal
12. The Curse of Naked City
13. After the Fall
Epilogue: Life After a Sure Thing
Bob Stupak worked long hours to make a name for himself as a fearless high-stakes gambler, but casino industry observers were beginning to realize that self-promotion was Stupak’s greatest strength.
The image of Stupak as a marketing expert was bolstered by the growing success of Vegas World despite its inferior size and location. But if he were ever to rival the success of Atlantic City casino mogul Donald Trump or Las Vegas casino legends Benny Binion and Jackie Gaughan, he would have to sell more than his rooms and games. He would have to sell himself to a public that viewed him with growing skepticism.
“The guy is such a marketing genius,” casino owner John Woodrum later said. “You’re not talking about the average marketing person here. With Bob, everything’s got a little curve on it. Everything Bob’s ever done, you’ve got to read the small print because what you see ain’t what you get. He’s always been one of those guys who carried a two-headed nickel. When Bob said, ‘I’ll take heads, double or nothing,’ he had you. Both sides of that nickel were heads.”
Gaming consultant Howard Grossman recalled, “He knew how to gamble and he had the mentality of a gambler. There was no reason to come to Vegas World. It certainly wasn’t a nice place. Even when he fixed it up it still wasn’t anything to talk about. But it was full of people.
“He knew how to bring in people. With his vacation offers, he gave away the rooms. Customers basically stayed for free, but he made sure you were gambling at his casino. So the people had no other place to go when they got there. Vegas World wasn’t close to anywhere. Other places would be empty, and we used to have almost all the business. He knew how to get people in and he knew about gambling.”
How strong were the vacation offers?
Grossman recalled the time Stupak took a map of the Midwest, spun it on a table, closed his eyes, and pointed to a spot.
“Send a mailer out to this place,” Stupak told one of his people.
“It was amazing,” Grossman said. “He had a tremendous response to it.”
In various forms, values, and prices, Vegas World’s Vegas VIP Vacation packages allowed Stupak to successfully overcome his lousy location and other limitations. Where resorts in the heart of the Strip relied not only on their marketing but also on a percentage of walk-in customers, only transients and “funbook Freddies” were likely to stumble into Stupak’s place. The vacation packages helped even the score.
They also set him at odds with state attorneys general and Nevada gaming regulators for years to come.
The basic package was promoted through direct-mail marketing and national newspaper and magazine advertisements. The prices and perquisites varied-many offers cost as little as $398 per couple-but it took a coupon-clipping bargain shopper to get the most out of Vegas World’s “virtually free” promotion. One of the better values included two nights at Vegas World, $200 in cash, $200 more in table action, $400 in slot action (good only at special machines that paid off as often as the Chicago Cubs won the World Series), tickets to Vegas World’s showroom, unlimited cocktails, a load of other gambling paraphernalia, and a sapphire-and-diamond pendant liberally valued at $270.
Many other similarly worded advertisements lacked the $200 cash kicker, and Stupak’s special slots were notoriously stingy, but the packages packed Vegas World as never before. His annual revenues jumped from $7 million when he opened in 1979 to nearly $100 million in 1986.
The ads left no doubt as to the owner’s motivations.
“When asked how he could possibly give so much for so little, Stupak explains:
“‘Even though you are under no obligation to play with your own money, many people will. And a few high rollers will gamble enough to cover the cost of your entire vacation-with all the benefits.’
“All winners are paid in cash. Players keep what they win. There are no additional charges of any kind.”
A national consumer magazine cut through the hype on both sides of the issue and captured the essence of the $398 VIP Vacation.
“It doesn’t appear to be a scam, but it’s not much of a deal, either. The only real money in the ‘bankroll’ is $200 in cash; the other $1,000 is ‘action’ credit for some long-odds casino play. In effect, what you’re buying is two days of lodging, dinner, and some modest extras for $198, about par for downtown Las Vegas.”
“The real truth of the matter is that the people who bought a vacation club in essence were getting their rooms for about free,” David Sklansky said. “The principle behind why this deal worked, especially in the beginning, is that a casino can afford to give away rooms for free if, in return, they know people have $400 in their pocket.
“Bob’s location turned from a negative into a positive because, since it wasn’t really within walking distance, people were less likely to leave.”
Another curve was Stupak’s advertised “Free $50 Casino Bankroll in Vegas.” It wasn’t a bad value even if it was divided into $20 in table chips and $30 in slot action at Vegas World’s suspect machines. For a $2 registration fee, how could a person go wrong?
The hook was in the fine print. Participants received the $50 value over the course of nearly three hours. It left them plenty of time not only to spend the so-called free money, but a little of their own cash as well. It was precisely the sort of pitch that ensured Vegas World’s survival, but it did not impress the Strip’s well-heeled operators. Stupak was almost as good at annoying his peers as he was at attracting customers.
To assist in his customers’ decision making, he produced a 1985 book titled, Stupak on Craps. Ghost written by Roger Dionne, the book was a collection of tips on playing casino games. On the cover, Stupak on Craps was touted as the book of the year by something called the American Gaming Association. In all, Stupak himself wrote eight pages of the text.
“Craps is basically one of the easiest games in the casino, even though it looks like the most complicated,” Stupak wrote. “I’m going to explain craps to you as simply as possible, and after you’ve read the next few pages, you should know as much about the game as anybody at the table.”
The book was dedicated “To all the crapshooters in the world, especially to my father, Chester Stupak, and Eric Drache.”
No Limit provides a penetrating look at Bob Stupak, controversial casino owner and builder of the Stratosphere Tower. Between his early years as the son of a notorious gambling operator in Pittsburgh and the grand opening of the Stratosphere Tower, Stupak raced motorcycles, hustled coupons, and ran Vegas World-home of the infamous VIP Vacation Package, the longest running casino promotion in history. Native Las Vegan and veteran author John Smith draws on his 15 years experience as a journalist and columnist for the Las Vegas Sun and the Las Vegas Review-Journal, as well as his previous work Running Scared, to create yet another riveting biography of one of Las Vegas’ most engaging characters-Bob Stupak.
Casino Journal, Casino Player, Casino Executive magazine, Valley Explorer, Chicago Sun Times, Las Vegas Sun, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Loose Change magazine, Gaming Today, BookList, The Learning Channel, Pittsburgh Post Gazette
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