David G. Schwartz is an Atlantic City native whose first job was strutting down the boardwalk as Mr. Peanut. He’s come a long way: Schwartz is now the director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s also author of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, Casino Edition which he just republished in January in print and ebook forms.
I talk to Schwartz often about Atlantic City news, so last week I called him in his Las Vegas office to talk about his book, Atlantic City, and how his hometown has changed.
JAM: What changes have you made from the first edition?
DGS: In some ways, I’ve streamlined the book. There was a lot of material about lotteries and horse racing that most readers didn’t connect with. I t pared that down and added a lot about casinos because people really seem to like casinos. I also added a whole chapter about Atlantic City where before it was a portion of a chapter.
There’s a lot more stuff about Las Vegas and the mob: why the mob was there – and not just tories about the Joe Pesci character in the movie Casino – but why was the mob there, why did it makes sense for them to be there and why are they not there now.
JAM: Why are they not there now?
DGS: Three big reasons. In the ’50s and ’60s they, had an edge in marketing and they could control the junkets. They had an edge in finance because mainstream lenders weren’t lending to casinos. They had an edge in debt collection. Collecting gaming debts wasn’t legally possibly then. They could write you a nasty letter but if the mob could someone show up to your workplace to pursued you, that gave them an edge on people who couldn’t.
By the ’80s all that changed. Casinos were doing direct marketing, could get mainstream finance, and Nevada changed its laws to allow collection.
JAM: The first edition came out in 2006, when Atlantic City was just starting it’s recent decline.
DGS: Originally, I ended on a really upbeat note. Hey there’s this MGM project scheduled! It’s going to be 5 billion dollars. There’s this huge wave of growth coming!
In this edition, I’m up to last December. Trump Plaza was the first casino to change hands since I published it.
JAM: I know you got your start in Atlantic City. What did you do?
DGS: On the boardwalk, I was Mr. Peanut one summer. That was a long time ago now but the memories remain. That was kind of fun. Also worked in security and later surveillance at the Trump Taj Mahal.
JAM: When were you last in town?
DGS: Last summer.
JAM: What’s changed?
DGS: I was only there for about a week but It just seems like a lot of people I know in the casinos are very demoralized whereas before they were a lot more hopeful. If you look at the numbers, the city had a high of 49,000 employees in 1997. It was at 36,000 in 2009 [the last year employment numbers were made public] and it’s even lower today, I’m sure. Just looking at something like the table revenues – Atlantic City is pretty much where they were in 1985 without adjusting for inflation. Even though you do have less dealers, the toke rate has gone down because I don’t think the number of tables have gone down with revenues. It’s not nearly as good as it used to be.
JAM: What does “roll the bones” mean?
DGS: Originally the first dice were knuckle bones of animals. It’s slang for dice and gambling.
Jen A. Miller writes the Down the Shore with Jen blog for NewsWorks.org. Jen is author of The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May, which is now in its second edition.