Money  /  Longread

What Happened in Vegas

The Teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa—with a little help from the mob—built Las Vegas as we know it today.

LASTING FOR THREE STRAIGHT DAYS, the grand opening of Caesars Palace in August of 1966 was a spectacle unlike any the city of Las Vegas had ever seen. The owners of the casino, a brash Southern hotelier and gambler named Jay Sarno and his straight-laced partner Stan Mallin, dropped over a million dollars on food and booze, doling out fifty thousand glasses of champagne and two tons of filet mignon to their fourteen hundred guests. Nearly every high-rolling gambler and bookmaker in America, as well as a veritable who’s-who of celebrities, were in attendance. John Wayne, Johnny Carson, Maureen O’Hara, Eydie Gorme—even Grant Sawyer, the governor of Nevada, was on hand. The guest of honor, however, was someone who didn’t drink, didn’t gamble, and didn’t much care for lasciviousness or ostentatious displays of wealth. Yet here he was in the middle of a three-day bacchanal christening a $24 million Roman palace, the most expensive casino ever built up to that point in history, anywhere. His name was Jimmy Hoffa, and he was the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the 1.7 million-member trucking and transportation union.

“We needed a guy like Jimmy,” said Sarno from the stage during the celebration. “Only someone with his class, his integrity, could have added a little Greco-Roman class to Vegas.” Hoffa added a lot more than that. His union’s Central States Pension Fund loaned Sarno and his partners $10.6 million for the construction of Caesars Palace. Later that night, as Hoffa slept in room 1066, the nicest suite in the hotel, gamblers threw dice and pulled the arms of the slot machines, and the casino roared with excitement. Before long, the guests had won more money than the casino had in the cage. An emissary was sent to wake Hoffa up and let him know the casino was in the hole. According to Stan Mallin, “He gave us a couple million to tide us over.”

Eventually the amount the Teamsters would loan to Sarno and Caesars Palace would balloon to more than $20 million, and even more in 1968 for Sarno’s next casino, Circus Circus. Within a decade the Teamsters would invest over $272 million in Nevada, mostly in casinos. By 1976 the Teamsters had become the gaming industry’s largest financial backer and the largest creditor in the state of Nevada.