Somewhere in the dark recesses of Martin Scorsese’s mind there’s a screenplay brewing. In the lead, inevitably it’s Robert de Niro. The story – a real-life tale of a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who was kicked out of school for gambling and who moved in and out of the lives of various Mafia hoodlums and who ended up in prison for racketeering.
But if Scorsese ever does revisit a theme that he’s been doing very-nice-thank-you for decades, chances are he won’t be employing Tarvis El Alberty for screenwriting duties.
Billing himself as a screenwriter, film producer, and – erm – commercial truck driver, El Alberty has set about retelling the story of one of Las Vegas’s most notorious scammers, Eugene Bulgarino.
Somewhere there’s a great story to be told about the man they called ‘Gigi’ who led one of the 1990s’ most successful slot machine cheating rings. ‘Jackpot’ isn’t it.
The history of casinos is one littered with stories of hustlers and sharks, chancers and criminals. From the MIT Blackjack teams of the 1980s to the slot machines racketeers of the 1990s, there have been more people who’ve dreamed about bringing down the house than winners.
“Gigi” Bulgarino was one of those dreamers. The book chronicles the Italian-American’s childhood in Philadelphia, spent betting on sports, buying his first stake in racehorses, and learning how to perform short cons on shopkeepers in his neighbourhood.
Later, in the 1970s and ’80s he ran hustles in Vegas, selling hooky Rolexes to Atlantic City croupiers and making a living handling rare coins. These episodes are interspersed with short spells in prison (with no real explanation of how he got there).
Finally, 100 pages in, we get to the big one, the major score. In 1998, Gigi was indicted on multiple counts of racketeering, money-laundering and being part of a major slot machine cheating ring. With partner-in-crime Dennis Nikrasch, Bulgarino fixed various jackpot slots across Las Vegas casinos and took down prizes worth over $6 million. Finally caught by the FBI, he received four years in prison.
While this in itself is an interesting story (crime, the Mafia, scams, Vegas) the book makes no attempt to place Gigi’s story in any kind of context. The crimes came at a time when video slots were permeating every casino in America, and it would have been good to see some kind of correlation with the scamming to the revolution going on in US casinos around this time.
But there’s the biggest problem with Jackpot – it’s not really written by El Alberty at all. The entire book is written as a series of anecdotes from Bulgarino himself. It’s as if the Mob-struck writer sat down with the ex-criminal, turned on his voice recorder, then nipped down the pub for two days while Gigi spouted off on anything that popped into his head.
Events in Bulgarino’s life are organised haphazardly through the book, with anecdotes lasting two or three pages at most, and the big crime comes almost two-thirds of the way through the book. One chapter on modelling Nazi uniforms for big-spending US collectors sits uneasily alongside the next about poker. As El Alberty states in his prologue – “I’m not a book writer, I’m a screenwriter” – and one would have expected the writer’s publisher to have at least insisted on some kind of third-person edit before it hit the Amazon shelves.
An editor would have been something, especially in the numerous grammatical errors littered throughout the book (e.g. “Bulgarino….a unique Robin Hood-type of hustler, whose schemes were humorous at their the core”).
At the end of the book, El Alberty plonks in a few images of Bulgarino’s family (but not many of his “criminal” family) while a newspaper clipping from the Associated Press about the big slot machine crime sums up neatly in three columns what an entire book fails to do in almost 150 pages.