“$2,500,00 DAY SPENT ON OPEN GAMES IN CITY” declared a Chicago Tribune headline in 1928 in bold type, bemoaning the rising gambling epidemic within the city’s confines. “Chicagoans freely and openly indulge in all the pastimes of chance known to the betting world,” wrote an anonymous Tribune reporter. Gambling dens of all types, from “bare walls and pine board tables” to places with “luxurious fittings, studded roulette wheels, [and] handsomely lighted green tables,” had sprung up all over the city, ready and waiting to ensnare unsuspecting rubes (“List 215”). “There is a gambling den within easy walking distance of every home,” claimed the Tribune, with competition so fierce between establishments on the Loop that big dens paid runners to stake out the entrances and exits of their competitors, “soliciting trade as the players come and go, and offering better odds, a squarer deal, and anything that comes to the mind in the hope of inducing them to leave the play they were playing to patronize the runner’s establishment instead” (Ibid). Thanks to the illicit pleasures of gambling, “thousands of individuals of moderate salaries are finding it difficult to pay their rents and their food bills,” with women in particular being drawn to the tables, eager to “risk their husbands’ earnings” by throwing money meant for “grocery bills and baby clothes” into “the gambler’s till” (Ibid).
It turns out those housewives might’ve been cheated out of more than just baby clothes and groceries, however.
In 2016, game restorer Alexander Walder-Smith of The Games Room Company got a surprise while refurbishing a 1929 roulette table from Chicago: two tiny buttons disguised as screw heads just underneath the lip of the table.
Connected to tiny wiring channels that led to pressure pads and tiny pins, it turns out the false screws were part of an electrical circuit—one that was in the house’s favor.
A set of 1929 Ever Ready batteries concealed in a hollow leg directly underneath the wheel provided the power for the trick. “Packed so tightly” that “anyone rocking the table who was unhappy with their hand wouldn’t hear [them] rattling around inside,” the batteries completed an electrical circuit that, when the croupier pressed one of the screw buttons, cause two tiny pins to rise along the wheel. Then “the ball would travel round the rim of the wheel and would hit the pin which could cause it to drop into part of the wheel the croupier wanted the ball to fall into,” explained Walter-Smith. That way, the house could win anytime it wanted—and more money went into the mob’s pockets.
While there isn’t a direct, proven link between this particular table and Al Capone—it spent a decent chunk of its life in a farmer’s barn in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after all—the money that was generated by the rigged table undoubtedly made its way back to his syndicate. Capone’s Outfit was heavily involved in gambling rackets throughout Chicagoland in the late 1920s, and Capone often personally oversaw their operations as well. In the early days of the Cicero operations, Al was “more of a hands-on supervisor,” according to Jonathan Eig in his book Get Capone. Al was one of two men who “held the only keys to a strongbox containing records from some of Cicero’s biggest gambling halls,” and he “inspected the books almost daily” (Eig, 316).
This level of personal involvement was also revealed in Capone’s 1931 tax evasion trial when prosecutors called on the Reverend Henry C. Hoover, who’d raided a Cicero gambling joint in 1925 with a crowd of reformers, to testify to what he saw there. Not only did one of his followers distinctly hear Al say “I’m the owner of this place,” but the Reverend saw him “taking the money out the till and putting it in his pockets” (Kinsley, 2). Meanwhile, Capone tried to make a deal with the Reverend. “Reverend, can’t you and I get together—come to some understanding?…if you will let up on me in Cicero, I’ll withdraw from Stickney,” he offered. The Reverend didn’t take him up on it, of course. 😉
While the Reverend’s testimony didn’t make much of an impact, the revenue books taken from Capone’s gambling operations had a big impact on his 1931 trial. According to ledger books from Cicero, gambling dens like the Ship generated roughly $500,000 in a twenty-four month period, each bet and payoff carefully tabulated by accountants hired by each den (Eig, 295). During 1924 through 1927, those same houses made $25,000 to $30,000 a month in profits (Ibid, 317). Yet, while the figures were substantial, there was no way for the prosecutors to directly tie it to Capone’s income directly—until they tracked down the accountants who’d made the notations and got them to testify. Their words about the money, where it went, and who owned the establishments were vital in putting Capone behind bars once and for all.
While the Games Room Company was very reluctant to let their intriguing find go, they sold the rigged table to “a very well known person” in the United Kingdom for more than $5,000. “I’m sure he will be playing tricks on his friends,” said Walder-Smith of his client, who he claimed had “a great sense of humor.”
And if that’s all he does to them with that table, then those folks are getting a much better deal! 🙂
Want to see how the rigged table worked in real time? Check out these explanation videos below, including demos of the restoration and how the pins worked:
…Or check out this video over at Popular Mechanics.
“LIST 215 GAMBLING JOINTS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Mar 24, 1928. https://search.proquest.com/docview/180918988?accountid=3688.
Eig, Jonathan. 2011. Get Capone: the secret plot that captured America’s most wanted gangster. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Kinsley, Philip. “5 WITNESSES ACCUSE CAPONE.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Oct 08, 1931. https://search.proquest.com/docview/181256759?accountid=3688. p 1-2.