Gambling fever

Whale Hunt in the Desert: The Secret Las Vegas of Casino Superhost Steve Cyr by Deke Castleman

<i>Whale Hunt in the Desert </i>recounts the secret lives of high rollers.

Whale Hunt in the Desert recounts the secret lives of high rollers.

You’ve got to hand it to Deke Castleman. He took a topic, gambling, that many Nevadans might find somewhat routine, and he turned it into a fascinating, sophisticated, vaguely kinky book that can encourage even a jaded, ex-casino worker to turn its pages.

An explanation of the title will likely help the uninformed. A “whale” is a member of the gambling elite, those men and women whose play can actually have an impact on a casino’s bottom line. The desert is Las Vegas. In the early pages of the book, Castleman describes the real whales as those who can gamble more than $100,000 a hand and win or lose more than $20 million on a good weekend. He reckons the world’s herd to include slightly more than 150 players.

Believe it or not, these aren’t the folks riding the buses in from Sacramento to take advantage of the free drinks and discounted buffet tabs they can get by joining the slot club. These are the folks who might import their own chefs for the evening and are unimpressed with penthouse views; they want their own golf courses. It’s an unexamined world that few of us ever get a peek at—except through nonfiction works like this.

Castleman’s entry into this culture is casino uber-host Steve Cyr. Castleman gives Cyr some of the credit for modern casino marketing methods used to bait and keep the high rollers, including top-level perks like nod-and-wink escorts, luxurious transportation and discounts on losses. In fact, there seems to be little that is verboten to these high-end casino hosts when it comes to luring the Leviathan.

Cyr is a great self-promoter, and his story may sound somewhat familiar to those with a passing interest in gambling. He’s often quoted in national magazine stories about Las Vegas, and his face may even be familiar to regular cable TV watchers of gambling-related shows, but he doesn’t even approach being the most famous person whose name and associated anecdotes make it into the book. Michael Jordan and Larry Flynt probably take those honors.

Frankly, except for his cautionary role as an example of a barely ethical high-pressure salesman, it wasn’t Cyr’s story that made this book such a page turner. In fact, sometimes it seemed that Castleman was stretching Cyr pretty thin in order to keep him in the story. Neither was it the rich guys with initials instead of last names who Castleman (and Cyr) treat as bulging purses that made Whale Hunt so engaging, although it was suspenseful to see whether the guy who gambled his business away would slash his wrists or if a whale’s widow could be enticed to have a little fun with her inheritance.

No, the character that makes the chapters fly by is the amorality exhibited by the casinos, hosts and players. Castleman depicts the character astutely, without judgment, and while he’s apparently impressed with the monumental greed that fuels this book and the gambling business, he doesn’t appear to be so ensorcelled that he forsakes the narrative to dwell on it.

Castleman’s been writing about traveling and gambling in Nevada for a couple decades. He’s the senior editor of Huntington Press, which published this book.

At any rate, Whale Hunt in the Desert is a good story, well told. Castleman knows the industry, and his use of insider’s information, in-depth research and casino jargon bestows the book with a strong aroma of authenticity. It’s almost enough to make you jealous of the Ahabs who get to hunt these spendthrift creatures.