Episode 6: Enforcement Muscle
After high school, I lived a strange sort of double life. I had my normal friends, and then I had my cousins and the guys I hustled with. I tried working a few odd jobs, but hated manual labor and I always quit after a few days. I used to joke and tell people, “I think I’m allergic to work.” I was a hustler at heart. I knew how easy it could be to make money off the street. I could make more off some fake steroids or a quick dice game than my buddies made busting their asses all week. I even went to a local community college for a few semesters, but all I ever did was use it for hunting grounds for new girls. After a couple semesters, I dropped out and went back to hustling. We are who we are. And back then, I wasn’t a college boy or working stiff. I was a hustler.
There was one job I did very much enjoy. Bouncing. When I got out of jail for the steroids, my grandfather arranged for me a job at a really popular nightclub called “Brownies on The Lake.” Beautiful place. High-end. Right on Lake Saint Clair. It has a new name but it’s still there. It was the greatest job a 19-year-old hustler could have, because (A) there were TONS of beautiful girls in there, and (B) it was mob central. Every wiseguy for fifty miles went there on the weekends. The place had a huge deck overlooking a marina, so guys could pull up and park their boats right along the deck to show off to the girls. There were even valet attendants for the boats. The place would fill up with high-rollers every night, and there I was, some 19-year-old kid fresh out of jail, working security. I always worked the front door because I could skim from the cover charge. It wasn’t uncommon for me to skim a $1,000 a night from the cover.
I think the owner and manager knew I was skimming, but they knew who my grandfather was so they never said anything. Another thing that was great about working the door was that I could let all my underage friends and cousins in. Once they knew I was working there, dozens would come every night. It was really funny, because my little cousins, all little mob kids in their teens, some as young as 16, would posse up and rent a limousine. The thing would pull up in front and they’d pile out like they were at the Oscars or something. All handsome teenage Italian kids in suits, playing the part to the fullest. I thought it was funny but when they walked up to me at the front door, usually bypassing long line, they would hug and kiss me on the cheek like I was some kind of boss. That always made me feel a little uncomfortable and embarrassed, but that’s how we grew up. Everyone kissed each other. I kissed my uncles and cousins well into adulthood. But I always wondered what people must of thought when they saw all these little Italian kids treating a lowly doorman like I was some kind of boss. They only did it because they looked up to me, and because I had a reputation of being a head-cracker. And even back then, they knew it was good to have a head-cracker on their side.
Even now, as people from high school read these essays, they must think, “Holy shit, I never knew any of this!” Which was exactly how it was supposed to be. My uncles and grandfather had always stressed the importance of keeping Family business… well, Family business. Nobody outside of the “community” was supposed to know what I did or what anyone else in the Family was doing. Period. I remember an incident, one I can’t elaborate much on, but it scared me pretty badly. One of my uncle’s guys brought an outsider in who ended up getting in trouble with the cops for something fairly petty. But a dirty judge tipped off my uncle that the guy was going to inform on the Family in exchange for leniency. A few weeks later the guy was found in an abandoned house on Detroit’s east side. He’d been shot once in the center of his forehead. It was a reminder why we never brought in outsiders.
For me, after high school, I just sort of drifted away from my old friends and further into the street life. I mean, I still went out clubbing with my boys and popped in to see them from time to time, but I sometimes went days or weeks without seeing them. I did hustle with a few of them, but other than maybe two or three of my closest friends, nobody outside the Family knew what I did for money or who I really worked for. Well, that’s not entirely true. A few of my boys knew I was a Tocco on my mother’s side. They occasionally saw articles in the newspaper or mentions in evening news about my uncles or other members of my Family. When they asked about it, I just sort of played dumb and told them it was all bullshit, that none of it was true. What else could I say? I was ordered to keep it quiet, and so I did.
When I was around 17, my uncle gave me a beeper—I still remember his code, 112, like the R&B group—and whenever he paged me, I had to drop what I was doing and report to him. There were many times I was at a party or club with my friends, when suddenly I’d get a page and have to drop everything and take off. My boys always wondered what I was doing, why I suddenly had to bolt. But of course I could never tell them the truth. Usually I’d just say I was going to meet a girl or something. They believed it, because they had no reason not to. But what I was really doing was being called to duty by my Uncle Sal or Uncle Pete. Or even my grandfather or one of his boys. Mostly it was to make collections. Sometimes someone needed to be “straightened out.” Or sometimes I was needed to run security at a dice or poker game. This is how I got into the poker racket.
Everyone knows that gambling is a street hustler’s staple. But LCN has always taken it to the next level. Gambling is a huge money maker for every Family, and pretty much every crew runs dice games, poker games, and sports books. My grandfather, Peter Tocco, had one of the largest layover books in the Detroit at one time. Sports were his passion, and he loved to handicapping. The amount of money his army of bookies made was mind boggling. For those who don’t know what a master layover bookie is, it’s a bookie who balances the books of several (my grandfather had over two dozen) bookies by taking all bets that are heavy on either side of the point spread. He then balances a master book. Anything leftover, or out of balance, he pushes onto the “heavy books” in Vegas. The goal is to have everyone’s book completely balanced by deadline—the beginning of a sporting event.
Think about it like this: Imagine two bookies who are equal partners. One takes $10,000 in bets with the spread, while the other takes $10,000 against it. Their books are completely balanced so they don’t care who wins, because the losers will pay the winners, and together they will collect 10% juice, or “vig,” from every winner. It’s a little more complicated than that but, in a nutshell, that’s how it works. It’s ingenious but nothing new. The racket dates back to the Roman gladiatorial games, when Roman bookies took bets on who would win death matches in the Colosseum.
Poker and dice games became my thing. I never got too much into sports and numbers books, because I hated chasing money, even though I was constantly having to do so for my uncles. Like I mentioned previously, it was my uncle Nicky who taught me how to play poker, which is a pretty funny story. I can still remember the day like it was yesterday. It was at my grandparents’ home in Grosse Pointe. Some holiday. Easter, I believe. All my aunts and uncles were there, as well as all my cousins. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8. My Uncle Nicky gathered about five of us little boys—all little Sicilian kids—in the dining room and handed each of us two rolls of 50 pennies. He then proceeded to teach us how to play poker, all the rules, the hands, and the power of the bluff. We were quick learners and soon we knew what we were doing. My uncle was cutting 10% from every pot, and said we would play until there was only one winner. After a couple hours, my cousin Anthony had a big pile of pennies in front of him, having caught the lucky hands.
“So who’s the big winner?” Uncle Nicky asked.
“Tony!” the rest of us blurted.
“Wrong!” Uncle Nicky said, shaking his head, pointing to the pile of pennies in front of him. “I didn’t play a single hand and I have more pennies than Anthony.” He gave each of us a deadpan look, which was very scary for us little kids. “Gambling is for suckers! The house never loses. So, if you gamble, you be the house. You never play against it. Capisce?”
Of course, at the time none of us knew what the hell he was talking about. But when I was older, I saw the wisdom of his words first-hand. When I was around 18, my grandfather began introducing me to his “goombadis.” Some of them were real shotcallers, even capiregime. One of them, who was tight with my Uncle Nicky, was a true Boss. I can’t say his name but, for the sake of this essay I’ll call him Vito. Me and Vito eventually became pretty close. He’s another of the old men who sometimes called me “Lupara Pazzu”–The Crazy Cannon. In my late teens, he began using me to run errands and collections for him. He had a used car lot on Woodward Avenue, and in a back office he liked to play penny poker with my grandpa and some of the other old-timers. That’s where I got to know him. He thought I was a real tough guy and liked having me around because of it. A few times he called me in to run off the pimps and hookers who liked to hang out in front of his place. But those are stories for another time. What I did mostly for him was run poker games. In the beginning, I just worked security. Later on, I ran the games. And man, what a racket!
My first tutorial in the world of underground poker was when I was about 18. My grandfather paged me and told me Vito needed to see me. Later that day, I met Vito in his office at his used car lot. He told me he needed me to work security at a game one of his guys was hosting in the basement of a strip club on 8 Mile Road. I told him, “Sure, Vito, whatever you need.” Later that night, I went to the strip club and was escorted into the basement by its manager. I couldn’t believe what I saw when I got down there. The basement was plush and beautiful. I’m talking marble floor, wet bar, baize-topped poker table. There were even framed paintings on the walls. It looked like the den of a millionaire’s mansion or something.
The guy running the game was a little Italian named Nino, who I knew didn’t like me because I had “dated” the girl he was now dating. But this was business so we were both professional and didn’t bring that up. Around ten o’clock, five guys were escorted into the basement by the manager. My job was to frisk them for weapons and make sure they were unarmed. There was a black dude, who I took as a drug dealer, and four white guys who I assumed were some kind of businessmen. The game was dealer’s choice, $5,000 buy-in, one winner takes all.
Nino collected their cash and put in a safe. He then proceeded to deal for the next 8 hours, cutting 10% from every pot while me and another dude named Tommy (both of us armed) just sort of stood around watching, making sure nobody got out of line. Food was brought down by scantily clad waitresses from upstairs. Liquor and cigars were also served. It was a long night, and the game was intense. I’d never seen anything like it.
Sometime late into the following morning, one of the businessmen cleaned everyone out with two a pair, kings over tens. If I remember correctly, he walked out with about $17,500. Nino had cut roughly $7,500 from the overall purse. The stripper/waitresses ended up with a few hundred each. Me and Tommy each got a couple hundred for working security. I figured Nino got to keep a couple grand after expenses (booze, food, cigars), so the rest went to Vito, the Boss. About $4,500. Not bad for one night, especially considering he was at home sleeping while he made it. The funny thing is, that wasn’t even a big game. The big game was every Saturday night, where the buy-in was $10,000. I’d later end up working security at many of those games, and you would be shocked by the people who sat in on them. I saw everything from politicians and celebrities, to cops and judges. There was even a man of the cloth from a local church who played regularly.
Naturally, it wasn’t long before I began housing my own games. Sometimes I would house games for my Uncle Sal or even one of the higher-ups, but I never made much from their games. Maybe a grand or two on a good night. The real money came in when I began running my own dice and poker games. Finding big betters was the key. Nickle and dime betters were a waste of time. A guy had to bring at least a grand to the table or it wasn’t even worth my time. But all I had to do was get the word out that I was hosting a game, and within a few days I’d have a table booked up.
I had a buddy who always let me use his house to host my games. His basement was real nice, fully finished, complete with bar and poker table. It was perfect. He even had this huge salt water aquarium that everyone loved. His girl was a real good-looking piece, a stripper, so I’d always have her invite some of her friends over for eye-candy. Players liked to have T&A around when they gambled. Not only was it nice to look at, but it also motivated them to bet bigger. You know, they liked to show off in front of them and play the big-betting high-roller, which I always found comical.
The games were tiresome and boring so I usually just paid a guy to deal. Kicking him a few hundred at the end of the night was a small price to pay to be able to relax and basically just be security. My games were pretty much the same as anyone else’s games, except I usually cut fewer pots. To attract players from other games, I’d only cut every second, or even every third pot. I didn’t make as much that way, but it helped attract the bigger betters, which pissed off a lot of the guys I stole players from. A few times I got in trouble and ended up having to kick everything up to my Uncle Sal, who used my winnings to smooth things out with the guys I stole players from. After that, I’d have to shut things down for a while. But within a few weeks I was always back at it again, especially when I needed money, which of course was always.
I think the biggest game I ever worked was for my Uncle Sal. A $20,000 buy-in with six players. Three of the players were dope dealers I knew. Another was a guy I knew who had just won a big lawsuit settlement. One of the players was, and still is, a very prominent business figure in Metro Detroit. I think I cut about $20,000 out of that game, but of course my uncle required the lion’s share for setting it up. At the end of the night, I think I walked away with about $8,000. Not bad for one night’s work. Roughly a $1,000 an hour.
Running poker and dice games was a staple of mine pretty much until the day I got locked up in 2003, at age 29.
It was an on-again/off-again racket for me, but an old standby that always earned me some quick cash when I needed it. But because there were only so many major players around, most of the big bosses got the big players. Honestly, I was very lucky I never pissed off the wrong guy too badly by scabbing his players for my freelance games. I got reprimanded a few times, even taxed, but my Uncles Sal and Pete were always able to smooth things out for me. If it wasn’t for them, I could have easily come up missing over my scabbed poker games.
Get The Book!
If you’re interested in ordering Gunner’s book, “TO BE A KING” a new novel about an Italian Crime Family in Detroit, click below: