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Frankie Masterana played cards he dealt himself as illegal bookmaker

Lem Banker’s phone rang. It was friend Frankie Masterana, calling long distance to inquire about the betting line of the Stanford-San Jose State football game.

In the age before the Internet, adjustments in the nation’s football betting line were often communicated over the phone.

Since Masterana was a major bookmaker and Banker was a lifelong gambler and handicapper, on the surface the call was innocent enough. Or at least brief enough that no one was likely to be indicted.

Banker was happy to help out a pal. The point spread was 17. Then something dawned on him.

“Frankie, where are you calling from?” Banker inquired.

“Terminal Island,” Masterana replied, referring to the Federal Correctional Institution in California. “I’m calling from the warden’s office.”

That gives you an idea just how devoted Frank Joseph Masterana was to his profession. The Canton, Ohio, native, who died of a heart attack early last week in the Dominican Republic at age 80, was an illegal bookmaker with few peers in or out of prison.

The record is unofficial, but by my count Masterana holds the mark for most prison time served by a bookmaker. This guy sat behind bars more years for taking football bets than the Wall Street swindler crowd did for ripping off the nation. He was a guest of the government in parts of four decades, the last detour being a few months for a gambling conspiracy conviction. He was released in March 2006.

Masterana served in the U.S. Army in Japan in the aftermath of World War II. He came out to Las Vegas in the early 1950s and worked for Joseph “Doc” Stacher as a dealer. He gained a reputation as a card mechanic who cheated for the house and was a scratch golfer who won amateur titles and hustled at a high level.

He was so skilled as a dealer that he often took assignments from different casinos: Downtown to the Strip, up to Lake Tahoe and back to Hot Springs. He is credited by some with dealing the last hand of faro seen in a Las Vegas casino, but his notorious reputation eventually made it impossible for him to receive a work card. Before he busted out of the legitimate casino trade, Masterana made stops from downtown to the Strip and enjoyed the trappings of Vegas fortune, living next to Sonny Liston in an Ottawa Drive home.

“He could deal anything,” his friend of 50 years, Merrilou Thomas, says. “And he was the biggest-hearted guy you’d ever want to meet. But he was definitely his own man.”

Thomas recalls one experience. Masterana was dealing at the Desert Inn, a coveted job, and decided to remove his shoes. The floor boss noticed and was irate.

“What are you doing?” the supervisor asked. “Put your shoes on.”

“My feet hurt,” Masterana deadpanned.

“You can’t deal in your stocking feet,” the boss snorted.

“I can’t?” Masterana replied, handing the guy the deck and walking out.

With no legitimate gambling prospects, he turned to illegal bookmaking and racked up the arrests. As the story goes, Masterana was busted in the 1970s with eight other men on bookmaking charges. The others received probation. Masterana wasn’t as fortunate.

Masterana asked the federal prosecutor, “How come everyone got probation and I got jail time?”

“Mr. Masterana, do you bet horses?” the government man asked.

“Yes.”

“How do you handicap them?”

“On past performance,” Masterana said.

The prosecutor replied, “And that’s why you’re going to jail.”

If Masterana was incorrigible, he was also remarkably consistent. When he was added to Nevada’s Black Book, the List of Excluded Persons banned from entering the state’s casinos, on Oct. 19, 1988, he just shrugged and kept on booking. Ironically, Masterana’s inclusion was in part due to his “relationship” with Chicago mob enforcer Tony Spilotro.

“They said I was with Tony,” Masterana once told me. “It wasn’t like I had a choice. In those days, you were either with Tony or you quit breathing.”

Spilotro used Masterana as his personal “white meat” bookmaker. That is to say, one who was tender and easy to pick on. Spilotro was a terrible gambler, but he had a reliable system: He often refused to pay his losses and was always quick to collect his winnings. As an old-school outlaw, Masterana quietly took the abuse.

“Frankie never should have been in the Black Book,” his pal Banker says, playing street-corner defense attorney. “Spilotro was hanging around with him, and what choice did he have? They wouldn’t give him a work card, so he ended up booking.”

Not that Masterana didn’t crave a fresh start. He went on the lam down to Mexico to buy himself a little time between arrests. It was there his son, Little Frankie, suffered a severe head and neck injury in a diving accident and became a quadriplegic. The son’s injury haunted the elder Masterana the rest of his life.

When the heat in Las Vegas grew too intense, Masterana floated down to the Caribbean to get in on the ground floor of what has become the world’s biggest network of illegal bookmaking operations. In recent years, reliable sources say, Masterana owned a piece of a dozen successful bookmaking offices.

When Masterana was at the Federal Correctional Institution at Terminal Island, wife Stella dropped by for a visit.

“He’s not here,” an official told her.

“What do you mean he’s not here?” Stella replied.

“He’s out giving golf lessons to the warden,” the guard said.

Thomas recalls, “They used to raid Frankie just before the big games. They did it so often that Stella would just let them in and tell them which drawers were his and which were hers. Then she’d go make the marshals coffee.”

One day following a raid of Masterana’s office, a federal law enforcement official realized they’d missed one felony count. So he called Masterana’s house.

“Are you coming downtown today?” the official asked. “There’s one charge I forgot to book you on.”

Masterana replied, “OK, I’ll stop by.”

With the raid right in the heart of the sports season, his business wasn’t done for the day. So once Masterana reached the fed’s office, he borrowed the phone and called home to Stella. He reminded her that a couple numbered clients would be calling looking for action.

“Where are you?” his wife asked.

“I’m at the U.S. marshal’s office,” Frankie replied.

By 2002, Masterana was living in style in the Dominican Republic. His offices were booming, and he was only too happy to pay his Caribbean taxes and licensing fees. He had cut back on the hard booze and heavy meals that kill far more bookmakers than a boatload of mob hit men, and grew a ponytail and gray beard. He looked like Willie Nelson with a Racing Form.

“I haven’t done anything since I got out of jail in ’85,” Masterana told me.

I just smiled.

Nothing but run his island sports betting empire.

“He was a Damon Runyon character, and there were a lot of guys like that out here at one time,” Thomas says. “Frankie was one of the best dealers in the country. He took his lumps as he earned them.”

And Frankie Masterana, may he rest in peace, earned plenty.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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