In the summer of 1976, Jimmy Chagra arrived in Las Vegas with unusual luggage. He wheeled in several foot lockers right up to the casino cage at Caesars Palace. Each box contained millions of dollars. In all, he deposited around $10 million. His intention was to gamble as high as anyone in Las Vegas had ever seen before.
Over the next three years, he would do exactly that.
As you might expect from someone who wheels in boxes of cash to a casino rather than having it wired from a bank or some other, more discreet method, Chagra’s money wasn’t exactly clean. The summer before, in 1975, Chagra had successfully smuggled 54,000 pounds of marijuana from Colombia to Massachusetts in a steamship. It was the largest smuggling operation anyone in America had ever pulled off, and with it, Chagra had established himself as the nation’s premier drug kingpin.
Now he was in Las Vegas, either laundering the money, or celebrating, or perhaps both.
During that period of time, Chagra became a local celebrity. He would tip waitresses $10,000. He would give busted gamblers stacks of cash. He palled around with real-world celebrities like Gabe Kaplan. The craps dealers at Caesars were so moved by Chagra’s generosity they presented him with a trophy that bestowed him the title “King of Vegas.” He would cover roulette tables in thousand dollar chips or put $100,000 on a single roll of the dice. Chagra claimed to have taken at least $2 million from Binions alone, and to have floated a loan of $5 million to Caesars to keep them in business when they were losing money (he claims he wrote them a marker).
It was only a matter of time before the notorious drug dealer would find the Deuce to Seven game at the Dunes. Billy Baxter had been earning a comfortable living from the game, primarily from the game’s two wealthiest patrons: Dune’s owners Major Riddle and Sid Wyman. “And then for dessert, I got Jimmy Chagra,” Baxter said with a grin.
Chagra was under investigation by everyone from the DEA to the local police back home in El Paso, Texas. The walls were closing in on him, and he seemed to know it. “And he came out here and started just throwing money away,” Baxter said. “He already was under indictment in El Paso and had a court date set, and he wanted to pass himself off as just a gambler.”
When Chagra found the Deuce to Seven game, he simply sat down with racks of chips and said “deal me in.” Nobody knew who he was. “Nobody knew he was a drug dealer right away,” Baxter said. “But it didn’t take long to figure that out.” Once they saw how he played poker, nobody much cared.
Chagra had no clue how to play Deuce to Seven. He simply wanted action. He knew gin rummy and figured he could learn, and the regulars in the game were eager to teach him at least enough to make him feel comfortable. Eventually, as Chagra got his sea legs, he raised the stakes in the game considerably. He would do wild things like raise $20,000 without looking at his hand.
According to Jack Binion, in Al Alvarez’s Biggest Game in Town, when Chagra was in the game there would regularly be millions of dollars on the table: “So many checks that you couldn’t see the green baize.”
“He lost lots of money,” Baxter said. “He was terrible.” And Chagra’s losses to the Deuce to Seven players weren’t limited to the poker table. Chagra once lost over $300,000 to Baxter on the golf course. He didn’t have the money to pay Baxter off, so he invited Baxter over to his house to collect. When Baxter arrived, he saw the house wasn’t as much a house as it was a fortress. It was surrounded by a wall and was patrolled by armed guards. That’s when Baxter realized that Chagra wasn’t any ordinary drug dealer.
Inside Chagra’s compound, Jimmy asked Baxter to give him a chance to win some of his money back shooting pool. Baxter looked over and noticed a pool table and thought, “I must have died and gone to Heaven.”
For all of Baxter’s success at poker, golf, gin rummy, and everything else, he had gotten his start on the road to gambling at the age of 16 in a local pool hall in Georgia, hustling to build up a bankroll. He even once played an exhibition against Willie Mosconi, the 19-time world champion.
He knew nothing about how well Chagra could play, but he didn’t care. Baxter had confidence he could play with anyone. And he was already up $300,000, so it was only good manners to give Chagra action, especially when he was a guest in his heavily fortified home.
“What are we gonna play for, $5,000 a game,” Baxter asked. “No, you’ve got me stuck. Let’s play for $20,000.” Baxter figured at worst he’d lose $100,000 and quit, and Chagra would feel better about getting a rebate on his golf losses. But to his surprise, and maybe his horror, Baxter discovered that Chagra was as bad at 9-ball as he was at Deuce to Seven. He was losing every game. Baxter tried to help Chagra and laid back, only winning by “lucking” the 9 ball from time to time. But despite his efforts to let Chagra into the game, before long Baxter was up another $200,000.
One of Chagra’s armed henchmen asked him “What do you want to do about this guy?” Chagra replied, “I don’t know, but if I don’t start winning some games, I don’t know what’s liable to happen.”
After that, Baxter worked extra hard to lose and managed to get Chagra back to even. He told Chagra he needed to quit him because his wife was waiting for him, hoping that the mention of his wife knowing his whereabouts might make Chagra think twice if he had any designs on disappearing him.
Irritated, Chagra ordered his men to get Baxter his money, which they fetched from the massive walk-in safe he had installed in his home and filled with cash. They brought the money out in shopping bags filled with twenty-dollar bills. “Three hundred thousand isn’t a lot if it’s in hundreds,” Baxter said, “but it is if it’s in twenties. We had to make two trips to the car.”
In 1979, Chagra was indicted by a grand jury in Midland, Texas and stood trial before Judge John Wood. Wood was known as “Maximum John” for his penchant for handing out maximum sentences. Wood set Chagra’s bail at $400,000, which Chagra posted, and he headed back to Las Vegas. That summer at the World Series of Poker, Chagra was introduced to Charles Harrelson – the father of actor Woody Harrelson – and, at the time, a prolific underworld hitman.
Chagra hired Harrelson to murder Judge Wood, and on May 29, the day Chagra was supposed to stand trial, Judge Wood was shot and killed in his driveway. It was the first murder of a federal judge in over a century. The FBI would eventually spend more resources investigating Judge Wood’s murder than anything since the Kennedy assassination. When they looked into Chagra’s whereabouts on the day of the murder, they found he had an alibi. He was playing high stakes No Limit Deuce to Seven at the Silverbird in Las Vegas.
Chagra would eventually be acquitted in the murder of Judge Wood, thanks in large part to his attorney Oscar Goodman, who would later go on to be the longtime mayor of Las Vegas. But Chagra was soon convicted on drug charges and later admitted his role in Wood’s murder as part of a plea deal with the government. He was sentenced to thirty years, but jumped bail and vanished for six months. He was finally apprehended in 1980 in Las Vegas.
Those last few months in Las Vegas as a fugitive from justice were not only Chagra’s final months as a free man, they were the final months of the big game. His legal troubles, and Major Riddle’s health issues, had cast a pall over the game, and folks knew the salad days were coming to an end.
“The last game we ever played was at the Silverbird,” Baxter said, referring to another one of Riddle’s casinos. “It was me, Sarge, Doyle, Bobby Baldwin, Major, Sid, and Chagra.”
Chagra would soon be apprehended. Bobby Baldwin, who had won the WSOP Main Event two years prior, lost his entire bankroll in the game that night according to Baxter, leaving him flat broke. Baldwin eventually accepted a job to go to work for Steve Wynn, and began a career as a casino executive that would eventually deliver Baldwin to the helm of MGM Mirage. “Which was probably, as it turned out, the best thing that ever happened,” Baxter said. “That was the luckiest night of his life.”
Major Riddle, the man who started it all, was also finished. “It was Major’s last game. He lost a million six that night.”
This wasn’t a home game, this was in the casino, so the Gaming Control Board regulations in those days stipulated that players had to be paid out their winnings. Contrary to Chagra’s claim of writing a marker for Caesars, players weren’t allowed to issue IOUs to casinos. Riddle had been playing with money from the cage, so he needed to come up with funds to pay the winners out.
Major Riddle turned to Baxter and Brunson for a loan to pay everyone out. They knew he was good for it, or so they thought.
“Right after that, he sold $25 million worth of oil properties.” Major Riddle told Baxter and Brunson he would use the proceeds from the sale of the oil properties to pay them back. But that day would never come.
“He died before he could pay us,” Baxter said.
Riddle had contracted pneumonia, a complication related to a rare blood disease, and died in July 1980. He left behind more debts than the one he owed to Baxter. His casinos went into bankruptcy, were sold, or closed down.
Baxter wrote off the loss as part of the game. “He had lost so much. It was okay.”
In the ensuing years, Baxter spent less time in the poker room, too. He managed the careers of professional boxers like Roger Mayweather. He became one of the biggest sports bettors in the country. And he continued his Midas touch, succeeding in whatever he set out to do.
But Baxter wasn’t finished with poker just yet, and in due time he would find himself back at Binion’s Horseshoe. Back at the center of the poker world.
Next up: A new whale comes to town, plays Billy Baxter for big stakes and runs for Mayor of Las Vegas.