David Clary likens writing "Gangsters to Governors" to running a marathon 10 years after a 5K.
David Clary likens writing “Gangsters to Governors” to running a marathon 10 years after a 5K. Images via David Clary

David Clary of La Mesa can count his lucky stars that Bugsy Siegel, Meyer Lansky and Howard Hughes aren’t around to see this.

Or what are the odds the 43-year-old novice author would see 44?

Clary’s new book — “Gangsters to Governors: The New Bosses of Gambling in America” — leaves no slot machine unturned, exposing startling details of America’s addiction to betting on horses, numbers, sports, anything.

And the history of Las Vegas is only one ace in his royal flush of a book, which took six years to research and write.

P.T. Barnum ran raffles as a teen, claiming to sell $2,000 in lottery tickets a day in 1830, Clary reports.

A Paris perfume shop owner in 1865 invented the parimutuel (“mutual stake”) betting system for horse races, later migrating to the States, he writes.

Before the name became famous in Vegas, Bill Harrah made $25,000 in three months by giving players of his Circle Game (a kind of Bingo) in 1930s Los Angeles comfortable stools and nice drapes, the book reveals.

Clary explodes myths about Nevada gaming, including the perception that New York/L.A. mobster (and Hollywood favorite) Siegel invented the Las Vegas Strip.

He tells how, in 1974, a “modest real estate salesman from San Diego” named Allen R. Glick became a front man to buy the Stardust and Fremont casinos, using a Teamsters pension fund loan.

“At first Glick seemed to float above it all in a bubble of newfound wealth that bought him an expensive remodel of a historic home in La Jolla and a private plane that ferried him between San Diego and his Las Vegas office,” Clary writes.

Clary's first book-signing and discussion is Monday at Warwick's.
Clary’s first book-signing and discussion is Monday at Warwick’s. Others will be 2 p.m. Oct. 14 at Barnes & Noble at Grossmont Center in La Mesa, and 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Coronado Public Library. Image via Facebook

The last of his dozen chapters — “Double or Nothing” — covers the human toll of gambling, noting former San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor’s $1 billion spent on casino bets and video poker, or “electronic heroin.” (Over a decade, her net losses totaled $13 million.)

Despite the ubiquity of gaming advertising and pop culture’s fascination with Lottos and the like, Clary’s book is reputedly the first to wrap its arms around the whole subject — up to the casino wars of today. It covers Donald Trump’s Atlantic City gambits and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s bad casino bets.

Professor David Schwartz of the University of Nevada Las Vegas “wrote a terrific history of gambling about a decade ago titled ‘Roll the Bones,’” Clary said. “But his is a more global look at how games developed while I concentrated solely on the U.S.”

A veteran news editor at The San Diego Union-Tribune, Clary remarkably had never before done long-form journalism, “probably nothing more than 2,000 words, and that would have been back in my college days” at Syracuse University, he told Times of San Diego.

“Gangsters to Governors” clocks in at 115,000 words, followed by 750 footnotes to sources and references.

“I’ve often thought of it as deciding to run in the Boston Marathon even though the longest race you’ve run was a 5K more than a decade ago,” he said.

One result: “I’m as light a gambler now as I was when I started the book. I don’t play daily fantasy sports, play online poker or consort with a bookie. I’ve never bought a lottery ticket!”

At the U-T, his home of 15 years, Clary helps select and edit stories for the front page and the A-section. He write headlines and photo captions “and adjusts how stories are played as news breaks.” He also edits stories and writes headlines for the local and business areas as well as Sunday sections.

His book’s official publication date is Oct. 30, but the Rutgers University Press title is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and will be sold Monday night when Clary attends his first book-signing at Warwick’s in La Jolla.

Born and raised in the Syracuse area of New York, he says he’s loved reading and writing and following the news from an early age.

“So I always pictured having a career that would tie together those strands, which is journalism,” he says.

The married father of a 13-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son did much of his research at UC San Diego and San Diego State University and even the city and county library systems.

“My goal was to approach the project with the fairness of a journalist and the rigor of a scholar,” he wrote on his website, which includes an excerpt.

“I made two visits to Las Vegas to conduct archival research at UNLV’s excellent Center for Gaming Research,” he said via email. “One of the trips was with family. During a summer East Coast trip, we spent three nights in Atlantic City and stayed at Resorts, which was the first legal casino in the city.”

This interview was conducted in mid-September via email:

TIMES OF SAN DIEGO: Why did you write this book?

DAVID CLARY: Gambling has always fascinated me, and I wanted to understand how and why it has become a part of our lives in such an intimate way that we couldn’t have imagined even a decade ago.

David Clary and kids visited the famous City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Photo via David Clary

For example, if you have a smartphone, you are potentially carrying a casino in your pocket. Government has played an essential role in transforming gambling from a vice controlled by organized crime to a legitimate tool of public policy.

Forty-eight states have some form of legalized gambling and they have relentlessly expanded casinos and lotteries in search of more and more revenue. I wanted to explore how and why this shift happened and consider the consequences.

I think readers interested in history, politics, sports or current events will find something to enjoy in this book.

I’ve been a news editor my entire career and I love what I do, but a part of me has always missed reporting and writing for an audience. Deciding to write a book was something of a risk because I haven’t had a byline since college. I think doing this project has made me a better editor and maybe a bit more sympathetic about the challenges writers face.

Do you see San Diego County reservations headed for a casino crash? Or have California officials learned from New Jersey and others?

No, I think our local casinos are here to stay. They have been smart to diversify by adding amenities like spas, high-end restaurants, golf courses and concert venues. Gambling obviously remains the cornerstone, but they know that slot machines on their own aren’t going to be enough to attract the crowds they need.

Overall, they have been patient with their expansion plans. Tribes have been adept at building good will in the community through their charitable giving and sponsorship of high-profile places like Viejas Arena at SDSU and the Valley View Casino Sports Arena. They also have the means to contribute generously to politicians on the state, local and national level to ensure their place at the table.

Other than reporting on casino and hotel expansion plans, is U-T giving adequate attention to the casino-operating Indian bands in San Diego County?

I think it’s a difficult beat because the reservations are so spread out and thinly populated, so we naturally tend to focus on their casino projects because that affects regional issues like the economy and traffic.

Any aspect of gambling in America you didn’t cover? What was your original goal?

One of the main things that sets my book apart, I think, is that I examined all of the major forms of gambling and connected them to tell the larger story of gambling’s legalization. That was my goal from the beginning, and I managed to carry it through to the end.

Did you expect it to take six years?

I had no idea how long it was going to take, though six years wouldn’t have surprised me. I wanted to do as thorough a job as possible and not worry how long it took. Luckily, I picked a topic that wasn’t going to go away. The heaviest work was 2015-2016 when I had a literary agent, had the book contract, had most of the research done and all I had to do was to sit down and finish writing the darn thing!

You document how states are addicted to gambling. What’s the antidote? How should taxpayers judge expansion of gambling in their states?

I think states are now too reliant on gambling revenue to scale back in any significant way, so voters need to be skeptical of politicians’ promises and block expansion efforts that seem to go too far.

Taxpayers should be wary of gambling revenue projections because history shows that they are almost always wildly optimistic. Then states double down and raise betting limits, increase the number of slot machines, or raise the price of lottery tickets to try to make up the difference.

States often promote gambling expansion as a way to help public schools or the elderly, but too often the money is redirected to other purposes or allows states to reduce education spending because of the influx of gambling funds.

How many interviews did you conduct?

I did about a half-dozen interviews on the record and a few others off the record. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, was certainly the most prominent one. I tried to use primary sources wherever possible and carefully documented everything.

What are the biggest revelations in your book — or research you’re the most proud of?

It took lots of research to puncture the “mob mythology” that shrouds so much of gambling history. One myth perpetuated by Hollywood is that Bugsy Siegel “invented” Las Vegas. In fact, there had already been two non-mob-controlled casinos on what is now the Strip. Siegel’s most famous project, the Flamingo, wasn’t even his idea and didn’t become successful until after his murder.

What’s your own gambling history?

I grew up in upstate New York and so my awareness of gambling began with visits to racetracks, including beautiful Saratoga. I was 15 when I first saw a full-service casino while on a family trip to Las Vegas.

I’ll never forget driving for hours through the desert and seeing real mountains for the first time, and then suddenly coming upon a city bathed in neon. We stayed at the Flamingo and although I was too young to bet, I was fascinated at the human drama in casinos.

Since moving to California, I’ve visited our local Indian casinos from time to time to play the slots and have spent an enjoyable day or two at Del Mar. I’ve been to Las Vegas several times and won $200 at the slots and later that night another $150 at the sports book when my alma mater, Syracuse, won the NCAA [Basketball] Tournament.

Have any gambling studies programs in Nevada or elsewhere shown an interest in making your book required reading?

I will be reaching out to colleges that offer programs in gambling or casino studies. Fortunately, it’s becoming a more serious subject of study as gambling becomes more important as a public policy tool and more pervasive in our culture.

Are the Del Mar racing seasons worthwhile financially to taxpayers? The downsides?

I think so. Del Mar attracts not only betting dollars but also heavy tourism money because it’s considered to be a destination track. The sport is in decline overall, but Del Mar has used an aggressive marketing campaign to stay relevant by offering concerts, special family days, etc.

The main downside, just as with any gambling spot, is that it attracts problem gamblers. I attended a local Gamblers Anonymous meeting as part of research for the book, and three of the people who spoke specifically mentioned wagering at Del Mar races as one of their major downfalls.

Even with the Mafia vanishing as gambling overlords, did you experience any fear researching the book?

Nearly all of the gangsters I write about in the book are long gone, so no worries about finding a dead horse in my bed!

Did you learn anything about Donald Trump that changed your perception of him? Do you see him taking risks with the government the way he did with his casinos and hotels?

It actually confirmed my general impressions of him. Trump had always been a risk-taker attracted to flashy projects, so casinos were a natural investment for him.

Like many real estate developers, he couldn’t resist the rush for land in the red-hot Atlantic City market in the 1980s. His casinos were over-the-top expensive and highly leveraged, and so he was exposed when Atlantic City cooled off in the 1990s. I think we see that risk-taking mentality in how he approaches the presidency.

Besides Allen Glick and Maureen O’Connor, did you come across any other San Diego County figures linked to gambling?

No one specific, although the chapter on Indian gaming discusses state-tribal relations that have had a direct impact on San Diego County.

Can you picture G2G as a basis for a movie? If so, would you be interested in writing a screenplay or just collaborate with Hollywood?

Sure, I can certainly see it as a documentary. I’ve never written a screenplay, but then again, I had never written a book before. If Ken Burns comes calling, I’ll gladly pick up the phone!

Have plans for another book? If so, what subject?

Definitely. I have a few ideas knocking around in my head, but I haven’t settled on what it will be yet. It’s a safe bet to say that it won’t be about gambling, though!