If you spend enough time on the casino floors of Sin City, you’ll inevitably hear about the Phantom Gambler. Many variations of the story have emerged over the last four decades.
But in essence, a high roller comes to the casino with a suitcase stuffed with cash. He bets the entire six-figure sum on a single roll of craps. He wins and silently fills a second casino with his haul before walking away without a word.
A story like this sounds too good to be true. Las Vegas casinos seldom accept action to the tune of a half-million or more on any one wager. And who in their right mind would really bet that much on a pure game of chance like craps?
Knowing all of this, most people who hear the story of “Suitcase Man,” also widely referred to as the “Phantom Gambler,” scoff at the notion. Gambling enthusiasts are prone to exaggeration, after all, so a story like that of Suitcase Man can be attributed to the rumor mill.
But what if I told you that Suitcase Man was real and his high-rolling exploits really did happen? What if I told you that the big-time bettor made THREE of these real money craps bets over four years?
Well, you don’t have to take my word for it. Just look up William Lee Bergstrom. Or better yet, stick around and let me regale you with one of the most legendary stories to ever emerge from the “Wild West” era of Las Vegas gambling.
Mystery Man Strolls Into Binion’s With Two Suitcases and a Dream
Beginning in 1951, a former underground gambling boss from Texas by the name of Benny Binion arrived in Las Vegas to escape his past.
Setting up shop along Fremont Street in the Downtown District, the colorful character opened the doors to Binion’s Horseshoe casino that same year. Almost immediately, Binion set his joint apart from the rest of Sin City’s gambling halls by offering essentially unlimited action.
In other words, whatever amount his players were willing to wager, Binion would be happy to book their bet. Binion’s Horseshoe wasn’t the most glamorous casino in town by any means, but he had more money and moxie than his competition.
It was on September 24th, 1980, when a stranger strolled in and entered Binion’s Horseshoe casino in Downtown Las Vegas. He was carrying two suitcases. One suitcase carried precisely $777,000 in cash, while the other was completely empty.
After a quick trip to the cashier’s cage to exchange his hard currency for casino chips, the mystery man headed straight for the nearest craps table. Every last chip was piled on the don’t pass line, setting up what might’ve been the biggest bet in Las Vegas history at the time.
The shooter’s second roll tumbled until the dice revealed a nine, which mattered not for the big money player. But on the third roll, those dice came to a rest, showing the prettiest sight a “back line” bettor can see—a seven for a don’t pass line winner.
Just like that, Binion’s craps dealer calmly slid the winner a stack of chips equal to $1,554,000 in what was easily the house’s largest loss to date. The player, who never said a thing as this epic roll played out, tipped the table’s staff $4,000 and collected the rest of his winnings without a word. His second suitcase now stuffed, the man then drove into the desert night.
Benny Binion’s son Jack, who went on to take control of the Horseshoe following his father’s conviction on tax evasion charges in 1953, later recalled the first impression made by the player known as Suitcase Man:
“The guy called previously about betting anywhere from $200,000 to $1 million.
We said, ‘Yeah, you can do it.’
It’s the biggest bet in a gambling house I have ever heard of anywhere, anytime.
He was cool. He really had a lot of gamble in him.”
For the next four years, nobody would hear from the Phantom Gambler again, but he would return with a vengeance to take a second shot at a seven-figure craps win.
Doubling Down on His Incredible Double Up
On March 24th, 1984 the craps dealers at Binion’s Horseshoe saw a familiar scene play out.
Once again, the Phantom Gambler walked in without a word and exchanged $538,000 in cash for casino chips. Once again, he hit the first craps table he could find and laid the entire lot down on the don’t pass line.
And once again, the shooter managed to seven out before rolling their point number for a second time, thereby sending just over $1 million straight into the man’s suitcase.
A second Binion brother named Ted held court over the casino floor at this time, and he didn’t want to let the secretive high-roller leave without at least learning a little more about the man.
According to Ted Binion, the Suitcase Man was a 32-year-old out of Austin, Texas. His name was William Lee Bergstrom. And as the superstitious Bergstrom told Binion after his second big winner, he was inspired to bet the original $777,000 on the don’t pass line when he noticed a bar of silver in his hard currency cache bore a serial number containing 7-7-7:
″He told me he’d wake up in the middle of the night 30 days before making the bet and decide to do it.”
Brief Biography of William Lee Bergstrom
After graduating from Austin High School in 1969, a young Bergstrom majored in electrical engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
After transferring to the University of Texas in 1971, and eventually dropping out, Bergstrom went on to earn his aviator’s license and become a private pilot. He also took an interest in real estate, buying rundown properties, renovating them, and selling them for a hefty profit in a process known as “flipping” nowadays.
Having amassed a small fortune through his penchant for flipping property, Bergstrom began dabbling in currency trading on the side. This profession led him to horde gold and silver bars, as well as the South African currency known as Krugerrands.
Based on his personal belief in a looming economic collapse which would cause hyper-inflation, Bergstrom preferred to keep his stash of precious metals personally rather than deposit them in a bank. This philosophy also provided the foundation for his willingness to bet it all on a roll of the dice, as Bergstrom didn’t believe the money would be worth anything in the years to come.
Third Time’s Not a Charm for the Phantom Gambler
A few months after his second seven-figure score on a seven out, Bergstrom returned to Binion’s Horseshoe bearing a small fortune.
All told, his $550,000 in US dollars, $310,000 in cashier’s checks, and $140,000 worth of Krugerrands added up to precisely $1 million.
Here’s how Ted Binion described the scene that played out from there:
“When he bet the $1 million, he brought $700,000 in cash and the rest of it in cashier’s checks and dumped it at the casino cage.”
For his biggest bet of all, one which put every penny he had to his name at risk, Bergstrom backed the don’t pass line for a third time.
The come out roll provides don’t pass line bettors with their biggest obstacle, as any seven or 11 on the shooter’s first try produces an instant loss. A seven will hit on 16.67% of rolls, while an 11 will show up 5.56% of the time. All told, don’t pass line bettors face a 22.23% chance of losing on the come out roll alone.
The trick is to dodge the seven or 11 on the come out roll, which then tilts the advantage in favor of don’t pass line bettors, who now have the highest win probability on subsequent rolls.
On the other hand, any two (2.78%) or three (5.56%) on the come out roll means the don’t pass line bet wins, giving Bergstrom an 8.34% shot at winning on the initial roll.
And that’s when it all went wrong for this “wrong way” bettor with balls of steel… The shooter’s first roll found the dice showing seven, meaning Bergstrom’s biggest bet to date had gone bust to leave him broke.
Even so, as Ted Binion recalls, Bergstrom had ice water in his blood despite the disastrous roll:
“He was betting all he had. But he never flinched when he lost that million.
He just signed those cashier’s checks smooth as glass and went down and got the enchiladas the Mexican cook had left him.”
Bergstrom’s Story Ends Tragically in Suicide
The huge loss occurred on November 16th, 1984, and within five days, a thunderstruck Bergstrom tried to take his own life by swallowing a concoction of various pills.
One might imagine that losing a million bucks in less than a minute motivated Bergstrom to such dire straits, but in reality, he was merely a heartbroken soul with nowhere else to turn.
As a closeted gay man, Bergstrom’s relationship with a younger partner named John had drawn the ire of his overbearing and bigoted father. Eventually, his father’s interference caused Bergstrom’s boyfriend to break things off, which sent the former into a downward spiral.
In a personal letter addressed to a friend, Bergstrom made his plans post-million loss quite clear:
“[John’s] leaving me was the only reason I gambled the $1 million in the first place.
I knew that if I lost the million dollars that I would for sure fully and completely do away with myself.”
That initial suicide attempt didn’t work out as planned, and Bergstrom made his way back to Binion’s Horseshoe a few months later with a cashier’s check for $1.3 million in hand.
But the check was a forgery and Bergstrom’s father had already called the casino to alert them about his son’s scheme.
The next morning, on February 4th, 1985, Bergstrom was found dead of a drug-induced suicide. In his last note to the world, Bergstrom made a simple request to be cremated, with his ashes interred in an urn bearing the following inscription:
Naturally, the Binion family obliged by footing the bill for Bergstrom’s last wishes. As Ted later told the Associated Press, he never thought twice about taking care of the late gambler who helped make his casino a Las Vegas landmark.
The expression “go for broke” is often used by gamblers visiting Las Vegas, but for Bergstrom, that credo is well-deserved. While his life ended tragically after the million-dollar loss, the legend of Suitcase Man lives on to this day.
And because the corporate casinos which dominate Sin City these days won’t take action like Benny Binion proudly did, nobody will ever top the Phantom Gambler’s dizzying highs and lows at the craps table.