William Bergstrom: Life and Tragedy of World’s First $1 Million Gambler

Suitcase Full of Hundred Dollar Bills With a Craps Table Background

Million-dollar bettors are very rare. Floyd Mayweather and Billy Walters are among the select few who’ve ever risked seven figures on a single outcome.

Mayweather bet $5.9 million that the Miami Heat would beat the Indiana Pacers in a 2013 NBA Playoffs series. The heavily favored Heat won, delivering a $600,000 win to the boxing legend.

Walters wagered $2.2 million on the USC Trogans beating the Michigan Wolverines in football The professional bettor won when USC prevailed by a score of 32-18.

Again, these stories are extremely rare in modern times. So, you can only imagine how shocking it was when William Bergstrom laid down the first-known $1 million bet in 1985.

You can read more about Bergstrom along with the infamous seven-figure wager that he risked in a Vegas craps game.

Who Was William Bergstrom?

Bergstrom was born in 1952 in Austin, Texas. His early years weren’t particularly happy.

Bergstrom’s brother, Alan, described their childhood as difficult. Their parents divorced when they were young. William spent much of his childhood trying to gain his father’s admiration.

He graduated from Austin High School in 1969 and enrolled at Texas Tech University afterward. William studied electrical engineering in college. He also worked as a private pilot and waited tables at a local restaurant near Texas Tech’s campus.

Bergstrom eventually transferred to the University of Texas, only to drop out in 1974. But, after that, he never returned to school.

William then pursued a career in real estate after leaving the University of Texas. He purchased and sold multiple properties throughout the Lone Star State.

Bergstrom Borrows Money to Make Huge Craps Bets

William made a comfortable living through his real estate ventures. However, Bergstrom was by no means an extremely wealthy man.

Closeup of Dice on a Craps Table

He must have maintained good credit, though, because he was able to borrow a significant amount of money in 1980. Bergstrom cobbled together $777,000 through various loans.

Banks lent him the money under the assumption it was for his real estate business. However, he actually planned to use the money for craps bets.

Massive Wins During First Trip to Binion’s Gambling Hall

On September 24th, 1980, William Bergstrom visited Binion’s Horseshoe Casino on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. He walked in with two suitcases, one carrying the $777,000 in borrowed funds and the other was empty. The latter was meant to carry the profits in case he won.

Bergstrom chose this casino because of its unique policy regarding high rollers. The owner, Benny Binion, promised to accept any bet regardless of size if it was a player’s first-ever wager at Binion’s.

William earned two nicknames on this day.

  • “The Suitcase Man,” due to the two suitcases that he carried.
  • “The Phantom Gambler,” because he remained anonymous during the gambling session.

Bergstrom risked the entire $777,000 on a don’t pass line bet. William certainly knew craps strategy, because he chose the best wager in terms of the house edge (1.36%).

However, he still needed some luck to win. Bergstrom got this stroke of good fortune when the shooter sevened out after establishing a point of six.

Binion helped Bergstrom stack $777k in cash into the empty suitcase. William left the casino having only placed and won a single bet.

Bergstrom Returns and Wins Big Again

Bergstrom finally returned to Binion’s Horseshoe Casino on March 24th, 1984, about three and a half years after his huge win. This time, he brought $538,000 in a suitcase.

Unbeknownst at the time, he’d been traveling the world with his massive profits from the first gambling excursion. William was trying to add to his fortune during the second visit.

Front of the Binion's Casino

He wagered the entire $538,000 on the don’t pass line. Bergstrom was successful yet again and collected a $538k win.

This time, however, he stuck around for a few more bets before leaving. Three wagers later, he’d added another $117,000 to his profits ($655k total).

The Ill-Fated $1 Million Bet

William didn’t wait as long to make his return to Binion’s. He showed up on November 16th, 1984 with $1 million.

The $1 million was split up as follows:

  • $550,0000 in cash
  • $140,000 in gold Krugerrands (South African gold coins)
  • $310,000 in checks

Bergstrom had already shocked the Binion’s crowd when he bet $777k and $538k during previous visits.

This time, however, he set an even bigger precedent. The Suitcase Man became the first recorded casino gambler to risk $1 million in a single bet.

Unfortunately, Bergstrom’s luck finally ran out. He wagered on the don’t pass line again and watched as the shooter tossed a seven on the come-out roll. While the shooter and pass line bettors won, Bergstrom lost.

He went on with his life for the next couple of months. But on November 4th, 1985, Bergstrom took his own life at age 33 by overdosing on prescription medicine. It seems this was a bet where he put his life on the line.

Why Did Bergstrom Take His Own Life?

Few details were known about Bergstrom prior to his final gambling session at Binion’s, hence, the Phantom Gambler nickname. However, he finally opened up to Binion following his $1 million loss.

His story, from huge craps wins to suicide, became national news. Binion got a chance to speak to the press about Bergstrom and offered more details on this mysterious gambler.

″He told me he’d wake up in the middle of the night 30 days before making the bet and decide to do it,″ Binion explained. ″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.″

According to Binion, he talked with Bergstrom for an hour after the $1 million bet. William, a homosexual, was depressed after a break-up with a man 10 years his junior.

″He kind of gave me his last story on Sunday,″ Binion explained. ″I could tell he was quite despondent and I told him in six months he’d be over with it and it wouldn’t hurt so bad.

″I didn’t wake up to the fact he was going to kill himself because he was talking about how he’d like to go to work for us in the future.″

Binion was impressed with how Bergstrom took the loss. “He was betting all he had,” said Binion, “but he never flinched when he lost that million.”

In his final hours, William went to the Horseshoe Casino with his remaining $10,000. He’s believed to have either gambled the full amount or given it away.

His suicide note requested that he be cremated. Bergstrom also asked that his ashes be stored in an urn with the inscription: “The Phantom Gambler, Bet $1 Million at the Horseshoe Club, November 1984.”

Conclusion

When I think of high rollers, I envision wealthy magnates and successful pro bettors who can afford to bet big. I don’t, however, think of somebody risking everything they have on a single outcome.

This is exactly what William Bergstrom did, though, each time he visited Binion’s Horseshoe Casino. He won a combined $1.43 million during his first two excursions.

William used this money to buy himself some happiness, which he desperately needed. He went on a lengthy trip around the globe after winning $777k and took his mom to a Willie Nelson concert to celebrate a $655k win.

According to Alan Bergstrom, he and William’s childhood wasn’t very happy after their parents’ divorce. This situation likely led to The Suitcase Man’s wild bets and suicidal tendencies later in life.

Binion said that Bergstrom had planned to kill himself if he lost the first $777k bet. Luckily, he won and got to see the world in his last few years.

William seemed like a very private individual who kept a low profile after big wins. However, he eventually came to embrace the attention that came with his high-rolling ways.

This fact was evident based on Bergstrom’s requests regarding his urn. He wanted to be remembered as The Phantom Gambler who placed a $1 million bet at Binion’s.

It’s very possible that somebody in history wagered the equivalent of $1 million before Bergstrom. However, he’s known as the first recorded person to take this daring risk.