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Men of Action: Bob Stupak, Mr. Las Vegas

WSOP Star was One of the Last Street Smart Vegas Wild Men

by Bob Pajich |  Published: Dec 25, 2013


Bob Stupak Competes At WSOPJutting out of the earth more than a thousand feet into the air, the Stratosphere in Las Vegas will be one of the first things aliens fly by if they ever happen to get here.

It’s easy to think that Bob Stupak had this at least in the back of his mind when he started daydreaming about building the Las Vegas landmark.

Sitting in his office in his gaudy and gargantuan Vegas World, Stupak thought of himself as Captain Kirk, “the guy who has to keep the Enterprise moving forward,” he wrote in the foreword of one of two books he wrote, Yes You Can WIN!, in 1992.

Vegas World even had a spaced-out theme with an astronaut floating up the side of one of the hotels, tethered to a roulette wheel. A life-sized replica of the ill-fated Skylab space station hung in the main lobby along with another astronaut. The casino displayed thrusters from the Space Shuttle Columbia. The casinos ceiling was dark with flickering lights, simulating stars.

The casino’s motto, found encircling a pair of dice that added up to 11 was “The Sky’s the Limit.”

And in his introduction, Stupak, maybe Las Vegas’s best the promotional man, used himself as an example to his readers who maybe only wanted to know how to calculate odds at craps tables. Instead, they got a piece of Stupak’s philosophy, and if they looked very close, the plea to value life as a precious gift and understand that time is the ultimate enemy to all.

“I felt a zing in my heart just thinking about it,” he wrote, of his new project, just starting to rise out of a former car lot.

These were the dreams of an eighth-grade drop out.

The Polish Maverick

Bob Stupak was born in Pittsburgh on April 6, 1944, to parents who clothed, fed and housed their children by running numbers and spreading floating table games, particularly craps.

“When I was a kid, I thought that’s what big people did — you throw dice against the wall. That’s the way I was raised forever,” Stupak said in the must-have biography by John Smith, No Limit: The Rise and Fall of Bob Stupak and Las Vegas’ Stratosphere Tower.

After a series of raids, Chester and Florence Stupak became well-known in the Pittsburgh area as gambling operators, and by 1965, were charged with running gambling joints no less than six times. Chester was indicted in 1958 for running numbers and dice clubs and also bribing public officials, but nothing stuck.

“Chester Stupak was a man of stature in Pittsburgh’s backroom casino circles. He was to illegal numbers and card rooms what Carnegie was to steel,” Smith wrote.

Chester owned the Lotus Club on Pittsburgh’s south side. With its windows painted black, it offered more than just drinking and gambling. Flyers advertising strippers were often found under the windshield wipers of cars along Sidney Street.

The March 1, 1958 front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette featured Chester getting led to the district attorney’s office in handcuffs under the headline: “Chester Gets Special Curb Service.”

Bob Stupak was 14 and was already a middle school drop-out, choosing instead to work several hustling jobs like selling cheap watches on the street, loaning small amounts of money and running his own card and craps games. Cheap watches were often given away to guests at Vegas World as a part of an almost too-good-to-be-true promotion that was – Stupak would be fined multiple times for millions of dollars for violating consumer protection rules.

During his teen years, Stupak also tried to sing under the name Bobby Star, and also drag raced motorcycles. A lifelong motorcycle lover, he came within an eyelash of death on one in 1995.

In the 1960s, Stupak left for Australia where he married, twice and also built a small financial empire wheeling and dealing two-for-one coupons. But he always wanted a casino and knew Vegas was the place to do it, so he returned to the city for good in 1971, borrow money from friends and family, and began to earn his nickname.

Mr. Las Vegas

He first bought the Vault casino and revamped it to Bob Stupak’s Glitter Gulch. He had a giant cowgirl made in neon lights to compete with Vegas Vic, the giant waving cowboy on Freemont Street.

So here was a guy, an outsider, with no mob connection, who announced himself to the city by putting his name on a casino.

He then bought a former car lot in the once destitute part of Las Vegas that used to be known as Naked City and built Bob Stupak’s World Famous Historic Gambling Museum and Casino, a tiny establishment that opened in March, 1974. Stupak joked the sign was longer than the building itself.

It promptly burned down less than 60 days later.

In its place, and with the help of a $1 million loan, he built his gaudy, space-themed Vegas World. More Circus Circus than Golden Nugget, Stupak found a niche in the Las Vegas casino market. Even middle-class Americans wanted to leave their fat kids at home and gamble in Las Vegas.

Through incessant mailings of envelops stuffed full of coupons and “freebies,” Stupak turned his Vegas World from a 20-story, 100-room hotel that grossed $1 million annually, into a 1,000-room monster that, at it’s peak, generated $100 million annually.

“If P.T. Barnum had a hedonistic twin, Bob Stupak might be the guy. He is one of the last of the great Las Vegas wild men. In an era in which corporations have placed their publicly traded USDA Grade A stamp on the city, at a time in which gaming’s most notorious party animals have begun posturing as elder statesmen of Las Vegas casino society, Bob Stupak is still tearing up the neon-lighted streets with his big ideas, big bets and big mouth,” wrote John Smith.

Along the way, Stupak ran for mayor of Las Vegas and was known as “a decathlon gambler — sports bets, propositions, poker — everything at once. He had a lot of heart and a lot of brains,” said friend Lem Baker, a bookmaker, in Stupak’s obituary that ran in the Las Vegas Sun.

A man always looking for publicity, he rarely made a move without notifying the press. He got attention by donating $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund to play with the Harlem Globetrotters. He placed – and won – a $1 million on the Super Bowl XXIII (he supposedly hedged his bet at half-time).

He once bet Stu Ungar $100,000 that he couldn’t name the last card after the first 51 cards of a deck was exposed. Stu won.

He was a legendary high-stakes poker player, a regular in the nose-bleed games in the 70s and 80s. After he ran into financing trouble with the Stratosphere, he convinced his old poker buddy Lyle Berman, who was co-founder of casino developer Grand Casinos, Inc., to take over the project. Stupak was still a major investor, but the completion of the Stratosphere was out of his hands.

Three weeks later, Stupak was involved in a horrible motorcycle accident when his Harley Davidson collided with a car on Rancho Drive. His 19-year-old son, Nevada, suffered a broken leg. Bob Stupak nearly died. He broke every bone in his face.

In 1996, mayor Jan Jones declared him “Mr. Las Vegas.”

He also appeared on Ripley’s Believe it or Not, playing poker against a computer programmed by Mike Caro. He won the quarter-million dollar challenge.

Stupak and the WSOP

Stupak was a poker champion. In 1989, he won the $5,000 no-limit deuce-to-7 event, and appeared on a good number of WSOP broadcasts. His busted-up face, huge slightly-shaded glasses and totally weird comments made him a favorite.

He made five WSOP final tables and cashed eight times for more than $232,000. He also cashed 11 times in World Poker Tour events, and made the final table of the 2003 L.A. Poker Classic, finishing sixth, for more than $336,000.

His final cash came in April of 2008 when he finished 91st at the WPT Championship. He was fighting leukemia at the time. Even before his close brush with death in 1995, Stupak’s “seize the day” attitude was apparent.

Again, from the introduction to his Yes You Can WIN!

“In the game of life, the house edge is called time. In whatever we do, nature charges us for doing it in the currency of time. So we must take advantage of every moment."

“Every moment in life is so very precious.”

“You only get a fling at life for a while, then the house collects. We must get all our thrills and all our experiences while we have the opportunity. We have to go for it now! And only by taking advantage of time in this way can we get the best of it – win or lose.”

Stupak died Sept. 25, 2009. He was 67.