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How A Good Run At The Blackjack Table Saved One Of America’s Biggest Companies

by Linda Johnson |  Published: Apr 22, 2020


I’m staring at this blank sheet of paper not knowing what to write since life will take many turns between the time I pen this column and the time you read it. In fact, I don’t even know if you will be reading this in a print magazine or if the entire issue of Card Player will need to be produced digitally.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you are aware that Nevada Governor Sisolak mandated a month-long closure of “non-essential businesses” including casinos, bars, gyms, and movie theaters in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus. I moved to Las Vegas in 1980, and since then, I can’t recall a time when all the casinos were closed statewide. As it turns out, the last time the Las Vegas casinos closed was Nov. 25, 1963, and the occasion was President John F. Kennedy’s funeral.

Only time will tell how long the casinos will be shuttered, but one thing I do know is that in the meantime, we all need some positivity in our lives. With that in mind, here’s an interesting gambling story that involves a very successful businessman, Frederick Smith.

Frederick Smith had to deal with a lot of adversity during his youth. When he was four years old, his father died. Young Frederick developed a disease that threatened his ability to walk, and in fact, had to wear leg braces for years. He eventually grew out of it and went on to play football in high school.

Frederick SmithHe was accepted to Yale in the early ‘60s, and wrote a paper for his economics class about his vision to found a company that would supply overnight deliveries with its own airplanes, depots, mail stations, and delivery vans. His professor wasn’t impressed and gave him a C grade as he didn’t think the idea was feasible. Smith graduated in 1966 and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served two tours of duty as part of an infantry unit and as a pilot in Vietnam. He was awarded a Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and a Bronze Star and was discharged in 1969.

After his discharge, Smith bought a major interest in Ark Aviation Sales, a company that did aircraft maintenance. He turned it into a successful company that bought and sold corporate jets. He then decided to pursue his idea of starting an overnight delivery company. He obtained some venture capitalist money and pooled it with his own money and started a business called Federal Express in the early ‘70s.

In 1973, Federal Express shipped its first delivery of 186 packages. Fuel costs were rising rapidly causing the company’s bank account to bleed. By 1976, Federal Express was losing more than $1 million a month and was on the verge of bankruptcy. Smith tried to no avail to obtain additional financial backing. With only $5,000 left in the company’s bank account, Smith didn’t have enough money to pay the next week’s bill to refuel the company’s planes.

He decided it was time for a Hail Mary. He took the last $5,000 and flew to Las Vegas for the weekend. After many hours at the blackjack table, he ended the weekend with $32,000, a profit of $27,000. That was enough to pay the bill to refuel the planes the following week.

A few days was all he needed to raise an additional $11 million to keep the business running. By 1976, Federal Express was able to turn a profit of $3.6 million. Profits climbed to about $40 million by 1980. By the year 2000, Smith was on the list of the top 400 richest people in the world.

These days, Federal Express is the world’s second-largest airline in terms of number of planes with more than 700 in the fleet. FedEx delivers about 17 million packages a day and is valued at an estimated $30 billion. Frederick Smith was named the 26th Greatest Leader in the World by Fortune Magazine and has a net worth of more than $6 billion.

Just think, what would have happened if his time at the blackjack tables didn’t pan out?

I hope you enjoyed this bit of history. Hopefully we will be back at the poker tables soon. In the meantime, try to stay happy and healthy in these trying times. ♠

Linda JohnsonLinda Johnson is a WSOP bracelet winner and member of the Poker Hall of Fame, the Women in Poker Hall of Fame, and WPT Honors. She is available to host tournaments, seminars, and charity events. Please contact her at with questions or comments.