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The Hustlers

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in mid- July, Russ Hamilton sat in the grillroom at the Tournament Players Club at Summerlin watching that morning's highlights from the British Open. When I joined him at the table, Tiger Woods was draining a four-footer for yet another scrambling par. "That's my kind of golf," Hamilton said approvingly. "Keep it in the fairway, get up and down." He finished a bite of his chicken salad sandwich, then added, "I could get up and down from a pile of cow [manure] if I had to."

It's not clear where Hamilton might have practiced that shot recently, as the view from the clubhouse revealed nothing but a vast expanse of upscale suburbia. The Las Vegas Valley is shaped like a bowl, and the master-planned community of Summerlin sits on the western rim next to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, looking down on the monstrous casinos that line the bottom of the dish. When Howard Hughes acquired the 22,500-acre tract (and named it for his grandmother, whose maiden name was Summerlin), it was a barren patch of desert a good twelve miles from the modest gambling halls that comprised the Las Vegas Strip. In the thirty years since the mad billionaire died, the city has swelled to fill the Valley and the development company that bears his name scraped away the tumbleweeds and replaced them with stucco mansions, emerald lawns and swimming pools the color of cheap aftershave. The buttoned-down professionals who live here make for a convincing illusion that Las Vegas is no different than Phoenix or any other thriving Sun Belt city.

But, of course, that is untrue. This is a city built on the lure of easy money, and it seems to harbor a disproportionate number of real estate speculators, nightclub promoters and personal-injury lawyers. Risk-takers, to be sure, but diluted versions of the kind of man willing to bet thousands on whether he could get up and down from a pile of cow dung.

Hamilton is a professional gambler, the embodiment of the ethos that built this improbable desert playground. He's won millions betting on sports, and he's one of twenty-nine men to have won the Main Event at the World Series of Poker. When considering a wager with Hamilton, it's wise to recall the advice of gambling legend Thomas "Amarillo Slim" Preston, who liked to tell reporters, "If I tell you a goose can pull a plow, well, hitch him up."

Two days before we met, Hamilton concluded another impressive performance in the World Series, finishing fifty-ninth and earning $145,875. But he was already thinking ahead to another, potentially more lucrative, opportunity: a high-stakes golf match against a young Los Angeles businessman named Kasey Thompson. Despite spending twelve hours a day the past week playing cards instead of hitting balls, Hamilton liked his chances.

"Let me put it like this," he said, drawing on a poker analogy. "I lost one hand when a guy hit a two-outer on me," meaning Hamilton had a greater than 90 percent chance of winning before his opponent got one of only two cards in the deck that could improve his hand. "I think I'm a bigger favorite in this match than I was in that hand."

At fifty-seven, with a full head of sandy-blond hair, Hamilton is slightly round in the face and the middle, though considerably less so since a gastric bypass operation four years ago helped him drop more than a hundred pounds. He had already been a serious golfer when he arrived in Nevada in 1980 from Detroit, where he was also an oddsmaker and bookie. "The FBI came to my door a couple of times and wanted me to testify against some people, so I said, It's time to get out of here."

Viva Las Vegas.

When Hamilton pulled into town, he found that gamblers, gangsters and casino execs—in those days, the differences among the three were often negligible—battled daily on the links for skyscraping sums. He quickly got his golf game in fighting shape and became one of the most feared hustlers in town. His success owes little to steely nerves or even to his enviable short game. It's due to his skill in "making the game"—structuring a match so that he is either giving or getting the strokes he needs to ensure at least a slight advantage.

"The thing that makes Russ so good is that he's a great negotiator, because he doesn't mind not getting the sale," Denny Mason, a local businessman and frequent gambling partner of Hamilton's, told me. "I won't walk off the course without gambling, but he will. If he doesn't like the match, he'll just leave."


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