Saturday 1 June 2024

Richard Wilk: Whale Hunter

I first learned about Richard Wilk watching Louis Theroux’s Gambling In Las Vegas, broadcast back in 2007 on BBC 2. This 60-minute episode followed a run of very successful documentaries from Theroux. Often hard-hitting subjects. He has the knack of getting the best answers from even those who keep their cards close to their chest. This was the case with Rich Wilk who worked at the Las Vegas Hilton. His job to find high-rolling gamblers known as whale who bet large sums of money.

Wilk finds whales (friends, acquaintances and others probably through marketing) to bring big money gamblers to lose even bigger at the casino.

Here we meet his friend Allan Erlick known as ‘The Mattress King’ because he owns one of the largest mattress manufacturing businesses in Canada. Such is their connection that Allan is godfather to Wilk’s daughter. It’s an odd relationship where friendship comes first and business second although watching the programme you have to think it’s actually the reverse. It’s not all bad news for ‘The Mattress King’ as he gets the biggest penthouse suite in the hotel for three days and nights as a complimentary gesture. It comes with its own butler. Allan jokes that the only downside is walking the vast distance from the bedroom to have breakfast each morning. In addition, Wilk’s secures $3K in free bets although this only comes when Allan has lost $50K, after a good start on day one on the roulette, (we didn’t see the losses) and then a disaster of a session on the slots which saw him lose about $70K. He smiles at Louis when he wins $5K on the slots as if saying: ‘See, you can win big money.’ While Theroux stares back bemused as if saying: ‘Yes, but you’ve lost over $100K.’

In fact, every time Theroux uses the elevator he ask guests ‘Are you winning?’ I think one bloke said he was but all the others seemed to be losing tens of thousands if not more. It was, unsurprisingly, a catalogue of losses.

Theroux said: ‘Las Vegas wasn’t built on winners!’

Rich Wilk talked about the business of being a broker for the casino a position which clearly paid well. You’d have to imagine he was collecting 10% of any losses if not substantially more. What’s worse for the punters (unlike betting in the UK) they have to pay tax on their winnings. Allan said about his $5K win, that it was worth $3.5K after taxes. With the house cut it must be impossible to win gambling in Las Vegas. Especially too, when the roulette is double zero compare to the United Kingdom.

Wilk’s said he has one or two whales commit suicide. It would seem most of the big players were addicted to gambling. If not, like another patron Martha Ogman, who had lost $4M on the slots, she just ‘loved playing so much why would I stop?’

Gambling In Las Vegas is a fascinating venture into the realities of gambling often to excess. ‘No one wants to see a gambler lose their house’, one of the floors managers says. You kind of get the feeling they wouldn’t be bothered either way.

As Allan leaves the Hilton a limousine awaits. He looks a little subdued saying bye to Louis and his friend Rich. After three days and heavy losses, it’s time to go back to Canada minus at least $160,000.

Gambling In Las Vegas is one place you really don’t want to bet.