William Lee Bergstrom
A legend in Vegas for his fearless nature and his large betting practices, William Lee Bergstrom is a story that still to this day amazes anyone who hears it. Better known around the Vegas community as "The Suitcase Man" or "The Phantom Gambler" William made a name for himself in a rather short period of time on the gambling circuit.
He wasn't like many of the other gamblers that had taken up residence in the casinos on the Vegas strip. He was a courageous gambler who wasn't afraid to stick his money where his mouth was and make the casino owners do the same.
William was born in Austin, Texas in 1951 and had a brother named Alan. Alan and William had an unsettling childhood growing up in a family with divorced parents. The divorce hit William hard and led to him striving for approval from his absent father.
He graduated from high school in 1969 and went on to attend college at the University of Texas until dropping out in 1974. Once he dropped out of college he started selling real estate which became his livelihood for the remainder of his life. He did very well as a real estate agent and that allowed him to start purchasing his own properties.
He likely never would have come to Vegas had it not been for Benny Binion and his gimmicks. Binion had started a new promotion with the name "The Sky's the Limit" where he promised that any gambler who came into his casino and was willing to make their first bet their highest, he would match it.
William just happened to be one of those people who just couldn't let something like that go by. So he did everything he could to put enough money together to make a bet that would be life changing, and when he did he headed to Vegas.
He didn't have a life of luxury before going to Vegas but he wasn't a poor man. He had become a real estate mogul by the time he started his career as a gambler. He never gave up his real estate business, but after his trip to Vegas he decided to travel the world for a few years.
In the early 1980's a casino in Las Vegas owned by the Binions declared that they'd match any high stakes bet that was placed at their casino as long as it was the player's first bet. This was just another of Benny Binion's gimmicks to get more people into the casino and raise the wagers at the start of the game.
Back in Texas, William heard of this promise and decided to see just how real it was. He placed a call to the Horseshoe casino to talk to Benny Binion. He asked if he placed a $1,000,000 bet if it would still be matched. Binion said yes, but at the time William didn't have the money.
He started gathering the money up and when he had accumulated $777,000 he decided he was going to try his luck. He packed one suitcase with $777,000 and took another empty suitcase and headed to Vegas. When he arrived at the Horseshoe casino he headed straight for the craps table. He apologized to Binion for not being able to raise the full $1,000,000 and asked if the $777,000 would be matched as well.
When he entered the casino he didn't exchange his money for chips, he just took his suitcase full of money and placed it on the table. He placed his full bet of $777,000 on a single dice game of craps don't pass line. Instead of only playing with his $777,000 cash bet he was also playing with the casinos $777,000 match, which gave him a total wager of $1,554,000 on a single bet at the craps table.
The current shooter established a point of six and just two rolls later rolled a seven giving Bergstrom the win. He placed the bet anonymously but when he won one of the owners, Benny Bininon, came down and introduced himself and even helped William pack up his winnings. Together they packed his empty suitcase up with the casinos $777,000 and William picked up both suitcases and was walked out to his car by Benny's son Ted, and that was the last they saw of William for years.
This is not the end of William Lee Bergstrom's time in Vegas. He, like most other high stakes players, couldn't stay away and was back at the Horseshoe placing another large bet. He'd been gone for around three and a half years before he showed back up on the scene.
William came back to town on March 24th, 1984. He placed a bet of $538,000 on another craps game. He won this bet and was on a roll. He ended up winning an additional $190,000 and another large win of $90,000 on the don't pass line on craps games. He used his winning for good and took his mother to see Willie Nelson, then disappeared again.
On November 16, 1984 he finally made his million dollars bet he'd wanted to make that first time he walked into the casino. He called his now friend Benny Binion to check and make sure that the casino would still honor their promise.
Benny agreed that as long as his first bet was his highest bet he would match it. When he walked into the Horseshoe on that November day he had a suitcase filled with $550,000 in cash, $140,000 in gold Krugerrands, and $310,000 in cashier's checks. He made the same bet as before, and put it all on the don't pass line on a game of craps.
This was not to be a repeat of his first bet with the casino, as on the first roll of the dice the shooter won with a role of seven, causing William to lose everything. He left the casino and would not be seen there again.
William had become known as the "Suitcase Man" throughout the gambling world because of the way he always carried his money. Every time he came into a casino he would be carrying two cases. One case was full of money, and one was empty so he had some way to carry out what he won.
He had a confidence about him when he walked into the casino that appealed to other gamblers and the casino owners. Benny and Ted Binion got to know William over the years. Ted is even noted as saying that the money that William used to place that first $777,000 bet was all borrowed money.
He said that William had told him that if he had lost that bet he was planning on committing suicide instead of going back without the money. By some good fortune he won that bet and was able to instead travel the world before returning to do some more gambling in 1984.
Death of William Lee Bergstrom
A few months later, on February 4th, 1985 William was found in the Marina hotel on the strip, dead. He had committed suicide by taking too many pills. It is said he left a will in the room but what was in the will has never been released.
His friends and family believe that at the time of his death he was not broke, but that he was actually still working in the black with about $647,000. Many thought his suicide was a result of his epic $1,000,000 dollar loss but his friends and family believe it had nothing to do with his loss at all.
He had recently gone through a break up with his partner who was 10 years younger than him and this is believed to be the real reason for his decision to end it all.
Although his life ended at a young age, William will be forever remembered for his courage to challenge a casinos promise to match any bet no matter the size, and making that bet as large as he could.
Legacy of William Lee Bergstrom
Bergstrom didn't belong to the lifelong member club of the gambling elite in Las Vegas. He didn't spend years making a name for himself and he didn't have to. Instead, all he had to do was take up the challenge put out by Todd and Benny Binion to seal his status in Las Vegas Lore.
Not only did he win that first bet and double his money but he also had a very dramatic loss just a few years later that gives his legacy a fairy tale gone wrong feel. Just like many others in the history of gambling and that high stakes world of Las Vegas, William became known by a nickname. He was dubbed the "Suitcase Man" because of his tendency to arrive at the casino with two suitcases.
His legend is so well known in Vegas that just the mention of William or the Horseshoe casino is sure to get the story going. William's story was even referenced in an episode of CSI. In the episode, a man comes into a casino and places a $1,000,000 dollar bet on a single roll of the dice, and lost. Even though this is a fictional show, it shows just how legendary this story really is.
Since his passing, there have been a number of awards and prizes established throughout Vegas in his name. Even with The Horseshoe Casino no longer being under the ownership of the Binion family, it doesn't change the story of William Lee Bergstrom from being told to the newbies.
William Lee Bergstrom will forever be known as "The Suitcase Man", and will always be remembered for his courage to take the casino's challenge and win. Even with his epic loss being the last bet he ever placed, the story of that first bet lives on and above his losses.
Updated: December 2016