I recently read the memoir Trumped! (Amazon link), which was released in 1991 by one of Trump’s highest Atlantic City casino executives, John R. O’Donnell. O’Donnell spent three years working under Trump, from 1987-1990.
I thought putting a book review of this book on my poker blog would be fitting, because the book talks so much about gamblers and the casino strategies on how to lure them in. If you’re a poker player, you’d probably find a good amount of this interesting. And Donald Trump being president of the United States; that might add a little bit of interest, too.
I didn’t have high hopes for the book. I’m skeptical about most first-person books to begin with. People, even the best-intentioned, are hard to trust. I thought this book was likely to be a biased, untrustworthy work, the work of someone with bones to pick, who filters all the events through his later anger. I was pleasantly surprised to find this wasn’t the case. O’Donnell comes across very fair and very objective in his descriptions. I strongly recommend the book, as I think it gives great insight into Trump’s character and personality.
In this post, I’ll give some highlights from the book, with a specific focus on the casino/gambling related anecdotes:
Trump strangely clueless about the casino business
There’s a very illuminating story near the end of the book that describes the author and his associates trying to lure in a valuable Japanese whale (i.e., high-stakes gambler) named Akio Kashiwagi. This was a guy who played for $200K a hand at baccarat. They were trying to get him in at the Trump properties in Atlantic City. This was the culmination of a lot of outreach the casino executives had been doing in Asia, trying to lure in exactly such high-limit trade.
Trump had been in the casino business since the early 80s and it was at this point in the story late 1989. Trump’s casinos at this time were in a lot of trouble; his interest payments for the Taj Mahal were very high and he was treading water. This helps explain somewhat Trump’s trepidation. Trump was watching the Kashiwagi stuff from the sidelines, and was second-guessing his executives’ decisions to try to bring the whale into the casino. Trump and one of his less-knowledgeable consultants were scared that it might impact their short-term profit if things went south.
Here’s a snippet from the book. This occurs after Kashiwagi has beat them the first night (of four promised nights of play) for $4 million. Keep in mind this is a normal swing in a small-edge house game where the player is betting $200,000 a hand.
Donald called me the next morning for an update. I told him where we stood. I was concerned but I wasn’t worried. All that mattered was keeping Kashiwagi at the table.
But Donald was clearly agitated on the phone. “How could that happen?” he asked.
“What do you mean, Donald? That’s the game.”
“But why do we keep playing to this guy? Should we throw him out?”
“Absolutely not,” I said. “That’s crazy.”
“Well, have you considered when you’re going to cut this guy off?”
“No, I haven’t even thought about that yet.”
“Christ, what are you going to do if he wins another $4 million?”
“Well, he will win another $4 million then,” I said. “Donald, the key is, the guy is going to stay here and play. I still think we’re okay. Everything’s fine.”
The whale ended up winning $6 million that visit, and Trump was allegedly very upset, saying “I knew we shouldn’t have let him play.”
If you know anything about gambling, or even just basic math and business, you know it would be extremely foolish to ever refuse such a customer. Courting high-rollers is every casino’s dream, regardless of how the short-term plays out. Besides the potential one-time action, it builds a casino’s reputation as a high-roller destination, which attracts other high-rollers. That Trump doesn’t seem to understand the basic economics and fluctuations of the casino business after owning several casinos for 7 years is pretty shocking. It definitely puts a dent in the idea of Trump as some sort of savvy operator.
Cut to a few months later. The author has quit working for Trump at that point, but relays what happened when the whale came back:
My efforts and Ernie Cheung’s paid off as Akio Kashiwagi returned and lost $10 million at baccarat. Although I was gone from the property by then, I felt vindicated. On this second trip Kashiwagi gave the casino four solid days of play, and, as I was sure would happen, Trump Plaz won back the $6 million it lost to him in February and $4 million more besides. But Donald sweated the action all the way, pacing the baccarat pit with Ed Tracy and Al Glasgow while Kashiwagi played. Finally, when he was ahead the $10 million, Donald shut down the game even though the Japanese tycoon still had $2 million in credit left to play. Kashiwagi left the casino in a rage. Caesars – which Donald claimed would not allow Kashiwagi to play – sent a white limousine to pick him up at Trump Plaza’s door and take him to their casino.
This is all so strange, just because it seems so self-evident that cutting such a huge gambler off when you’re ahead seems so clearly bad business. If the author hadn’t been so close to everything, I might suspect there’d been other factors at play. But it does seem really to be the case that Trump was, as they say, “scared money.”
The book also has a few anecdotes about Trump’s weird, autistic-like treatment of other high-stakes gambling customers. This one comes from a party they threw in 1987 for some high-rollers. Keep in mind Trump has owned casinos for five years at this point.
One player came over and we chatted briefly. When the player turned away for a moment, Donald said to me, “Christ, doesn’t this guy come here all the time?”
“Yeah, he’s one of our best,” I said, assuming he’d be pleased. But he scowled.
By then several customers had gathered around Donald. Suddenly, and loud enough for all to hear, he replied bitterly: “Tell me about it. I know. And all he does is beat me. I don’t know why we’re bringing him in. This guy has done nothing but beat me every time he sets foot in the place.”
Everyone was surprised. Donald looked around impatiently. He quickly finished his Diet Coke and glanced at his watch. “That’s it. I’m going,” he said, and without another word he walked out.
It was an uncomfortable moment. But I was becoming accustomed to Donald griping whenever a player got hot and won big at one of our games. Similarly, he never concealed his glee when it was the other way around. One time Donald asked one of our best players how he’d fared after a weekend at the casino. “Eh, not so good,” the customer said. “I dropped $250,000.”
Donald said, “Great…oh, that’s great.”
We lost many large bettors as a result of this overtly expressed attitude. After one customer party, a highly rated player from the Middle East complained to me because Donald groused to his face about the gambler “beating him.” He was getting the impression that Donald resented it. “Maybe I should play somewhere else if ‘the Donald’ really cannot handle it.” he said.
Trump comes across as socially awkward in many stories in the book. He also is portrayed as a germophobe and despises shaking people’s hands, something I hadn’t heard before.
Trump’s obsessive dislike of Steve Wynn
The book talks a little bit about Trump’s competition with Steve Wynn, the successful casino owner. During Trump’s early years in Atlantic City, he was trying to gain more of a foothold there and in Vegas, but Steve Wynn wanted nothing to do with him.
This seemed to very much bother Trump, who denigrated Wynn frequently, to the author and others.
Frustrated, Trump would later lash out at his rival in The Art of the Deal, calling Steve “the son of a compulsive gambler,” who, he said, “grew up in his father’s bingo parlor.”
“He’s got a great act,” Trump would continue in a summation of his competitor that ran with invective. “He’s a smooth talker, he’s perfectly manicured, and he’s invariably dressed to kill in $2,000 suits and $200 silk shirts. The problem with Wynn is that he tries too hard to look perfect, and a lot of people are put off by him.”
It might be the case that his desire to compete with Steve Wynn and prove to everyone that Trump “beat” Wynn at the casino business, led to Trump biting off more than he could chew. At the end of the story, Trump is over-leveraged in Atlantic City, with three casinos there competing against each other in a wasteful way (a situation the author talks a lot about), and Trump spending excessive amounts of money on the Taj Mahal.
Trump’s abnormal forgetfulness
The book details several instances of Trump’s strange forgetfulness and lack of focus. In several entertaining stories, the author describes several business projects where Trump continually acts clueless about what’s going on, despite the decisions being discussed and agreed upon many times. Most of these stories culminate in an angry outburst from Trump when he finds out how much something is costing him, with his associates completely perplexed because the plans had all been discussed multiple times with him already.
For example, the author describes how they discussed multiple times that a big promotional bicycle race, the Tour de Trump, would be a money loser the first year, but that everyone involved agreed that it was a fantastic public relations opportunity, and that it would become profitable on the second year and going forward. Trump hears this multiple times, and each time he acts shocked and angered that the plans are going forward:
On May 4, 1989, the eve of the race, reporters and television crews from around the nation and overseas descended on Albany, New York, for a lavish press conference. I sat next to Donald. Greg LeMond was on the dais with us. When it was over and we walked out together, Donald whispered, “How much money are we going to lose again?”
“About $700,000,” I said.
He stopped. “What!”
“Donald, we discussed this already. I think we’re going to lose $700,000.”
But he stared at me in disbelief. “What the fuck is going on?”
“This is the number we’ve been talking about all along. We knew we weren’t going to make any money on this from day one. You’ve seen the projections. We talked about it. I told you this is what is going to happen.”
“Holy Christ! I never thought this would happen! Jack, why are we doing this thing?”
Publicly, Donald proclaimed the Tour de Trump “the most successful event ever.” But a month later, after he got the Trump Plaza’s profit and loss statements for May, he exploded at me all over again, this time in Steve’s office. “You see these numbers? What the hell is going on? How in the hell did we lose so much money in this month?”
“For chrissakes, Donald,” I said. “You’ve heard these numbers before. Why are we going through this?”
“Don’t give me that shit. I never knew I was going to lose all this fucking money on this! I don’t believe what’s going on here. What are you guys doing to me? I can’t fucking believe this. I can’t believe it. You’re supposed to be watching this.”
And this comes up later when Trump blames O’Donnell and other associates for a horrible month/quarter for the one casino, and the author has to explain to him several times again that it was due to the bicycling event.
This jibes with Trump’s strange live-in-the-moment, no-seeming-longterm-memory persona that we saw evidence of many times leading up to the election. There were many times you would think Trump legitimately did have no clue what stance or statement he’d taken/made in the past. My wife and I joked that he was like the main character in Memento; perhaps he awakens every morning with no memory, just has a bunch of talking points like “Build a wall” and “Lock her up” tattooed on his body.
In my opinion, this no-memory thing is a symptom of being a narcissist or megalomaniac or whatever you want to call it; these people are so much in their own mind that they’re hardly mentally present. Trump reminds me of a hypnotherapist/NLP (NeuroLinguistic Programming) seminar guy who I worked for once for six months. This guy was a strange megalomaniac; he slept hardly at all and constantly was having all these outlandish, grandiose ideas that he never saw through anywhere near to completion. He also had very poor memory; it would often happen that he would discuss something multiple times with me or someone else and he would have no memory of it later. (This guy went one step further, framing these defects as positive traits. He told people that he had reached some sort of advanced, transcendent state and lived “in his unconscious mind,” being so in tune with his own psyche that he no longer really needed conscious thought and could operate instinctually.)
I very much recommend the book Trumped!, especially to anyone with an interest in gambling, poker, or Atlantic City. Or if you’re just interested in the backstory of the new president of the United States, Donald Trump. It’s got so many interesting and well-described anecdotes that give good insight into the man.
Here’s a 2016 blog post John O’Donnell (who calls himself Jack O’Donnell now) wrote about Trump’s running for president.
Finally, I thought I’d share a few reasons why I trust O’Donnell’s memoir, and why this book is different from many similar so-called “hatchet jobs”:
- His descriptions stay dispassionate. In an ideal world, these types of books would avoid passion and be objective. But often first-person accounts are super-biased and the author’s emotions color everything, to where you don’t feel like you can trust anything they say. But O’Donnell stays very calm and objective, backing up his analysis of Trump’s decisions with solid explanations. O’Donnell clearly had many valid reasons to very much dislike Trump, but his reporting stays very fact-based and avoids emotional outbursts.
- He had money. For some books like these, you get the sense that the author is writing it for the money or the attention, and therefore you suspect an incentive to make the book be as sensational as can be. If this book had been written by a distant accountant or chauffeur Trump worked for, it would have been much less-trustworthy. But this book is written by a guy who was making a lot of money, and not long after he stops working for Trump, he’s found another job as a high-up executive at another resort/casino company, presumably making a lot of money again. If anything, O’Donnell was risking his reputation in the casino industry, an industry that hugely values confidentiality, with such a book. He was also risking being sued by Trump, who he knew was litigation-happy and who he knew held grudges for a long time. Both of these factors lend a lot of weight to his tale.
- He seems honorable. There’s a part at the end where O’Donnell, after resigning his job for Trump in an emotional confrontation, is asked to go to a legal hearing against Trump, and he shows up and tells the truth, which helped Trump. Trump is amazed that O’Donnell would help him; he expected him to lie to hurt him. O’Donnell tells Trump that that’s not the kind of guy he is. And indeed he comes across as very honest and honorable in multiple spots.