Rich and Unknown
Thomas Calabrese — “What would you rather be; famous or rich and unknown?” John Rossini asked his seven-year old son, Michael responded without hesitation, “Famous, I want everybody to know who I am.”
“I want you to think about that question because I’m going to ask you again someday,” John said.
Over the next few years, John would occasionally bring up the same question and by then his son had changed his answer a little, ‘I’d like to be rich and famous’. This did not surprise or disappoint his father who knew that his son was an impressionable young boy who envied celebrities and sports stars and their well renowned status.
As Mike matured and was ready to enter high school, he became more curious about his father who never talked about his occupation, “Dad, what exactly do you do at work?” Mike inquired.
“I’ve had the same job for years and now it finally occurs to you to ask me what I do,” John already had a pretty good idea what his son was going to say, but he wanted to hear him say it anyway.
“You’re always asking how I’m doing in my classes or in sports and I’ve never asked you anything about your work,” Mike responded sheepishly, “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long, but it’s never crossed my mind. Does that make me a bad son?”
“No apologies necessary, and no it does not make you bad or good; it just makes you human. A young child growing up in this world is exposed to different things that he’s never seen before so his life has to be about him in the beginning. As he gets older and his brain develops and his emotional attachments become a bigger part of his life he should become curious about those around him. I’m not saying that every person feels this way; some grow up thinking that the world revolves around them and those people usually have a lonely and unhappy life. If you’re old enough to be genuinely concerned about my life then you’re ready to see and hear the truth.”
Over the next few weeks, Mike saw a side of his father that he never thought existed. When they went to Pacific Western Trucking in San Marcos, California, John and Mike entered through the loading docks and went upstairs to President Edward Alzate’s office. “This is my son, Mike. He wanted to know where I work and what I do. I thought he should hear it from you.”
“Your father is the company custodian,” Edward Alzate said politely as if he had rehearsed the answer, “He’s very good at his job and we’re lucky to have him as an employee.”
“Any questions you want to ask Mr. Alzate?”
“No sir,” Mike answered.
As they were leaving, Ed Alzate called out, “Nice meeting you, Mike.”
As they were leaving, John turned to his son, “Are you hungry?”
“A little bit,” Mike responded.
John and Mike drove to the Mille Fleurs, a high-end eatery in Rancho Santa Fe and parked in the rear of the building and entered through the service entrance. John led his son to an area that the employees used as a break room, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
“Okay,” Mike followed his father’s instructions and found a seat and waited.
Fifteen minutes later, John returned with a tray that had lobster salad, prime beef burgers, sea bass and a fruit and ice cream plate. When they finished eating, they drove to Exquisite Autos in Del Mar. John slowly drove up and down the aisles where the ultra-expensive cars were lined up, “Pick any one that you like.”
Mike pointed to a metallic blue Ferrari 458 Italia Coupe. “That one looks pretty good.”
John parked his five year old Camry and went inside. Ten minutes later, he returned with the keys to the Ferrari, got in and waved to his son. Mike rushed over, got in the passenger seat and they drove to San Clemente and then back again.
The Rossini’s lived in an upper middle class residential area on the western side of San Marcos. It was a comfortable home and looked pretty much like every other house in the neighborhood. John moved two bags of fertilizer and several garden tools exposing a large trap door. He opened it showing ten steps to an underground bunker complete with electricity. Inside the bunker was a large safe, a table and desk. Mike commented “I never knew that this was here.”
“You weren’t supposed to,” John opened the safe and pulled out a large ledger and set it on the table.
Mike noticed a stack of currency in the safe as well as jewelry and gold bars, “Why is it that I have this feeling that you’re more than just a custodian.”
John pulled out a deck of cards from a package and expertly shuffled them while performing several tricks for his son, “I’m a professional gambler, just like your grandfather was and his father was before him. I was about your age when I was told what I’m about to tell you.”
Over the next few months, John told his son about the multi- million dollar invitation only card games as well as shell corporations, off shore bank accounts and a charitable organization. John Rossini never actually accepted the salary from Pacific Western Trucking, but paid taxes on the amount listed on his W-2 to maintain his cover of a working man. The money was donated to the Helen Woodward Animal Center by Edward Alzate. The title of the Rossini home was held in a real estate trust owned by BBVA Bancomer, the largest bank in Mexico. Everything was intricately designed to keep the Rossini family from being implicated for income tax evasion.
“I’ve got a lot of questions but my top two are; does mom know about this and if we are this rich, why are we living like this?”
“First answer, your mom knows as much as she wants to know, let’s leave it at that. You’re healthy, fed, educated and have a roof over your head, those are the essentials. As for the luxuries and perks that come from being wealthy, our family’s philosophy is to let other people own it, we’ll just use it as we needed or wanted. Food tastes the same whether you’re in the kitchen or in the main dining room and once you’re the behind the steering wheel of a car, do you really care that it is not registered in your name. ”
Mike voiced his skepticism, “It seems like a lot of effort to hide things from whomever.”
“You don’t have to be the target of an investigation to get caught up in one,” John warned. “Let’s say the FBI, CIA, DEA, or the IRS is doing surveillance on somebody and you happen to be in a fancy restaurant at the same time as their person of interest. They take the video footage and do a background check on everybody in the place. They find out you’re just an average guy with just an average job with an average salary. That’s a red flag for them so they go to the restaurant and find out exactly how much you spent. Before you know it you’ve become a target of an opportunity and people around become targets without ever knowing it. Example; the Special Counsel was investigating the President and they saw one of his campaign staff wearing a five thousand dollar suit, imported shoes and a Presidential Rolex. They got a warrant for his shopping history on Rodeo Drive and for the next few years he spent millions of dollars paying high priced lawyers until he finally got indicted on a long list of federal crimes. He was sentenced to six years in federal prison, had to pay hundreds of thousands in fines and forfeit many of his personal possessions. It ruined his life and his family’s. Is that what you want?’
“When you put it that way, I guess you can never be too careful,” Mike sighed.
For the next four years, John taught his son every skill pertaining to gambling, especially the part about reading an opposing players ‘tells’. Equally important was the business parts of dealing with the winnings and meeting with his father’s large circle of contacts. Mike was too young to attend to high stakes invitation only card games or casinos so his father found a variety of ways to tutor him. “Always look at people’s faces, even their slightest expression means something and body language is just as important; the way a person positions their hands, cracks their knuckles, taps their feet or fidgets in their chair. If you know what to look for, you’ll learn a lot.”
John and Mike played hundreds of hands of poker until Mike knew the percentages of every conceivable situation that could happen in the game of poker. He was instructed on when to bet and how much as well as the intricate skill of bluffing. John also told his son of gambling greats going back to the Old West that included notable individuals; Poker Alice, Bat Masterson, Jefferson Smith, Wild Bill Hickok and more recent legends Amarillo Slim and Zeljko Ranogajec. “Your great grandfather was the original ‘Cincinnati Kid’ and no matter how old he was, he was always called the ‘kid’. That nickname has been handed down from generation to generation. It’s mine now and soon you’ll have it.”
“Thanks kid,” Mike joked.
“Let me clarify that point; that’s what they call us when we’re gambling, we don’t use it otherwise.”
“Right, got it,” Mike shrugged.
By the time Mike graduated from San Marcos High School, he was prepared to carry on the legacy of the Rossini family, but there was something else he wanted to do first. As he sat in the bunker playing cards with his father, he struggled to find a way to bring up the subject, “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required, Luke 12,48,”as he laid down his winning hand of four jacks.”
“What’s on your mind?” John said as he laid down his losing hand of three queens and two aces.
“Your ‘tell’ is that you never quote scripture unless you have something important to discuss.”
“I’ll be more careful in the future,” Mike responded, “I’m thinking about joining the military. Is that going to be a problem?”
“Not with me, I showed you the family business and that was my responsibility. What you do with it is your decision,” John said.
“I’m not saying I’m not going to follow in your footsteps, I’m just not ready right now.”
“You may never be ready because this might not be the life for you. If it is not and you try to force the issue, it could be very unprofitable and extremely dangerous.”
Mike joined the Marines and became a military police officer. His first duty station was Okinawa, Japan where he developed an interest in Okinawan martial arts which included elements of karate, tegumi, kobudo and Uechi Ryu. By the time Mike transferred three years later, he had become very proficient in this specific form of self-defense. He served two deployments in Afghanistan and while manning a checkpoint he detected a suicide bomber and killed him before he could reach a crowded marketplace. Unfortunately the explosive detonated and Mike sustained serious shrapnel wounds.
After he recovered, Mike was medically discharged from the Marine Corps and returned to a furnished home in Oceanside that his father had placed in a real estate trust for him. It took a few months before Mike approached his father with two words, “I’m ready now.”
John did not question his son’s decision, “There are some lower games that I can get you in, I’ll set it up.”
In high stakes poker games especially the ones that do not take place in casinos or in sanctioned venues; there was a hierarchy that was strictly adhered to. Even if Mike came from a lineage of professional gamblers, he still had to earn his right to the big time. For the next two years he traveled up and down the west coast where the limits rarely exceeded five thousand dollars. When John received an invitation to a high stakes game in Palm Beach, Florida, he made arrangements for his son to take his place, “You’ve been called up.”
When Mike arrived at the five star ‘The Breakers Palm Beach Hotel’ he was escorted to the Diplomat Suite on the 32nd floor. In games of this size, no cash is ever used in the interest of avoiding police busts and robberies. A man sitting at a computer asked, “Number please.”
Mike handed the man a small slip of paper who inputted a group of numbers. The computer operator waited for a response and commented to the woman standing over him, “Transfer completed, five million dollars.”
“Welcome to the game, Kid,” The woman smiled.
“Thank you.” Mike replied.
The scene was lavish, a chef was on hand to cook gourmet foods that included lobster and grass fed steaks. A bartender was available to pour top-shelf liquor and marijuana was available. Sexy massage girls were on call to provide shoulder rubs. Twenty hours later, Mike was on his way back to California and his two million dollars in winnings was transferred to a numbered account in the Grand Cayman Islands.
After a long game, Mike took a couple weeks off and got back in his normal routine that included a morning run on the beach and martial arts training in the afternoon. He met with his father on a routine basis to discuss family business and upcoming games. They mutually decided to make an anonymous $500,000 donation to the family of a San Diego police officer who was killed in the line of duty.
For the next two years Mike picked up most of the games while his father merely said, “I’m semi-retired,” which only meant that he was more selective about where and when he played. Once a year, a game was scheduled that was basically the Superbowl, World Series and a heavyweight championship fight of poker all rolled into one. Players from all over the world wanted an invite to this gambling event, but it was not for the faint of heart or the short of cash; twenty five million dollars was the buy in.
This year’s location was a palatial estate in Rancho Santa Fe that was rented for the week. It would be a three day event that would start on Thursday morning and run through Sunday evening. Several games would be going on at any given time and those players who had not been eliminated on the first three days would play on Sunday when the stakes would double then triple until only one man was left.
Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes, Chinese businessmen, internet entrepreneurs, hedge funds managers with a collective wealth that exceeded 50 billion dollars would be there. A dozen large motor homes were parked outside the mansion for the entourages of the attendees and armed security personnel were strategically located around the grounds. There were 15 bedrooms and each player was assigned one that was specifically designed to his requested preferences. Every conceivable amenity was provided and each player paid the operators of the game $500,000 for admission to the event. It was also a tradition that the grand winner would give ten percent of his winnings to the staff for their efforts. Needless to say that when forty men and women knew that they would be sharing several million dollars for three days work, their motivation was off the charts to make sure that every player was well taken care of.
This special treatment may have been important and even required by those who already had existences of privilege and opulence, but not to Mike who was raised with a different set of values and priorities. By Sunday only ten men still remained and Mike was one of them. It was just before sunrise and the former Marine got up early to get some exercise before having breakfast and getting to the game.
As he exited the front door, a security guard greeted him. “Good morning, sir, how are you?”
“Fine, thank you for asking. I’m going to get a run in before breakfast,” Mike smiled, “Have a good day.”
“Yes sir, you too.”
Mike circled the ten acre estate twice before finding an isolated area behind a hedge to go through his martial arts routine. The sun was just rising over the eastern horizon and it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day, clear with not a cloud in the sky. Suddenly the serenity was interrupted by pop, pop, pop sounds. They were very distinctive in the still morning air and sounded vaguely familiar to Mike who could not quite remember where he had heard them before. When he peered over the hedge and twenty yards to the right, he knew exactly what that pop, pop, pop sound was. It was the sound of bullets being fired from weapons that had noise suppressors on their muzzles. Twelve heavily armed men in tactical gear with masks over their faces had breached the perimeter and were eliminating the security personnel in methodical fashion. There was no hard cash inside and Mike had no way of knowing their objective. Was it kidnapping, extortion or assassination? There were powerful and wealthy men inside the mansion and the list of motives could be long.
He was a professional gambler and even at his early age, Mike was already considered one of the best in the world. His father taught him to apply the odds to every situation and to never take unnecessary risks. He was also very clear when he said, ‘if you get a bad hand, fold and if you’re on a losing streak, walk away and come back and play another day.’ Twelve to one were losing odds and the smart play in this game was to make an inconspicuous escape and let the others fend for themselves. After all Mike didn’t know any of these people and or owe them anything. In fact the first time that he ever saw them was less than 48 hours ago. That was the gambling side in him making a valid point, but he was also a former Marine, a man who lived by a code of honor that said you didn’t run from danger, you ran toward it and you didn’t turn your back on people in need.
Mike cautiously began moving back to the main house and when he saw a gardener’s shed, he entered it. He found a six inch knife and a two foot length of nylon rope and continued on his way and when he reached the main house Mike hid behind a bush. He looked through the window and saw that everybody was being held under guard in the spacious dining room. One by one the players were brought into an adjacent room so Mike changed his exterior position so that he had a visual of what was going on in that part of the house. Even though he could not hear what they were saying, it was obvious that the players were being threatened and in some cases beaten to give information to a computer operator, Mike guessed that it probably had something to do their with bank accounts or financial holdings. What were the armed men going to do once they got what they wanted; would they leave any witnesses behind or alive?
His mind raced to various conclusions as he tried to put together a plan based on the limited information that he currently possessed. The only thing that made sense was to eliminate the threat and then if he was still curious, he could ask questions. Since he was going to play the game, he’d better change the odds. After moving to the other side of the mansion and coming through a window, Mike walked down the hallway toward two of the masked intruders. They quickly approached and one of them asked as he pointed his weapon at Mike’s head, “Are you one of the players?”
“Not me,” Mike responded, “I’m just a cook; I was just getting some exercise before I started my shift. What’s going on?”
“Come with us,” The second man reached out to grab Mike who took his hand, bent it back then stuck his knife into his throat. The other man reacted quickly, but before he could fire Mike disarmed him. The intruder pulled out his K-bar knife and faced off against Mike. When he lunged forward, Mike grabbed his wrist, flipped him to the ground then stabbed him several times. He dragged both bodies into a room and when he exited several minutes later, he had changed clothes and his face was covered. Two down and the odds just got a little better.
Could he pull this off, this was one bluff that he couldn’t afford to fail at. As Mike approached another armed intruder who was standing guard by an exit, he looped the rope around his neck and choked him to death. He motioned to the hostages and they quickly escaped onto the grounds of the estate.
When the man in charge looked out the window and saw people running away, he ran into the dining room with several of his cohorts to see what happened. Mike was ready and took down four more intruders with accurate shots then dived for cover behind the thick oak and marble bar as bullets flew overhead.
The man in charge ordered the remainder of his team to split up and they approached the bar from the left and right side. What they didn’t realize was that there was a wine cellar directly behind it and Mike had crawled into it. The intruders opened fire from both sides, but when they looked, nobody was there. There was a moment of puzzlement and that was all that Mike needed. He popped out of the wine cellar and fired in both directions until he was out of ammunition and now there was only one left…the leader.
Mike faced off against the last man who responded smugly, “You emptied your magazine.”
“In the all the excitement I kind of lost track,” Mike said calmly, “But I’m a gambler so I’ll willing to bet that I might still have a bullet or two left for you. Call or fold?”
The leader contemplated the offer for a couple seconds then responded, “Call.”
Mike pulled the trigger and his weapon was out of ammunition. The leader smiled, “I knew I was right. I’ve been in this business too long to make those kinds of mistakes.” He started to raise his weapon, but Mike had another gun setting on the counter next to his other hand. He grabbed it and emptied the magazine into the leader’s body, “Game over.”
From this point on, Mike left it up to the game’s organizers to figure out who these men were and handle the financial implications of their actions. Three weeks later, Mike’s twenty-five million buy in and another twenty million in winnings was deposited into his numbered offshore account. At that same time he also received his invitation for next year’s event to be held in Monte Carlo.
As he ate dinner with his father in the kitchen of 333 Pacific in Oceanside, Mike proposed a toast, “To being rich and unknown.”
John proudly made one of his own, “To the Oceanside Kid.”