How Staten Islander rebuilt his fortune, and himself, after blowing $1.1 million casino jackpot
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. – It was a lucky day all around, and would end with Staten Islander Frank DiTommaso $1.1 million richer after hitting a slot machine jackpot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
But DiTommaso would blow through all the money in just a few years. And rebuilding his bank account, and his professional life, made DiTommaso truly feel like a winner.
HIS LUCKY DAY
It was July 14, 1989, and 24-year-old DiTommaso, a real estate broker born and raised in Dongan Hills, was headed to Las Vegas with his uncle, Jack Zerilli.
Their luck started at the airport, where they made their 6:45 a.m. flight just before the plane doors closed.
Arriving too early to hit the casinos, DiTommaso and his uncle stopped for some breakfast. Two youths playing keno at a table nearby hit for an $800 jackpot and bought the New Yorkers their meal.
“The day started out on a good note,” DiTommaso, 58, told the Advance recently. “It started out so lucky. You know when you can’t do anything wrong?”
But the real lucky run was yet to come.
After lounging by the pool during the afternoon, DiTommaso and his uncle hit the casino at Caesars Palace, where they were staying.
DiTommaso worked his way around a cluster of slot machines, settling on one that had just been vacated. The machine had a sign saying, “Become a millionaire.”
“Sure enough, I play that machine a couple of pulls, and it hits for $1.1 million,” DiDommaso said.
It took DiTommaso about four spins, at $3 per spin in casino tokens, to hit the jackpot.
“It was awesome,” he said of the moment when those four 7′s flashed in a row on the machine. “It was so fast, it didn’t give me time to register until I realized it was the hit.”
That $1.1 million is equivalent to about $2.4 million in today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Inflation Calculator.
DiTommaso said that casino executives and other players gathered around him at the lucky slot machine after he won. Also stopping by was comedian Jay Leno, who was appearing at Caesars.
DiTommaso had photos taken with Leno, casino bigwigs and some casino workers in Cleopatra and Roman centurion garb. A casino closed circuit TV camera captured the win.
Looking to protect his windfall, DiTommaso asked casino security guards to put a rope line around him and the winning machine.
“I didn’t know if somebody was going to try to push me or fight with me and knock me off the machine,” he said.
Caesars moved DiTommaso and his uncle to a swank penthouse suite with a mountain view in the hotel and started sending up bottles of Champagne and trays of food for the lucky winner.
“It was fantastic,” DiTommaso said. “They made a big deal out of it.”
The celebrating continued once DiTommaso returned home, with a party held for friends and family members. The Advance and other media outlets covered the big win.
DiTommaso said coming into that kind of money all at once was a shock.
“I didn’t sleep for like a week,” DiTommaso said. “It was just on my mind every second of the day. It’s like euphoric.”
EASY COME, EASY GO
DiTommaso initially put his winnings in a tax-free New York municipal bond. He also had to pay the IRS “a few hundred thousand” dollars in taxes.
DiTommaso bought gifts for family members, gave others money and also indulged himself.
He bought Porsche 928 and Ferrari 308 sports cars, returned to Las Vegas “a dozen times,” ate fancy dinners and hung out with friends.
“The money was just going,” DiTommaso said. “I wasn’t even paying attention to it.”
He said, “You come into that kind of money and you’re like spoiled all of a sudden. You’re like, ‘Wow, I can do anything.’”
Even though he was in the business, DiTommaso didn’t follow through on his intention to invest his winnings in real estate.
“I really failed when it came to that,” he said. “I didn’t practice what I was preaching.”
By 1993, DiTommaso realized that he’d blown through almost the entire jackpot.
“It was pretty much gone,” said DiTommaso, who today lives in New Dorp.
‘YOU HAVE TO MAN UP’
DeTommaso said he had to “grow up some,” in the wake of losing his windfall. He said it was “a very painful reality check” when employees left his real estate firm to work for competitors.
“There was nobody to blame,” he said. “It was myself. I’d squandered my money. I got careless. Then I hit bottom.”
DiTommaso also had another incentive to get back on his feet: He’d met Elaine, the woman he would marry.
“Then reality sets in,” he said. “You have to man up.”
DiTommaso rebuilt his bank account and his life by focusing on what he loved best: The real estate business, including brokerage, investing, fixing and flipping properties, and new construction.
He traveled the country seeking out successful people to emulate.
“I had to go back to basics and take it more seriously,” DiTommaso said.
‘IT’S OK TO FAIL’
DiTommaso tells the story in his book, “The Real Win: How I Lost a Million and Earned It Back Again.”
“Everybody hears about success stories, but nobody hears about failure stories,” DiTommaso said. “It’s OK to fail.”
Today, DiTommaso operates real estate offices in New Dorp and New Jersey. He and his wife have three children.
“Once I got myself back on track and realized what I had to do, I was good from that point on,” DiTommaso said. “But I had to work at it. It didn’t come easy.”