In the first installment of our Illinois gambling history series, we met Michael Cassius McDonald, Chicago’s first crime lord.
Throughout the remainder of the series, we feature more of the people, places, and events that shaped Illinois gambling today.
In Part 2, we meet Mont Tennes, considered for years as the US’ undisputed gambling czar.
READ PART 1 OF OUR ILLINOIS GAMBLING HISTORY HERE
Mont Tennes, Chicago’s gentleman gambler
“The complete life history of one man, were it known in every detail, would disclose practically all there is to know about syndicated gambling as a phase of organized crime in Chicago in the first quarter century. That man is Mont Tennes.”
— Illinois Crime Survey of 1929, Chapter 19
Unlike his predecessor, Michael Cassius McDonald, who arrived in Chicago via New York, Mont Tennes was born in the city in 1873 (or possibly ‘74). Tennes, née Jacob, was unofficially christened Mont by his mother as a boy. The alias would become the only name Tennes went by publicly.
As a young boy, Tennes (it is said) displayed uncanny expertise with dice and other games of chance. Before he turned 20, he’d started his first bookmaking operation. The proceeds of that business provided the capital to open Tennes Billiard Hall on Lincoln Avenue (near Wrightwood) in Chicago. There, with his brothers (his pool hall partners), Tennes sponsored pool tournaments he then frequently won.
Over the following years, Tennes gained interest in other Northside bookmaking operations and, in 1900, opened a series of saloons. By 1901, he’d made a name among gamblers and anti-gambling advocates, the latter lamenting the neighborhood’s decline. Despite the resistance, “Chicago’s gentleman gambler’s” success only grew.
Horse racing played a big part in his rise — Tennes embraced the racing industry as public interest peaked near the beginning of the 20th century. Racing’s new popularity allowed gambling entrepreneurs to move beyond cards and table games into horse betting.
The only problem? Off-track betting depended on access to quick and accurate race results. The house risked substantial losses without speed and accuracy should gamblers learn the outcome first. So, controlling the supply of race information (track conditions, odds, scratches, and results) became Tennes’ focus.
The devil is in the (race) details
Beginning in 1904, Tennes ran clearing houses for national race information. Tennes’ houses received, then dispersed, race details to bookmaking operations across the city by phone. The first, operating in league with other well-known gambling figures, ran out of a small cottage in Dunning, just outside the city limits.
Reportedly, suspicious neighbors identified the house after noticing a pair of telegraph lines entering the cottage through a kitchen window.
Tennes continued with his clearing house, however. But, he needed protection from law enforcement to maintain the complex operation.
To ensure his success, Tennes began paying off everyone from beat cops to the chief of police.
Besides police and politicians, Tennes faced perpetual conflict from rival bookmakers, including previous partners. When one of the partners from his original clearing house succeeded with the City of Traverse gambling boat (more on that in Part 3), the two had a falling out.
As a result, Tennes threatened to launch a competing gambling cruise line, City of Midland, unless he got a cut of the business. When the cruise line operators refused, some say Tennes tried to disrupt its operation. Unfortunately, the disruption (whether Tennes or not) only spread panic when folks thought (incorrectly) the boat was on fire.
While some speculate Tennes was eventually cut in as an investor, ending the feud in 1906, the “Gamblers War” that followed said otherwise. Over the next three years, Tennes and rival gambling bosses faced physical attacks and more than 30 bombings.
While attributed to a duo known only as Smith & Jones, police could never prove the scheme’s existence (or even the pair). However, a more likely cause for the bombings and threats was Tennes’s attempt to control race information flow into and within the city.
Besides, in 1907, law enforcement finally sunk the offshore game room (figuratively) after many years on the water.
A race wire czar is born
In 1907, Tennes spent $300 on race information from the Payne News Service of Cincinnati Daily.
Payne would telegraph race details throughout the US and Canada (including to Tennes’ Chicago clearing house). However, Tennes disliked paying Payne’s high fees. After an odds error cost him thousands, he’d had enough. So, he started a rival wire service to force Payne out of business.
With that move, Tennes hired agents to attend races across the country and report back to his rival offering, General News Bureau. At the same time, he insisted all Chicago bookmakers use the upstart wire service. If the bookies refused, it wasn’t long before they were bombed or raided by police.
Tennes challenged Payne outside Chicago, too, selling his wire service to bookmakers in San Francisco, San Antonio, Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Detroit, and New Orleans. But it wasn’t until a bomb went off at John A. Payne’s Kentucky home that he gave in and sold his interest to GNS in 1909.
Only then did the bombings taper off.
From American gambling czar to charitable retiree
For the next decade, Tennes continued to control racing information in Chicago, across Illinois, and throughout the country. Despite the regular raids and his role as a political punching bag for politicians after the law and order vote, surprisingly, Tennes never spent a day in jail. His good friend (and famed lawyer), Clarence Darrow, is credited with much of that luck.
In 1924, Tennes, now 51, retired from bookmaking to focus solely on GNS. But, a few years later, in 1927, he sold the news service, citing the extreme violence of up-and-coming gangsters for the shift. Reportedly, Al Capone and other Chicago-based baddies expressed increasing interest in controlling sporting news. You’ll hear more about Capone and his exploits in a few installments.
In his last years, Tennes devoted himself in retirement to his children, golf, and charity work until he died in 1941. With his death, his heirs inherited a $5 million estate (worth $87,758,620.69 today). Tennes also established a $1 million trust to fund Catholic, Jewish, and Masonic charities and set- aside $10,000 annually for Camp Honor, a home for wayward boys.
Tennes’ mansion at 632 W. Belden, built in 1885, still stands today. The home last sold in 2012 for $3,050,000. Currently, off-market, Zillow estimates the 5 bedroom, 3.5 bath Victorian grand dame is worth at least $2,896,600.