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The Black Book, Part II: Jaben was a Kansas City gambling wizard

By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

Around Kansas City, Max Jaben called himself an “investment broker,” but history tells us he was always best at brokering his own investments.

Law enforcement authorities hung other titles on Jaben: Civella family organized crime figure, political fixer, numbers boss, backroom casino operator.

Jaben’s stature on the street would never rise to the notoriety shared by brothers Nick and Carl Civella and the mob brigade, but even in the 1950s Nevada’s gaming regulators knew the score. Max Jaben was the brains behind the Civella gambling interests — and those interests included Las Vegas. (Frustrated in a covert attempt to develop the Landmark, the Civellas would be most closely associated with the Tropicana, the Stardust, and with the manipulation of loans to casinos from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund.)

That’s what made Jaben and the Civella brothers worthy of inclusion in 1960 among the original 11 inductees into Nevada’s List of Excluded Persons, better known as the “Black Book.”

Born Motel Grzebienacz in 1905 in Poland, he moved to the United States in 1920 and moved to Kansas City in 1926, almost immediately gravitating toward the bootlegging and gambling crowd dominated in those years by mafioso “Brother Johnny” Lazia.

Gangsters occasionally shot each other, but with his head for numbers young Motel thrived in the dangerous atmosphere. He changed his name in 1943. By the end of that decade, he operated the Show Club and other nightclubs that featured bars, restaurants and backroom casinos.

Snazzy “Morris” Snag Klein and the double-tough Civella brothers were higher on the government’s watch list, but Jaben was a climber in the rackets. In 1950, Life magazine included him in its portrait of the Kansas City underworld. And months later Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s racket hearings put even more focus on Jaben’s skills as an effective operator, whether the game was cards and dice, bookmaking, or numbers.

Jaben’s knowledge of the games and the political grease it took to keep them operating played well on the road in places such as Council Bluffs, Iowa and Colorado Springs. Jaben was willing to work with other gamblers and racket men in the region while remaining loyal to the Civellas back in Kansas City.

Jaben’s political connections gave him ears around the Kansas City grand jury, which occasionally reviewed gambling-related investigations but always had difficulty locating pertinent players.

As one official reflected during the Kefauver hearings, “The minute these racket boys would hear that the grand jury was in session to investigate rackets, the difficulty would be in finding them. They would go to Florida or Los Angeles or Chicago, to the four corners of the earth, and there would be nobody to investigate in Kansas City.”

He slowed down following his tax evasion pinch and must have been surprised that, even with his formidable political and judicial connections, he couldn’t get the conviction tossed out.

By the late 1960s, he was exposed as the king of the numbers racket in Kansas City, but by then he was slowing down — and the Civellas were gaining steam in Las Vegas.

“I’m not denying that I shot a few craps in my life,” Jaben told a reporter in a rare interview not long after losing his appeal on a tax conviction, “but at no time did I want to take this city and convert it into a crap game.

“I was against having slot machines in drug stores and groceries in the city like they had them in the ‘30s. Some of our high-caliber businessmen profited from those slot machines, you know.”

As with many exposed racket bosses, Jaben blamed the newspapers for his undoing. He called himself a “Kansas City Star-manufactured politician” and a “Star-manufactured underworld figure.”

Which sounded authentic until you realized Jaben was a key figure in the numbers racket for decades. He made a score and for the most part remained off the radar, free of the police blotter and out of the news pages. The Civellas were more powerful and dangerous, Snag Klein more notorious and photogenic, but few players in the Kansas City underworld scene knew how to earn better than Jaben. Cards, dice, or policy slips, betting on the ponies or ballgames, he kept a piece of the action until his health failed in the late 1960s. He died in July 1972 at age 66 and spent just a few months in prison over a long life of crime.

His Black Book status barely slowed him down in his adopted hometown, but his notoriety was just enough to bust him and other Midwestern crime figures out of the development of the Landmark.

Considering the Landmark’s hard-luck history, maybe Jaben got the best of it there, too.

John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas journalist and author. Contact him On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.