Ron Wall almost lost his life over bullion. On June 26, 2010, he walked into Room 129 of Whiskey Pete’s Hotel in Primm, Nev., to buy gold and silver from a man with whom he had done business before. But when Wall crossed the threshold, the man and his accomplice jumped him, beating him with various objects: a toilet-tank cover, a clothes iron, a lamp. Craving a bounty put on Wall’s head, the bandits hog-tied him with duct tape and phone cords, but Wall managed to escape. He was out $137,000, but he considered himself lucky.
It’s unclear why someone would want this 60-year-old poker player dead, but he isn’t just any old gambler. Known as “the Duke of Fremont Street,” Wall haunts the casinos of Las Vegas, his adopted hometown. Regulars recognize him by his old-fashioned wardrobe, which evokes the 1930s, his adopted era. A double-breasted suit capped by a fedora is his usual look. He even plays cards in the old style, good-humoredly intimidating his opponents by placing wads of cash held together by gold clips on the table. When the game’s over, he puts his money back into a violin case, hops into his 1936 Cadillac La Salle, and drives off into the sunset.
In his spare time, the duke enjoys trekking through the thickest parts of the Amazon rainforest. He also collects coins — at a time when the U.S. dollar has hit new lows against competing currencies, the duke says he’s bullish on precious metals.
He started collecting coins — pennies, specifically — as a boy. Nowadays, his favorite series to collect is the Morgan dollar, which the U.S. Mint issued irregularly between 1878 and 1921. At one point, Wall owned the entire series, which amounted to over 100 pieces. A subscriber to a coin-dealer newsletter, “The Greysheet,” the duke evaluates coins according to three criteria: the year of issue, the mint mark, and the condition. For instance, the most expensive coin among collectors is an 1895 dollar issued in Philadelphia. It was “only brought out in proof issue” — in English, it wasn’t circulated widely — and as a result, the starting bid for just one of these coins is $23,000.
Such sticker shock has instilled a respect for bullion in the duke. “The silver dollar was circulated when I was a child, and back then, it was worth a dollar. Now, it goes for $31. If you had saved 10,000 silver dollars, they would be worth over $300,000 today,” he tells National Review Online.
Yet he’s not overly chipper about gold. “I’m a little leery of gold,” he says, because the supply is relatively constant over time, at least compared with silver’s. “I think gold will break $2,000 fairly soon, but I’m more bullish on silver” because it is still used for industrial purposes, so its supply is decreasing. In return, the metal seems bound to increase in value.
Of course, this is a seasoned gambler talking. “You shouldn’t bet the farm on anything,” he warns. “We’re taking a calculated risk with any investment.” Nonetheless, he believes paper currency is only an experiment — one that’s not working out so well.
“I think returning to a gold and or a silver standard would be excellent,” he says. “We could return our money to a proven form, though there’s not enough gold or silver to back the money we have in print today.” As a testament to the perils of paper, he has in his office a $100 trillion bill from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, a keepsake from one of his trips to the African country. When the duke visited Zimbabwe in 2007, the country was suffering inflation of 7,000 percent, and “those were the good ol’ days,” he quips. Underneath the bill, he has a privately issued silver round and a caption reading, “What constitutes real value?”
Does this mean the duke is a fan of the doctor — Dr. Ron Paul, that is? “I don’t consider myself an authority on the political arena,” he cautions, before adding, “I agree with his platform” concerning the gold standard. Until then, however, he suggests that young people start investing in precious metals.
But of course, the duke admits, “I’m a man who plays the odds.”
— Brian Bolduc is a reporter for National Review Online.