LIVING LAS VEGAS:
Giving gambler pays it forward with gift cards and grants
Marcus Mitchell crouches next to a homeless man on a walkway above Las Vegas Boulevard.
"How's it going?" Mitchell asks.
It's a Tuesday afternoon, and Benjamin, a 21-year-old Las Vegas native with pink lips tattooed on his neck, looks down at his plastic cup and shrugs.
After begging for money between Planet Hollywood and the Cosmopolitan all day, Benjamin has only $2 for dinner. His crumbled cardboard sign tells the latest chapter of his story: “Homeless and hopeless and hungry.”
He says he has been on the streets for a month, living under a highway since his mother died of breast cancer in July. Mitchell listens to his story, then tells him why he's there.
"I'm here to pay it forward," Mitchell says.
Benjamin doesn't understand. Mitchell explains that he wants to help. He’s an everyday guy who has dedicated his life to helping others and improving his community.
He pulls a $50 Cosmopolitan gift card from his pocket and hands it to Benjamin. Mitchell says he has heard Secret Pizza is good.
Benjamin shakes his hand, gathers up his things and walks toward the Cosmopolitan.
In a lifetime of gambling, Mitchell has learned that luck is rare. Big breaks come around maybe once or twice.
But Mitchell has experienced more than his share of victories. He sees that as something other than luck.
"When it happens this often, it’s a blessing," Mitchell said. "I’m blessed.”
A 42-year-old transplant from Maryland, Mitchell has been playing craps in Las Vegas for more than a decade.
Three years ago, he decided to make his hobby a full-time job. More importantly, he vowed to donate half his winnings to charity, mainly the Stomach Cancer Relief Network and random people he encounters who need the money more than him.
Mitchell makes enough at the craps tables to rent a small office, support his 6-year-old son, Noah, and give away an average of $10,000 each year.
Why such generosity?
His wife and inspiration, the beautiful woman from Ecuador.
Mitchell graduated high school at 17 and headed straight to the Central Intelligence Agency, where a job waited for him. His mother, Gwendolyn Smith, worked there her entire career and found him an opening as a file clerk.
Mitchell liked working for such a prestigious institution. For fun, he traveled to Atlantic City to play craps. He never imaged he'd do it full time.
Mitchell climbed the ranks at work and eventually got a chance to train agents. He thought he wanted to become an agent himself one day.
But when the opportunity arose, he had second thoughts.
"I didn't want to go overseas," Mitchell said. "I was a little scared, and I didn't want to leave my mom."
It was around that time that Mitchell married his first wife and had a daughter. The relationship eventually burned out. Mitchell and the woman divorced, and a custody battle left Mitchell with no visitation rights.
He moved to California, then Las Vegas, where his mother had retired. He got a job at a warehouse.
Then he met Yanira.
Yanira was confident and beautiful. She got along with everyone at the warehouse and moved gracefully among racial cliques. She worked hard and held down three jobs to pay her bills.
"I admired her," Mitchell said.
Mitchell built up the courage to ask her out. They planned to see a horror film, “Thirteen Ghosts,” but ended up spending three hours chatting in the car.
Mitchell eventually asked Yanira to marry him. She said yes.
The couple enjoyed life. They went out often, and Mitchell used his craps winnings and casino comps to treat Yanira to luxurious nights on the Strip. Mitchell even started making extra money gambling.
They had their only child, Noah, on March 7, 2007.
"It was my second chance at having a family," Mitchell said. "It was the happiest time of my life."
But shortly after Noah's birth, doctors diagnosed Yanira with stomach cancer. Stage 4. She was given six months to live.
Her pregnancy had disguised the cancer symptoms.
Yanira checked into a California hospital. Marcus had to keep working at the warehouse to maintain their insurance. He flew out to visit Yanira on weekends. Noah stayed with Mitchell’s mother.
At the hospital, Mitchell talked to his wife about starting a nonprofit to help patients and families cope with the financial and emotional burdens of cancer. Mitchell promised to make it a reality.
Yanira died Sept. 6, 2008. She was 38.
"Watching my wife slowly die really changed me," Mitchell said.
Mitchell resigned from the warehouse and spent the next several months trying to piece his life together.
His epiphany came in a dream, after he fell asleep watching television on the living room floor.
"I thought I was dead," Mitchell said. "My wife was there, and she was leading me to see God."
Not an overly religious man, Mitchell said he was shocked at the thought. But in the dream, his wife led him to a bare, white office and introduced him to a man who resembled a neighbor from Mitchell's childhood.
"He asked me if I did everything I wanted to do in my life," Mitchell said. "I dropped to my knees and started crying and said, 'You know, I didn't.'"
Mitchell hadn’t started the organization he promised his wife.
The man placed a hand on Mitchell's shoulder, he recalled, and said, "You're going back."
Mitchell awoke crying and out of breath.
"That's when I decided to start my charity," he said.
At first, Mitchell started small — with Twitter.
He used the handle @GuyNSinCity to give away free pizzas at food courts, concert tickets, airplane tickets and hotel rooms.
When Apple released the iPad2, he bought two of them. Driving home to northwest Las Vegas, Mitchell spotted a group of children near a bus stop. He got out of the car, picked one and handed him an iPad.
The boy didn't have a computer at home.
The most Mitchell has ever won at craps was $10,000, playing at South Point. He recently won another $5,000 at the Cosmopolitan.
Mitchell loses money gambling, too, but he said he is disciplined enough to quit before he gets into real trouble.
"I set a mark," he said. "Once I hit that mark, I'm done … I'll tell myself, 'Today's not the day.'"
In November 2010, Mitchell started the Stomach Cancer Relief Network, which funds cancer research and provides grants to families battling the disease. It now has two staff members in addition to Mitchell and a five-person board of directors.
Mitchell continues to gamble and give away half his winnings. He estimates he has passed on $40,000 so far.
"I don't care about the money," Mitchell said. "It always replaces itself.”