Meyer Lansky’s Mob Influence

Meyer Lansky was influential enough to draw hundreds of inquiries from law-enforcement agencies during his lifetime, from the FBI, CIA, Highway Patrol offices in dozen’s of states, local police, detective agencies, you name it, somebody wanted to know more about him. Strange, because as dirty and sticky as his hands were for the Mob, no charges seemed to stick to him.

Lansky was born Meier Suchowlanski July 4, 1902 (died Jan 15, 1983)  in Grodno, the Russian Empire. His father immigrated in 1909 to Manhattan and the family joined him two years later. By the time he was 13, Meyer was a tough-nosed hood who rolled drunks, manhandled local push-cart owners and hung with a group of like-minded young men who would eventually form a part of Lucky Luciano’s main strong-arm groups and bootlegging gangs.

Although gang members like Bugsy Siegel seemed to love fights (and Siegel took real pride in his murders), Lansky was more cautious. When Joe Masseria needed to be hit, Lansky handled the details, Siegel, Vito Genovese, Albert Anastasia, and Joe Adonis handled the guns. Lucky Luciano held control of the New York Mob for more than two decades, and the men who handled his dirty work at the Villa Tammaro restaurant in Coney Island (on tax day, April 15, 1931) all had long careers in organized crime.

Siegel and Adonis were assassinated, Lansky and Adonis were deported to Italy. Lansky, always in the background when crimes were committed, lived a quiet life in Florida until he died on January 15, 1983. Although he handled hundreds of millions in illegal funds from Mob crimes, he wasn’t lavish in his lifestyle.

After the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s, Lansky setup gambling joints in Florida and Louisiana. He had at least a passing interest in Kentucky and Ohio clubs, but the New Orleans business was special to him, with slot machines sales and income topping the bill. After Lucky Luciano was deported in 1936, Lansky took advantage of the Swiss Banking Act of 1934 and set up a series of shell organizations to help launder both Mob money and his own.with a final holding spot of numbered Swiss bank accounts.

His legitimate business operations had a tendency to lose money, but his casinos were always profitable. As more pressure came from local police and sheriff associations, Lansky paid handsomely to keep his name clean and outside of legal hassles. And, Lansky approved of a move into Nevada casinos in both Reno and Las Vegas. Mob money went straight into clubs like the El Cortez and the Las Vegas Club, with Bugsy Siegel and Dave Berman putting up a chunk of cash.

When the building of Billy Wilkerson’s hotel on the Las Vegas Strip stalled, Lansky was instrumental in convincing his bosses that a more public organization and ownership of the soon to be Flamingo was a good idea. Unfortunately, Siegel was a better hitman than a businessman. The construction was a financial disaster, the casino opened and lost money, and only the death of Siegel would keep the Mob happy.

Lansky didn’t give the order for Siegel’s hit, but he had to give his OK. A meeting in Havana with Lansky, Luciano, and a dozen other family heads sealed Bugsy’s fate. He lasted until June 20, 1947. After that, the team of Gus Greenbaum and Dave Berman handled things at the Flamingo with Moe Sedway managing the casino. Lansky got his weekly cut of the skim via bag man (including Siegel’s ex-girlfriend, Virginia Hill) and funneled the cash through a complicated series of shady but legal enterprises to turn the untaxed cash into clean money. He sent his own share to Switzerland, again, sometimes with the help of Virginia Hill.

With the burgeoning success of Las Vegas, Lansky set his own brother up as a manager at the Thunderbird casino in town and later, when Cuba accepted Meyer as an adviser and then casino owner, he was a part of the Nacional Casino in Havana. Enormous profits were skimmed at the Thunderbird, and the Cuban casinos were a huge source of income.

Lansky and Cuba

It was Lansky who arranged a $250,000 bribe in 1952 for President Carlos Prio Socarras to allow Batista to return to power. Once the military coup of March 1952 took place, Batista allowed gambling to be a major part of the Havana experience. Over the next six years, Batista took a nightly share of the profits from all casinos slot machines, often ignoring the cut of the craps and blackjack tables. This allowed the Mob to help finance the building of several more casinos (although the Cuban government was footing a large share of the cost also).

While the Mob profited, the citizens of Havana as a whole didn’t see much of a change in their living standards. Wealthy tourists flew to the island, spent lavishly in the hotels and casinos, and money flew away to the states (and Switzerland). Casinos like the Capri, Commodoro, Deauvill, and Sevilla-Biltmore were split between several Mob families.

The Nacional, Montmartre Club, and the new Habana Riviera were very successful for Lansky and the New York group, with the Riviera making more than $3 million in its first year of operation. Unfortunately for the Mob, their greed (and Batista’s), were too much for Fidel Castro to stomach. The Cuban revolution of 1959 put an end to the gambling as rebels stormed the hotels, trashed the casinos, broke into the slot machines and even parking meters outside, and the tropical dream came to an end for Lansky. By that time, even his illegal clubs in Miami were under a cloud and soon to be closed.

Back to Vegas

Although the Mob’s losses in Cuba (and Lansky’s, estimated at nearly $10 million) were substantial, Las Vegas was still a great stream of skimmed cash. When the US Government indicted several casino executives of illegal cash transactions, Lansky was never touched, although he drained millions from clubs like the Thunderbird, Flamingo, Tropicana, Sands and even Caesars Palace.

He was indicted for income tax fraud and fled to Israel (if this sounds familiar, yes, the Hyman Roth character in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather was patterned after Lansky) but returned to the US and stood trial in a botched case that he easily beat. He lived another ten years, lamenting his losses, dabbling in real estate, and at one point, transferring $15 million to his brother Jake’s bank account when he was having more trouble with the IRS – this according to his daughter Sandra.

How close was the Hyman Roth character to Meyer Lansky? Roth’s statement to Michael Corleone of “Michael, we’re bigger than US Steel,” was a direct quote from Lansky to his wife in their Miami home that was picked up on tape by the FBI. Lansky passed away on January 15, 1983, a free man.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

 

"Bugsy" Siegel Still an Icon

“Bugsy” Siegel is still an enduring icon of Hollywood, the Mob, and Las Vegas. Quite a legacy, really. Growing up in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn (Feb. 28, 1906), no one expected the tough, skinny kid to even live long enough to have an impact on the world.

Siegel was already street-wise by the age of nine, rolling drunks and stealing from merchants, and he and Moe Sedway set up their own protection racket in the neighborhood, but his life took a real turn when he and new pal Meyer Lansky got involved in a fight with a dozen other kids over who would run a craps game on a stretch of sidewalk outside a sweet shop. A gun was drawn but knocked to the ground, and it was Ben and Meyer who found themselves fighting over it. Meyer was stronger and smarter, and as the boys ran from the sound of police whistles, Ben cowed to Meyers age and influence.

When The Volstead Act was enacted making bootlegging the greatest gift a government could ever do for criminals, Ben was 14. Old enough to drive, and he and Meyer had their own gang of all-Jewish hoodlums later dubbed the Bugs and Meyer Mob. They were tough, but there were already stronger gangs handling booze, and soon the partners were working for Arnold Rothstein’s group, with Frank Costello, Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, and soon Albert Anastasia.

Benjamin Siegel got a taste of the good life when the money from bootlegging started rolling in, and he wasn’t about to give it up. Ben’s solution to business problems certainly wasn’t a negotiation, it was death, and he had no issues with helping out other gangs, for a price, as a very successful hitman.

While Siegel was charismatic and tough, Lansky was shrewd and grew more polished, and trusted by rival groups. During the late 1920s, the gangs of New York were considered Murder, Incorporated, as Siegel started joining in on even more Mob hits. At the direction of Lansky (for Frank Costello – future boss of the Genovese family), Siegel joined Joey Adonis, Albert Anastasia, and Vito Genovese to gun down mob boss Joe Masseria on tax day, April 15, 1931.

On his own, “Bugsy” pushed and bullied his way into any business he wanted, and took offense to any slight from a rival. When bootlegger Waxy Gordon wouldn’t share some gaming locations in New York, “Bugsy” and Meyer paid-off an IRS agent to look at his income and Gordon was indicted for tax evasion. Cranky, Gordon sent a trio of brothers to kill Meyer and Siegel, but the story got out before they were successful, and two of the Frabrazzo brothers were killed.

That wasn’t enough for “Bugsy,” and in September of 1932, Ben checked himself into a hospital with stomach cramps. That evening, he slipped out of the hospital, picked-up two triggermen, and they went to a small, poorly lit home where they posed as detectives to entice Tony Fabrazzo to come out onto the stoop. When he did, “Bugsy” came out from the darkness and rained the remaining brother with lead.

Afterward, Siegel felt better, returned to the hospital, and had a sound nights sleep. His alibi was scrutinized closely, but it held up. However, by this time, while working for local Mobs as well as the Chicago outfit led by Al Capone, “Bugsy” had truly earned his nickname and twisted the internal workings of every major crime family in the country. His future looked best far away, and he moved to California, leaving his wife, Esta, in Scarsdale.

Officially, his move was to cement a relationship with Jack Dragna, crime boss of California, but “Bugsy” wasn’t happy with just that. While on the West Coast helped establish a drug route from Mexico to the US, infiltrated and extorted Hollywood unions, took-over the Trans-Union race wire through Chicago, and set up plenty of gaming houses in Los Angeles.

The money was good on the coast, and he made plenty with the Santa Anita Horse race track and his involvement with the Agua Caliente casino in Mexico, but he also took a huge chunk of money from the Trans-Union, about $25,000 a week. He considered every race book in Nevada to be his own income since they had to pay a weekly fee to get results and stay in business. While he was a great earner for the Mob, he was a loose cannon.

He had offices in the boiler room of the Las Vegas Club and also owned the El Cortez in downtown Vegas in the early 1940s, but he did think a larger club out on the Los Angeles highway would be very successful. He and Moe Sedway had purchased some sandy desert, and eventually made a deal with Hollywood restauranteur Billy Wilkerson for a nice hotel.

Once Wilkerson got the money coming in and the groundbreaking started, so did Siegel. He got Wilkerson to agree to his help in acquiring materials, which were hard to come by in the postwar market of 1945, and soon US Senator Pat McCarran arranged the priority lists to allow the newly named Flamingo to get whatever it needed.

When cash ran short, Siegel talked more businessmen into investing, and of course, the Mob had a stake in the property. Before it was halfway finished, Wilkerson was a bystander, Ben’s girlfriend Virginia Hill was in charge of decorating, and the construction was hemorrhaging money. By the opening time, the $1.5 million dollar property had cost nearly $5 million, and the Mob was holding the bag for $3 million of it.

“Bugsy” was determined to open for New Year’s Eve 1946, but the hotel rooms weren’t done. The casino and restaurant opened on December 26th, but the mobster’s luck was bad, as a winter storm kept the Constellation he had chartered to fly his Hollywood guests to Vegas were grounded on the tarmac in Los Angeles.

Old friend and Hollywood star George Raft made it to the Flamingo, losing $65,000 for the week, but the club had a rocky start and lost $300,000 as players got lucky, and regardless of the mobster’s reputation, the old hands in Vegas weren’t impressed:  dealers and pit bosses stole easy pickings and put the casino in bad shape.

The club was shut down while construction was finished and a new opening took place on March 1st when the showroom featured Jimmy Durante, the Xavier Cugat Band, and “Baby” Rosemarie. Rosemarie (of later Dick Van Dyke Show fame) recalled waiting for her first number when a handsome but tough-looking gentleman walked up to her, gave her a stack of $100 bills, and told her to go learn to play craps. She did, losing half the cash, and later was scared to death when she had to return what was left to him. Apparently, he just laughed, refusing the money, but he had little to laugh about.

Although the property started to earn a little money, it was too late. He had too many enemies by this time, and even Meyer Lansky’s pleading couldn’t help him. He was gunned down in Virginia Hills home in Beverly Hills while calmly reading the paper. The best guess is that Moe Sedway arranged the hit, using Frankie Carbo as the driver and an unknown sharpshooter at the window of the once-named living room. The hit left “Bugsy” less handsome, but more famous than ever.

Simultaneously, the Flamingo was taken-over by Gus Greenbaum, Davie Berman, and Morris Rosen. Sanford Adler of the El Rancho casino up the street was chosen to front for the club, but manager Rosen had to knock the man down a few times before he packed up and headed to Reno where he still had some influence.

With Siegel’s death, money skimmed from the count room finally started making it’s way to Meyer Lansky so he could share it with the Mob families of New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and even Miami. While Siegel’s cash had nearly dried up, Lansky was reported to have saved nearly $300 million from his decades of involvement with the Mob and casinos from New York to the newly legal clubs of Nevada. Who ended up with lion’s share of that cash after Lansky died in 1983 has never been established, but casino gambling is still attributed to Las Vegas more than any other place!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

Charlie Mapes

Sometimes Charlie Mapes doesn’t get the respect he deserved for his work in the Reno gaming community. I mean really, here he is getting punched-out by boxing champion Jack Sharkey! The event was the 85th Birthday party of Ancil Hoffman, who was well-known in Reno as the manager of Heavyweight Champ Max Baer.

The Boxing Champion’s party was the brainchild of Bill Pettite, a boxing fan and nephew of Nick Abelman, one of Northern Nevada’s gaming pioneers featured in the book, Mob City: Reno. Mapes decided to hold the event and foot the bill for 350 guests at his casino in 1970.

It turned out to be one of the largest gatherings of boxing legends ever, and included James J. Braddock, Jersey Joe Walcott, Willie Pastorano, Jackie Fields, Fred Apostoli, Jimmy McLarnin, and “Two Ton” Tony Galento, and of course Jack Sharkey! Even Governor Paul Laxalt showed up.

Gaming pioneers were there too, including Warren Nelson (Club Cal-Neva), Norman Blitz (Tahoe Cal Neva, Bank Club, Holiday Casino), Wally Mason (Horseshoe Club), and Harvey Gross (Harvey’s Casino). To be fair, Charlie Mapes needs to be considered a gaming pioneer too.

When the Mapes hotel-casino was finished in 1947, the 12-story tower was the tallest building in the entire state. The opening brought new attention to Reno and a who slew of new players, many with plenty of money, from places like Detroit, Kansas City, and the east coast. The hotel had fancy dining, a nice showroom, and a casino on the top floor that included blackjack, craps, and roulette with fancy die-cut, metal-inlay chips..

Although the casino was often leased out to other operators, Charlie Mapes owned buildings in downtown Reno, ran the concessions at the airport, and opened Mapes Money Tree casino on the corner of Virginia and 2nd Streets in 1969. It closed ten years later. The Mapes hotel-casino was closed in December 1982.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

The Tahoe Village

I always thought the photos of the Tahoe Village were cool with it’s rounded shape and lots of windows to watch the snow while you had a beer after your shift. The building had a number of names from its inception in 1945 as the Tahoe Village with Mickey Wood financing. Bert Riddick was one of the casino owners, along with Skoff in 1946 and 1947, Elkins in 1948, and then Babe Arata and Walter Parman took a shot.

The club had a small motel next door for its visitors and the casino itself was in that circular area with the bar. The windows actually had a direct view of Lake Tahoe at South Shore.

Walter Parman (as mentioned in The Roots of Reno) was busy with Reno clubs, so he gave up his interest as casino manager to Lou Watters, who changed the name to Casino de Paris and brought Parisian entertainment with beautiful cancan girls to the small nightclub.

Frank Sinatra appeared at the request of Sammy Sellette, but his performance was flat and he was heckled by the crowd. He was so incensed that he never appeared at the lake again until purchasing an interest in the Cal-Neva Lodge six years later.

In 1955, Oliver M. Kahle and his partner, Ben Jaffe, bought the club and changed the name to Oliver’s. Kahle upgraded the motel next door, adding a large pool that also had views of the lake. He tried unsuccessfully to rebuild the casino, which was making money, but there was a fire in 1963 that destroyed much of the building. Unable to rebuild, he sold the land to Douglas County and moved back to Las Vegas where he operated The Castaway’s until Howard Hughes purchased the property.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

 

Illegal Gambling Clubs of Toledo

Terry Shaffer’s new book, Illegal Gambling Clubs of Toledo, is just terrific. It’s one of only a few books on illegal casinos and certainly the most complete.

Terry is a resident of Toledo and through hard work and a little luck, managed to get files and photos from back when the clubs were in operation. Many of the photos included have never been printed elsewhere.

The book coincides with the recent opening of Ohio’s first legalized casinos, and collectors of casino memorabilia will be happy to see many Toledo chips and dice conclusively identified.

The book includes 72 different illegal gambling operations with photos, addresses, and dates of operation. The books 150 pages (8 x 11 softbound) includes a bibliography and a full index. You can get your copy now and enjoy!

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

Where has the Time Gone?

Photo Courtesy (William Pettite)

The last time I posted, there was a lot of snow around my car. No more than there was in the picture of the old Christmas Tree casino at Mt. Rose in Reno, but a lot. It’s 107 degrees in Scottsdale, Arizona right now. I’m comfortable.

In the picture above, June Abelman is throwing a snowball at Nick Abelman, owner of the small casino and restaurant in the 1940s. Nick was a long-time casino owner in Northern Nevada, having started his career in Goldfield and Tonopah, several hundred miles south. He passed on Las Vegas completely, never interested in the town because it didn’t have gold mines.

Abelman’s career as a Nevada Gaming Pioneer is chronicled in The Roots of Reno, which tells the story of Northern Nevada casino owners like Bill Graham, Jim McKay, George Wingfield, how they operated their establishments, and how they changed casino gambling in the state of Nevada.

What’s interesting about Nick is that he almost always used a simple handshake to seal his business deals. He often carried $10,000 or more on his person just in case he came across a businessman in need of a quick partner, and once loaned a South Lake Tahoe casino manager $100,000 for the weekend so he could prove to his boss that the club still had plenty of cash to run on. Nick received a 10% fee for the three-day loan. Nice!

In the 1940s, when walking from his home on California Ave. in Reno with his nephew, William Pettite, Nick liked to hand $50 bills to the passerby’s he knew to be old friends or gaming customers from his Reno clubs like the Waldorf and Riverside casinos. That’s pretty nice.

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

 

Enjoy the Snow at the Ta-Neva-Ho

I just love this photo of the Ta-Neva-Ho. Taken in the late 1930s, it shows what Lake Tahoe is like every winter – snowy!

No kidding, right? Well, not everybody has a chance to see the amazing lake that straddles the California and Nevada state lines. This club, built and opened in 1937, stands along the North Shore of Lake Tahoe – a couple of football fields away from the water. From the back steps or the parking lot, you can still see the clear blue expanse of the lake through the huge pine trees. They stand much as they did seventy years ago – think taller.

The Ta-Neva-Ho was more than just a casino. As you can see in the photo, the club was housed in a building (don’t say strip-mall!!!) that offered dining, gaming, bowling, sports betting, and even a drug store and post office. If you take a look at the building today (it remains as the Crystal Bay Club), it may seem too small to have offered so much. However, in a small community like the Crystal Bay, the locals were thrilled to have anything to do during the winter.

There were less than 1000 people in the general vicinity, and a drug store and post office were mighty handy to have nearby.

The Ta-Neva-Ho was originally built by Norman Biltz and Pete Bennett. No, the name is not Native American, nor does it stand for “white man gambling.” Biltz was also involved in the Cal-Neva casino, closer to the lake. Over the years the Ta-Neva-Ho had several owners including our old friend Nick Abelman. He held points in the casino, and it seems many other people did too – right up until the present.

Today’s Nevada Gaming Control Board insists on knowing (and approving) every owner, but back when the clubs were fun – dangerous – exciting – new, each spring season brought at least a few new “partners” to each venture at the lake.

One of those “partners” who showed up was Frank Fat, a Sacramento restaurant owner. When he first arrived at Lake Tahoe his friend Otis Babcock booked a cabin for him at Bijou, but the day after he arrived, Fat was asked to leave. That day it sucked to be Asian.

A few years later, Fat turned the tables on the situation when he and his friends, Babcock, Art Nyberg, and Nick Abelman bought the entire block the Ta-Neva-Ho sat on for $125,000. Each owned 25%, and Fat took the gaming license, even though he ran only the restaurant.

In classic early Nevada style, Frank Fat fronted for a host of owner-operators who preferred to keep their gaming interests silent. The casino ran beautifully for several years and the partners sold their property in 1945 for $300,000 to a group of investors lead by Johnny Rayburn. Fat again stayed on to run the restaurants.

These stories and many more at found in the book “The Roots of Reno,” written by yours truly, AL W. Moe available from those crazy online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

 

 

Stateline Country Club


In chip collecting
In my humble opinion
In the state of Nevada
In my collection
Indian headdress
Incredible

The Stateline Country Club was situated on the California/Nevada state border on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe.

Originally owned by Cal Custer, the club had a reputation for fun during the short summer season at the Lake before winter snowstorms closed the only link (highway 50) from the Placerville area of California and the Nevada side that lead to Carson City.

Nick Abelman purchased the small casino with his partners, Bert Riddick and Steve Pavlovich in 1933. This chip is from their early days at the club, although it may not have been on a table until 1935.

Abelman’s casino inside the Riverside Hotel – called the Riverside Buffet, also used crest and seal chips. His “Ship and Bottle” was one of the nicest casinos in Nevada used even more elaborate chips on their fancy tables.

The State Line Country Club

How is everybody this week? I haven’t really been gone for a week, in blog-world, my posts follow each other, so I’ve always been here.

The State Line Country Club is one of my favorite stories. Part of the reason is that long ago I made friends with Karl Berge, a bartender and part-owner of the club in the 1950s, and partly because Lake Tahoe is so freaking beautiful and I wish I had seen the lake back then.

A dice-dealer friend of mine at the Cal-Neva in Reno brought me a few old chips from the club, and the $100 variety with an inlay showing the club’s swimming pool is my favorite chip in the world. This friend’s wife remembers being three or four years old and wandering around the offices with her father, who was also a manager/owner. Lots of great stories – I wish I could tell them all to you, but of course, you have to start at the beginning.

When Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, Cal Custer, a long-time rum-runner from Southern California, purchased the club and expanded the operation in include a 21 table, tub-style craps game, and a dozen slot machines. The following summer, Cal expanded again, and by 1933, Nick Abelman of Reno and his partners Steve Pavlovich and Bert Riddick were very interested in the sixteen-acre property.

The partners talked Custer down from his $100,000 asking price to $84,000 and purchased the club and property. Abelman, always a stickler for providing a superior product, immediately spent forty-thousand dollars building an expansion that offered a large, hard-wood dance floor and a huge fireplace. In the back of the club under a row of chandeliers was a small stage where a band played every night.

The club offered dozens of slot machines, roulette, chuck-a-luck, faro, and 21. It prospered for years under the watchful eye of Steve Pavlovich, who managed the club most summers. Big-name entertainment was standard, and the club offered wonderful meals such as a crab cocktail, soup and a main course like “famous Louisiana frog legs,” Idaho Trout,” or a filet mignon, plus vegetables, potatoes, and a nice dessert for $2.50.

In the mid-1940s, as Nick Abelman approached the age of seventy, he admitted it was becoming tougher and tougher to make the trek from Reno to Tahoe every day, and his manager, Pavlovich was too sick to handle the club alone. The three partners conferred and agreed it was time to sell.
At a meeting at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, Abelman came to terms with Nick and Eddie Sahati to purchase the club. A final price of $350,000 was agreed to, and the Sahati brothers took over for the 1945 summer season.

They got off to a rocky start, but eventually, the club prospered under their management. Entertainers such as Lena Horn, Sons of the Pioneers, and the Ink Spots brought gamblers into the club, and times were good.

Eddie Sahati died of Cancer in 1952 at the age of forty-one. His brother, Nick, then leased the operation to a group of businessmen including Karl Berge, who ran the bar (Berge later owned Karl’s Silver Club in Sparks).

Bill Harrah purchased George’s Gateway Club, across Highway “50” from the Country Club, and after a successful couple of years was able to persuade the businessmen to give up their lease so Nick Sahati could sell the property and auto-court to Bill.

In 1958, Nick Sahati did just that, for the same $350,000 he purchased it for. Eventually, Harrah also purchased the tiny “Main Entrance” casino and also Bud Beecher’s Nevada Club, allowing him to expand all the way to the actual state line. Harrah’s Tahoe now sits on the site.

There’s a lot more to the story, as told in The Roots of Reno ($2.99 on Kindle, free for Prime)

Thanks for reading – Al W Moe

 

 

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