Rothstein was born in New York in 1882, the second son of orthodox and respectable Jewish parents.  He had a chip on his shoulder from the first, for he believed himself to be unloved and unwanted; at the age of three he is said to have tried to kill his brother Harry with a knife because he believed Harry to be a favorite with his parents.  Whether this was true or not is impossible to say; but, just or unjust, his resentment had the effect of turning him into a brooding, misanthropic child, with little to recommend him except a grasp of figures and a natural ability in all card games requiring some skill.

As one example of that skill, in later life he once played billiards against a champion player named Jack Conway.  The game lasted for 34 hours continuously, and Rothstein finished the series of matches the winner of $ 10,000.  (Later he developed a facility for fixing games of pure chance so that he won those as well.)

He began his professional gambling career at school by becoming a money lender.  He earned a little by such extracurricular activities as selling newspapers and running errands; when he had accumulated a small amount of capital he lent it out, charging $ 1 interest on every $ 5 he lent. In this way his capital increased to $ 500 by the time he was 17, when he left home for good.  He was ruthless with anyone who tried to avoid debts, finding it profitable to invest a certain percentage of his capital in hiring thugs, who beat up anyone who didn’t repay IOUs at scheduled time.
He maintained this ruthlessness into his racketeering adulthood.  Such things were part of the business, and it was a strict business since Rothstein was interested only in money and power.  And it quickly became a big business.  At one time it seemed as if all New York was in his control.  Mayors, police chiefs, judges, businessmen, sportsmen, brothel keepers, dope peddlers, and petty criminals of all kinds were on the Rothstein shopping list.  He bought and sold them and used the profits to establish himself as a property owner.  The hotels and stores he owned were used as collateral to borrow money from the banks to finance the underworld-under the nose of the law.

Rothstein appears in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, only slightly disguised as a character named Meyer Wolfsheim, and a particular passage in that book refers to one of Rothstein’s most notorious coups.  Nick Carraway, the narrator of the novel, is asking Gatsby who Wolfsheim is.

“ ‘Meyer Wolfsheim?  He’s a gambler.’  Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: ‘He’s the man who fixed the World’s Series in 1919.’

“ ‘Fixed the World’s Series?’ I repeated.

The idea staggered me.  I remembered, of course, that the World’s Series had been fixed in 1919, but if I had thought of it at all I would have thought of it as a thing that merely happened, the end of some inevitable chain.  It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people- with the single mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.

“ ‘How did he happen to do that?’ I asked  after a minute.
“ ‘He just saw the opportunity.’
“ ‘Why isn’t he in jail?’
“ ‘They can’t get him, old sport.  He’s smart man.’”

Rothstein’s body is removed from the Polytechnic hospital, New York, where he died.

After this particular exploit Rothstein was in fact smart enough to be able to convince a Grand Jury that he was innocent.  The facts as known were these (telescoped for brevity):

The Chicago White Sox were a start baseball team owned by a man named Charles Comiskey.  They were under contract to him and won a great deal of money for him; but he underpaid them.  When they asked for more money, he refused.  Naturally resentful, several of them plotted to lose matches deliberately both to get back at Comiskey and to make extra money themselves.  They looked around for a big-time las vegas gambler who would pay $ 10,000 to each of the 10 players  to lose a match against the champions, Cincinnati. There were several big men who were willing to conspire in the fixing but none who had the necessary $ 100,000.  Undoubtedly some of them suggested Arnold Rothstein.

According to Rothstein’s evidence at the trial, he was approached but refused.  Nevertheless, his bookkeeper, a Mrs. Brown, was later found to have records of a number of huge bets that Rothstein and his associates put on Cincinnati to win.  (Mrs. Brown and eight of the White Sox players were indicated.)  But although Cincinnati won- and although Rothstein was shown to have won $ 350,000 betting experience on them- no conclusive result of the trial was that, in spite of signed confessions by some of the players, it was never even conclusively proved that the series was fixed, let alone that Rothstein had anything to do with the fixing.

But Rothstein could not shake himself free of the opprobrium that attached itself to his name during the following year.  The scandal (now ironically called “the Black Sox” story) was bad for business, and he announced that he would retire from gambling and concentrate on Wall street and real estate in future.  But he didn’t. He continued to concentrate on anything that would make money, including high-stake craps games.  One of these games brought the police on a raid only to get themselves shot at by Rothstein, who was subsequently indicated on a charge of felonious assault – and acquitted.

Naturally, this crooked gambler could not go on indefinitely building up his fortune without making enemies.  But it is remarkable that he should apparently have made his deadliest enemies by accusing his fellow players in a poker card game of cheating.  This is what he did in 1928.  His skill at poker had been met by skill, and luck had left him.  He quit the game owing nearly a third of a million dollars; and he refused to pay it because, he said, “the game was rigged.”  For weeks them waiting for their own good and because he wanted to demonstrate his own power; at other times he returned to the original explanation, that he would never pay at all because he had been cheated.

But, according to the harsh underworld code, welshers had to be punished.  Rothstein was fatally shot in the abdomen in the Park Central Hotel on November 4, 1928.  Although he was still alive and conscious for some time after the shooting, he never revealed the name of his killer.

The day Rothstein died Herbert Hoover was elected president and the book-makers with whom Rothstein had bet on Hoover’s success were jubilant because they would never have to pay him.  The amount of his winnings would have been about $ 500,000 –which would have been only a small percentage of the fortune that he acquired during his life.  Yet 10 years after his death, his brother filed a plea of bankruptcy in the estate.  Millions of dollars of the assets had been in narcotics, which the federal authorities seized soon after his death.  Millions more had been in corporations that vanished into thin air without the continued ministrations of the man who, as the New York Hearald Tribune said, “was a unique figure in the life of the city…. No one need be much surprised that the fruits of his life and works have turned out to be no more substantial than a structure he might have built out of a deck of his own well-riffled cards.”