John Warne Gates, also known as "Bet-a-Million" Gates, was an American Gilded Age industrialist and gambler. He was a pioneer promoter of barbed wire. He was born and raised in what is now West Chicago, Illinois. He did not enjoy farm life and began offering neighbors various business propositions at an early age, including the sale of firewood to homes and to the local railroad. When he started a local grain brokerage that failed, Gates began spending time at the local railroad station and became reacquainted with the men he previously sold firewood to. He was invited to join their poker games and through this, Gates' aptitude for cards and other games of chance was developed.
After studying penmanship, bookkeeping and business law in North Central College (by then Northwestern College), he failed as an owner of a local hardware store. Gates became interested in barbed wire and became a salesman for the Washburn-Moen Company. When he was assigned to the Texas sales territory, he learned that ranchers were adamant about not buying his product. Gates staged a demonstration of the wire in San Antonio's Military Plaza with charging cattle failing to break the barbed wire fences he had set up. He then proved very successful in selling the company's product, and went on to start his own barbed wire manufacturing business, which eventually led to the production of steel. In the process, his company was purchased by J. P. Morgan's U. S. Steel. Gates was not invited to become part of the company, and he fought back at Morgan for many years through a series of business acquisitions and sales; both men were key figures in the Panic of 1907.
Gates was the president of Republic Steel and of the Texas Company, later known as Texaco. He was instrumental in changing the steel industry's production methods from the Bessemer process to the open hearth process and in building the city of Port Arthur, Texas.
Gates and his guests were often loud and boisterous. He had a private entrance and elevator, but Gates had a habit of banging on the elevator doors and shouting for service. Boldt instructed his elevator operators to take their time when serving his floor, as it allowed Gates to make as much noise as he wished for a few minutes.Gates' suite was often home to high-stakes poker parties and Baccarat games. Many poker games began on the train from Chicago to New York and were continued at the Waldorf. One poker game lasted for five days and nights; when it was done at least US$2 million had changed hands. Dellora Gates had long since resigned herself to her husband's all-night poker games, but many times became upset about them. Gates made it a practice to keep some unset diamonds in his vest pocket for the times when Dellora became angry about the late hours at cards. He would then present a gem to his wife, who would suddenly forget her anger with him.Dellora would take the diamond to Tiffany & Co. to be set in a piece of jewelry of her choice.
In 1900, Gates won $600,000 on a $70,000 bet on a horse race in England, exaggerated at over $1 million, which conferred on him the nickname "Bet-A-Million". The Waldorf's Oscar Tschirky recalled that Gates did not like the nickname, but did little to repudiate the claims as he would bet on practically everything. Oscar recalled a rainy afternoon in the Waldorf's Oak Room as Gates and two associates watched raindrops trickle down the windows. Gates remarked that the drops did not move down the window at the same speed. One of Gates' associates spotted two raindrops that were moving at the same rate and pointed them out to him. Gates selected a raindrop and bet his associate that it would reach the bottom of the window first. His associate took him up on the bet and before Gates' raindrop had won the race, the bets had changed from hundreds of dollars to thousands. Gates believed that all life was a gamble; a farmer gambled that he would have a successful harvest when planting crops, a merchant gambled that customers would buy items when ordering stock and a traveler gambled on arriving safely when setting out on a journey.
Gates continued his heavy betting on horse races when in the United States. In 1902, he attended the American Derby at Chicago's Washington Park Race Track, favoring Wyeth, the horse of an associate. When Wyeth won, Gates had profited close to US$100,000. At yet another race, Gates won US$650,000 from his large bets. The Jockey Club president, August Belmont, Jr., asked Gates to limit his bets to US$10,000, as such large wagers gave the impression that the races were not honest ones. Outside of his own hotel suite, Gates' favorite spot in New York City was the gambling establishment opened by Richard Canfield in 1898.The club was at 5 East 44th Street. Delmonico's was next door and provided catering to the club's guests. When there or at Canfield's Saratoga clubhouse, Gates' favored game was faro which he had learned while selling barbed wire in Texas.
Gates set up a brokerage office in the hotel's main lobby for his son, Charlie, and an experienced stockbroker. He speculated on Wall Street from there. In early 1907, when Gates realized that the market would be headed for a sharp downturn, he closed the offices of Charles G. Gates and Company, announcing he was done with Wall Street for good. Gates also changed his New York residence in May of the same year. He had purchased a substantial number of shares in the United States Realty Company, which had built New York's Plaza Hotel and was able to design his own 16 room apartment at the Plaza.