Born in a well-to-do Manhattan Jewish family in 1862, he began his criminal career as a young protégé of Monk Eastland, of Gangs of New York fame, a leading figure in New York's criminal underworld in the second half of the 19th century. He was active in sports bookmaking, betting mainly on baseball games, horse races and boxing matches, as well as on the outcome of elections, under the protection of Tammany Hall, the political machine that ruled the Big Apple at the time. He opened his own betting house in 1909 and quickly acquired others, eventually taking control of Saratoga Springs, NY, the horse racing center of the United States at the time. He used profits from his bookmaking ventures to buy off politicians and soon came to dominate the entire underground industry, being able to influence betting lines by himself and raking in huge amounts of money. He earned nicknames such as "The Fixer", Mr. Big" or "The Big Bankroll".
When word of the Black Sox Scandal - the fixing of the 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds - broke out, suspicions immediately turned to Rothstein as the only man with the wherewithal to attempt such a huge coup. He was called to testify at the ensuing trial in 1920, but obfuscated, and the lack of solid evidence resulted in everyone suspected of taking part in the fix, including him, walking off scot-free. The eight White Sox players involved did not fare so well themselves, however, as newly appointed Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis disregarded the verdict and banned all of them for life on the basis of the very damaging testimony heard at the trial. He vowed to root out gambling from baseball, and in his position as a sitting federal judge, he had the power to make Rothstein's life miserable. Rothstein got the message and left the sport alone from then on. No one was fooled by the court's verdict, anyway, as a couple of years later novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald based his character of mobster Meyer Wolfsheim, in The Great Gatsby, on Rothstein, specifically referring to him as "the man who fixed the 1919 World Series".
Turning away from sports betting, Rothstein jumped on the next great criminal opportunity available, the contraband of alcohol after the adoption of Prohibition. He got a number of mobsters who would become famous in later years their start working for him, including Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. He later turned to trafficking in cocaine and opium, even more profitable ventures. Obviously this was a risky life, and on November 4, 1928, he was found shot at the Park Central Hotel in New York. He died the next day in Brooklyn, NY without revealing anything about the cause of the shooting, rumored to have been the result of an unpaid debt from a high stakes card game.
- Alain Bauer: "Arnold Rothstein", in Dictionaire amoureux du crime, Plon, Paris, France, 2013, pp. 767-770. ISBN 978-2-259-21121-5
- Johann Hari: "Meet America's first drug dealer: Arnold Rothstein's wild, real-life 1920s “Sopranos” story", Salon.com, March 1, 2015. 
- David Pietrusza: Rothstein: The Life, Times & Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series, Basic Books, Perseus Books Group, New York, NY, 2011 (originally published in 2003). ISBN 978-0465029389
- Nick Tosches: King of the Jews: The Greatest Mob Story Never Told, HarperCollins, New York, NY, 2005. ISBN 9780060936006