Bookies talk about losses, not wins
When the longtime bookies in this gambling city get together to
swap stories, the talk invariably turns to one Super Bowl where
bettors made off with a big score.
That’s to be expected. Wouldn’t be proper business, after all,
if all they did was gloat about their many wins.
The year was 1979, and the game was as good as it gets.
Pittsburgh and Dallas in Miami, both trying to become the first
team to win three Super Bowls.
Chuck Noll was on one sideline, Tom Landry the other. Roger
Staubach lined up under center for America’s team, while Terry
Bradshaw took the snaps for the Steelers. The defenses were so good
they both had names, with the Steel Curtain on one side and the
Doomsday Defense on the other.
Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson’s big mouth was just a bonus.
“It was my first big Super Bowl,” oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro
remembers. “Back when all my hair was still black.”
Don’t try to find out what happened that day in Vegas in NFL
history books. They’ve never been much for acknowledging that some
of the popularity of the game lies in the fact a good chunk of
Americans have action on it.
The Steelers opened as 2 1/2-point favorites that year, but
there was so much money on Pittsburgh that oddsmakers moved the
line to 5 1/2 points to balance the action. It finally settled at 4
points by kickoff.
Pittsburgh didn’t disappoint and, after scoring two
fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead 35-17, appeared to have the game
well in hand. But the Cowboys scored twice in the last 2:23 to make
the final 35-31 and bookies were faced with their worst nightmare –
the dreaded middle.
Those who bet Pittsburgh early won. Those who picked the Cowboys
late won. Those who bet when the line was at 4 got their money
Vaccaro was running the book at the Royal Inn, a small joint off
the Strip that took big action. The owner was vacationing on his
boat, but called in to see how things had gone.
“I told him the bad news was that we lost $185,000,” Vaccaro
said. “He asked what the good news was. I told him the good news
was that we only lost $185,000.”
There was a lot of bad news around town. One casino lost
$900,000, another $1.7 million. Bettors stood in long lines to
collect their winnings.
Fast forward three decades, and the line is strikingly similar
on this Super Bowl. The Colts opened as low as 3 1/2-point
favorites and are now favored by 5 1/2 in most of the state’s legal
sports books. The higher the line goes – and it could move more
before kickoff – the more chance there is of bettors on both sides
Could it happen again? Don’t bet on it.
“It’s unusual for us to lose,” said Jay Kornegay, who runs the
sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton.
Unusual but not impossible. Just two years ago, a lot of bettors
who either didn’t like Bill Belichick or simply thought the Giants
were due sent the books to a rare loss when they beat the
“You’re capable of getting your rear kicked on this game,”
said Wynn hotel sports book director John Avello. “I always have
some concerns. You can have a good day or an awful day.”
The good days, of course, far outnumber the awful days in the
betting industry. Even if bookies break even they win, because they
collect a 10 percent “vig” from bettors as part of the price of
Bookies are hoping they do better than that with the Saints and
Colts, and hoping to break a two-year dip in legal betting on the
game. With an improving economy, most estimate the betting will be
up, though it probably won’t top the $94.5 million wagered in
Add in online betting and wagers at local bars and clubs and the
total will go much higher. A lot of that money will go to the
so-called “prop” bets where gamblers can wager on everything from
the opening coin flip to whether there will be a safety in the
The Hilton has more than 335 of those bets alone, and will win
more than its share. But bettors can have their way, too, as Art
Manteris found out when he put up one of the earliest Super Bowl
prop bets while running the sports book at Caesars Palace when the
Bears played the Patriots in 1986.
Defensive back William “Refrigerator” Perry had scored three
touchdowns on short yardage plays during his rookie season, but
hadn’t touched the ball since week 12. Manteris figured that Perry
surely wouldn’t be used on offense in the most important game of
the season and offered 20-1 odds on him scoring a touchdown.
Bettors jumped on it quick and, sure enough, Perry came
lumbering into the backfield in the third quarter of a blowout to
score the final touchdown for the Bears.
“I think we won overall on the game but we lost a quarter
million on that prop,” said Manteris. “I sold it to the people
upstairs by saying we got a million dollars in PR out of it.”
Having winning bettors is always good PR for bookmakers, as long
as it doesn’t happen too often. Most winners, after all, come back
to bet again.
When the bookies win, though, they keep the cash. They also tend
to keep quiet.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated
Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org