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

back.

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

winning money.

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

Patriots.

“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

doing business.

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

2006.

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

game.

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.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org