A Bookmaker With the Mind of Mencken

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The Supreme Court has opened the door for legalized sports betting around the country. In May more money was wagered in New Jersey on sports than Nevada. In its first full year, New Jersey books have taken in $3 billion in wagers. Other revenue-starved states are sure to jump on the sports betting bandwagon, after all, it must be easy running sports books. Post the numbers and watch the money roll in. Maybe not.

Last September, FanDuel, a company which made its name in daily fantasy sports, was booking in-play bets on the Broncos-Raiders game. By some glitch, FanDuel offered 750 to 1 odds on Denver to win with a minute left. The Broncos were down by two, but had the ball and were driving. The odds should have been 1 to 6, but instead, as ESPN reported,

[Anthony]Prince was handed his 750-1 ticket with about a minute left in the game, as the Broncos trailed by two points on their final drive. Denver kicked a field goal with 6 seconds left to win 20-19, capping a second-half comeback that started with the Broncos down 12-0.

Prince’s $110 bet paid $82,610.

Too many mistakes like that and companies like FanDuel will go out of business. Chris Andrews grew up with bookmaking in Pittsburgh and, of course, made his way to the land of legal bookmaking, Nevada. He learned from the best and has plenty of stories to tell in his book Then One Day: 40 Years of Bookmaking in Nevada.

Andrews has scathing words for today’s casino corporate mindset. “Naturally, the geniuses in the boardroom think anyone can be a bookmaker.” Anyone who looks good and reads the sports page can be made sports book manager, says Andrews.

Today’s sports book managers are bet-takers, not bookmakers, and though the results are totally mediocre, it’s the way of the corporate business world.

Andrews set the line (with help from Roxy Roxborough and Uncle Jack Franzi) at the Club Cal Neva in Reno and watched employees from Harrah’s come and copy his line every morning. There is no love lost between the author and Harrah’s.

And if you’re looking for help from media prognosticators, Andrews writes, “most of us in the industry either laugh or cringe when these guys come on.” There are sharps or wise guys (smart money) and there are squares or the public (dumb money).

So is it the amount of money which moves a line, or who is betting? Us squares always hear that it’s the amount of money. That books are always looking for balanced two-way action on a game. Andrews pokes a hole in that notion.

I’ll move a football game off a key number (3 or 7) or move it a whole point, which I would never do based on a big bet from an unknown player. The public loves to bet steam, but what they don’t understand is that if a wiseguy lays 6 on a game and now they’re jumping in at -7, it’s not nearly the same thing as what the wiseguy bet.

So the books really are in the gambling business. Just as there is no price equilibrium, the books have a rooting interest on every game. “I’ve said, I never chased wiseguys or their action,” writes Andrews. “I kept them to their limits and tried to manipulate the line to go in with their sides whenever possible. (emphasis added)

The Sharps, dedicated to making money, show up and bet against the line when it appears fresh and ripe for the picking. The Squares bet the picked over and massaged point spreads and odds with their hearts on their sleeves.

The primary thrust of Andrews’s book are the stories of colorful characters. Every sports book has plenty. However, for me, the book’s best tale has Andrews and some friends betting a monster Pick-6 ticket at the now long gone Bay Meadows racetrack in San Mateo, California. As Andrews explains, when betting a Pick-6 (pick the winning horses for 6 designated races), knowing what horses can’t win is more important than inside info on which horses may win.

If you’ve ever bet horses, chapter 17 “A Day at the Races” will get your heart pounding and is worth the price of the book.

That bookmakers are good with numbers is a given, but to be great, a certain attitude is required. After quoting H.L. Mencken’s famous quip, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” Andrews wonders, “I don’t know if old H.L. was a bookmaker, but he would have been a great one if he had been.”

There are a handful of bookmakers in the author’s family, but nationwide, there will likely not be enough to competently operate every sports book, in every state which makes sports wagering legal. However, the “corporate guys in neckties and shiny shoes” that Andrews despises so much might do okay, because, as he explains, “The public always figures out a way to blow their money.”

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