Sunday, February 2, 2014
GAMBLING AND THE SUPER BOWL...
Well, it’s here—SUPER BOWL SUNDAY!
I’m pulling for Peyton Manning.
Today brings up the memories of the only time I got to go to a Super Bowl. I went to Super Bowl VIII, the Minnesota Vikings vs the Miami Dolphins.
For a hundred bucks.
That’s the truth. That included airfare from South Bend, Indiana to Houston, Texas and back. It included the game itself, for a seat on the 45-yard line. It included drinks and meals on the plane there and back. It included a visit to an all-you-can-eat-and-drink seafood restaurant after the game.
Here’s the story. It’s mostly about gambling so those who aren’t interested in that activity, you might want to go on to something else. For those who like gambling tales, stick around.
At the time, I was a year or two out of the joint and was cutting hair at Michael and Friends Hair Salon in South Bend. Directly across the street from the famed Linebacker Inn and a block from the Notre Dame campus. Not only was I cutting hair in the best hair salon in the state, I was heavily involved in gambling. At the time, I was averaging $2,000 weekly in wagers. That doesn’t mean I was winning or losing that amount—that was just the average being bet each week. And, I won, fairly often. Averaged a profit of around $5-600 a week. And, I was the piker in the shop. Michael and a couple of his friends averaged a lot more. It’s a myth that all gamblers end up losing. Just not true. Gamblers usually win. Weekend betters usually end up losing. Weekend betters are those amateurs who bet on the teams they follow, that they’re fans of. I was taught to gamble by some of the best gamblers who ever lived. Michael Murray, the owner of Michael’s and several of his friends, including one guy who owned a small chain of supermarkets and sold them and ended up making his entire living the rest of his life by gambling. A much better living that his supermarkets provided previously and that was a handsome living. But, he did a lot better when he devoted all of his time to it.
(There is a side story here. Michael and another friend found this guy (I think I remember his name as Bob David but could be wrong) in his apartment one Sunday after he hadn’t showed up at his regular haunts for a few days. He’d been executed, gangland-style, with the typical two .22s behind his ear. Whoever did it was never found, but it was pretty clear it was over a debt he was slow-walking to the local Mafia. And, yes, the Mafia was alive and well in South Bend those days. Might still be as far as I know, but I’m not in that life any more so don’t know.)
Michael had a couple-three telephones in the back room, all devoted to gambling. They were connected to bookies in different parts of the country. The “secret” to making money consistently in those days was accomplished by “middling.” Alas, amateur betters—those aforementioned “weekend betters” ended up ruining middles for us pros. I haven’t gambled much since.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the term “middles,” let me explain. At the time, Vegas came out with the spread on college and pro football on Mondays. There’s some background info non-gamblers need to know at this point. The point spread has almost nothing to do with the game itself. There used to be a single guy in Vegas who set the spreads for the entire country. Then (as now, I believe), the Mafia controlled gambling nationwide. It’s just gone more underground, but it’s still the way it was. Just looks more corporate these days…
Anyway, this guy wasn’t interested in providing a number that reflected who he thought was going to win or lose. That had little or nothing to do with the spread he posted. Contrary to what some seem to think, bookies don’t make their money by inducing betters to lose. Gambling is a business. What the mob or local bookies want is to induce 50% of betters to bet each way. If there are 100 gamblers, they want the money to go half on each team. Professional gambling is conducted with hard business principles. Bookies make money on the 10% the losers pay on their bets—the vigorish or “vig” or "juice." And, it works. If you can run a business with an almost-guaranteed 10% net profit, you’ve got a winner. Week in, week out, bookies earn 10% on their handle. It’s as sure a thing as there is.
What the guy who set the line did was set a line that he felt (through experience) would attract equal numbers of betters to each side of the contest.
Well, it would be easy if the initial line did just that, but it doesn’t. Betters usually end up overloading one side or the other. Usually, by simply being from different parts of the country. And, that’s expected. For example, let’s say Alabama is playing Notre Dame. A lot more money is going to be going to be placed on Alabama in Huntsville than it is in South Bend which will go ND’s way. For a local bookie, the magic number was $10,000. Whenever the handle went to 10K for one team over the other, the local bookie “adjusted” the spread half a point to attract betters to the other side to even it up. (Keep in mind throughout this that the vast amount of money bet is by those “weekend” or “amateur” betters. Who almost always bet with their hearts and not their heads.) If it stays lopsided, the local bookie will usually “lay off” his excess with another bookie who has the same problem with his bets. For instance, the South Bend bookie will lay off with his counterpart in Alabama. This traffic is conducted through Vegas who directs bookies to each other. If the handle becomes overloaded nationally, the national spread is adjusted, plus the layoff is made directly with Vegas who is basically the “mother ship.”
The professional gambler knows and understands all of this. The amateur doesn’t.
And this is what the phones in the back room were for. Michael had connections with bookies in the South, in the East, and in the West. Even though the initial line was set by Vegas, fairly quickly, local bookies had already adjusted their lines. And, would continue to do so up until game time. This means that in the example of ND vs ‘Bama, the line in South Bend might have the Irish favored by three points close to game time, while in Alabama, the line might be ten favoring the Crimson Tide. If a better had access to both bookies, he could create a “middle.”
He could bet say $1,000 on Notre Dame “with” the points, i.e. a grand on the Irish on a bet where they were favored by three points (with an Alabama bookie). He could then turn around and within a minute or two, create a like bet, but this time taking Bama… and ten points.
What this means is that the better can win one and lose the other in the worst-case scenario. Which means he’s reduced his exposure to a five percent loss and not a ten percent. In gambling, that’s huge. But… and this is a big but… he can win both ways if both bets fall within the spread each way. I.E. a “middle.” And, they pay off a lot. The bigger the difference in spreads becomes the better chance for a middle to hit.
This was all right as long as only the pros were aware of how it worked and the weekend betters didn’t. However, more and more pros would let their buddies in on it and like all good things, it came to an end. Vegas didn’t have a problem with the pros making a little like this. Pros were usually careful not to abuse the situation, but amateurs are an entirely different matter. They effectively killed the golden goose. This is the reason they don't issue the spreads now until the weekend.
And, that’s when I quit gambling.
Michael taught me another valuable trick. Vegas knows the heavy hitters well—the ND’s, the Alabama’s, the Ohio State’s, the USC’s, the LSU’s. They can set the spread in their sleep with these programs, just over years of experience and knowing how the money will go. But, there are bunches of other teams they know little about but put out a spread anyway. That’s where I really made my money. I picked 4-5 colleges that were little known. Schools like Slippery Rock University. I subscribed to their college papers, to the town papers, to every single source of information I could get my hands on. And, those were the teams I bet on or against. The lines Vegas set on these kinds of teams had nothing to do with reality. It was just a number they felt would attract equal numbers of betters each way. What I would do was consult my research on the team and the team they were playing and write down what I felt was a realistic number they would win or lose by. I’d do that on each Sunday. Then, on Monday when the spread came out, I’d look for anomalies between the Vegas spread and what I thought would happen, based on my research and knowledge of the team and their opponent. If, for instance, I thought Slippery Rock would beat Toledo by 12 points and the Vegas line had them favored by three, I’d jump all over that. Had a winning percentage of almost 75%. It just comes from preparation and understanding how spreads are created.
And, that’s your gambling lesson for today. There are some other tricks and strategms of the trade, but I’m holding them close to the vest in case I decide to start gambling again… Plus, I'm considering writing a gambling novel and don't want all the inside info to become common knowledge.
Which (finally, eh?!) leads us to the Super Bowl.
The entire season that year, I had made a ton of money off Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters and the Minnesota Vikings. Tarkenton could do no wrong that year. Didn’t pay much attention to the Dolphins who, the year before had gone undefeated, but the general feeling was that they’d taken advantage of a soft schedule.
A week before the game, Michael told me that our neighbor across the street, Stan Pietzak, owner of the Linebacker Inn and a serious gambler and our friend, was taking a group to the Super Bowl and that I could get in on it. Stan had purchased a plane some time before this and formed a “travel club” and it was the club he’d gotten tickets for it for. I’d previously joined as they often had what they called “Mystery Flights” where you and your wife or date would jump in the plane with 40 others and the plane would take off, parts unknown. Well, the pilot knew where he was going but the passengers didn’t. One time, I remember we ended up in Buffalo and were taken to a really classy restaurant. Another time, we ended up in Windor, Ontario (this was in the days when you didn’t need a frickin’ passport to go into frickin’ Canada, for crissakes!).
Since I was already a member, I just called Stan and told him I wanted to go. The fee? A hundred bucks. For everything. Flight, meals, seats at the Super Bowl, et al. Remember, this was in the days before Pete Rozelle made it into the Second Coming.
Most of the members of Stan’s travel club were bookies or heavy gamblers. His friends.
We got to the South Bend airport that ayem and climbed aboard. Stan hired his waitresses from the bar to be our “stewardesses.” During the flight, they delivered box lunches to us, sat on our laps, partied down with the rest of us. It definitely wasn’t Delta Airlines!
During the flight, I sat next to a guy named Buddy who was one of our chief bookies. His uncle was the Godfather of South Bend. We got into a heated argument about who was better—Dolphins or Vikings—and I ended up betting the Vikes against his Dolphins, straight up, no points—for $2500.
We got to Houston and the game had been changed at the last minute from the Astrodome to the Rice University football field. Pipes had burst or something at the Astrodome.
Well, we get to the game—seats on the 45-yard line—and I sat just in front of Jimmy Wynn, the home-run slugger for the Houston Astros they called “The Toy Cannon” on account of he had such prodigious power and was a little guy. He was short, but heavily muscled. And, a really nice guy. We chatted all throughout the game. Next to me was another South Bend bookie and before the game started we started arguing just as Buddy and I had and I ended up betting another $2500 with him… me taking the Vikes, natch…
Well, that turned out to be the longest game I’ve ever sat through. And, while I can’t prove it, looked like the “most-fixed” game in football history. All year long, Tarkenton had torn apart defenses with his rocket arm and pin-point passes. Not in this game. It seemed like every single play there were multiple receivers wide open, nobody around them for ten yards, yet Tarkenton elected to always throw it to the guy downfield who was being triple-teamed. We were screaming at him the whole game. I mean, it was blatantly clear that he was ignoring wide-open receivers, play after play. I don’t have a clue what it looked like on TV, but in person if the fix wasn’t on, it was a primer in how to run one.
Game over… and I’m out five big ones. I’d had a bunch of good weeks up until then, but it still hurt big-time. Pretty much wiped out everything I’d won the month before…
After the game, we all piled into a bus and they took us to the San Jacinto Inn, a huge seafood place directly across from the San Jacinto Monument. (Side note: When I got back home, a week later I was talking to my mother and told her where we’d eaten and she revealed to me that that restaurant had been founded by my great-great-grandmother. Wish I’d known that while we were there!). It was a huge room with these big picnic tables that were groaning with shrimp and crabs and all kinds of seafood. There were these big oil drums full of ice and beer everywhere and it was all you could eat and drink. Again, included in the $100 ticket.
Afterwards, they took us back to the airport where we boarded Stan’s plane and flew back to South Bend. On that leg of the flight, once again there was all you could eat and drink and cavorting with Stan’s waitresses.
Except for the gambling loss, a really cool trip. I miss Stan. He was one colorful character. One time, the IRS padlocked the bar's door for tax debts... and Stan just cut a hole in the side of the building and people could enter that way.
Sometime I’ll tell you about attending the 1987 Final Four game where my wife Mary and I watched Keith Smart sink the winning shot for my alma mater, I.U. against Syracuse in the last second at the Super Dome. We went to that game for even cheaper than the Super Bowl. Paid ten bucks apiece for our tickets…
Hope you enjoy the Super Bowl! I’ve got my money on Peyton Manning and hope that doesn’t screw it up for him…