A Bookie's Wild Week

Hanging Out With a Bookmaker on the Super Bowl, Betting's Biggest Event

"It's pitiful. They have to have the touts, and pay them a bunch of money. And believe me, if those bastards knewwho was going to win, they sure as hell wouldn't tell you!"

Joe is right on the money about the betting flow. During the week, his official hours are from 4 in the afternoon until 6:30, but on Super Sunday, his phones start ringing at 9 a.m. And he is there, along with his son, to answer them, each wearing a headset to keep their hands free to write up the flurry of betting tickets. ("Tell them I don't have a mom-and-pop operation, mine is a père et fils.")

While Joe still records his bets the old-fashioned way, he also employs the latest technology. He sits in front of, and gets his odds from, a TV monitor showing the Don Best Sports Tote Board out of Las Vegas. Scrolling up and down the screen, he can study the odds (on all sports) from 24 major sports books in Vegas and the Caribbean and decide what he is going to "sell." On an adjacent monitor is a spreadsheet showing the year-to-date balance for all of his customers. Two additional screens show the relevant games.

A bookie and his boy: monitoring the sports situation from down south
photo: Rowland Scherman
A bookie and his boy: monitoring the sports situation from down south

Of course, only the Super Bowl odds matter on this day, and bettors can put money on just about anything. Most people make normal bets: who will win the game and the total points (over/under); on the winner, and the over/under points, of each quarter. "Proposition bets," on the other hand, get downright bizarre. There is nothing basically wrong with betting on the coin toss (Joe took one bet on this), but who are the people betting on who will score the most points—Allan Houston (Knicks) or the Titans? (Houston was the favorite.) On Shaq's free-throw percentage on Sunday versus total points scored in the Super Bowl? (O'Neal was the favorite) The total yards from the line of scrimmage by Marshall Faulk, over/under 134? The NHL Grand Salami (the total number of goals scored by all hockey teams on Sunday vs. McNair's pass completions)?

Joe had the Titans at +6 1/2 early. They went to +7 by kickoff and a lot of people brought them up to +7 1/2. The over/under hung steady at 48. Joe booked around $80,000, most of it on Tennessee and on the over. He had put his own money on the Titans at +6 1/2, and I had followed suit with a C-note. We were not so happy with the Rams up by 9 at halftime, but we weren't worried either, as we left Joe's son taking the second half bets and drove over to the "casino." We started sweating it, however, when the Rams made it 16-0 right after we walked into the joint. It was obvious that casino play wasn't going to start until the game was over, as everybody was crowded around the two TVs. There was mighty joy in Mudville when the Titans scored their first 13 points.

Bookies are not "gamblers"—their customers are. Bookies are businessmen, as Frank Costello once pointed out in another context. The 16-13 score was absolutely perfect for my old pal Joe (and by extension, me), so fuck who won the game, he (and, alas, I) didn't want any more scoring. He started rooting for "Big Ben," i.e., the clock. "Run, run, run, you son of a bitch!" But the gods of the odds had their money on St. Louis.

Kurt Warner's (painfully) beautiful TD pass drove a stake through Joe's heart (and mine). We had no enthusiasm for the Titans' valiant efforts to score. We knew it was over. When Tennessee got into Rams territory, Joe declared, "I'll give Fisher a blowjob on the 50 if he'll kick a field goal. I swear I will!"

My loss was a piddling one. The Rams TD that took them to 23 cost Joe $40,000. As quick as snapping your fingers. Easy as that. But Joe is not one to gnash his teeth and tear his hair—in public, anyway. He put a good face on it, and when I left him, he was heading for the craps table.

As I drove through the dark countryside on my way home, a thought hit my mind and I couldn't shake it. I swear, I couldn't help it. I thought: Goddammit, I knew I should have bet the under on Marshall Faulk's 134.

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