The Wizards of Odds

In Texas, gambling on the results of football, from Pop Warner to Pro games, may be a more popular sport than, well, football.

December 1973By Comments

ALONE, IN A CHEAP APARTMENT, Happy Jim Hacker is waiting for one of his three phones to ring. The phones are on a linoleum-topped, aluminum-sided-and-legged kitchen table which Happy Jim had found along with one aluminum and vinyl chair when he rented the apartment. He is sitting in that chair now, not in the kitchen but in what was intended to be a bedroom, the table before him covered not only with phones and black phone wires but also with sheets of strangely stiff paper, several Bic pens, a list of all NFL teams with numbers beside the names, and a small television now tuned to Walter Cronkite.

Not much of an office for a business the size of Happy Jim’s: A $30,000 to $50,000 a week cash flow, ten per cent gross, minimal overhead. And overhead a single, shining light bulb blatant as a pimple against a faded, cobwebbed, damp-seeming ceiling; walls, pitted and dirty, marked with old handprints and mysterious stains. The one window is completely covered by ancient velvet drapes, once wine red but now nearly black with the years of accumulated nastiness. Opposite the window, standing solemnly behind Happy Jim’s chair, an old refrigerator hums quietly. A candIe on the floor nearby emits gagging scents of “orange blossoms.” And Happy Jim Hacker is locked in; more than locked in, really, he is barricaded. The door which leads into the street is chained and locked, but it is the bedroom door that makes Happy Jim feel really secure. He replaced the flimsy door that was hanging to its hinges for dear life with a door of solid oak. At each corner and at random points along each side he had installed sliding bolts which are now rammed home. What had been a bedroom threshold is now a bulkhead.

Immediately after Cronkite signed off one of the phones rang making Happy Jim wonder if the caller had been watching television, too.

“Yes?” Happy Jim said. “This is R. L.”

“Yes?”

“Is it still pick ’em on San Francisco-Washington?”

“Washington by one.”

“One? Yesterday it was pick ’em.”

“It’s one today, R.L.”

“Okay.” There is a pause. Happy Jim taps his fingers while R.L. thinks. “Okay,” R.L. goes on, “give me $50 on San Francisco. Anything else changed?”

“No.”

“Okay. I want $50 on Baltimore.” Happy Jim writes R.L./S.F. +150; Bal—3 50. R. L. makes four more bets and Happy Jim writes them down. They hang up.

“Always bet an odd number of games, dummy,” Happy Jim says to the cradled receiver. “I tell you that every week, but I just ain’t going to do it any more.” By betting six games R.L. will have to win four bets to come out ahead. If he had bet seven games, he would still need only four winners and the odds on winning four of seven are greater than the odds on winning four of six.

The phone rings sporadically for the next 45 minutes. Happy Jim has set up his office in the bedroom so that there will be two doors between himself and whomever should want to come busting in. He really liked garage apartments best because it meant the cops had to bust down a door, climb a flight of stairs and then bust down another door before they found him.

But the perfect place isn’t always available when you need to move. And now he’s got to move again. That’s his first thought when he hears an axe split the street door of the apartment. Then he starts moving.

He hangs up the phone, cutting off a customer in the middle of rattling off his bets. He snatches up the papers on the table, throws open the refrigerator door to get the rest of his records. He hears a commotion of heavy feet trample through the front door into what is supposed to be a living room. They stop there for the slightest moment, looking for him and see instead the heavy, oak door. They are at it immediately, four or five of them. The first blow of the axe shakes the floor where Happy Jim is now sitting next to the candle. The door holds. They’re going to have to chop the thing in two. Happy Jim figures he’s got at least a minute, maybe longer.

With sweat starting to form at his temples, Happy Jim feeds his betting records sheet by sheet into the flame of the candle. Ffffft, fffffft, the treated paper ignites and sputters like a match-head, shriveling to nothing as the stench of burnt sulphur and phosphorus overpowers the candle’s “orange blossoms.” The axe thwoks against the door. A line of sweat is forming down the front of Happy Jim’s shirt. Fffffft. Betting lists vanish into the air; initials, points, teams, names, phone numbers, they all vanish. Ffffft, fffffft.

Happy Jim hears the door beginning to yield, sees the small line of a crack that runs the length of the door and is growing wider fast. He pulls a six-pack of beer out of the icebox, rips open the cardboard wrapping and leaves five bottles on the table next to the calculator. The sixth bottle he twists open. He leans against a wall, drinking and waiting.

The door gives. Cops scatter into the room like buckshot.

“You fellas want a beer?”

No one accepts. Two cops pin him against the wall, search him, announce that he is being arrested for bookmaking and related charges, read his rights. Happy Jim says he wants to talk to his lawyer.

Other cops search the room. They put the ashes around the candle into envelopes and pick up everything off the table but the phones.

One starts to ring. The searching stops; by the second ring everything is quiet. A cop with a pen and pad of paper sits down at the table and picks up the receiver.

“Yeah.”

“This is W.A.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the points on Houston?”

“Same.”

“I never got a line sheet.”

“Twenty-three.”

” Against Buffalo?”

“Yeah.”

There is a pause. It lasts a little too long. The phone in the cop’s hand goes dead. “Well, W.A., sweetheart,” he says, “you just found out why I’m a cop and not a bookie.”

The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—but that’s the way to bet. Damon Runyon

IN TEXAS, WHERE THERE IS no legal gambling of any sort, there is illegal gambling of nearly every sort. The fashionable casinos that flourished in Dallas several years ago may be gone, as are the less fashionable ones spotted about the state; but their demise had more to do with direct flights to Las Vegas than with public indifference or vigorous legal crackdowns. Despite the uncountable numbers of Texas gambling dollars that are spent in Nevada or at racetracks in Louisiana and New Mexico, it is still possible to find in any Texas city big money card games, dice games, and, currently, backgammon games. At any of the small quarterhorse tracks in the state, although there are no pari-mutuel windows, it is difficult to miss the men standing in the crowd waiting to take bets. And sports betting abounds, from bets made between individuals, to office pools, to pick-a-winner punch cards, to full scale bookmaking.

One small statistic will give an indication of how widespread illegal gambling is. Betting on thoroughbred races is not particularly popular here, yet one newsstand in Dallas ordered 1600 copies of The Daily Racing Form, an essential publication for anyone wanting to play the ponies, on Derby Day last spring. There were only three places in the United States where the Derby could be legally bet: the Off Track Betting Parlors in New York City, Churchill Downs where the race was run, and anywhere within the borders of the state of Nevada. Care to wager on how many of those 1600 Texans made it to New York, Kentucky, or Nevada by post time.

The real sports betting in Texas is on football, a fact that should come as no surprise to anyone in a state where a football coach can become, by virtue of being a football coach, a full professor at the state University; where the populace supports two professional teams, eight major college teams, about 30 small college teams, and an awesome number of teams representing junior colleges, high schools, junior highs, grade schools, industrial plants, and American Legion posts.

Bookmaking, like any business enterprise, attempts to satisfy a public demand, and the demand of the Texas public is to bet on football. Law enforcement sources claim that $814 million is bet on football games every season. Dallas produces the most action—$1.5 million a day. Bookies shake their heads at those figures. “If we did one-tenth that much business, I’d be surprised,” one said. But remember, one-tenth of that $814 million (which is not necessarily a more accurate figure) would still be $81.4 million, enough to place betting on football games in hot contention with smoking marijuana as the state’s most socially acceptable illegal activity.

So common is football betting that it has spawned a huge, legal, or not illegal, service industry. Before the season starts magazine stands are loaded down with publications about football. Many of them are merely books and magazines of general interest to sports fans, but an astounding number are devoted to football “forecasting,” to providing the forecaster who is willing to put his money where his mouth is with statistics of past seasons, evaluation formulas, charts, graphs, quarterback “keys,” and literally hundreds of other variations on the same theme. Nobody goes through all that trouble to predict a winner just for the hell of it.

And in case the bettor doesn’t want to go through any trouble at all, those same publications carry the ads of tipsters who, for a price that ranges from $30 to $200 a week, will supply the would-be bettor with what he hopes are picks based on the inside information and superior judgments of the tipster’s intelligence network. This network is usually just a fellow with a knack for picking winners and subscriptions to the newspapers in every city where there is a professional or important college team. There are between 50 and lOO of these “sports information services” in the United States, and it is not unusual for them to gross $30,000 to $40,000 a week during the season. They find customers through ads placed in pre-season football yearbooks where they are displayed at least as prominently as the ads for muscle building courses and Oriental defense systems. They have names such as “The Prophet,” “Huey’s,” “The Strong Safety,” “The Mason-Dixon Football Service,” and “Doc’s” (“If you have the symptoms of a loser, get well with DOC’S FOOTBALL SERVICE.”) Their ads all promise an astronomical winning percentage: “Last year’s picks 91 per cent against Vegas line.” Some promise “All Selections Based on Computerized Information” while others brag “Nothing Done By Computer”; and, for the young modern who likes to play by feel, there is K. E. Hopkins’ “Astrological Sports Predictions,” whose ad says, “There are three Sagittarian teams in pro football. Last year all three made the conference championship—Miami, Washington, Dallas.” So?

A person who wants to bet finds a bookie through someone who is already betting. In most cases the newcomer’s bets will be combined with his friend’s for a while; then, if everything works out, the newcomer is given his own code number or initials and is on his own. At the end of the season most bookies close up shop until fall, when they contact their customers again with a new number to call, a new place and time for payoffs, and a new code. All this will change several times during the season as well.

Every week when games are scheduled a bookie obtains by Monday, or Tuesday at the latest, a list of the point spreads for the games that weekend. That list is called the line and booking football games is impossible without it. A typical listing looks like this:

PITTSBURGH 3 Los Angeles

The capital letters mean Pittsburgh is the home team; the team in the left column is the favored team; the number is the points that team is favored by, in this case Pittsburgh by three over Los Angeles. If Pittsburgh wins, but wins by only one or two points, the people betting on Los Angeles win their bets. If the difference is exactly three points, it’s a tie and all bets are off.

Occasionally the line lists a game with a line drawn through the names of each team. That game is scratched. No bookie will accept a bet on it. The line makers suspect, or know of, something fishy concerning the game. Over the past few years the team most frequently scratched has been the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the past many Texas bookmakers used a line from “up north” called the Minnesota line; today most bookies use a line originating in Las Vegas. The line’s function is not to pick winners but to handicap the teams so they each have an equal chance of winning. This handicapping will hopefully produce an equal amount of betting on each team in a given game. Equal betting is the bookie’s dream: He will use the loser’s money to payoff the winners. But, because a winning bet of $100 only pays $190 (the original $100 bet plus $90 winnings), a bookie makes a cool ten per cent, no matter which team wins, whenever he can equalize his bets.

When the betting on one team gets too heavy, the bookie has a problem. The heavily bet team may lose, which is lucky for the bookie; but then again that team may win leaving the bookie with a lot of winning money to come up with and not enough losing money to cover it. Most bookies are “players,” that is they bet on games themselves, but they are not players as far as their business is concerned. There are two ways the bookie can even the betting. The easiest way is simply to change the point spread. If the Cowboys are favored by seven over Baltimore and still getting a lot of action, a change to seven and a half or eight might induce gamblers who haven’t bet to put their money on Baltimore. If a change in the points doesn’t work, the bookie lays off his extra money: He tries to find another bookie who has too much money bet on Baltimore and would like to find more Cowboy action. The two bookies get together, even up their books, and now no matter which team wins they will be able to pay off all the bets and retain their ten per cent “juice,” which in this case they split.

Getting a line from a line service is a trick in itself. These services have extraordinary sources of information and long experience in analyzing that information, none of which is illegal. What is illegal, and a federal offense, is to transmit gambling information across state lines, exactly the thing the line services are in business to do. Every week they contact bookmakers in every major city, in most minor cities, and even in some out of the way filling stations on lonely highways that handle truck drivers and travelling salesmen.

The line is telephoned or mailed or shipped air freight or carried by a truck driver or whatever method seems necessary to get the point spreads to the line-maker’s customers without the federal agents getting on to it. Distributing the line is difficult and risky enough that line brokers have sprung up, men who contract to get the line each week from the original source and then sell it to the various bookies around town. That way only one person is risking receiving gambling information from across state lines. The bookies then mail or deliver or phone the line to their customers.

And who are their customers? The college professor who wants to be one of the guys, the newspaper reporter, the barber, the doctor who wants to get his mind off his patients, the loan officer in a bank, the chiropractor, the dance instructor, the trial lawyer whose head is spinning from complicated testimony, the jewelry salesman, the rodeo cowboy, the laundry owner, the Cadillac dealer, the dentist who would otherwise dream about teeth, the building contractor, the football player.

Football pools, and all that, constitute the sustaining background of the life of a man upon whose faithful daily toil and exertion all the progress of society depends. Winston Churchill

YURI GAGARIN IS A BOOKIE who has plied his trade in Philadelphia, Detroit, and other points east as well as in various Texas cities. His comments, predicated on purely economic and practical bases, complement Sir Winston’s more philosophical reasoning:

“If the cops down here were really smart they would do busts different. Here they blast into a place and take the poor son of a bitch down to the station and he pays a fine or gets somebody to go his bail and he’s out and back in business again. The cops are happy because the papers come out with one of these ‘Huge Gambling Ring Smashed’ headlines so they get what they want which is the publicity. But the book gets what he wants, too. If you get busted all bets are off. If the bust shows up in the newspaper he’s got nothing to worry about.

“Now when I was running a book in Philly the cops came in, sat me down and started taking bets. Hell, they were there for five or six hours on a Friday. Hundreds of bets coming in, horses, football, the World Series. The phone’s ringing so much they have to use two cops to answer it. So after all that they burn my records and leave. They don’t arrest me or nothin’. No newspapers, no headlines. I had to leave town. I couldn’t go anywhere without people coming up to me asking where was the money I owed ’em.

“I’ve been busted so many ways. You know I like to live in houses where you have to scrape your tailpipe to get up the driveway and like to live on dead end streets so they can only come at you one way. One time I got an old house outside San Antonio and put in some phones and I mean it was in nowhere. I couldn’t find it half the time. I kept my car out in back and had this escape route all planned out but just to make sure I rigged up these warning bells set off by trip wires I ran across the road. I thought I had them hid, but the cops saw them and kicked them out of the way and came through the door before I knew they were there. In the trial they must’ve shown those bells and wires to the jury 50 times. It looked bad.

“Another thing I never know is how many phones to put in. If you just get one you might not have enough; but if you get more than one the fella from the phone company might think it’s a little weird. The cops keep in touch with those guys, you know. So I always debate that back and forth in my mind when I’m setting up. That’s why I like to find places in cheap office buildings since that way I can put in one of those phones with three or four lines and a row of buttons and nobody thinks anything cause it’s a business in an office, right?

“In the East it is a business in an office. They have guys back there who don’t do anything all day but run around with a clipboard figuring who should layoff with who and making that five per cent day in day out. You see what most people don’t realize is that the real support for big, organized bookmaking operations doesn’t come from high rollers but from middle-class or lower-class people, working men and people like that. It’s a neighborhood situation and every neighborhood has its book and the books are all tied together by the guys with the clip boards running around. And they’ve got all kinds of betting up there—numbers, football, baseball, basketball, the horses, hockey. Hell you probably could get a line for a handball game at the Y and have people standing in line to bet on it. It’s a tradition up there.

“In Texas there’s not too much except football. I close down during the rest of the year, not enough business to take the risk. And suppose you did have some guy who wanted to bet the fifth race at Aqueduct? How’re you going to get the results down here? It’s hard enough getting the football results. You can be watching TV on Saturday, all your bets in and hear the scores from the Texas teams about 80 times a minute, but try to get the score on the Oregon State-Washington game. Now I pay money for a phone number of this service that’s supposed to give you all the results, but when you call the number it’s always busy and then when you do get through, it’s just this tape recording. They give you every score in the country. Do you have any idea how many goddam football games there are in this country every Saturday? There ought to be a law, no kidding. I’ve called up trying to get a score and waited listening to how St. Olafs beat Carleton and so on and gotten so bored that when my score did come on, I missed it and had to listen to the whole damn thing again.

“And collecting is a problem down here which it isn’t back East. Houston, for instance, is a terrible town for welchers. It might be different if you could send out a couple of guys to break some arms, but there’s no organization here. It’s also part of the problem of running a business on credit. You got to give credit, it’s the only way to run a bookmaking operation; but if somebody welches, you not only lose the money he owes you, which is bad enough, but you also lose the customer. I don’t like running a business on credit.

“The syndicate isn’t going to move in unless there’s a public demand for it and I just don’t see it happening. Most places in Texas you just don’t have that neighborhood tradition and betting tradition among lower-middle-class people. Now a place like Pasadena looks like it would be perfect. The right kind of people living there, neighborhoods, everybody knowing everybody else. But they just bet among themselves or with some guy at the plant who’s maybe a little sharper than the rest and tries to make it booking among his friends. And they’re happy with that. They think it works great so, like I say, there’s no public demand.”

If you have two people doing business with each other, they have got to have something in common. Roscoe Pound

THE DALLAS METRO SQUAD IS now something less than three years old. In that time they have made more than 70 arrests for felonious bookmaking in Dallas and the surrounding area. Their energy is prodigious; the efforts of other Texas law enforcement agencies against gambling are negligible by comparison. During this series of arrests they have seized betting lists, cracked the codes they are sometimes kept in, and kept the activities of known gamblers under surveillance. They have confiscated telephones, books, money. (“That’s what really hurts ’em,” one investigator said, “when we get their money.”) They have beat down doors, hung out in dreary joints night after night hoping to find something useful. They have checked files, names, initials, phone numbers to get a line on who’s betting and how much. They have paid off their informant or informants, and used that information to carry out several series of raids with all the precision and efficiency they could muster. And how much has this done toward curbing gambling in Dallas? “Well, I can’t say the volume has decreased a whole lot,” another investigator said. “It’s just going to take more time.”

The Metro Squad was not organized as a strike force against gambling per se, but as a strike force against organized crime. Their members are drawn not only from the Dallas Police but from the police of surrounding communities. Federally funded, staffed with a lawyer, an accountant, and an investigative analyst to aid the field investigators, they have jurisdiction beyond the limits of the city of Dallas and even of Dallas county and they share information with local enforcement agencies and other Metro squads across the country. The hoped for result is a unified, coordinated, organized force against America’s unified, coordinated, organized criminals. Why, then, this raging battle against gamblers?

The offices of the Metro Squad are in a squat, dirty, brownstone across the street from the Dallas Public Library. The building is only three stories high and the Metro Squad sits up on the third floor where the windows give a fine view of about 50 feet of grey Dallas sidewalk and the uniform, smooth, also grey wall of the Public Library.

A square, smoky-smelling elevator takes the visitor up to the Metro Squad offices where it opens on a small area enclosed by low, wooden partitions painted white but by now dirtied by hand prints, chips, a general accumulation of dust, and that indefinable dirtiness that seems to infect public buildings from the moment they are built. To the right is a long, narrow room just wide enough for two rows of grey, metal desks belonging to the ten investigators the Metro Squad employs and to the two stenographers, the investigative analyst and the accountant who are also part of the squad. Two smaller rooms, one at each end of the long room, house the offices of Lieutenant Posey of the Dallas Police, the head of the squad, and of Ed Mason, a young prosecuting attorney whose job is to make the work of the squad bear fruit in court. About six months ago, due to his efforts, a bookmaker was convicted and sent to prison, the first jail term for a bookmaker in Dallas in anyone’s memory.

The Metro Squad has determined its strategy and is sticking to it. Whatever happens in the court room, there can be no doubt about the squad’s ability to discover and close down, at least temporarily, bookmaking operations. Generally speaking their information about local operations comes from an informant. The Metro Squad has a good one, or ones, who has the bookmakers looking suspiciously wondering who he is. So good has been his, or their, information that the Metro Squad has let several cases drop rather than produce the informant in court and thereby lose him and his connections forever. The ten field investigators, men drawn from the police forces of Dallas and surrounding communities, use the informant’s information in deciding whom to place under surveillance. Then their life becomes a drudgery of watching and waiting as they try to collect everything they can on certain individuals’ activities, associations, friends, partners, phone callers, anything they can get.

Meanwhile, back up on the third floor of the police building, the investigative analyst, the accountant, the attorney, and others try to piece together the information from the field investigators with information from other law enforcement agencies and with information gathered during past investigations in Dallas. “I never worry when a case gets dropped in court,” Mason says, “because everything we learn fits in somewhere. The only way to put together a picture of how these things work is piece by piece.”

One of the pieces they have been putting together is who is doing the betting. If the identity of a bettor can be determined by the bookmaker’s seized records or by surveillance, the squad will try to get the bettor to testify against the bookmaker. They have a powerful lever against solid citizens who like to bet but for whom legal trouble would be at best embarrassing: Placing a bet with a bookmaker is punishable as a misdemeanor.

Their pursuit is so relentless because, according to Mason, the prosecuting attorney, “Most of the money to finance the operations of organized crime comes from gambling.” Mason is the kind of person that school yearbooks might describe as studious. Below his boyish, clean-cut face he dresses in accepted lawyer fashion—dark suits, modestly striped shirts and ties, wing tipped shoes. His office is basically the same green and white municipal-building—bare as the rest, but relieved somewhat by the brown and red bindings of a long shelf of law books and further relieved, at least in intent, by prints of paintings by Monet and Eakins which he has stuck to the wall behind his desk.

He refers to gambling as one of the “so-called” victimless crimes. “Supposing I make a bet with a bookie and supposing I can afford it if I lose, well most people would say that nobody has been hurt. What they don’t understand is that the money from bookmaking is washed by being channeled through mob-owned businesses like bars or used car lots and from there it goes right into their coffers where it’s used to finance their further expansion. And don’t let anyone tell you that bookmakers here are not connected with organized crime. We’ve traced money from here straight to the mob in other cities in the South and East. A bookie has to be connected with organized crime. In order to run his business he has to purchase the line, which is illegal and run by organized crime, and he has to be able to layoff which means he has to have contacts with bookmakers in other cities, which means he has contacts with organized crime. If we can’t stop gambling in Dallas we’re going to have big scale, organized criminal activity here, like they have in the East, sure as anything.”

Yet if stopping gambling is the only way to stop organized crime, we are in trouble. People want to bet; others, who might not want to bet themselves, would still agree that a bet between two people should not be a crime. With that the case, it is easy enough to convince a jury of his peers that a bookmaker, who simply brokers bets, is not committing any real crime himself, certainly not a bad enough crime to send a man up the river. One bookmaker in Dallas, out on bail and awaiting trial, was arrested a second time for bookmaking. Out on bail again, he was arrested again, and then again, until he had nine separate counts against him. He did not serve a single day in prison.

Both police and bookmakers elsewhere in Texas claim that there is little or no organized crime connected with gambling in their territories; and whatever connections there are in Dallas with national criminal organizations, those organizations do not completely control gambling there the way they do in the East. The Metro Squad is concerned about the future which, from their point of view, looks difficult.

Texas bookmakers, though they may not be the quaint, child-loving types that Damon Runyon wrote about, have three aces up their sleeves that make for survival in Texas: They pay their debts—for who would bet with a bookie that didn’t; they provide a service that people want—witness how many people bet; and they are informed about sports. The cops’ problem is that such an act is tough to follow.

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