Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder (right), a large, shrewd and popular man who broods about his weight, is the foremost oddsmaker and, as he grandly but precisely expresses it, "speculator in sports" in Las Vegas. Oddsmaker is, in a sense, a euphemism for bookie, a familiar noun Jimmie avoids as connoting a form of illegal and disreputable low life (so is the offending blowfish marketed as sea squab).
Jimmie is distressed by the raffish crowd whose members, technologically unemployed by repeal, became bookmakers with no other professional qualification than the ability to lick a pencil point and write "5" for the 5 horse. He is fond, on the other hand, of reciting the academic attainments of his Las Vegas confreres who graduated from or attended such institutions as Rice, NYU, Creighton, Notre Dame and Yeshiva, and of reminding his listener that there are more bank presidents in jail than bookmakers.
Snyder went to college, too, but will not mention which one. "I wouldn't want the school to get mad at me," he says. Jimmie feels that the force of public opinion is unfairly marshaled against a generally blameless and difficult profession. "I'm square," he pleads. "I lead a normal life. They're always trying to put a cigar in my mouth. The only bad habit that I have, if you could call it that, is my family." His family includes his wife Joan, a graduate of a Catholic college, his son Jamie, 5, daughter Stephanie, 2½, and a daughter from a previous marriage who attends the University of Nevada. "I can't tell you the exultation I get picking up Stephanie after I've lost a bet," he says. "I'm not a crook. I'm not a thief. I'm a gambler—and a damn good one."
Betting on sports is legal in the singular and swinging city of Las Vegas, if one wagers on licensed premises, known as sports books. Until recently there were seven—three on the Strip and four downtown within earshot of a monstrous, mechanical cowboy who gratuitously bellows "Howdy, pardner" every 15 seconds. It has been facetiously remarked that the cowboy is, in fact, a government man and that he is snidely greeting the proprietors of the sports books. These gentlemen comprise a mournful and dwindling fraternity—three books closed last week—whose major lament is that each bettor must pay an intolerable 10% federal tax when he makes a bet. A minor, but equally plaintive, refrain is that it is now illegal to supply odds to out-of-state customers, once a profitable sideline.
December 18, 1961
It has been estimated that 95% of all wagering on sports in Las Vegas is done sub rosa, or man to man, to avoid the tax and that if the government were more tolerant and reasonable business at the sports books would be up 1,000%. As it stands, the high gamblers gather about the lowball or klaberjass tables, in Strip coffee shops or health clubs, sipping raspberry phosphates or moodily wrapped in sheets. A typical scene between two gamblers who shall be called Big Red and Baron:
Big Red: Do you gentlemen wish to wager on any sporting events?
Baron: What futures you got?
Big Red: Texas, Texas A&M.
Baron: Where's it at?
Big Red: College Station.
Baron: What do you make it?
Big Red (writing covertly in his notebook): 15½ Texas.
Baron: I saw you write 17.
Big Red: That was in Italian. It don't count.
Baron: I'll take it for a dime [$1,000]. A&M I'm taking.
Big Red: You're taking it for a nickel [$500], and the price is now 14, gentlemen.
Baron: For a nickel.
Big Red: 13 is the number.
Baron: For a nickel. All right, now you can buy it back for a $5 bill [$500]. No? All right, I'll have another raspberry phosphate. I used to drink chocolate phosphates, but they're too sweet.
Jimmie Snyder is oddsmaker and manager of the Hollywood Sports Service, a downtown store that is shabbier than the average funeral parlor but tidier than the general run of pool halls. It is furnished with blackboards, counters and chairs with broad writing arms like those found in college lecture halls. Jimmie finds the current state of affairs so melancholy he refers to himself, with both pride and regret, as "the last of the oddsmakers." This despite the fact that the Hollywood Sports Service does more business than any book in town.
Snyder's business is making odds on football, baseball, basketball (commonly called baskets), hockey, boxing, selected golf tournaments—indeed, practically any sport. He, for instance, made Australia 3 to 1 over Italy in the Davis Cup for a patriotic customer of Italian descent. Horse racing is not considered a sport in Las Vegas (and elsewhere on occasion), and though every sports book shares a store with a race book for the convenience and rent, each is a distinct operation. Although racing is his favorite entertainment (he is, however, an admittedly poor horse handicapper), Jimmie takes an altogether dim view of booking races as an intellectual or emotional experience.
"There's no satisfaction," he says, "sitting behind a counter taking a horse bet. But if a guy comes in and bets on TCU you think, what does this son of a gun know? You're always matching your wits against someone else's in the sports world. Every game is a challenge, and if you win, it gives you some sort of satisfaction." He has artistic reservations about casino gambling, too. "You don't exercise any opinion or thought," he said the other day in the lounge of a Strip hotel. "In sports no one can take a paper and pencil and prove Notre Dame is 6 over Pitt. Most people over there [in the casinos] are chronic gamblers. They don't know how to win. They just play. Where do they match their wits? It's only a game of luck."
At one time Jimmie handicapped politics as well as sports, but he has recently discovered that betting on elections is illegal, much to his dismay, for he was quite proud of his figures. "I had California and Ohio for Nixon," he says, speaking of the 1960 presidential election, "but Illinois was the killer." For his own amusement, he makes Nixon at present 250,000 votes over Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial race.
He will, indeed, make odds on almost any eventuality. "There is a price for everything," Snyder once said. "Caryl Chessman," he has noted, "was a favorite to go. He was 4, 4½ to 1. Finch and Tregoff were 8 to 5. But don't get me wrong. I wouldn't bet on a man to die." Last year Jimmie worked up a whimsical parlay for a friend: Castro to go before the first of the year, Kennedy to get the nomination and Charlie Dressen to go as manager of Milwaukee.
Long-range forecasting is Jimmie's forte. The only kind of bet he will make on events more than a week and a half off, however, is a force bet, and the money must be put up. If for some reason the event isn't held, the money is returned. A force bet is one in which the oddsmaker decides the price and the bettor chooses to wager on one side or the other but cannot decline to bet.
Some of Jimmie's futures are: Liston 3 to 1 over Patterson, Maris 35 to 1 not to hit 61 home runs, Mantle 25 to 1 not to hit 61 and Cincinnati 8 to 1 in the National League pennant race. "They won't even finish fourth," he says. "Los Angeles will win, with St. Louis as its opposition. In the American League it's New York and then Cleveland, and I'm looking for someone to beat Ridan in the Derby. It may be Donut King." Although he has made no odds yet for Las Vegas' Tournament of Champions, he predicts Arnold Palmer will not finish in the first seven. "He can't play this turf, and he's bad on fast greens," Jimmie says. "I don't think he can putt these greens." He also believes that Doug Sanders, Billy Casper, Jay Hebert and Gene Littler will be the first four and in that order.
"The oddsmaker," said Jimmie the Greek, scowling at the regulars in the Hollywood Sports Service the other day, "is the most vulnerable guy in the world. He sits there like a pigeon. If the bettor thinks he's got you beat, he shoots you. If he doesn't, he doesn't shoot. Is there anything more hazardous? Like that Boston guy said: 'Don't shoot until you see the whites of the Greek's eyes.'
"Keep chopping away at the Greek," he said, vaguely addressing the gamblers sitting somnolently in front of him. "Choppa, choppa, choppa. Pretty soon I won't have any legs. These guys will kill their mothers for a half a point. I got to do something to create some business. How can I move you guys?"
He went to a large blackboard listing the odds on 45 college football games to be played that Saturday, erased several numbers and replaced them with new ones. "I'm lenient," Jimmie explained wearily, as another person might confide that he's sensitive. "I'm the most lenient guy in town. Look at them. You know what they're saying? 'The Greek's throwing money away again.' You don't want them to think you're good. That's the whole secret."
Football, like basketball, is generally handicapped on the basis of points, not odds. For example, if you choose to bet on Minnesota over Purdue, Minnesota must win by more than the point spread—say, in this instance, six points—for you to collect. If Minnesota wins by exactly six points, the game is considered a standoff and the bettor gets his original investment back. Oddsmakers try to avoid numbers like 7 or 14 ("They're killer numbers," says Jimmie) because they produce ties, or a lot of overhead expense for nothing. Bad numbers in the pros are 3, 4, 10 and 11 because of the prevalence of field goals. The introduction of the half point in recent years prevents ties, of course.
In the oddsmaker's estimation, making Minnesota a six-point favorite will attract equal amounts of action on both teams and insure him a profit, the price being a reflection of the popular, but often erroneous, opinion of the comparative worth of the two teams. The oddsmaker, like the television producer, gives the people what they want, not necessarily what's good for them.
The oddsmaker makes a profit because the bettor must wager $11 for every $10 he expects to win. The extra dollar is called the "vigorish" and is the oddsmaker's operating margin. If he is able to adjust his point spread so that $1,100, say, is bet on both Purdue and Minnesota for a total of $2,200, he will have to return only $2,100 no matter what the outcome.
If, however, too much Purdue money shows, the oddsmaker must shorten the spread to try to attract more Minnesota money and maintain his golden mean. If he is compelled to drop the price by as much as 1½ or two points, he is in danger of getting "numbered," or "middled." No longer is he merely a pigeon. He is a stag bayed by wolves, a swimmer in a sea of sharks. If Minnesota has fallen to four and wins by five, all bets on Purdue as a six-point underdog win and all bets on Minnesota as a four-point favorite also win and, as Jimmie bleats, "they carry me out, baby. They carry me out."
Baseball (and fights, a minor speculation) are bet on an odds basis, and the games are handicapped in this fashion:
YANKEES 9-11 OVER GIANTS
In this equation, the team on the left (Yankees) is always the favorite. The team on the right (Giants) is the underdog.
All baseball bets are based on a unit of $5.
If you want to bet on the favored Yankees, you put up $11 to win $5.
If you want to bet on the underdog Giants, you put up $5 to win $9.
In other words, while the favored team is the one on the left, the amount of money you must bet on the favorite is on the right.
Some more examples:
RED SOX 5½-6½ OVER TIGERS ORIOLES EVEN 6 OVER INDIANS DODGERS-PHILS, PICK 'EM
In the Red Sox-Tiger game, if you bet on the Sox you put up $6.50 to win $5, while $5 on the Tigers will earn $5.50. Even six means if you bet on the Orioles you lay $6 to win $5; if you bet on the Indians you bet $5 to win $5. "Pick 'em" means you lay 11 to 10 and pick either team, as in football. Occasionally you will find a price expressed 2-12. This actually is the same as 10-12.
In this form of betting the vigorish is built in; almost always the oddsmaker makes money when the underdog wins, which occurs about one-third of the time. Say Milwaukee is 7 to 8 over the Cubs. A bettor named Ray wagers $8 to win $5 on Milwaukee. A bettor named Joe wagers $5 to win $7 on the Cubs. If Milwaukee, the favorite, wins, the oddsmaker takes Joe's $5 and gives it to Ray, winding up with nothing for himself. If the Cubs win, however, he takes Ray's $8, gives $7 of it to Joe and makes a profit of $1.
Today the high gambler and the oddsmaker are hard-pressed in their quest for the inside information that once enhanced their chances of making a killing or putting up alluring figures. Once, however, an industrious and ingenious gambler was privy to a lot of useful information. During the 1940s Jimmie was a high and resourceful gambler. His specialty was football, particularly one southern conference. "Marry one conference and divorce yourself from all others," Jimmie advises. "After two or three years of study you'll see the spots." He openly attended coaches' clinics and meetings where, because he is a generous, genial and intelligent companion, he made many close, valuable friends, among them the late coach and classicist, Herman Hickman. Hickman called Jimmie Diogenes, for he was a seeker after the truth. Snyder had such an excellent command of the game he once helped a coach write a book about football. He never presumed on his relations with the coaches, but it was hard to avoid overhearing tips that would guide him in his bets.
At a clinic in the late' 40s he heard a new coach, formerly an assistant coach with a professional team, boast: "I'll show these coaches down here how to play the T." This remark deeply riled the other coaches in the conference. "Wait till we get him at home," they glowered. Jimmie, sensing he was on to a good thing, was impatient. He suggested that they get hold of the professional team's game films, for the coach was certain to use his old team's plays and defenses. The coach lost eight straight games. He lasted a year and a half, a profitable period for Jimmie.
Another time, a basketball trainer tipped Jimmie that the captain and high scorer of his team had been jilted by his girl. Jimmie bet against the team, a big favorite. The lovesick captain played miserably, the team lost and Jimmie made a big score. Unfortunately, the bookies took the team off the board for the rest of the season, figuring the kid was a dumper. "Bookies are scared of unnatural money," says Jimmie. In 1950, a fateful year in Jimmie's life, he bet on Kentucky against Santa Clara in the Orange Bowl. "It's the men against the boys," he chortled. Santa Clara won, and Snyder lost a small fortune. He switched to the stock market. Sometimes late at night you can still hear Jimmie Snyder mutter forlornly, "It was the men against the boys."
Nowadays Jimmie relies chiefly on newspapers for information; he subscribes to 27. "There's a lot of handicappers that know how to read newspapers," he says. "They're called good readers." Other sources of information are magazines, wire-service-clips and college brochures. He is particularly jealous of his pro football figures, which he considers the best in the business. They show, for example, that even when the San Francisco 49ers were walloping everyone with their shotgun offense early this season, Jimmie correctly regarded them as an inferior team.
The point spread does not necessarily represent the difference between two competing teams. The home team gets a bonus, and such factors as injuries and weather also go into composing proper spreads. Jimmie adds two to five points for the home Held in pro football. He figures it's worth about three points in college ball, but LSU and Texas A&M are valued at six because of unusually noisy and emotional crowds. He is also constantly alert to injuries. "Any late injury flashes?" he asks. "Any broken legs today, fellas?"
According to Jimmie, "You can't really handicap the score but how they played the game." He uses as an example a team that is trailing 14-13 with two minutes to play. They throw a pass that is intercepted for a touchdown, and the score is now 21-13. They pass again, are intercepted, and the final score is 28-13 in what actually was an even game.
"If you could only tell the mental attitude of a team," he says. "That's the whole thing. That's 20% or 25%. If you could only tell when a team is higher than a Georgia pine. It's impossible for a coach to keep his team up for nine games. That's why you have upsets. The hardest game of all to handicap is a team playing out of its conference, especially the Big Ten. Also, a coach may be subconsciously scared of a certain opponent, and that fear is instilled in his kids, or the coach may be pointing for a certain game and not realize it. By the time he and his kids get there—bingo! they're a 20-point underdog.
"If you follow the coach's opinion," he says, "he'll break you. He's too close to it. The coach is only good in August, when he looks at his schedule realistically. After that the outside has much more information than the inside. The first two weeks are the hardest—evaluating the personnel that has graduated, what's taking its place. That's where the whole secret is."
Jimmie makes his football prices off the defense. "If you can't score," he enjoys saying, "you can't win. Ninety-five percent of the oddsmakers in the world make it off offense but, outside of a T quarterback, injuries on defense mean the most." But, as he says, "all numbers to me are automatics. They just come natural." What he means is that, in the end, oddsmaking is largely intuitive.
In pro baskets he makes his spread on the percentage of shots, adds a point or two on the team the public's going to bet on, and then, he says, "they fool you and bet on the other team." The starting pitcher is a 65% to 70% ingredient in composing baseball odds. "In baseball," Snyder advises, "wait until a team has won or lost four in a row, then bet on it to continue to win or lose. Last year you would have broken every bookmaker in the country." He regards fights as the most difficult speculation because it is hard to determine a fighter's condition. Hockey is the simplest on account of the constant and overwhelming advantage of the home ice.
Golf, he says, is the biggest gambling sport in America—on a man-to-man basis, that is. Jimmie, who is the only golf oddsmaker extant, posts odds on three tournaments—The Masters, the Open and the Tournament of Champions at the Desert Inn course in Las Vegas. The last draws his biggest single play every year. "In golf," he says, "the turf they play on is the big thing. Certain players play better on sandy, hard western courses, others on softer, mushier eastern courses. They say 'horses for courses.' With golfers it's the same way. The length of a course is important, too. Some golfers are better with their irons than others.
"You got to find out who's hot, who's hungry. But then there are individuals who play good all the time, like Sanders and Casper. For my money, I'd bet on a kid like Sanders for every tournament."
Jimmie is convinced a man can bet sports successfully if he follows certain general precepts:
•No matter what bet you make there's got to be a reason.
•Don't steam. Don't be hungry. Don't lose your head. It's the best part of your body.
•Don't be a sucker. The only difference between a gambler and the average guy is the way they play their money. A gambler, if he bets $200 and loses, he cuts to $100. He loses again, he cuts to $50. The average guy loses $200 he tries to get even with $400, and so forth.
The Greek was born Dimitrios George Synodinon 42 years ago in Steubenville, Ohio. "I grew up in a town where everything was wide open," he says. "You had to bet to survive. I was 25 before I found out gambling was illegal." Steubenville has shut down now, but many of the dealers and pit bosses working Vegas are Steubenville boys. They are in great demand in Nevada, like shepherds from the Basque country.
Jimmie is reluctant to talk about the past. "What's the use?" he says. "It's the past." But a few revelatory facts emerge. "I was the best 9-year-old violin player in Steubenville," he said once. He has also told how he used to build bicycles, always painted white because it was the only color he had, and rent them out to kids in the neighborhood, the rent going toward the purchase price. And he once mentioned playing soccer in Greece.
At 14, Jimmie forged his father's name to his school-savings certificate and bet it all on Cavalcade to win the Kentucky Derby. Cavalcade did. "A well-publicized horse," says Jimmie with a shrug. He recalls that his first good bet was taking Great Lakes Training Center over Notre Dame at 8 to I in 1943. Great Lakes won 19-14. In the late '30s and early '40s Jimmie waxed fat, splurging on football, Joe Louis and Franklin Roosevelt. "Every situation with Roosevelt or Louis was a tap-out," he has said.
After the Kentucky-Santa Clara disaster, Jimmie moved to Florida. "I wanted to divorce myself from gambling," he says. "I wanted to live a different life." Jimmie thrived in the stock market but, he modestly explains, it was a bull market. At one time or another he has owned a small racetrack and has had an interest in four or five others. He also has owned a couple of theaters and a stable consisting of a dozen horses.
One day in Florida he had a horse running which had been shipped from New York. The horse had raced poorly there, but Jimmie discovered that his public trainer had been holding him back and that he would no doubt go off a terrific long shot. The day the horse was to run Jimmie was called for jury duty. He was frantic, because he had to be at the track that afternoon to put his money down at the last possible moment. He asked the judge if he could be excused for "personal reasons." The judge inquired what they were, and Jimmie said he would like to explain them privately. They went into the judge's chambers, and Jimmie told him his story. The judge said Jimmie would be excused on one condition—that he bet on the horse for him, too, and he gave Jimmie $60. The horse paid $77 to win.
At one period of his life Jimmie went into the oil business. He drilled 22 straight dry holes before he gave up. "I matched my wits with Mother Earth," he says, "and she got the decision. My handicapping wasn't too good." A more profitable venture was winning $48,000 in chemin de fer at Enghien, a casino outside Paris; it was the first time he had played the game. He also had an interest in a freighter that took Jews to Israel √† la Exodus. And through meeting an Arabian prince who admired his suit (Jimmie later gave him a stunning white number—"a perfect fit," he says) at Maxim's, the Paris restaurant, he got involved in another oil proposition. This took him to Saudi Arabia and would have made him a millionaire if he hadn't innocently included a Jew on his board of directors. The deal fell through.
Jimmie is often mistaken for a Jew or an Italian. Once, when he was staying at a restricted hotel in Miami, the manager told him that a lady had complained he was Jewish. Her reason: he had bet a horse $200 across the board. Jimmie protested that members of many ethnic groups bet horses $200 across the board. The manager explained that he had told the lady the very same thing. She had replied: "But Mr. Snyder won."
On Saturdays during the football season the gamblers—the affluent and the busted valises alike—gather in the smoky interior of the Hollywood Sports Service to watch the televised game on two sets, listen to another on radio, get the results, which come in fitfully over an often faulty Western Union ticker and bawl for free hamburgers. Snyder soothes the malcontents, pleads for last-minute "starkers," or sure bets, and finer language, dissuades customers from betting more than they can afford—really—and tries, vainly it seems, to lead them in cheers and song.
On the Saturday that the Army-Oklahoma game was televised, Jimmie exhorted the fretful crowd: "All right, those for Army—three cheers!" The bettors looked at him like he was some kind of a nut. "Just one cheer for Army, fellas." They remained belligerently silent, apparently Oklahoma bettors to a man. The score of the Michigan State-Northwestern game came in over the ticker. Northwestern was leading 7-0. "Bless their cotton-picking hearts," shouted Jimmie gleefully. "The upset of the week! Hot diggity dog! Gol-ly durn!"
Another score came in, and he was abruptly plunged into gloom. He went behind a partition to his narrow office. The phone rang, and he answered it in a low, ominous voice. Above his head a betting slip was pinned to the wall. It had been stamped by a time clock: "Oct. 8, '60, 4:07 p.m." Jimmie explained that it chronicled the last argument he had with his wife.
"This is a cancer job, I'll tell you," he said moodily. "I'm the last of the odds-makers, and I'm on my way out, too. I think I might go into public relations. You know, the other day my wife overheard my son Jamie arguing with one of his friends. 'I'll bet you...,' he said. He's 5 years old!"