When Jimmy The Greek came to prominence more than 20 years ago, he would give you a line on anything, and he would tell droll tales about growing up a gambler in a wide-open town—"I was 25 before I knew it was illegal to bet." But of himself, of how this character was formed, The Greek was very guarded. He would deflect inquiries by saying things like, "That's the past. That's history. It's over now. What's the use of discussing it?" He was just a businessman whose field was wagering, just a family man. "Don't put a cigar in my mouth." Don't stereotype me. But, of course, everyone did. The Greek. Vegas. "Who's your father got a contract out on now?" the other kids would ask his children at school.
The Greek is, however, a man you should study first through his hands. Jimmy is heavy now, much too overweight, but his hands—and his feet—are not soft, not fleshy. They remain fine, nearly dainty; it is almost as if they belonged to someone else, which, in a way, they did. They were meant for a violin player long ago. But what's the use of discussing that? That's past. There have been tragedies in The Greek's life, odds—yes—against himself and his family that he refused to accept. That made it difficult if you were an oddsmaker. So he let them put a cigar in his mouth; he dressed himself in a gold chain and the royal we and became a generic character.
Now he is 61, in the autumn of his life, and in a sense, autumn 1980 will be the apogee of all his life, too. Pro football has always been The Greek's prime sport and politics has become his favorite game. And this is the fall of a presidential election year, with The Greek a national television celebrity of the first water. This is the brightest moment. Other times were more fun, perhaps, more spectacular; but the trail is done winding. There is more comfort and respectability to The Greek's life now than there has been since the day he gave up the violin. "The reason he acts like such a kid," says his daughter, Stephanie, 21, "is that Daddy never had a childhood himself."
He lives now not in some Vegas condominium, as everyone imagines, but in the Piedmont, tucked deep away in the woods of Carolina, in a perfectly appointed mansion, the epitome of good taste. Everything in every room fits: the paneling, the great windows, the cathedral ceiling, the furniture, the many Steuben glass objects, the paintings. "Look at that," Jimmy says, pointing to a storage area, "$30,000 worth of paintings we can't even put up."
His wife, Joan, decorated the house, but Jimmy was the one who found it; he moved his family there last year. "The first time I looked at it I came out on the deck, and it all seemed so familiar, all these trees, the crick down below," he says. "And then I knew why: it was like the time I won a big bet and bought my father and stepmother a house back in Steubenville. I thought when I came here I was only escaping from the cement jungle, but it was really going back to Steubenville." There, in Ohio, was where he spent the childhood he didn't have.
The new house is huge. And Jimmy gives Joan and his family everything they want. In fact, he often gives them more than they want, perhaps trying somehow to compensate for the one thing he cannot give his eldest son, Jamie. Stephanie shakes her head ruefully. "I don't care about a mink coat or the $6,000, whatever it is, to fix up my room," she says. "Daddy doesn't have to spend money on me like that. I'm not ungrateful. I just get so tired of hearing about money in this house."
Greek, are you happy? "Well, I have to travel too much and be away from home, but I know my family has everything they want. They have everything."
Nowadays, Jimmy gets very mad if anybody refers to him as a gambler. He only gambles recreationally now, although his idea of betting just for fun is somewhat more than penny ante around the family-room gin-rummy table. But no longer does he gamble for a living. "When nobody gambled, we did," he declares. "Now everybody gambles, and we don't."
The we is Jimmy. He talks a great deal in the first-person plural and frequently in the second-person singular. "Sometimes you can be proud that we've done as much as anyone to get rid of the image that gamblers are second-class citizens," he says. "Why, the biggest gambling today is done at the country clubs. That's where our numbers are used the most."
The Greek, Mr. Snyder, wants honor, the esteem that comes with success and age and money. Within his own world, where he is at ease, he is awarded this respect, too. He is in the dining room at Belmont. A gambler at another table calls to him.
Gambler: Jim, Jim, can I buy you a drink?
The Greek: No thanks.
Gambler: Can I buy your friends a drink?
The Greek: No thanks, we're O.K.
Gambler: Please, Jim, let me.
The Greek: No, no, we're looking at the race now.
Second Gambler: Hey, leave The Greek alone.
Gambler: I have to ask him.
Now it is a different place. The Greek is invited to speak before an alumni seminar at Duke University, near his house. He passes up a $4,500 speaking engagement in Green Bay to appear free at Duke. "What can I do in sports anymore?" he asks. "I want to make my mark in politics. Compared to politics, the Super Bowl is a deuce in a pinochle game."
James Barber, a professor of political science at Duke who will chair the seminar, has invited The Greek, and Jimmy knows full well that Barber is one of the foremost presidential scholars in the country. The Greek can tell you as much about James Barber in the first-person singular as he can about the San Diego Chargers in the first-person plural. But The Greek is very nervous. He can stand up with ease before a television camera every Sunday and tell millions of people all about depth and momentum, but to appear on the same bill with James Barber before several hundred Duke graduates.... The Greek is not very nervous; he is extremely nervous. It was not long after he put down the violin that he gave up education altogether and started running the Big Six wheel at Money O'Brien's Academy Pool Room in Steubenville. "Jim still feels embarrassed around people with a great deal of formal education," Joan says.
Greek is so worked up, he wakes up in a rotten mood. He snaps at everybody in the family. It's a plot: Who took his gold chain and hid it? In the breakfast nook he rips into the poor fruit. "I'm crazy," he moans. "I could be in Green Bay, Wisconsin making $4,500." Not only that, he is going to Cleveland the next day to address the Jaycees' national convention for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Another freebie. "I'm giving this whole weekend away," The Greek whines. Joan and Stephanie take turns trying to bolster Jimmy's spirits.
But The Greek groans all the way to the campus. Joan is driving the Cadillac. The Greek hasn't bothered to get a driver's license since he moved to North Carolina. That way, everyone has to cart him around at home, just as they do on the road. The Greek believes in limousines as the last refuge of the gentleman. He snaps at Joan when she makes a wrong turn. The Greek knows the area well because he first came to Durham, to Duke, for the famous rice diet. In fact, he came back and took the rice diet several times. The Greek points out where he used to cheat by taking a shortcut when the dieters were sent out on a walk for exercise. This is one of the reasons why he kept repeating the rice diet. Another: "He eats all day and blames it on us," Joan says. It is the same as everybody misplacing his gold chain.
Joan drives up to the lecture hall. "Oh, no," The Greek cries. "Look at all those brainos."
"Just stress your 10th-grade education. Daddy," Stephanie says. "They'll love you."
"I could be making $4,500 in Green Bay, Wisconsin," The Greek says, squeezing out of the Cadillac.
Inside, he meets with Barber and takes his seat, eyeing all the graduates. Now it is his turn to speak. He stands, and right away makes a self-deprecating joke about "being a little Greek boy from Steubenville, Ohio with a 10th-grade education." The crowd laughs with him. Stephanie smiles. The Greek has them. So he tells them how much his house cost. Stephanie frowns. Then he settles in and starts talking politics—about betting on Harry Truman, about telling Governor Jimmy Carter that he was a 100-to-l shot, about the upcoming election. He makes Reagan a big favorite. He says Reagan would like to pick Laxalt as his Vice-President but will probably settle on Bush. This is six weeks before the convention; it is as if The Greek has a crystal ball.
The brainos listen attentively. The Greek is knowledgeable and entertaining, and in the question period that follows he gets most of the questions. Professor Barber concludes with a summary and thanks the panelists. Afterward, The Greek is like a little boy. "Did you hear?" he says. "Barber mentioned my name three times. Three times! He really meant what he said. Did you see the way he shook my hand?"
The Greek was in a terrific humor the rest of the day. The wire services picked up his odds on the election. "Did you ever see anybody make so many front pages without dying?" The Greek asked. It was the Snyders' 28th anniversary, and before dinner the family had caviar and Dom Perignon. Jimmy said the caviar cost $16 an ounce.
Then for a moment he grew pensive. Something was on his mind. "You know," he said, "a few months ago Joan read that Professor Barber was giving a speech. I went over to Duke to hear it, and afterward I went up to him and said we'd like to audit his course." The Greek shook his head; this had been on his mind. "He thought we were just saying that. He didn't think we were serious." That had hurt him.
The Greek is serious. His mother wanted him to be a Greek Orthodox priest. She knew her only son was very smart; he was always a quick study. Once Jimmy had lunch with Arnold Palmer and they were talking about the wind, the grass, the most arcane elements of the sport. "Come on," Palmer said to Jimmy. "Let's play nine."
"Are you kidding?" The Greek said. "I've never hit a golf ball in my life." Palmer refused to believe Jimmy.
When Jimmy's mother realized that the priesthood was out of the question, she put him into violin lessons and, hedging her bet, also began pointing the boy toward law. "I'm sure I would have been a great attorney," The Greek says. Right up until the day he quit school to go into the gambling business, he was at the top of his class.
His father ran a grocery store. One day when Jimmy Snyder—Dimitrios George Synodinos—was nine, he started walking the five blocks home from the market with his mother, his two little sisters and his aunt, who was staying with them because she had recently left her husband, the war hero. They had walked about a block and a half when Jimmy said, "Mom, I feel like playing some more back at the market." At first, like any mother, she said no, it was almost dinnertime, but then she shrugged and said he could go back.
"It's 1,000-to-l any mother lets the kid go back, right?" The Greek says.
He was playing ball on the side wall of the shop when Brooksie, the neighborhood cop, came in and spoke quietly to his father. "Come on," he said to his son, and they walked over to the police station in silence. Jimmy saw his mother's red pocketbook lying on the desk there. "She's dead, isn't she?" the boy said.
The aunt's estranged husband had gone berserk and shot her and Jimmy's mother with a Luger he had saved from the war. Then he shot and killed himself. He would have shot anybody who happened to be with his wife, even a nine-year-old. "I'd've been dead if my mother hadn't let me go back to the store," The Greek says.
So much for the violin. "I'll tell you one thing," Jimmy says. "If my mother hadn't been shot that day, there never would have been a Jimmy The Greek. Mother would have made me stay in school, and after that everything would've been different. I probably would've become an attorney." He stops and looks away, then turns back. "But, whatever, I would've been a success. I wouldn't have become Jimmy The Greek, but I would've been a success."
Such is the stature of the Oddsmaker to the Nation that if you follow him around, you will discover what is on America's mind merely from what he is asked. "Jimmy, what d'ya think about...?" "Who do you like in...?" "Hey, what's the price on...?" The Greek doesn't have to take a poll; he is his own walking sample precinct.
Besides, odds are like anything else today; they need a personality to certify them. To state, for example, that the odds on Sue Ellen shooting J.R. are 5-to-2 is a so-what. To state that Jimmy The Greek says they are 5-to-2 is a validation: O.K., I'll betcha.
Odds. Times have really changed, says The Greek. When he first started as a gambler in the 1930s, very few Americans understood how odds worked. The Greek likes to think he educated America in odds. He also claims he was more or less the co-inventor of the point spread and to have been primarily responsible for its popularity. He dreamed up the teaser and the over-and-under one slow day in the 1950s shortly after he had decided to settle in Vegas—abhorring a vacuum as he did. Until The Greek moved to Nevada there hadn't been a single reliable sports book in the land since Senator Kefauver closed down the old "Minneapolis line."
But gambling in Nevada was legal and had been since 1931. In the early days most of the casinos were stocked with Steubenville boys who knew how to deal for the house, off the bottom. Otherwise, essentially the only lawful gambling in the U.S. was horse-race pari-mutuels in a handful of states. Hidden away in every large community, though, were plush roadhouses where the cops were paid off and the swells came out from town to play games of chance.
After the war, however, the roadhouses began to go the way of minor league baseball, and for many of the same demographic reasons. Soon, with jets, the high rollers could whip off to the Bahamas or Vegas. "People forget," Jimmy points out, "but right into the mid-'50s Vegas was a sleepy little town full of cheaters." Because horse racing was already a fixture—legalized and taxed—it kept on growing, but artificially, as the horse's role declined in our culture. Meanwhile, television was making everybody an instant expert in other sports.
Horses (and, in a few states, dogs) remain legal, but it might as well be musk-rats or mice running around. It's all just a lottery, the old roadhouse wheel. "Which two do you like?" The Greek asks in a helpless whine before an exacta race at Belmont. His friend, a wise old horseplayer, replies, shaking his head, "Two? Are you kidding, Jim? I got enough trouble finding one."
The Greek slams the Daily Racing Form down. "Isn't that the truth? I hate these exactas. It ain't horse racing. Why do they put 'em in here? I hate 'em."
"You don't have to play 'em." says the horseplayer. "It ain't no law."
"If they put 'cm in here, how can I help it?" The Greek wails. "They know that. But what am I gonna do? This ain't gambling for me. This is my amusement. Some guys drink whiskey, some guys chase broads. I just wanna go to the racetrack."
Later, The Greek wheels the 4-6 with everything in the ninth race and comes up a $1,400 winner. Contrariwise, as racing has turned into a policy game, pie-in-the-sky stuff, the real handicapping has inclined toward people sports. This, of course, is where The Greek has specialized all his professional life, since he first opened an office next to a stockbrokerage ("the other gamblers in town") and on the frosted glass had printed: B & F COMMISSIONER. The initials, mischievously, stood for baseball and football.
Gamblers like Jimmy who played sports heavily in those days hardly preyed on the public. In a sense they were members of an exclusive professional society; some speculators played soybean futures, some football games. There were few secrets. Baseball was the only genuine national sport, and as a kid The Greek got just enough of an edge in football and basketball by paying railroad porters to drop off out-of-town newspapers in Steubenville when the sleepers paused there. Then he began to specialize in one college conference, the SEC. and later, the pros. "I was more of a line-buster than a line-maker in those days." he says, but while still in his teens The Greek was intermittently putting out a sports line.
Jimmy personally makes a line on all NFL games, while his staff in Las Vegas puts out odds on baseball and spreads on basketball and college football. Making a line for the great unwashed public-is an altogether different proposition from making a bet. The oddsmaker is merely attempting to assess the public taste, no less, say, than a department-store buyer who tries to figure out whether to purchase dresses or jeans. The buyer may prefer frilly gowns for herself even though she orders jeans for the store. In the Super Bowl last year The Greek picked the Rams to win, but his line had the Steelers by 10. It was a good line, too; it barely moved. The final score is immaterial to the issue. The Greek made a correct line in '68 when he had the Colts 17 over the Jets in that Super Bowl, because the public bet the spread as he tabbed it.
On his own authority. The Greek can be as fallible as the next fellow. In fact, envious critics in Vegas will tell you that as a gambler The Greek is one great P.R. man. The Rams—his pick—not only did not win the Super Bowl, but they also didn't even cover the spread. The Greek declared that it was "impossible" for Cassius Clay to last six rounds with Sonny Liston. He predicted that Vice-President Richard Nixon would defeat young Senator John F. Kennedy to become President of the United States.
Notwithstanding that blunder. The Greek has probably done better at politics than sports. And, after all, setting a line on a major sports event is equivalent to rating an election, because in either case the public is the determining factor. The man who can tell how popular the Steelers' chances are across the land—which is what a line does—is perfectly prepared to tell how popular Ronald Reagan is. National sports and national politics are both heavily influenced by TV. The difference is that in sports, the electorate votes with a bet, and then the game is played by both teams to determine who wins. In politics, the electorate bets four years with a vote, and that concludes the game—except that then the winner must go out and play the four years against himself.
The Greek won his first large, famous bet on the 1940 election, when he caught the best possible odds on Roosevelt right after "the guy with the eyebrows"—that would be the labor leader John L. Lewis—declared for Willkie. "After that, all of a sudden The Greek's name became famous to gamblers the country over," Jimmy says. Then in 1948, after his sister pleaded with him not to grow a mustache, advising Jimmy that women didn't care for them, he polled 1.900 women throughout Ohio and decided that the mustachioed Dewey, listed as a 1-to-17 favorite, was actually no better than even money. Truman was the overlay of the century; The Greek took the sleeper to New York and wiped out so many smarty-pants in Gotham that Walter Winchell was moved to salute the kid from Steubenville coast to coast. By then, not yet 30, The Greek was a millionaire from betting. For a time.
Yet for all that gambling has done for him. The Greek is suspicious of its universal charm, especially of those entrepreneurs and politicians who tout it as a bounteous cure-all. Widespread legalized gambling is a scourge upon the land, he declares. "Gambling should be made difficult for the average man. It should be something he budgets to do once or twice a year. Vegas was best when it was hardest to reach," he says.
"You see, it isn't the two or three percent, the house edge, that beats you. Otherwise, people would only lose two or three percent, and so what? It's the psychology. A guy goes to a casino. He wins $500, he's ecstatic. He goes home, buys his wife a present, springs for a night out. Fine. Now he goes back. This time he loses $500. O.K., altogether he's even. But does he quit $500 down the way he did $500 up? No. He takes another $500 out of the bank. And now he's pressing, so he blows that and borrows $500. Now he's out $1,500, and this is a guy who only makes 20 to 25 grand a year. He goes home, gets into his wife's checking account.
"This is what happens when gambling is too accessible. Everybody gets hurt but the casino. The guy can't buy the new summer suit or the new shoes for his wife. He lets the tune-up go. The stores are hurt, the restaurant, the gas station. This is the kind of stuff you'll start to see soon at Atlantic City.
"And if they legalized sports betting, the little guy would be just as dead. We'd find a way to beat you. Right now, if we—me, anybody—tried to bet more than $50,000 on any game, we'd have a hard time. And when you only got $50 riding, you can't pay enough to fix a game. Put a pencil to it. But with legalized gambling, there'd be so much money bet you could get down a million or more on one game. So now it's worth it to pay for a fix, isn't it? And that's easy. You don't need the quarterback. Just gimme the center. Gimme the referee. All I'd need is one offside at the right time. You don't even need to get a guy to throw it for you. Suppose we just pay a big star $50,000 to stay home with the flu? Nobody ever thought of that before, did they?"
Obviously, The Greek is talking against his own best interests here. The more gambling, the better, surely, he would do. Already his newspaper column is in more than 200 papers with nearly 30 million readers daily at this time of year, when interest peaks, and he makes "in the five figures" for each and every Sunday he is on CBS, plus picking up "the low six figures" annually in pin money—by making speeches and commercials. He is selective with the many endorsements offered him and regularly turns down those—shady and otherwise—requesting his name as a front for some gambling emporium.
There remains, you see, a deep streak of the middle-class Midwest conscience in The Greek, and rather like the Gulf Stream, it plows through the choppier waters about it, warming everything in the vicinity. Only once did The Greek ever do anything foolishly impetuous, as gamblers—with cigars and pinky rings—are supposed to do by nature: that is, one day in Florida in 1942, when he was 23. he married a pretty girl named Sunny, whom he had just met.
This brief union produced a daughter. Victoria, now 34 and living in Las Vegas, and when the marriage failed, it was The Greek who took the baby girl. It was another decade before he married again. This was also love at first sight, but this was more like it. This was Joan.
She was everything The Greek envisioned in a wife, and she remains a lovely, quiet, almost wispy woman, very reminiscent of Billie Burke. Joan talks barely above a whisper. "We don't get excited around here," she says. The Greek spotted her on an elevator. He told his friend Herman Hickman, the Yale football coach, "I just saw the girl I'm going to marry." The Greek was chasing fashion models and show girls, getting set to bet 50 grand on the Orange Bowl; Joan was still a sheltered child, attending a little Catholic college in Indiana. But she was The Greek's ideal for home and marriage. And he was dead right, too, even if it didn't work out quite the way it had in his dreams. When Jamie and the others were so sick, Joan was a tower; she devoted herself completely to the family she had made with the man who remains simply "Jim Snyder" to her.
This fellow grows more conservative with age ("What did I tell you, Anthony?" he tells his son. "Wear a solid tie"), and despite some technical disclaimers, he has the bent of a dyed-in-the-wool Republican. The Greek is generous, a soft touch, an incurable sentimentalist and hopelessly nostalgic. "All the best guys are dead and gone," he says wistfully. "The reason I'm still around is just because I started so early. Those old days were so beautiful. So beautiful!"
The Greek says he has never kept company with other professional gamblers, and at his country-club dance he shares a table with dentists. Dentists! With Joan he dances a divine fox trot, and on the road he flirts with young waitresses and stewardesses as harmlessly as any smalltown Presbyterian off to a Rotary regional. "Oh, why are all the pretty girls married?" Jimmy coos. He is really, very much the loner but often frightened at the thought of dinner alone. He has never been much of a drinker, preferring sissy things like Harvey's Bristol Cream. When he first signed with CBS, Stephanie said, "Oh, oh, there it goes. Daddy. Now the whole world is going to find out how square you really are."
Stephanie also says, "His ego is really getting to him now." The dark side of The Greek is an explosive Mediterranean temper, and this has been fueled by his vanity. He can be picayune, a difficult man to work for, and he snaps and barks when the smallest things don't go right. Of course, this is the way of any high-stakes man. Old-money people seldom blow up at small things. If you have money all your life, small things can remain forever small. But for a man like The Greek, the ups and downs have been so steep and jagged that life loses its everyday proportion.
To be sure, money is not the only gyroscope of life, but in a world where money is money, the gambler's bearings are sometimes obscured. Jimmy often talks about "gambling money" and "money" as if Uncle Sam printed two different sets of currency. One afternoon, for example, The Greek was past-posted out of $137,000 in gambling money by some pals, and he recalls this practical joke, chuckling, as if they had short-sheeted his bed. He has bet as much as a quarter of a million dollars in gambling money on one football game—and at a time when a dollar was a dollar. Even now, 32 years later, when The Greek tells the Truman-Dewey story in public, he says he made $170,000. In fact, it was a great deal more, but he has discovered that if he tells the truth, people refuse to believe him. The reason he talks about ordinary money all the time is not to show off about it but—more the other way round—to give credence to this money, which is not gambling money.
The Greek came back from many losses, but they were all just gambling money. The only defeat he overcame that matters to him is the one back in the '60s when it was money he lost, to the doctors and lawyers.
Perhaps the loveliest and most expensive of all the glass art objects in the Snyder house is a crystal sculpture of a Madonna and Child that Jimmy picked out in Florida. It has an honored place in the house, but, nevertheless, he got to examining it critically one day. "Stephie," he said, "we ought to put some velvet behind it and put a light on it."
"Oh, Daddy," Stephanie cried.
"But, honey, it's worth $6,000."
"Oh, Daddy, that's so tacky."
The Greek shook his head at her. They didn't understand each other at all. Stephanie was talking taste; he was talking substance.
There was even this one time when gambling money bought happiness. "There was an old gambler named Billy Griffin," The Greek begins. "Dead now. Billy was a great Cardinals fan, and they were gonna win the pennant, and I started to set him up because I wanted the Yankees in the Series. I knew Billy wanted the Cards so much he wouldn't be at his best. And I was right. I got my price on the Yanks. And Ruffing wins the first game for me. Now the odds shift heavy for the Yanks. All I had to do was take some of the Cards, and I can't lose. I got it middled. Billy was always cautioning me about that. 'You've got a long way to go, son,' he'd say. 'Learn to pinch your bet.' But I was young then. I was going all the way with the Yanks. And what do the Cards do? They sweep the next four straight. I lose $40,000. What's that now—125,150, something like that? And I walk out of my office, the B & F, and my head is down. But I hear something and I look up, and here comes this guy down the street, pulling himself along on one of those little carts with a pulley. He doesn't have any legs.
"And I took one look at that, and I said, 'I'm in trouble?'
"I ran home to Sunny, and she said, 'What are you smiling about?' And I said, 'Come on, we're going out to a movie,' and we went to see Abbott and Costello, and I laughed like crazy, and I thought it had been a wonderful day."
If The Greek is getting carried away by himself and all the attention he receives, at least he is brought back to an even keel at home. The Snyder household has always been Joan's place, but now that Jimmy's office is at home—his office is the closest telephone—it is Stephanie who has emerged as the majordomo. Although only 21, she is mature well beyond her age and plays a significant role in supervising the corporate and ceremonial Jimmy The Greek. Among other things, Stephanie has outstanding ears; she is so much in charge that she over-hears telephone conversations in other rooms and will interrupt from afar, screaming out corrections: "No, no. Mother, the trapezius muscle." "No, Daddy, not Robert Redford. You're in the movie with Burt Reynolds."
But there is still some kid in Stephanie, and she and her sidekick, Anthony, 16, constantly tease Daddy, prick his balloon.
Joan drives the Caddy into the garage. There are large blowups there of major articles done on The Greek. "Stephie, when are we finally gonna get these articles framed?" he asks.
"Daddy, I just haven't had time."
The Greek starts, "You'd think—"
Stephanie interrupts, "I know. 'How many children have a father—' "
Anthony chimes in, and they finish in singsong unison, " '—who made the front page of The Wall Street Journal?' "
The Greek gets out of the car, glancing back at them helplessly with a Rodney Dangerfield aspect. He smiles. Whatever happens, they have everything.
They do. But Jamie, the oldest boy, 23, has cystic fibrosis; Florence,, the oldest girl, is dead of it; and so is Tina, the baby. How many men bury their mother as a child, and their babies as a father? What are the odds on that?
"After Tina, I was mad at God for three years," Jimmy says. Death has played with him; twice he canceled out on planes at the last minute, and then they crashed, all aboard killed. What are the odds on that?
The irony is that cystic fibrosis is a disease of simple, unyielding genetic numbers: one out of every 20 Caucasians carries the genes; when two carriers marry, there is then a 25% chance that a child of theirs will be born with the disease. Thus, one of every 1,600 white children born has cystic fibrosis. But the odds-maker didn't want to accept this. Frustrated, desolate at the deaths of two daughters, at the disease of his namesake, and all the attendant misery, The Greek would thrash about in despair, get mad at Joan and cry out about her "sick genes." It was a horror, the family man searching for a family.
Few diseases are more disruptive than cystic fibrosis. The patient requires constant attention, an hour or more a day of strenuous physical therapy. The children do not live; they are kept alive. The disease primarily attacks the respiratory system; also the digestive and, in males, the reproductive organs, all of life itself. Treatment can be incredibly expensive. Jamie's expenses for a year of treatment were $35,000, and his Catch-22 reward for making 23, covering the spread, was that he became uninsurable. So voracious and exhausting is the disease that it often destroys the families of patients. The incidences of divorce, desertion, wife-beating and alcoholism are all higher among cystic fibrosis families. The healthy children are torn with guilt that they escaped the curse, and parents—like The Greek—become distraught that they "gave" the disease to their own children.
The '60s was when it all unraveled for the Snyder family. Florence was already dead, and Jamie had been diagnosed. Tina wasn't born yet. It was at this time that Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, went after the syndicate, after Vegas. The Greek was a name, a symbol. The Greek was vulnerable, too. Pegging him was like catching a restaurant on one of 250 possible fire-department violations. They indicted The Greek for passing casual betting information over the phone, interstate—essentially the same kind of information he dispenses every Sunday on TV. The affair destroyed him. He finally pleaded nolo contendere, taking probation and a fine. But he was broke, in debt, out of money, a felon, and any chance he had for a pardon required that he quit gambling.
Almost every nickel of what he could hustle went to pay for Jamie's medication. The Greek had to borrow money so that his family could eat. It was two years or more before anybody got new clothes. Stephanie remembers one time, an all-day outing, when she returned in the evening in the same dress. Another girl said. "Hey, you got the same dress on." She didn't tell her friend that it was the only dress she owned. This is why The Greek buys her a mink coat now. even if she doesn't want it.
But the Snyders survived. "I'd never been poor," Joan says, "but I was never really worried because I knew Jim could put his mind to it and find ways to make money. I knew, with Jim. I'd have money again. He's a fighter."
"I hustled, I played a little cards, I figured out the newspaper column," The Greek says. And that, as it turned out, was the key. He had never written before in his life, but he started turning out a column for the Las Vegas Sun. It paid next to nothing, but it began to establish him as a figure, the Mister Odds he has become. No longer was he a gambler; now he was a service.
But then, just as he began to crawl out of debt and from out of the glare of being a felon, little Tina was born. It was the day after Christmas 1965, and her tiny body was so savaged by the disease that she had to spend seven hours of her first day of life being operated on. But she survived and came home to spend two and a half years in the shadow of death. Worse, in a way, she grew just well enough for them all to know how it might have been. Laughing, struggling. Tina would follow her older brother around—"Antsy," she called Anthony—dragging her doll after him. Stephanie still keeps that in her room.
But Tina's lungs were too scarred, and when, mercifully, she was finally taken from her pain. The Greek wrote his whole column in the Sun about her. He made her an All-American "in the game of fighting to live," and he carried that metaphor through, concluding, "Her mother rushed her to the hospital and called all her coaches. For nine days she battled...but the cystic condition was too much....
"Now the Commissioner from up above was watching and decided to draft this gallant little player. With the experience she had, He thought, she would make a great coach for his 'Little Angels.' The draft went through Saturday afternoon, and with the help of Father Baldus, she was sent on her journey up to the 'Little Angel League' Monday noon. The game was over—who was the winner?
"Only those who had the opportunity to watch this Little All-American perform. True, she had her bad days on the field, but the happiness and joys that she gave on her good days far overcame the bad ones. These, we, her rooting section, will never forget—and for these days that will never be forgotten, we are very thankful and grateful to the Commissioner above."
It has been 12 years now since Jimmy lost his second baby. "I still haven't gotten over it." The Greek says. "If only He could have taken me instead."
Stephanie was old enough to understand, and she had gone through some of the same agonies that her father did when he was growing up. Jamie, of course, has the disease: 1,600-to-l. He is quiet, like his mother, with his father's analytical mind: a chess player, mathematician, astronomer. He has gone back to Las Vegas. Finally, there is the son left at home, Anthony, and between him and The Greek there is a special tension. The boy is tall and strong and handsome, an athlete, looking very much like the father did when he was his age, the young gambler already.
One day, in a limousine. The Greek suddenly said, "I'm sorry, I love him, but I've never been that close to Jamie. Forgive me, I'll do anything for him, anything, but I never could. You know, Joan was always taking care of him. Maybe that's why, vicariously, I live so much in Anthony's shoes."
He stared out the tinted window. The Greek is safe now himself. In late 1974 he received a presidential pardon. Now he is a national TV star, national columnist, national celebrity. "Hey, it's The Greek!" "Hey Jimmy, who do you make—?" "Greek, who's the favorite in—?" Jimmy The Greek, the former Jim Snyder, late of Steubenville, Vegas' own.
Most people who identify themselves as family men hold a pat hand in that regard. They have 2.3 children, 1.0 of whom plays the violin, and a lovable dog, and they have a nine-to-five job with major medical and a parking place. It's odds-on to make it as a family man this way. Stephanie says her father still acts like a kid because he never had a childhood himself. Possibly, but more likely, it seems, he acts like a kid because, for one reason or another, his children never had real childhoods. If only you could capture childhood, put velvet behind it and a bright light on it.
Out of the house it is easy for The Greek. Out of the house, as Joan trusted, even in the worst of times The Greek would know how to find an edge. Long ago he had first left home, left the grocery, when his father wouldn't take his advice about how much meat to order. But soon thereafter, Jimmy's father needed one of those newfangled Birds-Eye freezers. The son came up with the cash for it. It was gambling money. There was a tear in the old man's eye as he took the bills. Jimmy has never forgotten that. Ever after, you can be sure, The Greek has only wanted to be a father, crying for happiness.
THE FALL LINE
Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter
John Anderson's presidential chances
George Brett hitting .400
Passage of the ERA
Larry Holmes vs. Muhammad Ali
The Dow Jones hitting 1,000 in '80
5-2 if Reagan
Pitt finishing No. 1 in college football
The Yankees vs. the Orioles in AL East
Jack Kemp ever becoming President
Ted Kennedy becoming President in '84
The U.S. retaining the America's Cup
Favorite in the NFC East
Favorite in the NFC Central
Favorite in the NFC West
Favorite in the AFC East
Favorite in the AFC Central
Favorite in the AFC West
San Diego 2½-1
Pittsburgh repeating in the Super Bowl
Oakland switching permanently to L.A.
—Issued Aug. 31, 1980.