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Living by the Book

Illegal Gambling Operations Handle Millions of Dollars Every Month
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
maduro issue, Winter 93/94

You would never guess that this tenement is a place where millions of dollars are won and lost every year.

From the outside, the decrepit building in one of New York City's worst neighborhoods looks like every other decrepit building on the block. A bum, drunk on cheap booze, lies in a heap at the foot of the stairs. Skinny teenagers with searching, desperate eyes roam the sidewalk like hungry coyotes prowling for a crippled rodent. And small-time crack peddlers, a malt liquor in one hand and a plastic bag of potent pebbles in the other, openly ply their trade on the street corner, oblivious to the police sirens that never seem to stop wailing.

It is not a glamorous spot, this block.

But inside this particular tenement, in a rented apartment nearly as slovenly as the surroundings, where you might otherwise expect a low-rent prostitute to set up shop, business is booming.

Hidden behind a facade of squalor, several Ivy League-educated entrepreneurs answer the phones, receiving frantic calls from around the country. Like stock traders in the throes of a bull market, they bark out strings of numbers: "minus one-twenty," "plus three-and-a-half," "over/under thirty-seven." Simultaneously scribbling orders on preprinted "tickets" and eavesdropping on their colleagues' transactions, each member of this crew of former scholars has the numerical talent and mental nimbleness of a commodities trader swapping Krugerrands for pesetas. They're quick-witted and sharp. In every transaction, they get "the edge," the sometimes minuscule spread that separates winners and losers. Where their clients see only a chance for the fleeting frisson of "action," they see an opportunity for financial well-being.

They're bright, these furtive laborers who work in a squalid room in a slum somewhere along New York City's margins. And they're rich. And unlike most people their age, they got that way without having to master the art of obsequiousness, toadying to a powerful boss whom they neither like nor respect. Though they probably would have made successful bankers or lawyers or arbitrageurs, these young men of refined education and good upbringing shunned the suit-and-tie-game in favor of becoming bookies.

Who has not taken the favorite (and laid the points) on a Monday Night Football game? Who has not bet on a heavyweight-title fight, the World Series, the Super Bowl? Gambling is a national mania, the most popular illegal pastime in the United States.

Most everyone bets. And nearly everybody knows a bookie, or someone who knows one, or someone who knows someone who knows one. They're a part of life, bookies are, like insurance and taxes. You hate to contribute to their cause, but let's face it, you appreciate their service.

Yet how many of us know exactly how a bookie works? We know the thrill of covering the spread on a last-minute field goal and the heartbreak of seeing a three-team parlay bite the dust. But how does the world of sports wagering look from the other side, the book-maker's perspective?

To guys like Bobby,* who, along with his college buddies, runs the dingy New York office, the view couldn't be better. "I work about four, five hours a day; I make a bundle, and there's no heavy lifting." With nearly 200 regular clients--including some of Manhattan's most respected, upstanding professionals--his office books more than $300,000 a week in bets.

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