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The Secret Life Of A Bookie

Not All the Big Bets Are on Wall Street
Marvin R. Shanken
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

In big cities, bookmakers are almost as common as barbers. Their "offices" range from the top floors of sleek office buildings to kitchen tables or even telephone booths. The best of the bookies build clientele strictly through personal "referrals," without the benefit of advertising, marketing or promotion.

Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, recently sat down with a highly regarded bookie to learn the inside story about bookmaking. We have chosen the name "Pete" to protect his true identity. Pete has been handling sports wagers for 25 years.

CA: Pete, I don't recall in my college--or in any other school I went to, for that matter--that there was a course offered in bookmaking. How did you get into this specialized occupation, and how do other people get into this field?

Pete: Years ago, people like myself were more or less grandfathered in. Today, you have some college kids doing it because they started in the dormitory or something. You see, gaming and bookmaking is more or less about odds; it's not about winning or losing, it's about the right price; that's all it is.

CA: What does it mean, "grandfathered in"?

Pete: Either you come from a family background in the business, or you meet somebody when you are very young and they sort of take you under their wing, train you, teach you. It's like any other business; it's a service business.

CA: How long have you been a bookie?

Pete: Twenty-five years.

CA: When you started out, was there one sport in particular that was more popular than others with gamblers? Has it changed in recent years?

Pete: Absolutely. It used to be a horse business. That was where the big business was: two dollars, four dollars, four-dollar reverses, back to back--those kinds of bets were the backbone of the business. I only caught the tail end of it, but horse racing was a big book-making sport. Later on, as professional teams got stronger and stronger and the line-making operations got stronger, professional sports [betting] became very popular. People like to sit down and watch games on TV that they've bet on.

CA: Today, which sport attracts the largest number of people that gamble or the largest amount of money that's wagered? Is it basketball? Is it pro football, college ball, boxing? Where is the action today?

Pete: Without a doubt, football.

CA: College or professional?

Pete: Both.

CA: The college football season is what, a four-month period, and the same thing more or less with the National Football League. Does that mean you have a busy season and the rest of the year is vacation?

Pete: Football is by far the busiest season with the most volume. After football tails off slightly, you pick up basketball, which has peaks during March Madness in college, and then you come into the [National Basketball Association] playoffs. When you get to baseball, it slows down tremendously.

CA: Do your customers bet all year round, or are there many who are just football bettors, or just basketball bettors, or just boxing bettors?

Pete: I have customers that play all year long. They play anything. They just like to gamble. But it does tail off. Football and basketball make up about 70 percent of the business.

CA: Between college and NFL football, which one represents more dollar volume?

Pete: I would say about 10 to 15 percent more on the pros.

CA: What about special events such as the Super Bowl, or the big college bowl games, or a big boxing match, like Tyson versus Holyfield?

Pete: There's little betting done on boxing today. First of all, the lines are just so inaccurate. They start out so high, 20- or 18-to-1. People like me don't like to put up that kind of money, and believe it or not, there is a bad stigma to boxing. People don't trust the sport now. So, there's very little wagering.

CA: Give us an example. For instance, the Holyfield-Tyson fight. What was that like?

Pete: It opened 25-to-1 and went to 6-to-1. Somebody made some money.

CA: OK. But Trump goes on the news saying that he bet a million bucks and made 20.

Pete: Not true.

CA: Not true? But is there any way of...

Pete: Absolutely. If any substantial wager is made in the country, we know about it. I don't care where the wager is made.

CA: You know this because of your contacts in each of the casinos, and so forth?

Pete: Because the fluctuation in money is the dictator for the lines. You see the money. Everybody in the business has become very close, let's call it a camaraderie, even though it's competitive. Everybody finds out.

CA: Where do you get your lines?

Pete: Well, they usually come out of Las Vegas. But they come out of the Dominican Republic, too. Today, everybody has about the same prices.

CA: OK. But do you have one specific source for your line? Newspapers, for instance, will say their line is Sheridan or some name.

Pete: We never use the newspaper. Never. We use reputable linemakers, people whose business it is to make lines. Does the newspaper take a bet?

CA: What happens if you're coming up on the Super Bowl and you check four primary sources and there's a disparity in the lines? What if one line is minus six and the other is minus nine?


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