Easy money. Easy business. "I could train an ape to be a bookmaker," says William (B.J.) Jahoda, a 52-year-old former sports betting chief for the Chicago mob. "You don't have to know anything about sports. Knowing the numbers is enough. Some of my dumbest employees made the most money, and they didn't know what state Clemson was in."
In the 1980s, Jahoda ran a $20 million-per-year sports bookmaking operation for mob don Ernest Rocco Infelice. Jahoda has since testified against Infelice and mob enforcer Robert Salerno, helping the government send both to prison, and is now in the U.S. marshal's witness protection program. Jahoda (below, in 1993) now speaks forcefully against gambling—"It will wreck this generation," he says of the effects wagering is having on college students—but his analysis of campus bookmaking could be a primer for budding undergraduate entrepreneurs.
"All it takes to be a bookmaker is a legal pad, a telephone and a Bic pen," says Jahoda. "You subscribe to a [betting] service; that gives you access to the line in Las Vegas. The idea that you need a bankroll is smoke."
Guaranteed success, says Jahoda, lies in the vigorish, the bookie's 10% edge on a bettor's losing bets. (Example: If a bettor wins a $10 bet, he wins $10; if he loses a $10 bet, he loses $11.) For a gambler to break even with the bookie, he has to win 52.38% of his bets. And that's if he makes only straight plays. If he makes exotic, multiple-game wagers like parlays, which have bigger payoffs but carry 20% vigorish, the percentage leaps. In the long run the bookie will beat all but the most savvy gamblers. And college kids are among the most naive.
Jahoda says the mob is not heavily involved in campus gambling. "I have known of mob-connected bookies who have worked college campuses, but not many," says Jahoda. "I knew a connected guy who worked in Iowa. He had students who sold parlay cards to other students. These kids are easy marks, and the cards are guaranteed 40-percent profit. He made a nice living. But one of the reasons mob bookies hesitate to involve themselves on a college campus is the risk of exposure. It outweighs the potential for profit. It is the kind of exposure that can hurt because it involves kids, and people are going to be very angry.
"The mob's influence in sports gambling is vastly overstated. There is no great structure. It's mostly a series of guys [not affiliated with the mob] grinding out a living."
One such guy is Little Lenny, 61, a neighborhood bookmaker in northern New Jersey whose clients spend much of their time in taverns. Lenny has been making book for 31 years, and 15 years ago he was busted after doing $413,000 of business in eight days. Now he does a quiet $20,000 a week in volume, and his clients include roughly 15 college students.
"That wouldn't have been the case 15 years ago," says Lenny, who counted "very few" undergrads on his book in his heyday. "College kids bet everything. They pick the phone up and they call, especially after they have a couple of drinks."
And as Jahoda points out, naive college bettors are an endless source of profit. "They make a small bet," he says. "They lose. They know they have to double up to get back. They're watching ESPN, and there's something going on every night. They try to catch up. They make a bigger bet and a bigger bet. They can do it seven nights a week. Then they're in a hole, and they need $1,000 or more to get out."
The system always works for the bookmaker. "It's the reason casinos are always adding rooms," says Jahoda. "They never close rooms."