Jerry the Hat, 43, has been wearing his good-luck hat for eight years. It is an incredibly rumpled fishing hat with feathers in it and it is filthy. It is no ordinary hat because it exists under rigid rules. It is worn only until its daily 5 p.m. curfew. It is never worn inside Jerry's house, and it never travels across state lines.
Jerry lives in Las Vegas in a house that is bizarre. No, that's not strong enough: Jerry lives in Las Vegas in a house that is a model of wretched excess. On a tour of the place he punches a plastic Bozo the Clown that sits in a corner of the family room. In his office there is an orange basketball hanging from the ceiling; it was stolen from a banquet at a Final Four tournament. Hey, what's that buzzing? Oh, it's Donald Duck in a helicopter hanging from a light fixture. Please excuse Jerry, he has picked up his telephone—it is a Mickey Mouse telephone. He also has a talking clock and a model train that keeps jumping the tracks. And did we mention the huge stuffed animals everywhere?
This, in a nutshell, is Jerry the Hat—except for one bit of information as yet undivulged: his profession. You may find the idea too crazy to believe, but Jerry the Hat has a job that makes him an essential force in the lives of millions of Americans. Jerry the Hat, you see, is one of the handful of operatives who set the Las Vegas betting line on football, basketball and baseball games. It is true. The man with Donald Duck on his ceiling and the Mickey Mouse phone plays a key role in creating the point spreads on as many as 250 games a week for bettors from coast to coast.
Where did you think the Gospel according to Las Vegas comes from?...Miami 2½ over the Jets, Michigan 3 over Ohio State, Celtics 5 over the Knicks.... It comes from the likes of Jerry the Hat, a mere mortal known to the IRS as Jerry Taffel and to his friends as a somewhat flaky fellow who arrived in Vegas in 1974 from Minnesota, driving an old Chevy with expired plates and carrying $84 in his pocket.
It wasn't always this way. Time was, between 1967 and 1980, when The Line on all sports contests was set by one man, Bob Martin. He was truly the nation's odds-maker. Any sportswriter who wanted to know by how much Notre Dame was favored over Southern Cal called Bob Martin, and what he got was fact—it was The Line, and no one disputed it. Then Martin was convicted of transmitting wagering information across state lines by telephone and spent 13 months in prison. He has been back in Vegas for two years now, but at 67 he is pretty much retired. "I just have always known what was the right number," says Martin. "The right number fits like a glove."
Now that Martin is no longer doing it, the lead in setting The Line has been taken by the sports book at the Stardust Hotel, which did $143 million worth of sports bets in 1984. "There's just nobody as smart as Bob Martin around," says Scott Schettler, who runs the Stardust's sports betting operation. "If there was, he'd come to the top. No one has, so we're king. Everybody waits for our numbers at 8 a.m. every day."
Jerry the Hat has become a major influence on sports gambling in the U.S. because he is one of four men Schettler primarily relies on for establishing The Line at the Stardust. Another is Michael (Roxy) Roxborough, 34, the coat-and-tie antithesis of Jerry the Hat, an American University dropout who got hooked on the horses and blackjack and moved to Nevada in '73 because he devoutly believed that "it was my God-given right to be in Las Vegas." Jerry and Roxy are paid by Schettler for their expertise—$1,000 a month to the Hat, $1,400 a month to Roxy. The other two major Stardust consultants are one Bobby (The Owl) Beghtel, 51, a Los Angeles native who was the mascot for the basketball team at L.A. City College before he dropped out and went to Vegas 25 years ago, and Jeff Garrett, 28, a former Kansas City restaurant man who migrated to Vegas in 1980. Schettler listens carefully to, but does not pay, the Owl or Garrett. When there is disagreement in this learned quartet, Schettler, 43, a native of Grove City, Pa. who dropped out of the 11th grade when, shall we say, school lost interest in him, becomes the ultimate arbiter and picks a composite number.
Says Roxy, "One good person's opinion is good, but two good persons' opinions are better." Schettler is understandably skittish about comparing the merits of his experts, but he concedes, "You put Jerry in a room with the others for 10 minutes, and he'll have all their money." Hanging in the Hat's office, as if by way of confirming Schettler's words, are rows and rows of plastic-encased silver dollars, each one commemorating a big day. "I am not a gambler," Jerry says loftily. "I am an investor."
The Line does not really reflect deep analysis of which team will win a game—although Vegas goes out of its way to promote that myth. True comparative team strengths have surprisingly little to do with point spreads. What has everything to do with The Line is which team the public wants to bet on.
During the football season last fall the Hat spoke about this from behind a billow of pipe smoke at his kitchen table. "I favor Iowa, but the public will favor Michigan." He recommended that the Stardust start Michigan off as a 1½-point favorite. Why? Because all the Stardust wants—and all your corner bookie wants—is to have an equal amount of money on each side of any given betting proposition. If a team is a big favorite, the Stardust may start it off with an even bigger point spread than is warranted to ensure that money is bet on the underdog as well as on the favorite.