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Bet, book and handle
Larry Merchant
September 03, 1973
'Life,' wrote Damon Runyon, 'is 6-5 against.' At least in that game there's no vigorish—the 11-to-10 odds a bookie gets on each football bet, which constitutes his edge. As if he needed it. Twelve to 15 million Americans bet pro football on any given Sunday (or Monday), and unless they're wagering against each other, sooner or later almost all of them lose. In the 1972 season the author set out to see if he could buck the odds, have fun and find true love. 'The National Football Lottery,' to be published this month by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, describes his quest. The following excerpts deal with some of the characters he met from New York to Las Vegas (left). P.S. He won $17,309
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September 03, 1973

Bet, Book And Handle

'Life,' wrote Damon Runyon, 'is 6-5 against.' At least in that game there's no vigorish—the 11-to-10 odds a bookie gets on each football bet, which constitutes his edge. As if he needed it. Twelve to 15 million Americans bet pro football on any given Sunday (or Monday), and unless they're wagering against each other, sooner or later almost all of them lose. In the 1972 season the author set out to see if he could buck the odds, have fun and find true love. 'The National Football Lottery,' to be published this month by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, describes his quest. The following excerpts deal with some of the characters he met from New York to Las Vegas (left). P.S. He won $17,309

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The Mover introduced me to the world of "betting groups" and "point scalping." And to the role of Las Vegas in pro football betting.

There are betting outfits or groups around the country who pool their resources and bet large sums, up to $25,000 a game in a few cases (but, The Mover emphasized, nowhere near the bets of $50,000 and up that were fairly common 15 and more years ago). The groups usually are assembled by a handicapper who works on a percentage or for a salary or both. The handicapper may be an expert in a particular sport rather than in all of them. He is in effect a private tout. He has contacts in the inside-information network of handicappers. The biggest groups have men working for them in Las Vegas, placing bets for them, reporting on changes in the line.

(A lawyer I know in the South recently told me that a client of his, a mother of two children, was a "bag woman" for a betting group. He said she flew regularly to Las Vegas to pick up and deliver money.)

The Mover said the line used to originate in Minneapolis, that the biggest layoff office in the country was in Cincinnati, that there were major offices in Miami, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles. The laws banning interstate traffic in gambling information have wiped out most of the major offices. As a result Las Vegas has become the center, the New York Stock Exchange, for what remains of interstate betting. The official line now originates in Las Vegas.

The Mover said he does not deal interstate as much as he once did, but he still "moves money" for groups in the Midwest, upstate New York and New England. (All interstate calls are initiated on public telephones; most of his are incoming.) He said that in many cities it is difficult to get a big bet down, especially as game time approaches, so groups funnel money through him to big offices in New York. When there is a consensus of opinion or a hot handicapper, he adds his own money to the bet. He spoke contemptuously of young hustlers—obviously raised by permissive parents—who won't put in the phone time necessary to coordinate such an effort. They have it too easy, he said.

The Mover provides his service in return for money-backed handicapping—an opinion isn't worth beans, he said, unless it's backed by money—and for the opportunity to scalp points.

Scalping points is another sophisticated money-manipulation technique to skim a piece of the action. A handicapper in Buffalo calls The Mover and says he'd like to get down for $8,000 on the Redskins, giving no more than four points to the Jets. The Mover, being in constant touch with bookmakers, knows that there is 2� and three available. He tells the man in Buffalo that he has a bet, and he himself bets as much as he can at 2� and the rest at three. Should the Redskins win by three or four, The Mover wins a free bet. During the course of a football and basketball season The Mover may make a thousand bets, and he is bound to cash in some of those free bets. (The handicapper may be doing the same thing on the other end, telling his clients that he has made a bet at a half or full point more, or less, than he actually has, giving himself a free bet.)

The Mover said he does not work on a percentage, as some such money men are said to. He said the bulk of his income is from accumulated betting.

I asked him how he was doing this season. "You can quote me on this," he said. "Terrible. Guys in Vegas have gone to the vault 14 times. We're breaking even in the pros and getting murdered in the colleges."

The Mover said that on Mondays he can bet into what is known as the outlaw or early line, into which a few select bettors are allowed to bet limited amounts. The resultant fluctuations determine what Tuesday's official line will be. But he prefers to wait until the end of the week, when all the information and opinions are digested by the handicappers he relies on. He said that he himself knew nothing about sports. He said he made money on horse racing, college basketball, college football and pro football in that order. He does not bet baseball.

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