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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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This is a story that defines Bob Martin perfectly as a man of nerve and conviction, the qualities that make him The Main Man of bookmaking.

Bob Martin is in effect the commissioner of games betting in America, the David Rockefeller of odds and spreads. He is an ordinary, pleasant, likable fellow whose word is taken as gospel by a multibillion-dollar industry.

He has achieved his status in the free marketplace of betting because he is better than anyone else at his job. He said one thing that describes his preeminence: "I don't bet money—I bet faces."

What this means is that he couldn't care less if you or I walked off the street and wanted to bet him the mortgage on a football game. He would smile, write the bet down and stick the mortgage in a drawer. He would not move the line a half point. But, he said, if a professional, a man whose opinion he respects, bet a couple or three thousand or more, then and only then might he make an adjustment.

That is profound. It is the essence of how the line is formed and what makes Bob Martin the last of the super bookies. Unlike lesser men, who nervously shift the line around, Martin refuses to be intimidated by public money (except on the Super Bowl, where the volume is overpowering). He has absolute faith in his own judgment, refined by a consensus of betting pros and backed by the 11-to-10 odds bookies get—the vigorish. Just tell him what you want to bet and you're down. He is willing to take financial risks because he knows that you are likely, over a period of bets, to stay down.

Martin conjures a line every Monday evening from a witch's stew of records, power ratings, horned toads and intuition that includes a feel for how the public backs certain popular teams—this season the Dolphins, Redskins, Steelers and Packers—called public teams. That's the only concession he makes to public taste. He has a UPI sports wire in his office, keeping him abreast of developments (i.e., serious injuries).

The final stage: "I ask myself whether I would bet a game at a number," he said. "I keep moving the number until I feel I wouldn't bet either side. That's the number."

The numbers are exposed to "eight or 10" pros during the day. This is the outlaw line or the early line or the service line. Martin has a limit (higher than his competitors) that can be bet into this line at half-point increments (as bookies universally do). If he makes a game three you can bet it to the limit, then bet it again at 2� or 3�, as the case may be. This process shakes the line down to the hard numbers that will be posted for all comers Tuesday.

Martin conceded that the system is imperfect. But nobody has come up with a better one, and it works—which is all that counts. "I make mistakes," he said. "I might like a team and stay with my opinion too long. I think I've had about 15 losers in a row on my opinion. Last year we lost quite a bit on football because there were an unusual number of middles. The numbers we had were too good, so they weren't good for us."

What he meant by that was that the biggest danger to the bookie is a game landing right on the spread, say four, because he might have had bets on 3� one way and 4� the other. On the weekends, when the pros and betting groups make their big plays, Martin adjusts the spreads accordingly in a large-scale repeat of the Monday shakedown. He takes no interstate calls for betting purposes, but it is altogether possible that bets are relayed to him by local representatives of groups and individuals from around the country (the same representatives who early in the week phone out reports of Martin's line and changes).

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