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Notwithstanding that blunder. The Greek has probably done better at politics than sports. And, after all, setting a line on a major sports event is equivalent to rating an election, because in either case the public is the determining factor. The man who can tell how popular the Steelers' chances are across the land—which is what a line does—is perfectly prepared to tell how popular Ronald Reagan is. National sports and national politics are both heavily influenced by TV. The difference is that in sports, the electorate votes with a bet, and then the game is played by both teams to determine who wins. In politics, the electorate bets four years with a vote, and that concludes the game—except that then the winner must go out and play the four years against himself.
The Greek won his first large, famous bet on the 1940 election, when he caught the best possible odds on Roosevelt right after "the guy with the eyebrows"—that would be the labor leader John L. Lewis—declared for Willkie. "After that, all of a sudden The Greek's name became famous to gamblers the country over," Jimmy says. Then in 1948, after his sister pleaded with him not to grow a mustache, advising Jimmy that women didn't care for them, he polled 1.900 women throughout Ohio and decided that the mustachioed Dewey, listed as a 1-to-17 favorite, was actually no better than even money. Truman was the overlay of the century; The Greek took the sleeper to New York and wiped out so many smarty-pants in Gotham that Walter Winchell was moved to salute the kid from Steubenville coast to coast. By then, not yet 30, The Greek was a millionaire from betting. For a time.
Yet for all that gambling has done for him. The Greek is suspicious of its universal charm, especially of those entrepreneurs and politicians who tout it as a bounteous cure-all. Widespread legalized gambling is a scourge upon the land, he declares. "Gambling should be made difficult for the average man. It should be something he budgets to do once or twice a year. Vegas was best when it was hardest to reach," he says.
"You see, it isn't the two or three percent, the house edge, that beats you. Otherwise, people would only lose two or three percent, and so what? It's the psychology. A guy goes to a casino. He wins $500, he's ecstatic. He goes home, buys his wife a present, springs for a night out. Fine. Now he goes back. This time he loses $500. O.K., altogether he's even. But does he quit $500 down the way he did $500 up? No. He takes another $500 out of the bank. And now he's pressing, so he blows that and borrows $500. Now he's out $1,500, and this is a guy who only makes 20 to 25 grand a year. He goes home, gets into his wife's checking account.
"This is what happens when gambling is too accessible. Everybody gets hurt but the casino. The guy can't buy the new summer suit or the new shoes for his wife. He lets the tune-up go. The stores are hurt, the restaurant, the gas station. This is the kind of stuff you'll start to see soon at Atlantic City.
"And if they legalized sports betting, the little guy would be just as dead. We'd find a way to beat you. Right now, if we—me, anybody—tried to bet more than $50,000 on any game, we'd have a hard time. And when you only got $50 riding, you can't pay enough to fix a game. Put a pencil to it. But with legalized gambling, there'd be so much money bet you could get down a million or more on one game. So now it's worth it to pay for a fix, isn't it? And that's easy. You don't need the quarterback. Just gimme the center. Gimme the referee. All I'd need is one offside at the right time. You don't even need to get a guy to throw it for you. Suppose we just pay a big star $50,000 to stay home with the flu? Nobody ever thought of that before, did they?"
Obviously, The Greek is talking against his own best interests here. The more gambling, the better, surely, he would do. Already his newspaper column is in more than 200 papers with nearly 30 million readers daily at this time of year, when interest peaks, and he makes "in the five figures" for each and every Sunday he is on CBS, plus picking up "the low six figures" annually in pin money—by making speeches and commercials. He is selective with the many endorsements offered him and regularly turns down those—shady and otherwise—requesting his name as a front for some gambling emporium.
There remains, you see, a deep streak of the middle-class Midwest conscience in The Greek, and rather like the Gulf Stream, it plows through the choppier waters about it, warming everything in the vicinity. Only once did The Greek ever do anything foolishly impetuous, as gamblers—with cigars and pinky rings—are supposed to do by nature: that is, one day in Florida in 1942, when he was 23. he married a pretty girl named Sunny, whom he had just met.
This brief union produced a daughter. Victoria, now 34 and living in Las Vegas, and when the marriage failed, it was The Greek who took the baby girl. It was another decade before he married again. This was also love at first sight, but this was more like it. This was Joan.
She was everything The Greek envisioned in a wife, and she remains a lovely, quiet, almost wispy woman, very reminiscent of Billie Burke. Joan talks barely above a whisper. "We don't get excited around here," she says. The Greek spotted her on an elevator. He told his friend Herman Hickman, the Yale football coach, "I just saw the girl I'm going to marry." The Greek was chasing fashion models and show girls, getting set to bet 50 grand on the Orange Bowl; Joan was still a sheltered child, attending a little Catholic college in Indiana. But she was The Greek's ideal for home and marriage. And he was dead right, too, even if it didn't work out quite the way it had in his dreams. When Jamie and the others were so sick, Joan was a tower; she devoted herself completely to the family she had made with the man who remains simply "Jim Snyder" to her.