SI Vault
Robert H. Boyle
October 01, 1956
A rare behind-the-scenes report on the men who set the odds for a nation's bets on spectator sports
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October 01, 1956

The Illegal Whole's Legal Half

A rare behind-the-scenes report on the men who set the odds for a nation's bets on spectator sports

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The cards printed by Arcadia Sales & Publishing Co. in Chicago are similar to those put out by Hyke Football Service but slightly higher in price, e.g., 5,000 cards cost $64. The interesting thing about Arcadia Sales & Publishing Co., though, is that it is located in the same office building, 236 North Clark Street, as Football Handicapper Bill Kaplan. Arcadia and Kaplan are not connected, but the building has come to be regarded by some as a shrine.

Bookmakers in the card business must work with great efficiency. They use runners to distribute the cards to bettors, and each runner is usually assigned to a specific beat, e.g., a high school or factory. For running the cards to the bettors and the bets back to the bookmaker, a runner usually receives 25% of his beat's total volume, win or lose. In towns where bookmaking competition is keen, however, the runner gets a better break. The bookmaker pays anywhere from 35% to 50% of the year's net.

For the bettor, the cards are a poor investment. If he picks two games out of two, for example, he is paid off at 2 to 1. The correct odds are 3 to 1. To weight the odds even more, the bookmaker ordinarily wins if the bettor picks a tie.

Bookmakers who handle the parlay cards are regarded as "little jerks" by the big bookmakers. Pride aside, a big bookmaker can never handle parlay cards because he is constantly on the move, a precaution which he finds eminently expedient when it comes to dodging cops and mobsters. Of the two, he fears the latter more. Lacking the protection of the law, a bookmaker is easy prey to hoodlums who decide to cut themselves in.

A few years ago, a Chicago bookmaker moved to Montreal after the syndicate demanded a cut. Encouraged by his expatriation, other bookmakers followed. For a while they prospered and on one occasion even found themselves protected by international law—when the U.S. attempted to obtain records of their long distance calls to the States. As usually happens, however, mobsters moved in, and, as an acquaintance of the Chicago bookmaker puts it, "They squeezed for a piece and got it with ill grace."

By now Montreal was really alive. The mobsters, flush with success and exuberant by nature, began to get out of hand, so much so that local authorities soon had no other course but to ask that everyone leave. The bookmaker and mobsters sorrowfully returned the U.S., but last year they were back, this time in another city. They didn't care for the cold weather but, all in all, their new city proved such a good location that they returned there last week to resume operations. To oblige local police, they refuse to take bets from Canadian citizens or make book on Canadian pro football games. This last point is rather a costly concession, as a fair number of Stateside clients have expressed interest in the pro games after seeing them on TV.

Despite the outside world's impression that bookmakers can calculate odds as swiftly as Univac, most of them are dumb and only slowly acquire the mathematics of odds-making.

Early this month, for example, a bettor called a bookmaker for odds on the National League pennant race. When given the odds he astounded the bookmaker by pointing out that he could win simply by betting on all three teams to lose.

"The bookmaker quoted Brooklyn at 17 to 10 not to win," the bettor says, thoroughly disgusted by the bookmaker's stupidity. " Cincinnati was 4� to 1 not to win, and Milwaukee was 10 to 13 not to win. After I heard that, I told him that I would bet $1,700 to his $1,000 on Brooklyn to lose, $2,250 to $500 on Cincinnati to lose and $1,300 to $1,690 on Milwaukee to lose. I pointed out that if Brooklyn won, I'd lose $1,700, but I'd win $500 from my Cincinnati bet and $1,690 on my Milwaukee bet. Add these two together that's $2,190. Subtract the $1,700 I lost on the Dodgers. That leaves me winning $490. If Cincinnati won, I'd wind up winning $440. If Milwaukee won, I'd win $200."

Particularly confusing to bookmakers is the payoff on a parlay, i.e., when the winnings on one bet are applied to another. In baseball, four-team parlays are not uncommon. To ease the burden posed by parlay problems, A. C. Lowther, an insurance executive in Alexandria, La., drew up a baseball parlay chart in 1946, just in time to catch the postwar boom. Certified by a C.P.A. and priced at $10, Lowther's parlay chart instantly offers the answer to any baseball parlay problem. Ordinarily, it would take an average bookmaker a few minutes to figure the payoff on a $1 parlay on four teams with the odds at 5 to 7, 1 to 3, 2 to 3 and 4 to 5. But if the bookmaker uses Lowther's chart, he has the answer—$6.85—in no time at all.

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