"We're supposed to be everything from cardsharps to fixers," one of them said recently. "But all we do is put in a lot of hard work handicapping and then play the best price. If we lose, we hurt no one but ourselves. We don't influence athletes, officials, the stock market or the price of eggs. It is absurd for people to think we're fixers or racketeers. Nothing annoys me more than to be equated with a Frank Costello. He's a criminal, a racketeer. We'd never fix a game. We happened to become bettors because we followed sports closely and developed a betting interest. When we hear of something funny going on, we report it—if the officials will listen to us. Something funny is the last thing we want anyway. It throws our handicapping off form."
What the man says is true. Not long ago a basketball referee was dismissed after bettors supplied information to his superiors. Other authorities are now watching a football referee who, bettors say, was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to fix a recent bowl game. Fixers are never professional bettors. They are either hoodlums or "semi-wise guys." A semi-wise guy is, in betting parlance, one who "plays it by ear, a guy who hears what I'm going to bet, then bets the other way without having to do any handicapping."
Despite personal pride in their handicapping, most big bettors don't care to make their identities known. Yet some of them are so celebrated that their betting is an open secret. One of these is H. L. (Facts Forum) Hunt, the Dallas oilman, who has a fondness for football. (In Texas, incidentally, $200,000 to $300,000 is often bet on a single high school football game.) Hunt got his start running a gambling room on "Hamburger Row" in El Dorado, Ark. during the early '20s. He was known as one of the best poker and checker players in that neck of Arkansas, and legend has it that he picked up his first oil lease in an El Dorado poker game, and on a bluff at that.
Hunt is noted for his fantastic memory. Texans tell the story about the time a trainful of oilmen were heading for a meeting of the American Petroleum Institute in Chicago. Hunt watched but didn't play in a big, rowdy poker game in which the raises flew like tumbleweed in a Panhandle storm. When it was over, Hunt could recall every bet that was made.
Another oilman noted for his betting is Ray Ryan of Evansville, Ind. Like Hunt, Ryan is reputed to have won his first oil lease in a poker game. No one would be surprised if he bet as much as $50,000 on this year's World Series. Ryan is, without doubt, the nearest modern version of the 1890 sportsman, in the best sense of the term.
One of the most remarkable bettors today is a securities analyst, or, rather, a former securities analyst. He worked for a nationally known bank during the Depression, and, according to legend, was dismissed after he started offering odds on what employees would be fired, including the president at 20 to 1.
"That's a slight exaggeration," the analyst says. "He wasn't on the list. I was though. I quoted myself at 3 to 1. Maybe I should have been even money. The trouble was I was always telling them what they should do. They never listened, and I rubbed it in too much, I guess. But I don't mind. I own stock in the bank now. I felt like going to the last stockholders' meeting and raising a little hell, but I didn't. It would have been fun though."
In practice, big bettors tend to specialize in one sport but, of course, that does not stop them from betting on other sports. The biggest baseball bettor in history, the late Isie Silverman of Miami Beach, often bet on football. Silverman, who died last May 11 at the age of 65, was born in Albany, N.Y., and as a child fell in love with baseball. He kept voluminous records, particularly on pitchers, and could recite earned run averages with the ease of a barker delivering a spiel. He bet as much as $2 million a year (this includes money bet over and over again) and was especially adept at coming up with a pitcher on a losing club who could beat a winning club.
In football he usually didn't bet with bookmakers but against the fans of both teams, making them put up the long end. When Silverman didn't get the long end, he would rely on amazing sources of information. He would bet against a visiting team, and when it arrived for the game, the star halfback would be out with a twisted ankle that no one else had heard about. To other pros in his trade, Silverman had his peculiar side. He liked to play cards, which, along with craps, is looked down upon as a hustler's game. But he just craved action. He would bet $2,000 to $3,000 a hand at a local bridge club, then leave the game to walk across the street to a drugstore for a Coke because it was only a nickel there and a dime in the club.
In 1952 Silverman had the bad luck to be arrested twice on charges of engaging in a game of chance, but beat both raps on lack of evidence. When arrested, he gave the name Isidore Silvers. His use of an alias is understandable. Arrest is an indignity that no bettor feels he should be made to suffer, particularly if he is pre-eminent in his calling. When Silverman died, those who knew him mourned him. "He was," they agreed "Mr. Baseball."