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Bookies talking about losses, not victories

| Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010

LAS VEGAS — When the longtime bookies in this gambling city get together to swap stories, the talk invariably turns to one Super Bowl where bettors made off with a big score.

That's to be expected. Wouldn't be proper business, after all, if all they did was gloat about their many wins.

The year was 1979, and the game was as good as it gets. The Steelers and Dallas in Miami, both trying to become the first team to win three Super Bowls.

Chuck Noll was on one sideline, Tom Landry the other. Roger Staubach lined up under center for America's team, while Terry Bradshaw took the snaps for the Steelers. The defenses were so good they both had names, with the Steel Curtain on one side and the Doomsday Defense on the other.

Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson's big mouth was just a bonus.

"It was my first big Super Bowl," oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro remembers. "Back when all my hair was still black."

Don't try to find out what happened that day in Vegas in NFL history books. They've never been much for acknowledging that some of the popularity of the game lies in the fact a good chunk of Americans have action on it.

The Steelers opened as 2.5-point favorites that year, but there was so much money on the Steelers that oddsmakers moved the line to 5.5 points to balance the action. It finally settled at 4 points by kickoff.

The Steelers didn't disappoint and, after scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead 35-17, appeared to have the game well in hand. But the Cowboys scored twice in the last 2:23 to make the final 35-31 and bookies were faced with their worst nightmare — the dreaded middle.

Those who bet the Steelers early won. Those who picked the Cowboys late won. Those who bet when the line was at 4 got their money back.

Vaccaro was running the book at the Royal Inn, a small joint off the Strip that took big action. The owner was vacationing on his boat, but called in to see how things had gone.

"I told him the bad news was that we lost $185,000," Vaccaro said. "He asked what the good news was. I told him the good news was that we only lost $185,000."

There was a lot of bad news around town. One casino lost $900,000, another $1.7 million. Bettors stood in long lines to collect their winnings.

Fast forward three decades, and the line is strikingly similar on this Super Bowl. The Colts opened as low as 3.5-point favorites and are now favored by 5.5 in most of the state's legal sports books. The higher the line goes — and it could move more before kickoff — the more chance there is of bettors on both sides winning money.

Could it happen again• Don't bet on it.

"It's unusual for us to lose," said Jay Kornegay, who runs the sports book at the Las Vegas Hilton.

Unusual but not impossible. Just two years ago, a lot of bettors who either didn't like Bill Belichick or simply thought the Giants were due sent the books to a rare loss when they beat the Patriots.

"You're capable of getting your rear kicked on this game," said Wynn hotel sports book director John Avello. "I always have some concerns. You can have a good day or an awful day."

The good days, of course, far outnumber the awful days in the betting industry. Even if bookies break even they win, because they collect a 10 percent "vig" from bettors as part of the price of doing business.

Bookies are hoping they do better than that with the Saints and Colts, and hoping to break a two-year dip in legal betting on the game. With an improving economy, most estimate the betting will be up, though it probably won't top the $94.5 million wagered in 2006.

Add in on-line betting and wagers at local bars and clubs and the total will go much higher. A lot of that money will go to the so-called "prop" bets where gamblers can wager on everything from the opening coin flip to whether there will be a safety in the game.

The Hilton has more than 335 of those bets alone, and will win more than its share. But bettors can have their way, too, as Art Manteris found out when he put up one of the earliest Super Bowl prop bets while running the sports book at Caesars Palace when the Bears played the Patriots in 1986.

Defensive back William "Refrigerator" Perry had scored three touchdowns on short yardage plays during his rookie season, but hadn't touched the ball since week 12. Manteris figured that Perry surely wouldn't be used on offense in the most important game of the season and offered 20-1 odds on him scoring a touchdown.

Bettors jumped on it quick and, sure enough, Perry came lumbering into the backfield in the third quarter of a blowout to score the final touchdown for the Bears.

"I think we won overall on the game but we lost a quarter million on that prop," said Manteris. "I sold it to the people upstairs by saying we got a million dollars in PR out of it."

Having winning bettors is always good PR for bookmakers, as long as it doesn't happen too often. Most winners, after all, come back to bet again.

When the bookies win, though, they keep the cash. They also tend to keep quiet.

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