In Search of a Bookie
Your uncle might have had one. Or your grandfather. Maybe even your dad. In other, Damon Runyon times, guys "had" bookies, barbers and auto mechanics in the same way many of us "have" lawyers today. Times sure have changed. Or have they? Today, illegal gambling is bigger than ever -- accounting for an estimated $80 billion in wagers each year, mostly on collegiate and professional sporting events. And while some of these bets are friendly wagers between brothers-in-law or co-workers, the majority of this action is placed with illegal bookmakers. (A recent Gallup poll found that more than 70 percent of adults surveyed had gambled -- either legally or illegally-in the previous twelve months.)Indeed, illegal sports gambling has once again hit the headlines, with the recent allegations that Boston College football players placed bets on college football games -- including some bets placed against BC by its own players. In Chicago, two smaller scandals were uncovered against Northwestern basketball and football players several years ago. Which, in this former city of Capone, raises an obvious question: How easy is it to find a bookie and get down an illegal bet in Chicago today?THE SEARCHLike parents trying to find the best daycare provider, the would-be bettor attempting to seek out a bookie is well-advised to begin by networking. Maybe you don't know any shady characters willing to lay you points on the next week's Notre Dame game, but the odds are good that someone you know, someone you work with, someone you run into every week does have a line on such a person. So my quest for a bookie began with some research. My search first led me to look up "Jerzy," a guy I used to work with. (All names in this article have been changed-not to protect "the innocent," or even the heinously guilty -- but rather in an attempt to stifle the potential desire among these subjects to re-arrange my kneecaps.) I remembered him taking bets on the Super Bowl in the office where we worked some years back, claiming that he'd place them with "his guy" back in the "old neighborhood." For a foolish point spread (see "Wagering Words" for a glossary of gambling terms) of maybe 7 or 10 points, I had Jerzy place a bet against Joe Montana and the 49ers for me, costing me $100 in the resulting loss."Uh," Jerzy said, after I'd tracked him down. "I sort of remember that." But when I asked him if he could try to put me in touch with "his guy," he admitted that he'd made that part up and had just covered the office bets himself. "I'm not a bookie," he said sheepishly. "I just wanted to make some quick money." After I hung up the phone, I remembered something else -- thanks for charging me the 10 percent "juice" on the bet, "friend." Next, I made my way to a local tavern where I was a not -- unfamiliar face, if not a downright "regular." From football pools to video poker and slots games, certain Chicago and suburban bars are known as meccas of gambling. But at this bar -- even though I had been a big winner here on a Super Bowl pool several years earlier -- my casual opener to the bartender and several regulars ("So, do you know anyone who can get a bet down for me?") only elicited shrugs, head-shakes and mumbles. So, what next? I didn't have a barber (I doubted if my "stylist" Sande knew any bookies) or a mechanic, and the older men in my family were either dead or Republican, and therefore not likely to be any help.Then, when I thought I least needed contact with the police, a cop came through for me. "Jim," a law-enforcement-officer acquaintance, offered to put me in touch with "Jeff," his buddy and his bookie. "At least half of the guys I work with have bookies," Jim told me. "My superiors would kill me if they knew I told you that, but most of us look at it like hookers -- nobody cares too much about it. It's not like it's drugs or anything. We'll do gambling cases if they're assigned -- we're not overlooking big operations -- but the attitude is that nearly everyone does it, so what's the harm?"THE MEETINGWith Monday Night Football playing in the background and the coffee table between us covered with lists of odds, spreads, and over/under totals, I meet "Jeff," an affable guy in his late twenties with close-cropped hair and a muscular build. His overall appearance and demeanor suggests a former Golden Glover or a minor club fighter. In reality, he's a healthcare provider who spends considerable time in the gym ("It's a good place to hook up with guys who want to get bets down") and most of his weekends on the phone, taking bets on whatever sport is raging at the moment. "Jeff" casually tells me rudimentary details about his smallish operation: His brother back east covers things 50-50 with him (and seems to have vague connections with "bigger boys" back there that they occasionally lay some action off on); they started by taking bets from classmates back in junior high; most of his customers are guys from the gym, school or work connections, friends of friends, etc.; and their weekly action can range anywhere from $500 to $1,000 (or even higher during football season). "Basically," he says, "who cares if Tampa Bay plays Atlanta? Unless you're from there -- or if you bet on it. We get our best action on whatever games are on television, because a bet makes it more interesting to watch. But you never know what a guy's thinking about his bets -- there's a guy back home who bets Notre Dame every week, no matter what, and they almost never cover the spread. He's just a sick Notre Dame freak. And I don't think he even went there," he adds with a chuckle.On Monday Night Football, Dallas is holding a slim lead over Philadelphia. "Monday night is a big night," "Jeff" says. "Number one, it's a national game, so everyone everywhere is watching the same game. Number two, it's a 'bailout' pick after the weekend's action -- if a guy (or a girl, because we're getting more women these days) is down from Sunday losses, he can try to recoup it on Monday night. Or," he pauses, then adds the profitable, yet obvious point, "dig an even deeper hole." I ask him about a typical weekend. "I'll get some calls during the week, checking out the point spreads, but we wait to set them until game day, when we get the final word from back east. So, starting about 11:00 a.m., I start getting calls from my regulars, putting down bets on the noon games. Then, we watch the early game or games and keep an eye on the other scores through the tickers on the sports channels. Then there's another rush of calls before the later games. If you're ever in a sports bar on a Sunday, and you see a bunch of guys get up around 2:30 p.m. and head for the pay phones, you know what they're doing -- they're not suddenly running over to call their girlfriends -- they're getting down last-minute bets on the late games."What about collection? "Well, a lot of guys roll over their losses -- trying to make them up the next weekend. We'll carry them a little while, but eventually everyone has to settle up. We really don't have that much problem with collecting debts," he says dismissively and confidently, leaving me to wonder whether it's because his clientele is mostly closely-connected word-of-mouth or because of his boxer's physique. Ever have any run-ins with the police? "No," he answers quickly, and then laughs when I remind him how I got in touch with him. "No, just the law-enforcement personnel who bet through me." Does he take any special precautions or has he just been lucky? "We're not that big of an operation. Plus, I try to be careful about who I take on -- mostly friends and references from friends I trust. But, it goes on all over. There's a lot of action out there before anybody would spot us."The night ends cordially enough, with Jeff agreeing to take a bet from me on Sunday. Armed with his phone number, I start handicapping the scheduled games, hoping to not only complete a mission, but actually make a profit.THE BETIt is the first weekend of October and the then not-quite-hapless-but-certainly-not-awesome Bears are hosting the Green Bay Packers (home teams generally get 3 points on their side of the spread, I remember Jeff telling me) -- and, during the week, in the lines listed in the daily papers, the Bears are getting 6 or 7 points. Boy, that seems low, I think, formulating a cynical (if utterly realistic) plan to bet against the mushy Monsters of the Midway. By the time I call Jeff on Sunday morning, the gap has grown to 9 points, meaning if I bet on the Pack, they will start the game in a 9-0 hole. I do so anyway, thinking any hard-core allegiance I had to the Bears died almost a decade ago as they managed to fritter away one of the most dominating football teams in history (besides, at that point, basketball season was only a month away, so I can redeem my homer soul then). So, I bet $100 against the Bears.I get together with my brother to watch the game. The early going is sloppy and scoreless. Which only means that at the end of the first quarter, my money is losing 9-0. (Hmm, I wonder-can I try to expense this as a "research cost" if I lose?) But, as we watch the game start to slide Green Bay's (and my!) way-7-0, 7-3, 14-3, 21-3!-I realize that Jeff was right: The bet does make the game more interesting. My brother and I are cheering more enthusiastically against the Bears than we would have for them if I didn't have any money on the game.Then it's the fourth quarter, and I tell my brother that if we see Steve Stenstrom for the Bears or Jim McMahon for the Packers head out on the field to play quarterback, I can start spending the money. As if on cue, head coach Dave Wannstedt sends Stenstrom in with 7:50 left in the quarter-and I start counting my 100 about-to-hatch chickens (and Stenstrom promptly gets injured, ending his one-play season). The final score is Green Bay 37, Chicago 6. Forget 9 points-I could've given 29 points and still won the bet. Not a bad profit for selling off your gridiron birthright for one gray Sunday.THE PAYOFFA little over a week later, I arrange to meet Jeff to collect my winnings. In a bar between our homes, with an early game of the World Series playing on the television over the bar, we meet for a beer. He discreetly slides an envelope of five twenties to me, and talks of his bad luck the previous few weeks ("the underdogs have been coming out on top -- people are getting lucky -- but it'll even out; it always does"). I buy the round (why not? It's all profit), and talk to him a little more about the games he plays."I don't know -- maybe it's just because I've been doing this for awhile, but, to me, sports wouldn't really be the same without betting." I remember our friend "Jim," the gung-ho law-enforcer saying that even he-and most of the guys he worked with -- thought that most gambling should be legalized. I mention this to Jeff. He nods, sipping his Leinie's Red. "Hey, it's not hurting anyone -- it's not that big a deal. People enjoy it. Jeez, people waste more money on Lotto or bingo, so, why not?"I tell Jeff about the search that led me to him, and ask him for his suggestions for somebody wanting to find a bookie. What about at sports bars or through those "Best Odds" telephone lines advertised in the newspapers? "Well, those phone numbers just charge you maybe $25 for what they claim are the best picks. The way I figure it, they give out one team half the time and the other one the other half; that way at least some people are guaranteed to think the picks are good. Bars can be an okay place to try, but you never know exactly who is listening when you're asking. I think it's best to mainly stick to people you know. Ask around to your friends or co-workers. Bookies are out there, and if you want to make a bet, you'll find someone eventually."So, now I "have" a bookie, I guess. But I haven't let my beginner's luck delude me into thinking I'm the next "Jimmy the Greek." In the weeks that followed, I handicapped a few games without placing bets -- but I ended up coming out no better than even (probably worse, with the "vig" factored in). Still, that winning bet on the Packers sure helped take the sting out of the Bears' mediocre season for me. My Great-Uncle Bruno would've been proud.SIDEBAR ONEWAGERING WORDSLike any specialized field (especially any illegal, wise-guy-populated specialized field), gambling comes well-equipped with its own glossary of slang and code words. Since most illegal gambling involves football, many of these terms are most-often used for betting on football -- but most are universal for other forms of sports betting.A.T.S.: A notation in gambling scouting reports (or even newspaper accounts) indicating a team's record "Against the Spread" -- meaning how well it does with the point spread handicap factored in. (See "Point Spread.")COVER: For a favored team to win by a margin larger than the point spread it is giving to the underdog team (see "Point Spread," "Underdogs.")DOGS: See "Underdogs."FAVORITE: The team expected (because of previous record, level of talent, lack of injured players, etc.) to win any given contest.JUICE: See "Vig/Vigorish."LINE: See "Point Spread."OVER/UNDER: The total amount of points scored by both teams in a game. Bettors can wager whether the actual total will be "Over" or "Under" the predicted amount.PARLAY: A combination bet, wherein the winnings (if any) from game "A" are then bet on the later game "B" or even games "B" and "C" and etc.POINT SPREAD: Also known as "the line" or, simply, "the spread." This is the amount a favored team must win by to pay off a bet. For example, if the Cowboys are favored by 6 points over the Redskins, the Cowboys' margin of victory must be at least 7 points for its bettors to "win." The point spread is the handicapping device that allows bookies to even out their exposure on potential blowout wins or losses.PROPOSITION BET: A special side bet (separate from wins and losses), such as whether an individual player will achieve certain statistical goals (completed passes or yards gained) or the number of times a certain occurrence (first downs, turnovers, etc.) will take place. Especially popular during championship series or games.SPREAD: See "Point Spread."UNDERDOGS: The team expected to lose. This disadvantage is evened out by the point spread.VIG/VIGORISH: Win and losses aside, this is the real profit center for bookies. If you bet $100 and win, a bookie pays you $100...However, if you bet $100 and lose, you must pay the bookie $100 plus the (usually) 10 percent vig -- a sort of service charge or street tax, raising your loss to $110. The vig for Over/Under bets is often 20 percent. Also known as "Juice."