Another Side of Dave
I tell my bookie he can pick his pseudonym for this piece. I am leaning toward picking a character from an Elmore Leonard novel, but it’s his story.
"Bucky," he says.
That’s stupid, I think.
I decide to wait him out.
"I don’t know … Abie? Short for Abraham?"
Okay, I think. Harry Arno it is. A character from an Elmore Leonard novel.
There are some things you need to do if you’re an American male. One of them is betting with the corner bookie. Like making an ass of yourself at a wedding or puking in the woods after your first quart of beer, it’s part of the American experience. From state-promoted lottery games to casinos to on-line operations, there are plenty of ways to play, but purists still like placing their sports wagers with the corner bookie.
"I give credit and I pay in cash," Harry Arno says, modestly omitting his vast amount of personal charm as a source of continued business success. Instead, he opts to run down his competition, telling the story of a client who won decent coin via an Internet wager. Two days later, the guy was trying to figure out what to do with a check for $3,000, finally deciding it had to go into his bank account and — worse — onto his tax return. On-line betting transactions are printed on credit card receipts, where they can be monitored by such powerful law enforcement agencies as the IRS or your spouse. Nobody wants that. "With the Internet, everything is right there in black and white. With the local bookie, it’s all green." (If there was a professional organization for illegal bookmakers, that would be an excellent slogan.)
This guy started years ago in college, where he studied business. Some friends would ask him to place bets, but instead of putting them with his bookie, he’d take the action himself. After college, he decided to give up his amateur status and turn pro. Thirty years later, he’s forged a successful career in professional sports. To hear him talk, you’d think he was running a Dunkin’ Donuts. "I keep figures every day, and I’m open every day… I’m a service business," he says. The difference is that when donut customers go on a winning streak, the franchisee doesn’t borrow from a loan shark to keep cash flow going.
Theoretically, a bookie makes his money from the "vig" (roughly translated: the 10 percent service charge). The myth of sports betting is that — because oddsmakers are so wise — half the bettors line up on one side of the bet, picking the favorite, and the other half pick the underdog. The reality is that bookies benefit from a simple fact about you, the bettor. That truth is this: If you had a five-year-old child pick a game against a point spread, or flipped a coin to determine your bet, statistically you’d be correct 50 percent of the time. But when a bettor applies his brilliant intellect and vast knowledge of sports to his prediction, the percentage drops 15 points. He’s correct about 35 percent of the time.
"You don’t make money on the juice (a.k.a. the vig)," Harry Arno says. "That wouldn’t cover my expenses, never mind the people who don’t pay me. I make money because bettors are not right 50 percent of the time. And with teasers, parlays and action reverses, my percentage goes way up, as opposed to a straight bet." So how do you, the bettor, lose money? Here are a couple of favorite methods:
The teaser. You make two bets in one, and the bookie gives you extra points against the spread. In this year’s Super Bowl, our guy had the Patriots minus 7, with an over-under of 38. With a teaser bet, you might take the Patriots minus 1, with an over bet of 32. You’d need to win both to make money, but the six-point shift on both bets is appealing. Frequently, the bet comes with no vig, an added sweetener. This bet can make you feel like you’re standing in a carnival booth, holding a ball, ready to knock over three milk bottles. "It’s a tease," Harry Arno says. "Teasers are a good lay for the bookmaker. They’re one of the best lays, because you need to win two and only get paid on one bet. Usually, the points don’t make a difference." And ties lose.
Parlays. You make two (or more) bets, rolling the winnings from one bet into the next one. Different books pay different amounts, and usually the vig is built in. With this bet, a $500 two-game parlay might pay $1,200; a $100 three-team parlay might pay $500. "You get a lot for a little, but you’ve got to win both games. That’s hard to do." Action bets. The bettor makes two bets, but the second one kicks in only if the first one is a win or a push. You can bet $110 to win $200, lose $110 on the first game and stop, or win the first bet and lose the second and only pay the vig. This one has a cousin, called the "action reverse," a form of parlay. He explained that system to me for about 45 minutes, which made me realize that gambling would be an excellent way to teach math skills to school children. But you are probably not reading this to better your math skills, but to re-think your gaming habits. (Or maybe you’re taking a break from cruising Internet porn).
So, how do you make yourself a better sports bettor? In winning money is the gauge you’re using, here are four pieces of advice:
Place flat bets, not exotic bets. When you package two bets in combination, there are four possible results, and three of them are bad for you.
Bet underdogs. Especially home underdogs in basketball and football.
If you bet the favorite, do it when the point spread is low. If your favorite team is up by 14 and there are minutes left, they will be in the prevent defense, and you know what they say about the prevent defense. It prevents you from covering the spread. Be disciplined. Your skill as a sports handicapper is less important than being smart with your money. Some bettors slide from the puddle to the deep part of the lake because -– when they’re behind on Sunday – they start chasing their bets and doubling up, trying to get even. Others fall easily into trap games. Betting smart is more important than picking well. "We have a saying in the gambling business," Harry Arno says. "’We’ll teach you all of this. It’s $100 a lesson.’"
Successful bookmaking: Relationship marketing
If you want to open your own bookmaking business, here’s a tip: Know your customer, and discriminate.
Let’s begin with a cautionary tale, of a fellow we know who had an unpleasant experience with some "associates" of his bookmaker. The guy got slapped around pretty good, in a public place. He has kept a low profile since.
"I blame the bookie," Harry Arno says. According to what he heard, the bettor at one point was ahead by $10,000, and then went streaking in the other direction to fall behind by $20,000. At both extremes, the dollar amounts didn’t correspond with the guy’s annual income. "What’s (the bookie) doing taking that kind of action from a guy making $500 a week?
"If you don’t treat it like a business, you’re not going to succeed," he adds. "A lot of punks and wiseguys think you’ve just got to answer the phone, but it doesn’t work that way."
As we all know from the movies, if you break a pianist’s hands you’ll never get your money because he’s lost his income stream. (Although if you’re doing it because you live in the apartment next door, you might get a little piece and quiet.) That is one reason that most bookies avoid violence, even though that is part of gambling’s lore. For one thing, that kind of stuff potentially puts you into a whole different set of crimes, in front of different judges and different prosecutors. "I’m only breaking one law," he says. "I don’t loan shark, don’t threaten people, and don’t sell drugs. I just book bets."
Every business that extends credit has a bad debt ratio, he says, and his is the same as any: about 1 percent. He keeps it that way by using some basic principles of business: know your customers, assess your risk. Does the bettor seem overanxious to be paid when he wins? Does he drag it out when he loses? Both may flag someone as a risk. If he starts betting in the middle of the football season, he may be doing so because he owes money elsewhere. Just as others might contact Dun & Bradstreet, Harry Arno will call friends in the business to screen the credit worthiness of a new client.
"After 30 years, I figure if I don’t get paid, it’s my fault. I know the signs," he says. "And I don’t let people bet too much. I don’t let bartenders lay down $500 a game."
Harry Arno has a lot of rules like that. He’s not looking for high rollers, professionals, degenerates or spot bettors. Bettors in his clientele like regular action, bet about $100 a game, and are responsible enough to pay their debts. They’ll continue to pay because doing so allows them to keep betting, he says. Here’s what he doesn’t like, and why:
The high rollers. Those throwing out $10,000 a game when everyone else is playing $100 or so will screw up the balance in his business. "People think you can balance every game," he says. "It never happens." That scenario can cause big trouble in a business that requires a bankroll and good cash flow. Professionals. "They’re trying to make a living, I’m trying to make a living — there’s a conflict of interest."
Degenerates. For obvious reasons.
Spot bettors. They’re dangerous. He once took a Super Bowl bet for $1,000. "I was a rookie; it was stupid," he says. The guy won, and the bookie didn’t win the money back for another year. He recently cut off a spot bettor who would play for a couple of weeks, win a few, and then not play again for weeks. The guy objected. "Don’t tell me what to do with my business," Harry Arno replied. "What are you going to do, take me to court?"