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Gaming Guru

Jeff Haney

Bettors' good old days are now

19 March 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Call it the "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" syndrome.

A segment of the Las Vegas sports betting population, caught up in the romanticism and lore of the city's history, tends to idealize the past, to pine for a time when gamblers were more dashing, bookies more daring and the scene more freewheeling.

Art Manteris appreciates the sentiments.

He just does not agree with them.

It's not that Manteris has anything against nostalgia. But when he compares today's Las Vegas sports betting with that of the 1970s, when he broke into the business, he makes the modern environment a prohibitive favorite.

Too many bettors, Manteris believes, get caught up looking for a "golden age" of rambling, gambling men that never really existed.

In other words, these are the good old days.

"I understand the feelings people have toward those days," said Manteris, vice president of race and sports book operations for Station Casinos. "I was part of it. I was there. But there is a 'pro' side to today's world that is underreported, in my opinion."

The advantages today's bettors have compared with their counterparts from the 1970s and 1980s lie in the areas of convenience, a wider variety of betting options and, in many cases, better odds, Manteris said.

Certain sobering truths are lost amid the classic tales of Las Vegas bookmakers who lived by the seat of their pants, largely unfettered by pesky governmental regulations, and of gamblers who bet not only with both fists but also with duffel bags full of cash.

Consider football parlay cards that paid out at odds of 100-1, maybe 150-1 if you were lucky, for hitting 10 of 10 winners. By comparison, typical Las Vegas parlay cards today pay out in the range of 800-1 to 899-1 on the same wager. In a column in September, we eviscerated the Laughlin Riverside for paying only 499-1, the worst current odds in Southern Nevada.

"I remember one year, right around 1980, when the Stardust went from 200-1 to 300-1 on 10-teamers, and that was on a ties-lose card," Manteris said in an interview at Red Rock Resort. "And that was big news."

Then there was the relative dearth of viewing — and wagering — options in sports books.

"When I started in this industry, we had one NFL game (televised at sports books) on Sunday and one on Monday night, and that was it," Manteris said. "In the NBA, you'd have a Sunday afternoon game and that was about it.

"Now, in at least the last 22 years I've been in this business, the sports books I have run have not missed a single NFL game on video," said Manteris, who previously operated several local books including, most famously, the SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hilton.

"People laugh at me because they think I'm exaggerating, but in my first couple of years in the industry, we used to get a re-created audio call of a (horse) race off a ticker tape. I mean, it was like 'The Sting.'?"

To go along with the limited TV choices was a sparse betting menu that would have today's gamblers apoplectic.

"In those good old days, there were no totals (over/unders), no halftime wagering, no proposition wagering," Manteris said. "You could bet sides and that was it. Totals started coming into prominence about 30 years ago, and they gradually increased. But there were no props, and money lines on football and basketball games were nonexistent."

Propositions increase choices for bettors

Today's landscape looks much more attractive, he said. It's commonplace to find odds not only on the winners of weekly auto races and golf tournaments, but head-to-head driver and player matchups.

For major events even in minor sports, it's easy to find pages of betting sheets offering various props. Although laying 6-5, or minus-120, as a standard sports vigorish was on the way out by the 1970s in most places, an unfavorable betting structure on baseball was still in place in Las Vegas early in Manteris' career.

A 10-cent line, or "dime line," on baseball can be found at many major Las Vegas properties today, but a 20-cent line — better for the house, worse for the gambler — was standard three decades ago.

"I remember when Las Vegas started moving from a 20-cent line to a 15-cent line — and that was in the late '70s," Manteris said. "Today, 10-cent lines are readily available in most sports books, at least on lower-priced baseball games."

Thanks in part to better technology, today's sports books offer a higher level of convenience to customers, who take it for granted that they can cash winning tickets the night a game takes place instead of having to wait until the next day.

Standard business hours, with odds posted on a regular timetable, also give an edge to modern books. Stand-alone sports books of yesteryear — old-timers recall the Rose Bowl, the Santa Anita, the Del Mar and the like, which operated independently of casinos — were more erratic in those areas.

"I remember going into those places when I was young," Manteris said. "I distinctly remember as if it was yesterday walking in at 10 in the morning and there were no lines up on baseball games for that day. I asked when they were going to put the lines up. 'Whenever the manager gets here.' 'Well, when's that?' 'I don't know.'

"And that was the reality of the service. Today, guest service is very important. It was probably the last priority in those days.

"That's one of the reasons it gets my attention when I hear stories about the good old days in Nevada sports books. You had to have experienced the old days to be able to compare them to today's world. I'm not saying they were bad atmospheres or there was anything wrong with what they were doing. That's not my point. My point is, it's a different world entirely."

The resorts need the sports books for more than the money they generate, Manteris says.

"To me, the sports book is an excitement center for the property," he says. "The excitement and enthusiasm generated by the book and near the book cannot be equaled. Sure, in the pit somebody can get hot on a craps table and you can hear the roar walking by. But these walls shake when somebody hits a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cover the point spread, or when you have two Thoroughbreds running neck and neck down the stretch in a big race. There's no parallel."

Some elements of the old days did indeed have a golden glow, Manteris acknowledges.

Bettors had the opportunity to create their own props and negotiate odds on them, essentially betting man-to-man with the head bookmaker.

"You could walk in and talk to one of the great old bookmakers like Bob Martin or Johnny Quinn or Sonny Reizner and say you wanted to bet so-and-so to be the high scorer that night in a basketball game," Manteris said. "Some folks would look at it and take that bet. In today's world that doesn't happen."

Likewise, Las Vegas oddsmakers could book real-money wagers on nonsport matchups such as elections and even oddball events such as where Skylab was going to land when it fell from orbit.

Manteris recounted the Skylab prop in his 1991 book, "SuperBookie: Inside Las Vegas Sports Gambling." One option on the board had it 25,000-1 that Skylab would land on the El Cortez. This prompted one wag to say that if you made that bet and Skylab ended up landing on the Four Queens, well, it would be a really, really bad beat.

Why there's no legal betting on politics, Oscars

Like other prominent Las Vegas sports book executives, Manteris would like a chance to book today's presidential elections, but pointed out it would literally take an act of Congress to make it legal to do so.

"It would be fascinating," Manteris said. "I would love to do it. The fact is, you can walk into a bet shop in London or Dublin and bet on the U.S. elections. Their attitudes are obviously much more relaxed than the U.S.

"It would be fun, but it would require a change in federal law to allow it. It's not close to happening."

Taking bets on events such as the Academy Awards is prohibited by state gaming regulations rather than federal law. Manteris said he would embrace a chance to book the Oscars, although he respects the regulatory agency's contention that it's improper to accept money on a contest in which the results are known by someone beforehand.

"Having been around sports gambling all my life, I tend to look at things from an odds standpoint all the time," Manteris said. "I tend to look at the world like that. So attaching odds to anything is feasible and almost second nature to me."

The strict regulations that might annoy bettors or appear constraining to bookmakers are vital to the state's sports betting industry, Manteris said.

This became especially clear to Manteris in 2001 during the movement in Congress to ban college sports wagering in Nevada.

"Some might say one of the negatives is the regulatory environment in which we have to exist today," Manteris said. "Some people might object to that, and it's perfectly understandable to have those feelings. What people don't realize is that those regulations are what saved this industry in 2001.

"I was very involved in that process, and there were very strong forces lobbying to close sports wagering entirely in Nevada. I can't say it was 49 (states) to 1 against Nevada, but it was close. The only reason we prevailed was because of the tight regulatory environment in which we operate.

"When the federal regulators saw the lengths we go to, they were shocked at how tightly regulated we are. That definitely worked in our favor. In my mind, I was thinking, 'I get it.' That's why it's necessary that we strictly enforce all these regulations."

Bettors' good old days are now is republished from