Look at all the scratch you didnt win on 
    the NCAA tourney.
Look at all the scratch you didnt win on the NCAA tourney.
AP/Wide World

A Sure Bet

It's not yet noon on a sleepy Saturday. The skies are ash-colored and dreary, and the wind has some chill in it. The kind of day that's good for staying hugged up in your bed, sleeping away last night's hangover and today's cheerless reality.

But this is one of the hottest gambling stretches of the year, and sleep is for later. Not for now. Not during this weekend. There's too much money to be made. Everywhere, people sit in their living rooms, glassy-eyed, mindlessly watching the second round of the NCAA Tournament--clicker in one hand, office pools in the other--hoping their 12-seed will pull another upset and unlock the door to their co-workers' hard-earned riches.

Naturally, it doesn't stop there, doesn't stop with the little side bets you make with your pals, either.

"This is a big time of year for us," says Rob, a longtime Dallas-based bookie. "I mean, it's not as big as football; that's the biggest by far, but for basketball, it's pretty significant."

Significant, but probably not what you'd expect. Not as exciting.

Rob is sitting in his "office"--a spare bedroom he converted. He rents this house with his partner, Roy (names in this story have been changed), with whom he's worked for years now. The house is nondescript but nice enough--they move their operation every year or so, playing a never-ending game of hide-and-seek with Vice--with plenty of space in the living room and a good-sized kitchen. Those rooms are left largely unattended for most of the day, though. During the tournament, Rob and Roy spend close to 12 hours cooped up in the office, shades drawn. Stale cigar and cigarette smoke lingers, fighting for olfactory dominance with a few scented candles. The walls are off-white and barren. A dusty NordicTrack sits in the corner. Decoration of the room falls to two solid, fake-wood desks--the kind you might pick up at CompUSA or Target--set about 2 feet apart, which hold the "store" computers. The only other adornment here is an older television, which blinks the Duke-Missouri game in and out. Mizzou is getting 19 1/2 points. (For the gambling illiterate, that means Duke must outscore Missouri by 20.) Roy is getting upset. There's plenty of action down on this one--most taking Duke to cover--but the confounded tube won't let them in on which team is ahead. He presses the remote's power button over and over in a fruitless attempt at repair.

"How well could we be doing? We can't even afford a new TV," Rob jokes as Roy rolls his eyes.

Don't let them fool you. While they have their ups and downs like most of their gamblers, Rob and Roy aren't hurting for flow. They were up 50 grand on the first two nights of the tourney. By the end of the four-day holiday, they won about $15,000--a sum they owe largely to UNC and Florida barking like dogs. The "handle" (the cumulative amount of every bet taken) for the entire first two rounds was about a quarter-mil.

These aren't your father's corner-bar bookies. They don't use a dull pencil to put down $10 bets in a tiny black book. These guys, with 40 or so clients, are new-millennium compliant, working on quality machines that run the industry's top bookmaking software--which, remarkably, you can locate on the Internet with little effort. Wires run in and out of the computers like arteries, bringing the duo updated betting lines and over/unders from several Vegas casinos and a few island oddsmakers, among others. (Most bookmakers these days have similar setups, if not this high-tech. One local shop even has a telephone number you can call to check spreads.) Three phones ring incessantly, firing from different locations of the room like guns in an ambush.

"We have a bunch of different ways to get a hold of us," Roy says. "It's good, but they call all hours of the day. It can be a pain in the ass. On a day like this, we'll get calls before 10 [a.m.]. And then some of the players will call late at night. I think a lot of them are lonely and they just want someone to talk with. But, yeah, it's a lot of phone work. For the tournament, we sit here almost all day. They'll call just as long as games are going on. Some of them will call a bunch more today because they took hits Thursday and Friday. We call it 'red-ass.'"

The bars were filled with them last night, gamblers who couldn't get enough, guys who went down on the first few games and were forced into playing "catch-up/comeback." An unlucky soul at Christie's on McKinney knew the pain. He was drinking Bud Light by the bucket and bemoaning his ignorance for picking Iowa State, at minus-17, to cover the spread. The Cyclones lost straight up. Got whupped by Hampton, whoever/wherever that is. The rest of his picks weren't much better. Excessive beatdowns all night. Ended up being into his guy for over a dime, which is gambler-speak for "a thousand" and regular Joe-speak for "Oh shit."

If Missouri can stay close, there'll be more like that poor sap today. More fools shaking their fists at the heavens and wondering why the Dukies couldn't blow the Tigers away. Rob and Roy, obviously, are rooting for Mizzou. Vocally. Loudly. They stand to pick up more than $4,000 (or a sum roughly equivalent to what the Observer pays its scribes in annual income) if Quin Snyder's boys can stay close. Not bad.

"We've got some pretty good players," Rob says, stubble already shadowing his face. "Lawyers and stockbrokers. Pretty high-class guys..."

Roy waves his hand dismissively, interrupting before Rob can finish: "Yeah, and they cheat just as much as the scumbags under the bridge."

Going up on paper and actually collecting what they're owed are two entirely different matters. Roy hands over a yellow legal pad. To the left is a column of "good players" distinguished by digits (all clients are identified by their account numbers). The list takes up a quarter of a page. Maybe. To the right of that is a group at least three times longer. They're listed under the headline, "creeps"--slow-pays or no-pays. They're not necessarily the same guys who call in bets from church or while their kids are in the room.

"It's not like what you'd think," Rob concedes. "It's not like what you see on The Sopranos. The mob doesn't really get into it because you have to be patient. If you threaten somebody, the cops come down on you. But if you go about your business and nurse the slow-pays, they pretty much leave you alone. We still have guys working off debts from football season. So it's not like what you see on TV. We don't collect as much as we're supposed to collect."

Theoretically speaking, then, they just made more money. Missouri was getting pounded, but the Tigers managed to cover, much to the delight of Rob and Roy, who exchange grins as the television, through bouncing lines, grudgingly reveals the final score.

Their delight is short-lived. The phones start howling with more bettors eager to get in a few afternoon games. As they spring into action, accommodating their patrons while bathed in the television's shaky blue glow, you realize it was never blinking in the first place--it was winking.


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