If an early Las Vegas sports book could be restored for all to appreciate, it should be Churchill Downs. Hollywood couldn’t do it. The Spartan, physical room can be replicated but not its spirit.
Harry Gordon owned Churchill (in the old days, race and sports books were named after racetracks) every day of its existence. In 1967 he wisely brought in legendary oddsmaker Bob Martin to take over the sports side of the operation. Harry continued to run the race book.
Bob was pleasant, humorous, good company and easy to talk to, making people feel like they were somebody.
The sports book had a counter with five writer stations and a single cashier. Behind the counter were big, heavy odds boards that could be raised and lowered like a window. Above them was the first reader board in town. It stopped often requiring a whack on the “smart spot” with a broom handle.
Below the boards sat a noisy Western Union ticker with the classic paper ribbon pouring out. Harry connected it to the reader board so the board showed everything that came banging across the ticker. Western Union would routinely disconnect them but they always got reconnected again.
The odds boards were lined similar to boxscores to accommodate all sports. My first job at Churchill was boardman. I would wipe them clean every morning and begin again. With chalk I wrote visitors on top, home team on bottom, followed by game time and odds. Looking to the right, like a boxscore, a glance gave you a living history of games in progress. Scores in football were recorded with a small 3 or 7 and who scored it written in the margin. When the quarter finished it was marked in orange.
Baseball was a work of art. Each inning was designated with the time it started. If time between half innings got to 7-9 minutes with no score posted, the room buzzed with speculation: Men must be on base; how many? Were they scoring? A pitching change? Pitcher knocked out or righty-lefty change?
With a glance at the time the inning started you knew “how long they’ve been out” (good or bad, depending who you had).
As home runs came in on the ticker I marked them with a symbol in the inning-in-progress spot. In the margins were the batter and how many were on base – marked with chalk, of course.
When it became almost certain they were scoring (via pitching changes, HRs) the conversation shifted to how many runs: Field goal (three runs)? More? Less? The ticker clanked and all eyes looked anxiously at the reader board for the answer.
When it came to TVs in those days – fugeddaboudit – there was just one. But, we did have a transoceanic radio to pick up the Armed Forces Network, which carried lots of games. Sometimes the crowd ended up out front for better reception. Who knows what the tourists thought seeing this loud, cheering outfit?
Facing all this, on the other side of the counter, were four rows of seats, about 12 per row. The back row was special, reserved for owners of hotels, big bettors, street bookmakers, and assorted wise guys.
Some of the casino owners who sat there included Sid Wyman, Dunes; Major Riddle, Silverbird; Joe Slyman, Royal Casino; Frank Kish, Skyline; and Sam Diamond, headman at the Aladdin next-door.
Also, guys like Joe the vice cop, Anthony “the Little Guy” Spilotro and members of his crew, Blackie, Pittsburgh Jack, Hunchy, Bobby the Midget, “Fat” Gerry Dehlman, Scotty Fehr, Julie Moskewitz, Ray Vera, Bert Brown, Joe Nails, E. Walker, Mel Golden, Lips, Marty Kane, Joey Boston, Frank Carduci, Jimmy “The Greek,” and Doc Mindlin.
But the back row was neutral territory, so Joe the vice cop could sit next to Tony Spilotro with no problem, like a timeout was called.
There weren’t many serious disagreements and hardly any violence on property in those days, although once a man got murdered out back, then was run over to prove a point. But most beefs were settled elsewhere. For sure there weren’t any robberies of customers on property. You could pay and collect without any hassle.
In those days, tickets were written, graded and paid by hand. Accounting was by hand, too, since computer betting, with its paper trail, wasn’t around yet. That was a good thing because all books kept two sets of records to even the playing field.
You see, there was a 10% Federal tax on wagers that neither players nor bookies could overcome. The sports books operated on maybe a 3% win, so they figured out a way.
Bettors who were known and trusted had an “R” written on the bottom of their ticket. If anybody asked, it stood for “tax refund,” but it had a different meaning for us.
“R” tickets were written for 10% of value, i.e., a $100 bet was written as $10. We knew it was worth $100 and paid accordingly if the bettor won. But to the bean counters, it was only $10.
It had to be done to overcome the tax and stay open.
In the early 1970s, the tax was reduced to 2% and later reduced again to .25% where it stands today. This eliminated the need for creative accounting, but also paved the way for casinos to get into the race and sports betting business, resulting in the eventual demise of the stand-alone book.
Scotty Schettler began his Las Vegas journey in 1968. By the time he quit the race and sports book business he had booked over $1.5 billion for different employers. He says he knows where most of the cans are buried. His book, is available on amazon.com. Contact Scotty at [email protected].