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I’m sitting at my writer’s window at Churchill one day in 1978 minding my own business when my phone rings. We had phones at our windows in those days.

It’s Joe Slyman who owned the small casino in the Royal Casino on Convention Center. He wants to put a sportsbook in and me, a ticket writer, to run it. “Sure” to Joe but “what the hell” to myself.

I went from writing sports tickets at Churchill to opening a sportsbook. It wasn’t in my plans, but it sure was in Joe’s, to book high, to have the biggest handles in Las Vegas. We handled so much money the Gaming Control Board was stunned. Whatever you brought in, you could bet with us. Joe didn’t care, he booked higher than anybody else. Someone had to be the biggest but a ham and egg joint like the Royal?

Joe came to Las Vegas from Cleveland and was granted an unlimited gaming license at age 27. He didn’t own the hotel but leased the casino and coffee shop from the owners. The casino had about 75 slot machines and a dozen table games.

We began booking sports in the casino’s “showroom,” which was nothing but a small time nightly burlesque show. The burlesque show was making money, and Joe didn’t want to close it down so we had a counter built for the sportsbook on the opposite side of the showroom. A curtain was added over the sports counter to cover it while the burlesque girls worked at night. We lowered the curtain to hide the sportsbook counter and odds boards and turned the tables and chairs around to face the stage. The sportsbook became a burlesque theater.

In the morning, before we opened for sports, we’d drop the curtain on the burlesque stage, raise the curtain on the sportsbook counter, and turn the tables and chairs around the other way. It became a sportsbook again. It worked perfectly. Serious sports bettors are not interested in the amenities – just take their money so they can try to win it back.

This was a gut shot to the casino sportsbooks and unsettling to the Gaming Control Board. How the 

heck could our ham-and-egg joint outdo much bigger hotel-casinos’ sportsbooks. We didn’t even have a racebook. A million dollar day in midweek was almost unheard of in those days; what’s going on there? Big bookmakers in the East and around the country certainly did more, but they were mostly credit. So you can imagine what the GCB was thinking with a little place like this handling that kind of money.

We took big bets and lots of them. For every sports bet we took, we wrote a legitimate ticket and paid all appropriate taxes. The GCB eventually came in every day for a while, set up a table and counted beans to their hearts’ content. 

I’ll never forget the day we opened. It’s a weekday during baseball season. Cincinnati is playing a day game and some guy wanted $60,000 on the Reds. I was used to bookmaking where you would at least try to get some money on the other side. It was our first day in business with no chance in hell of getting much on the other side.

Joe says, “Don’t worry, just take it – we’ve got a well; ask him if he wants more.” That made it easy when I didn’t have to worry about balancing the action. I don’t remember if the Reds won or lost but it didn’t matter, Joe just wanted the action. I learned a lot from Joe, especially about totals and how to move them for the greatest value.

Now it became the Royal Casino that put up the most respected numbers in Las Vegas. Bettors and bookmakers respected our numbers because we took mostly sharp action. Serious gamblers looked for a weak spot in the early line. Service guys sent our numbers back East and around the country. Joe would give me the numbers in the morning, usually from his home. There were games he wanted to gamble on, so he’d shade them in a particular direction.

Once we put the line up it was a 20 yard dash to the front door and get to a pay phone. Cell phones weren’t allowed in casinos in those days so our clientele had every pay phone in the entire neighborhood mapped out. It was like a fire drill or a bomb scare.

They had their cars parked at angles so they could peel away fast, like it was a bank robbery. It was the funniest thing, some of them would park so they were blocking other guys to get a head start to a pay phone. It was a circus, but it was very serious business getting a bet down before the odds changed.

We hired Sam “The Plumber” Cagnino to help with our college basketball numbers. To be more accurate, Joe hired Sam to get his games. Sam was an uncanny college basketball handicapper, which was his only sport. Joe wanted to bet on Sam’s games, but he also wanted Sam to write tickets. Bad idea, 

Sam kept his basketball figures in an oversized, loose-leaf, beat-up 10-pound notebook. He tracked hundreds of teams and kept his player figures, box scores, and updated power ratings in the smallest pencil entries possible. Any smaller and they’d be invisible. It’s an amazing workbook. After Sam passed away, his wife gave it to me. 

She was a large lady and would be at least pick’em in a fight if someone tried to get Sam’s money. He had her sit outside on their satellite dish base to keep it steady in a super Las Vegas wind storm as he watched his beloved college basketball inside.

True story. Take care.

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