Road To The Super Bowl: Tales From Behind the Sportsbook Counter

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In the run-up to a Super Bowl, Johnny Avello has never had a customer plop a gym bag filled with a million dollars, in small denominations, on the countertop and put it all on a side or total.

But one guy did risk $400,000 or $500,000, in twenties and fifties, on one of the big-game outcomes.

In sheer enormity of a single Super Bowl wager, Jimmy Vaccaro probably claims the top spot by having accepted $2.4 million for a bet by a wealthy financier. It was executed via a wire and a marker, though, not cash.

That’s the grand Hollywood anomaly, however, as Jay Kornegay says he also has never fielded a seven-figure wager, on a Super Bowl or any other event, in his storied career.

“Whenever any of us watches a movie that includes sports betting, like ‘Two for the Money,’ it’s comical,” Kornegay said. “At one point, I think Al Pacino says, ‘Go ahead and bet a couple of million on the Under first, then bet the Over.’ ”

Kornegay laughs, then said, “Yeah, good luck with that.”

The Super Bowl has become a lush tree of proposition options, in booklets comprised of two dozen pages, that are all rooted in New Orleans, the first seed having been planted on Jan. 26, 1986.

A kitchen appliance, epic emotional swings, a customer’s rage and an in-game shout-out from broadcasting legend Al Michaels himself all figure in the most memorable Super Bowl-betting scenes of a select group of sportsbook luminaries.

Super See-Saw

As Seattle slinked to the 1-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX, in Glendale, Ariz., Johnny Avello was trekking from his Wynn Las Vegas office to the property’s sportsbook. A seven-figure sum rode on this play, and he wanted to feel the crowd.

“A big deal,” he said.

Avello always likes to experience the atmosphere of a big event, so throughout his career he has tried to spend at least half of his time on the floor, talking with customers, discussing spreads, analyzing games.

“Half that crowd was thinking it was about to cash this ticket with Seattle, because it had Marshawn Lynch, the Beast, at running back, and there was no way he would be stopped from the one,” Avello said. “Then, the pick happened, turning everything around.”

Twenty-six seconds remained. Instead of giving it to Lynch, though, Seattle opted to pass, and undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler intercepted an attempt from Russell Wilson at the goal-line to seal New England’s 28-24 victory.

Avello witnessed the half of the crowd that had been jubilant become deflated and sit down or put their hands on their heads. The other half that had been sullen suddenly jumped, clapped, and hollered.

“A total switch,” he says. “I’d never seen that before. It’s quite astonishing, because people were so happy and were anticipating … and it goes the other way! To see that flip in the crowd, to see it firsthand on such a big game, it had such a big impact not only on money but emotions.”

Millions of dollars were on the line, and it was not a good outcome for the Wynn bottom line. But Avello didn’t cringe.

“I really don’t cringe, because I’ve seen so many turnarounds in games,” he said. “When Atlanta had that 21-3 halftime lead (over New England in Super Bowl LI, and lost in overtime), we needed the Falcons that day. There are times when it’s worked for us, too.

“I’ve had it both ways. In the sportsbook business, the Super Bowl should not make or break your year anyway. I’ve gone five, six years in a row with Super Bowl wins. When you take big action and you lose, it’s a dent. It hurts. You just suck it up and move on to the next day.”

Hotline To Shanahan?

Before a packed Imperial Palace sportsbook, the patron screamed in full fury at Jay Kornegay. The guy had wagered on Denver reserve quarterback Bubby Brister to not have a rushing attempt against Atlanta in Super Bowl XXXIII.

IP book director Kornegay and his staff had detailed, in that proposition’s fine print, that a kneel-down constituted an attempt to run with the football.

With the game secured in Miami Gardens, Fla., Broncos coach Mike Shanahan put Brister in for John Elway. Brister took a knee. The customer knew Kornegay had roots in Colorado and accused him of having called Shanahan during the game.

“And told him to put Brister in, because we need him to get a rushing attempt,” said Kornegay, laughing. “Seriously? Yeah, I had a direct hotline. ‘Hey, Mike. Jay in Vegas. I know you’re busy but, uh, could you put Bubby in? Appreciate it. Thanks.’

“No,” said a grinning Kornegay, who has run the Westgate SuperBook since 2004, to the obvious follow-up, “I’ve never met Shanahan in my life.”

The Great Refund

When Gaughan Gaming sports director Vinny Magliulo was at Caesars Palace, he had okayed the payout of a coin-toss prop when he saw one team receiving the kickoff. He had gotten busy and assumed that’s what happened.

But the other side had correctly called the toss, then chose to defer to the second half. “Who does that in a Super Bowl?” says Magliulo, who would give the company’s accountants headaches by having ticket writers pay off both sides.

However, he has a better story. When Green Bay beat New England, 35-21, in Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans, the game had remained solidly at Packers -14 points in its two-week run-up.

“The Great Refund,” says Magliulo, who closes his eyes and still sees that long line snaking around the casino floor. “We were refunding for twenty-four hours!”

Which compelled him to brainstorm a generic line—NFC -2.5 over AFC—on the next season’s Super Bowl. He aimed to catch the attention of everyone in that never-ending line. It worked.

“I thought, ‘Let’s take a shot,’ and we did six figures on the following year’s Super Bowl, right there,” he says. “It was fantastic. ‘Gimme a hundred on AFC … five hundred on NFC,’ and nobody knew who would be in it. Think about that. What were we going to do, give all that money back?

“We were saying, ‘Wow, look at this. Don’t forget to bet next year’s game!’ It’s really quite amazing to see how the Super Bowl has evolved, not only into such a great event but such a great betting event, as well.”

On Seat Edges

With his regular patronage of the Hilton, broadcaster Al Michaels and SuperBook director Art Manteris formed a friendship that endures today. Michaels prefers table games to sports, and his friends became tight with Manteris, too.

Michaels would ring Manteris for line movements and updates, and that’s what Michaels did before San Francisco played San Diego in Super Bowl XXIX. The 49ers were favored by 18 points.

“And I told Al how badly we needed the Chargers,” says Manteris, “that all the money was on San Francisco and I was really going to be sweating the game.”

San Francisco had taken a 49-18, but San Diego battled back. The Chargers scored, making it 49-26, held the 49ers and got the ball back.

“Now, all of a sudden,” says Manteris, “we found ourselves in position for a late backdoor cover.”

San Diego quarterback Stan Humphries started a drive at his own 8-yard line, with 99 seconds remaining, and guided the Chargers to the San Francisco 35. Three downs remained. Two passes were incomplete.

Fourth-and-one, mere seconds left. A hefty six-figure sum was about to remain in the Hilton’s cash registers or be handed to fortunate ticket-holders.

“Remember, back then they weren’t allowed to talk about point spreads,” says Manteris. “And Al says to (Dan Dierdorf), ‘I’m sure I know some people are sitting on the edge of their seats in Las Vegas watching this play.’

“I look at (protégé) Chuckie Esposito. We were literally sitting on the edge of our seats on chairs in my office, and he looks at me.”

Humphries’s pass sailed out of the back of the end zone.

“We lose. But I’ll always remember laughing when Al said that. He knew exactly what I was going through, and I knew exactly that he was referencing me. Chuckie and I laughed, then we cried when the pass went incomplete.”

The Fridge

Chicago coach Mike Ditka had put 350-pound defensive tackle William “Refrigerator” Perry into the Bears’ backfield on goal-line situations during the 1985 season, and the Fridge had scored two touchdowns.

For Super Bowl XX, Manteris, then directing the Caesars Palace sportsbook, and his team had produced a prop on Perry scoring against the Patriots. Manteris opened it at 20-1, which an avalanche of cash whittled to 2-1 by kickoff.

Late in the third quarter, the Bears had the ball on the New England 1-yard line. Ditka put the Fridge in. Sterling tailback Walter Payton served as a decoy. Perry plunged into the end zone to give Chicago a 44-3 advantage.

That scene dominates the memory of Tony Miller, now sportsbook director at the Golden Nugget who was then writing tickets for Manteris at Caesars.

“I can remember Art standing out there when William Perry scored that touchdown,” said Miller. “It cost the book. We went from big winners to big losers. And I remember Art screaming, he was so upset that Perry scored that touchdown.

“They didn’t give it to Walter Payton, and we lost tons of money. I went, ‘Oh, boy.’ Those props have just taken off over the years, but that’s the one that sticks out in my mind. Everybody in the world bet that the Fridge would score a touchdown.”

Decades later, Manteris, the vice president for race and sports operations at Station Casinos, says that single prop cost Caesars $250,000. Asked if a Mount Manteris eruption compares to Mount Etna, he laughs.

“We got killed on that prop, and I was furious. But the next day I got calls from the president of Caesars World, the president of Caesars Palace, everyone congratulated me because it got so much national attention.”

$2.4 Million

In advance of that 49ers-Chargers Super Bowl, financier Carl Icahn rang Jimmy Vaccaro at the Mirage and had $2.4 million wired from his bank to the property’s cages.

When Icahn visited, he and Vaccaro strolled to the cage, Icahn obtained the high-dollar marker and they returned to the book.

Icahn put it all on San Francisco, at -800 on the moneyline, to win $300,000.

“I jokingly said to him, ‘Do you want any more?’ I knew, with San Diego being in its first Super Bowl, that we were going to get car after car after car coming to town to bet on San Diego,” said Vaccaro.

“This knucklehead (Icahn) would come to town once or twice a year and bet these huge, huge amounts on stuff like that.”

Icahn made Vaccaro, now the South Point’s vice president for sports marketing, promise that he wouldn’t tell anybody. Vaccaro promised.

“Then he went to play poker with the Stuey Ungars of the world and he told all of them, and they told their friends. A guy soon rang me and said, ‘Jimmy, I heard …’ I said, ‘Yeah, it’s true.’ Here’s a (expletive) guy who told me not to say anything …”

Of course, Icahn won the $300,000. That was the largest bet Vaccaro has ever taken in a legendary career, and he says he didn’t flinch. Icahn, 84, is one of Wall Street’s most successful financiers, worth about $15 billion today.

“Two point four million or two hundred and forty dollars, what the (expletive) is the difference?” says Vaccaro. “The bottom line is, You give us money. If you win, in three hours, you get it back. If you lose, we keep the money.”

About the Author

Rob Miech

Veteran sportswriter Rob Miech covers soccer and does features for Gaming Today. He has written about college hoops for the Las Vegas Sun, CBS SportsLine and the Pasadena Star-News. He is the author of four books, including Sports Betting for Winners, which was published in 2019.

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