Sonny: A bettor’s bookie

Jun 26, 2001 10:53 AM

When Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox was flirting with a no-hitter last week, one innovative Internet sports book put up a betting line during the game whether Wakefield would accomplish the feat.

This reminded me of Sonny Reizner. It was Sonny, the most media savvy of all Las Vegas bookmakers, who came up with a daily ”˜no-hitter prop’ wager.

At 50-1, the ”˜no-hitter prop’ wasn’t the best of values, especially when it was reduced to 40-1 after a no-hitter was pitched.

But with Sonny, it’s hard to criticize. Here is a classy gentleman who always has a kind word, a twinkle in his eye and a sincere caring for other people.

Did I mention a great sense of humor, too? One of my favorite photos of all-time hung in Sonny’s office when he was the Rio sports book director.

The photo was of 7-foot-7 inch Dinka tribesman turned NBA center Manute Bol standing side by side next to diminutive radio personality turned Las Vegas cult figure Donnie Bader.

"That picture should be hanging in the Louvre," I told Sonny. He wasn’t sure if I was talking about the museum in Paris or a bathroom.

Sonny came to Vegas 31 years ago from Boston where he was an avid sports bettor. He used to go to games at the old Boston Garden.

It was there he had his worst sports bad beat. The Celtics had the game won as the final seconds ticked down. Reizner didn’t care. He had the underdog and they were covering by a point.

The Celtics’ great ball-handling guard Bob Cousy was at mid-court dribbling out the last couple of seconds. In celebration, Cousy threw up a shot over his head at the buzzer that miraculously flew into the net.

Reizner, who had a hefty wager going, nearly fainted.

"Cousy would never shoot," he said. "He would just go to mid-court and dribble out the clock. That was probably the only time he ever threw up a shot."

It was time for Sonny to try the other side of betting - behind the counter. From the mid-1970s through the mid-’80s, Reizner probably was the most recognized bookmaker in Nevada.

He cemented this reputation in 1980 when he achieved nationwide publicity for taking bets on who shot J.R. on the then top-rated TV show "Dallas."

Among those Reizner listed on the ”˜prop’ wager were J.R. himself at 20-1, J.R.’s mother, Miss Ellie, at 8-1, Tom Landry at 500-1 and Roger Staubach at 1,000-1.

The state gaming regulators didn’t find this amusing. They banned any wager not determined on the field of play, and made Reizner refund all bets.

Reizner operated in a free wheeling environment at a hotel called the Castaways. The sports book was so small it became known as, "The Hole in the Wall Book."

Despite this, no sports book was more beloved before it was torn down to make room for The Mirage.

Sonny was a conservative bookmaker, but bettor’s loved the easy parking, promotions and parlay cards.

Sonny’s greatness was in his marketing and original thinking. Given tremendous free reign by Castaways president Bill Friedman, Reizner helped create the first point spread football contest in Nevada.

That was in 1978 with the "Castaways Challenge." The following year he created another high-end contest called the "Ultimate Challenge," where contestants had to pick every NFL game against the spread.

Sonny was ahead of his time with parlay cards, too. He came up with special cards for the Monday night games and Super Bowl.

Another early marketing idea Sonny produced was giving away T-shirts if people bet a certain amount on these special parlay cards.

Special parlay cards during football are standard now. Nearly every hotel pushes their parlay card business, with some offering as many as seven different types.

After the Castaways, Reizner briefly worked at the Frontier as executive director of sports gaming before going to the Rio.

Some people are honored enough to have a sandwich named after them. Sonny had an entire deli named for him. Next to the sports book at the Rio was originally called, "Sonny’s Deli."

Sonny retired around eight years ago. In October, God willing, he’ll turn 80.

But Parkinson’s disease and aging have taken a heavy toll.

Sonny is now residing at Criton’s Senior Care Haven. The address is 3224 Brazos St., Las Vegas, 89109.