After the game, amidst the locker room celebration of one of the most dominant seasons the NFL had seen, the only cloud in sight hung above Walter Payton. Payton, the long-serving veteran of the Bears and one of the great running backs in league history, bristled at not scoring a touchdown in his only Super Bowl appearance. He believed coach Mike Ditka had been swept up in the hoopla over Perry, who during the season had generated Kardashian-esque amounts of hype as an over-sized and very part-time running back.
The Perry touchdown won hundreds of thousands of dollars for bettors all along the Strip.
But Payton wasn’t the only person disappointed by Perry’s touchdown plunge. Fifteen hundred miles to the west in Las Vegas, the moment Perry theatrically spiked that ball, sportsbook managers up and down the Strip cringed and cursed.
In the buildup to the game, Las Vegas sportsbooks looking to capitalize on the country’s fascination with the massive gap-toothed rookie had posted odds on whether Perry would score a touchdown. As Ditka publicly down-played Perry’s role, the odds soared to as high as 75 to 1, potentially earning bettors $750 in winnings for every ten dollars bet on Perry to score. Then the national media picked up the story, relishing another colorful hook associated with a team that had created their own music video mid-season. As the publicity flowed in to Las Vegas, so did money. By kick-off the odds dropped to 2 to 1. Now a 10 dollar bet on Perry would only earn back 20 bucks.
Still, the Perry touchdown won hundreds of thousands of dollars for bettors all along the Strip. For the casinos however, that loss would be spare change compared to the millions and millions of dollars they would ultimately make because of that one single play.
In the early 20th century, Las Vegas was a small desert outpost still decades away from becoming the center of gambling in America. Back then, someone wanting to bet on a sporting event didn’t travel across the country; they went across town – or across the street. In no town was this more true than in Boston.
Gambling wasn’t an underground activity in Boston; it was right out in the open - in taverns, shops on the corner – and, especially, at Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. Baseball and gambling had always been as closely related as siblings, but in Boston they were Siamese twins. The section of stands known as the right field pavilion that paralleled the first base foul line essentially belonged to gamblers. As the game went on their activities more resembled the pit of a stock market than fans at a game; men frantically waving dollars in the air and offering odds on anything and everything. They were so brazen that on June 16, 1917, hundreds even rushed the field during the rainy fifth inning in hopes of forcing a postponement of the game before their losses tied to a 2-0 Red Sox deficit to the White Sox became official.
"I guess that's [Fenway Park] where the idea for proposition wagering was born."
It was no coincidence that the greatest gambling scandal in American sporting history, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, began in Boston. At the Hotel Buckminster, only a block from Fenway, White Sox first baseman "Chick" Gandil and Joseph "Sport" Sullivan, a notorious Boston gambler, hatched the scheme in which some White Sox conspired to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. A gambling syndicate, of course, funded and also profited from the enterprise.
Into this atmosphere, in 1921, Julius Reizner was born in nearby Taunton, Mass. Reizner, nicknamed Sonny due to his positive disposition, gambled before he even had money, betting on games of marbles as a young boy. By his teens he was spending his off-hours at pool halls and in the pavilion at Fenway Park, where even after the Black Sox scandal the gamblers still held sway. As Reizner wrote in his book The Best of Sonny Reizner, "Propositions were thrown back and forth in the stands in those days on just about every pitch. There would be a price if the pitch would be a ball or a strike, a price if the batter would get a hit, or walk or make [an] out, a price on scoring a run, etc.," so called "do they or don’t they" bets that rendered the outcome of the game almost entirely irrelevant.
Years later, Reizner told a reporter, "Now that I think about it, I guess that’s [Fenway Park] where the idea for proposition wagering was born. When I was in a position to do so, it was only natural to extend it to the Super Bowl."
Reizner bounced around a series of jobs in greater Boston, working in a warehouse and helping run the family antique store with his mother, but his day jobs simply funded his true career as a bettor. He bet on anything and everything, from invented dice games to sports. He won a series of bets during the 1958 World Series, rolling over the winnings until losing a $100,000 bet on Game 7 when the Yankees dumped Milwaukee.
He was almost 50 when he came to Las Vegas in 1970. For the first time he moved behind the betting counter, joining a small race and sportsbook called Churchill Downs.
Although Jimmy Vaccaro was born a generation after Reizner, he too was swept up by gambling, which flourished almost everywhere as the American economy experienced an unprecedented post-war boom. Vaccaro grew up in Western Pennsylvania, in the shadows of the plants and factories that fueled America’s growth. Like Reizner, Vaccaro was a gambler by nature before it became his vocation. His brother, six years his senior, got him started and Vaccaro bet parlays before he reached puberty. He moved to Youngstown, Ohio, to attend college in the 1960s but left without a degree seven years later. His real education came from time spent in Youngstown’s pool halls, barrooms and back alleys, wherever men gathered after work to let off steam, play craps and bet on the ponies, a boxing match or the ballgame.
In 1975, without a real job and with only $140 in his pocket, Vaccaro moved to Las Vegas. A friend steered him to Michael Gaughan, who ran the Royal Inn. Gaughan helped Vaccaro enroll in a blackjack dealer’s class that launched Vaccaro’s career.
At the time, sports gambling was an afterthought in the burgeoning gambling scene in Las Vegas. With a 10 percent tax levied on sports bets, the larger casino/hotels believed the risk and the hassle outweighed the potential gain. They ignored sports betting, leaving it to the small specialist houses such as the Churchill Downs where Reizner worked. But in the early ‘70s, Nevada Senator Howard Cannon decided to juice the Nevada economy by making Vegas a sports betting destination. He helped spearhead legislation that ultimately reduced those taxes to 0.25%. The large casinos quickly became disenchanted seeing their customers hopping into cabs to visit independent sportsbooks and instead started building their own. The casinos needed someone to run them and they naturally looked to the men most familiar with sports betting – experienced bettors, guys like Reizner and Vaccaro.
The new generation now managing sportsbooks started looking beyond the hardcore bettors to a new customer; casual vacation bettors.
After working briefly at a few other sportsbooks, Reizner landed at Howard Hughes’s Castaways casino, managing the Hole-in-the-Wall sportsbook. Michael Gaughan tapped Vaccaro to start the sportsbook at the Royal Inn. As Vaccaro describes it, "Michael Gaughan called me upstairs. He said, ‘Do you know how to run a sportsbook?’ And I said ‘No’. You know what his answer was? ‘Good, neither do I, we will start one together.’"
Historically, bets in sporting books had been limited to only three options: (1) Moneyline bets (a wager on which team will win a game at adjusted payouts for favorites and underdogs); (2) Point spread bets (where points are adjusted and the favorite and underdog pay the same amount); and (3) Totals bets (also known as Over/Under – i.e., how many total points will be scored). With their clientele limited to a small band of hardcore sports bettors, the independent sportsbooks had little incentive to expand betting offerings.
But the new generation of former gamblers now managing the large hotel sportsbooks started looking beyond the hardcore bettors to a new customer; casual vacation bettors. The hotels courted these inexperienced, recreational bettors by trying to stand out from the crowd. New, more inventive bets were one way to attract attention. Reizner, recalling the scene in the right field pavilion at Fenway Park, was one of the leaders of the movement. He offered non-traditional lines on previously ignored sports like NASCAR, tennis and even the Boston Marathon. Jackie Gaughan at the El Cortez went even farther and took bets on where Skylab, a space station that had ended its useful life, would crash land upon its return to Earth. On that bet, Australia, a longshot at 30 to 1, came in.
The sportsbooks knew vacationers from places like Youngstown and elsewhere were looking as much for a story as profit. "Some of them made bets just to take the ticket home with them." Vaccaro remembers, "To show their other friends … this is the crazy stuff I was betting on."
At the same time, Caesar’s Palace started hosting large Super Bowl parties, inviting ex-players and ex-coaches to mingle with the public and draw crowds. For the first time, Las Vegas saw an influx of bettors for the Super Bowl. All along the Strip, sportsbooks started looking beyond the standard three bets to separate some of these visitors from their money. Still, by the end of the ‘70s most casinos offered just a handful of prop bets. Many were considered oddities, ignored and dismissed by both the sportsbooks and most bettors. No one would ever have confused Vegas of the 1970s with the right field pavilions of Fenway Park.
On March 21, 1980, nearly 25 million people tuned into the season finale of the primetime soap opera Dallas. In the final scene, Ewing family scion J.R., played by actor Larry Hagman, was shot by an unknown assailant, leaving viewers hanging. The entire country spent the summer not just discussing the mystery, but even wearing T-shirts asking the question on everyone’s mind: "Who Shot J.R.?"
Sonny Reizner saw an opening. He seized on the national phenomenon and put up odds on suspects, not just characters on the show, but real-life figures like Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry whose only connection to the program was the aerial shot of Cowboy Stadium used during the opening credits. The press flocked to the story and as bettors rushed to put their money down on an entirely fictional and ultimately absurd question Reizner gained national attention for the Hole-in-the-Wall sportsbook. As he later recalled in his book, "Most of the people were not your typical sports bettor. Little old ladies from Iowa wanted to bet. Baptist ministers wanted to bet. Rabbis wanted to bet. 13-year-old kids wanted to bet. Everybody thought they knew who shot J.R. and were willing to invest a few dollars on the outcome."
Ultimately, however, the Nevada Gaming Control Board stepped in. The Board took the bet seriously and rightly assumed that someone on the production staff of the show knew who shot J.R. and therefore had an unfair advantage. The Board forced Reizner to remove the lines and refund all bets.
Although 83 million viewers watched the "Who Done It?" episode, no one in Las Vegas legally won any money by correctly betting on J.R.’s scheming mistress and sister-in-law Kristin Shepard (played by Mary Crosby), but the board’s decision had a lasting impact. Although Nevada casinos remain restricted from posting betting lines on non-sporting events today, they learned something even more valuable; the value of the publicity associated with setting a betting line on something that captures the public’s imagination.
In the wake of the Who Shot J.R.? spectacle, all of the sportsbooks along the Strip started looking for a legal wager that would have a similar impact and become a part of the national conversation. While the Super Bowl and March Madness continued to grow as the biggest gambling events of the year, prop bets, for a time, still remained an afterthought. Then came the Fridge and the bet on whether he would score a touchdown in Super Bowl XX. For the first time since "Who shot J.R.?" a wager intrigued an entire country, not just the bettors lining up at the sportsbook windows each week.
By then Vaccaro had moved to the MGM. He recalls getting a phone call from a Chicago Tribune writer amazed that someone could bet on whether Perry would score. As Vaccaro recalls, "We got national publicity … this proposition went through the roof … everyone in the freaking world called us."
The MGM and Caesar’s may have lost money on the Fridge but they had also gained the valuable insight that Super Bowl hype and the prop bet were a match made in a very profitable heaven.
The publicity didn’t just benefit the casinos. The men who created them also profited, becoming the faces of the casinos where they worked. As the small, older casinos were replaced by the monoliths we see today, the big casinos wanted the biggest names to represent their sportsbooks. Guys like Sonny Reizner suddenly became larger than life. He moved from Castaways to the Frontier before opening the Rio in 1989.
Vaccaro himself later moved from the MGM to help open Steve Wynn’s Mirage, where he created his most unique prop bet. In a 1995 special episode of the The Simpsons paying homage to Dallas, Vaccaro provided (fictional) odds on who had shot Mr. Burns in the cartoon’s own season-ending cliffhanger. (Maggie Simpson was the surprise culprit.)
While men like Vaccaro and Reizner became national figures, the next generation of bookmakers looked to see just how far they could push betting options. After all, despite the losses on the Fridge bet, prop bets, due to their ability to attract new bettors and garner publicity, proved to be a wise investment.
In the late 1980s, Jay Kornegay was new to Las Vegas, and just learning the ropes at the Imperial Palace sportsbook. Unlike the founding sportsbook bookmakers such as Vaccaro and Reizner, Kornegay hadn’t spent his youth gambling in pool halls or the pavilion at Fenway. Nevertheless he had become intrigued by the industry on a senior year spring break trip and joined the profession after graduating from Colorado State.
his generation quickly embraced the notion of looking at games as more than just wins, losses and point spreads.
Despite not growing up surrounded by gambling, Kornegay and others of his generation quickly embraced the notion of looking at games as more than just wins, losses and point spreads. Gather any group of sports fans together for very long in a gambling environment and inevitably challenges are leveled and wagers made – most extending far beyond the standard offerings of a sportsbook. Behind the desks at places like the Imperial Palace, conversations among the staff were never limited simply to who would win a game.
For example, when the "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers faced the "Bad Boys" Detroit Pistons in the 1988 and 1989 NBA Finals the staff of the Imperial Palace – banned from betting at their own sportsbook – made private bets among themselves. How many games will be played in the series? How many points will Magic Johnson score? Who scores more – Magic or Isiah Thomas? Will Magic have more assists than Dennis Rodman has rebounds? Regulars overheard these informal bets and debates among staffers and soon asked to join in. To accommodate their interest the Imperial Palace soon posted these types of prop bets on all kinds of sporting events.
None however, proved as popular as prop bets on the biggest betting event of the year, the Super Bowl. After the success of the Perry bet in 1986, Super Bowl prop bets rapidly grew in popularity. By the early 1990s most books offered somewhere between 30 and 50 prop bets for each Super Bowl. Then circumstances well outside of Las Vegas’ control threatened to affect their business on the biggest sports betting day of the year.
Beginning in 1990, for six of the next eight years the Super Bowls were one-sided blowouts as NFC powers annually dominated over-matched AFC opponents by lop-sided scores of 55-10, 52-17, 49-26 and 35-21. Even worse, many of these games were predictable blow-outs, and predictable blow-outs generate little betting interest. In response, the casinos needed to provide bettors other incentives to gamble. Prop bets unrelated to the outcome but not resolved until the clock runs out were the obvious answer.
By the early 1990s most books offered somewhere between 30 and 50 prop bets for each Super Bowl.
The casinos began manufacturing these bets as rapidly as Toyota produces cars, and most were soon offering a hundred or more options, including some that crossed the boundaries of individual sports. Michael Jordan was the most popular athlete in the world at the time, a magnet whose every move attracted attention. If there was little doubt or interest in wagering that the Cowboys would out-score the Bills, the sportsbooks figured there might be more suspense as to whether or not Dallas would out-score Jordan in his game that weekend. Bettors seized on such opportunities, throwing money at wagers that maintained interest in the game to the end.
Prop bets established a beachhead as an integral part of the Las Vegas Super Bowl experience. Even after the Super Bowls became competitive again in 1998 when Denver beat Green Bay in arguably one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played (at least for Broncos fans), the popularity of the prop bet never waned. As Vaccaro remembers today, "It just fed itself. It just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger."
Sonny Reizner retired from the Rio in 1996, spending his last few years as an observer of the craze he helped to popularize. In 2002, he passed away at the age of 81, winning his own prop bet in life expectancy for a man of his generation. Vaccaro eventually left the Mirage and took over Lucky’s, a chain of Nevada sportsbooks. Last year British betting giant William Hill bought Lucky’s, where Jimmy now plays a sort of "Bookmaker Emeritus" role as director of P.R.
In recent years, the prop bet craze that Reizner and Vaccaro helped foster has seen another bump in popularity due to the rise of the offshore sportsbooks. Not restricted by Nevada’s rules regarding non-sports bets, offshore sportsbooks, although illegal in the U.S., offer a far broader selection of betting options than their domestic counterparts do.
For the Super Bowl no option is left untouched, whether a bettor is a sport fan or not.
For the Super Bowl no option is left untouched, whether a bettor is a sport fan or not. For the musically inclined, bets on the duration of the Star Spangled Banner and the first song sung by Beyoncé during this year’s halftime performance are available.
Those more interested in fashion than football can also bet on whether Beyoncé will be showing cleavage during that first song and whether the Harbaugh brothers will both wear hats. The current odds heavily favor both cleavage and hats.
Bets can even be placed on the bettors themselves – there are odds on the amount of money Nevada will pull in on Super Bowl bets – Inception meets Super Bowl prop betting.
The Nevada Gaming Control Board, apparently recognizing that their restrictions have put casinos at a disadvantage to these offshore sportsbooks, now offers casinos an opportunity to apply for an exemption to post non-sporting event lines. However, the bureaucratic requirements are daunting, and few bets seem to be worth the effort. Kornegay, however, looks at the American presidential election and sees a near endless possibility of innovative prop bets. He believes that betting on the presidential election could eventually dwarf any sporting event, the Super Bowl included. Between those blindly betting on their preferred candidate and those hedging against the wrong candidate winning, it is easy to envision the massive interest in betting on an election. Even bets on items peripheral to the outcome of the election would likely generate interest, whether it is the duration of an acceptance speech, the time the loser concedes, or the tie color chosen by the winning candidate, presidential election-betting options seem endless. The right election prop bet could light the imaginations of every voter in the same way the Perry bet once captured NFL fans.
While the sportsbooks of Nevada may envy the freedom enjoyed by the offshore books, there is, as yet, little real concern about their competitive impact. No bet placed in front of a computer alone at home can compete with the camaraderie of sitting in a sportsbook surrounded by hundreds of other sports fans. The finances of Super Bowl betting for Nevada bear this out.
That means that $35 to $45 million was wagered on Super Bowl prop bets alone.
Where prop bets once accounted for maybe five percent of a sportsbooks’ total Super Bowl action, prop bets can now represent as much as 40 to 50 percent. In 2012, a total of nearly $94 million was bet on the Super Bowl at Nevada sportsbooks. That means that $35 to $45 million was wagered on Super Bowl prop bets alone.
This year, in the days and weeks before the conference championship games, Kornegay, who is now the vice president of race and sports book operations at the LVH, met with his staff to review what prop bets will be offered for this year’s Super Bowl. To the south at William Hill U.S., Vaccaro and his compatriots did the same.
The starting point for this year’s wagers is last years’ offerings. They dropped prop bets that didn’t see much action or those that required too much effort relative to their response. Potential new bets were brainstormed, the staff guessing which teams would emerge from the championship games (inevitably getting one wrong) and starting their work on updating the data for this year.
On the Thursday following the conference championship games, LVH released this year’s prop bet menu. Stretching to 25 extra-long pages and providing more than 300 wagering options, it is Las Vegas’ answer to War and Peace. Limited to on-field action, the LVH focuses heavily on individual players while also offering opportunities to bet on nearly every element of game action.
Alumni of Nevada, Delaware and all fans of quarterback play can bet on practically every decision made by Colin Kaepernick and Joe Flacco. Total passing or rushing yards, number of completions, number of touchdown passes, whether they complete their first pass, whether they throw an interception or touchdown first, their longest rush, their longest completion, and whether they throw a touchdown in each of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th quarters specifically are all available among many others.
The cross-sport bets have matured far beyond the offerings from Michael Jordan’s prime. There are still opportunities to wager whether the Niners outscore Kobe or LeBron, but there are also wagers on whether Lionel Messi scores more goals against Valencia than Frank Gore scores touchdowns; whether Sidney Crosby scores more goals against the Capitals than Kaepernick throws touchdowns and whether Lee Westwood’s final round score at the Phoenix Open is lower than Ray Rice’s total rushing yards. Even those who would rather cheer for the referees can profit by wagering on total penalty yardage and which Harbaugh brother first throws the challenge flag.
While the menu has broadened, so has the rigor in developing lines. The days of a line moving from 75 to 1 all the way to 2 to 1, as the prop bet over Williams Perry’s touchdown did, are gone. Now, there is simply too much information too widely available; each bet creates more data that becomes input for future bets. For the commonplace prop bet now posted annually, updating is so streamlined it requires little more than replacing the names of the Giants and Patriots with the 49ers and Ravens. New prop bets, however are heavily analyzed before ever being offered to the general public. There is still no room for error.
For the sportsbooks, the novelty is gone and today prop bets are as predictable as any other kind of wager. Many bets have been up for years and the sportsbooks understand how the betting public reacts. As Kornegay says, "People want to see things happen," so there is always a bias towards bets on the "Over" on an Over/Under bet, or the "Yes" on a Yes/No bet. Yet at the same time, this advantage is counterbalanced by the increased sophistication of the betting public. Greater acceptance of gambling coupled with the proliferation of gambling information available on the Internet and on social media means that today a member of the general public potentially can pose as big of a risk to the casinos as the wisest wiseguy.
All of this means that the prop bets we see today while more wide-ranging in their breadth, are also tougher to beat. Yet that does not mean they are infallible, particularly to a professional gambler.
Geoff Kulesa, a professional handicapper who runs the Wunderdog Sports handicapping service doesn’t look at the prop bets as a distraction or diversion to keep him entertained if the big game ends up being dull. He views them as opportunities for value.
"What’s easier is finding bets that don’t get a lot of attention," he writes in an email. "You can spot errors more often in these lines. You can find places where the odds makers make consistent mistakes that don’t get fixed year after year. Bottom line: there’s more value in the prop bets; they are easier to beat."
the real value in prop bets remains in the publicity they generate for the casinos.
He has his own vast databases to mine for prop bet data, looking to see where the odds posted by the casinos differ from his own calculations. "I run stats to see how certain bets have performed in the past," he writes. "I then generally find a "cut-off" point for a prop bet in which I feel comfortable betting it if the line/odds exceed some threshold for me."
Despite applying more discipline in their development the sportsbooks still don’t view prop bets as enormous moneymakers. Although profit is earned through the shrewd management of the vig (the commission taken by the casino) and by moving odds quickly in response to money coming in, with low bet limits even the most profitable individual prop bet pales in comparison to bets on the game result. Vaccaro estimates he will lose no more than ten thousand dollars on any single prop bet, while millions and millions can swing on whether or not the 49ers beat the Ravens. It is an object lesson in diversification; even if the casinos see a big loss on one prop bet, that loss will likely be off-set by wins on the majority of the other 299 available bets.
As it was back in 1986 with the Fridge, and with the question of "Who shot J.R.?" the real value in prop bets remains in the publicity they generate for the casinos. A prop bet that captures the imagination of the public, even if it loses for the casino, can generate outsized returns as it entices new bettors to come to the casino, open their wallets and hope for a story to take back home. Either way, the house always wins.
On New Year’s Day, Jimmy Vaccaro dropped in at Ellis Island, a small casino located off the Strip where Vaccaro’s employer, William Hill US, runs the sportsbook. The casino feels different from the monstrosities that have popped up along the Strip in recent years, all bright lights, high ceilings and white marble. In contrast, Ellis Island’s main casino floor is small enough to circumnavigate in 30 seconds, darkened by burgundy walls and crowded with red pleather chairs stationed before each slot machine.
The sportsbook is a tiny room located just steps from the whirling lights of the slots, wedged in next to a barbecue restaurant. There is no VIP section or sprawling soft couches. There are 18 desks and chairs lined up in three rows of six that face a betting desk and a bank of TVs and betting boards spread across the wall.
Vaccaro, wearing a white sweatshirt and a couple days stumble on his face, with thick white hair pulled straight back from his forehead waits at the counter.
Over a chef salad at the small café just across the casino floor, Jimmy talks about a Vegas long passed, casinos that are barely a memory and the characters that built this town who are now on the cusp of being forgotten. Sitting here in this small, old-fashioned casino it is easy to picture Las Vegas as it was in the ‘70s. The only things missing are bell bottoms, butterfly collars and a Bee-Gees song playing in the background.
Back in the sportsbook, some of the customers are using William Hill’s in-game betting application on their smartphone to bet on events in real time. Customers can now bet on full game point spreads adjusted to reflect the current score or wager on the outcome of the current drive. In-game, real time betting is the next big wave in the ever-rising tide of prop betting opportunities.
It may require the latest in technology to do it, but we are on our way right back to the beginning –betting on every minute aspect of the game as it unfolds before our eyes. The only thing bettors can’t do here in the casino is rush the field if the game starts going against them.