The Opening of the Book: The Humble Beginnings of Sports Gaming

LAS VEGAS — A furious Lem Banker stomped on Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder’s Hollywood Race and Sports Book downtown in the 1960s. Snyder stood on the other side of the counter.

“Where is my money?” said the banker.

“Don’t have it,” Snyder said.

Banker, a sports betting legend and former boxer who trained religiously, walked over to Snyder, who grabbed a baseball bat. The banker crosses the counter and throws down the weapon. A struggle ensued.

They slipped behind a partition in an office. The banker walked away with his loot, possibly $5,000, said fellow pro Ron Boyles.

Eyewitness Harold Kulic, a longtime El Cortez ticket writer known as “Hungry Hal”, passed on these theatrics to Boyles during the inglorious era of Vegas sports betting.

“Everyone called him Hal and thought that was his name,” Boyles said. “He liked to eat. Never paid for a meal. He bought the best baseball numbers and everyone offered him meals.

During those decades, Vegas bettors frequented either illegal bookmakers or independents like Snyder. Legal shops continued, barely at times, until cheaper taxes led to wider acceptance and the bacchanalia of today’s sports betting.

For the first time, Nevada made $1 billion in monthly sports betting, the handful, in October, a month after New Jersey became the first state to blow a billion. The profit, or hold, typically hovers around 5%.

Industry experts expect Illinois to join this exclusive 10-figure fraternity soon.

On December 9, Maryland became the 31st US jurisdiction (30 states, plus Washington, DC) to legalize sports betting. Sixteen additional states are discussing legislation.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court let states pursue their own sports gambling ambitions in 2018, more than $82 billion in business has been generated nationwide, according to the watchdog. the SportsHandle industry.

For decades, a legal single-game sports bet could only be placed in Nevada, which had a handful of $8 million in 1974.

Sometimes there were only three stand-alones in Las Vegas.


Herbie Hoops, Dick the Pick, Bobby the Tower, Hunchback Bobby, Crazy Louie, Jolly Joe, Fat Dave, Michael the Weasel and Fast Eddie were some of the eccentrics of this unglamorous period.

“Characters,” Boyles said, “that made those holes in the wall interesting.”

They frequented the Rose Bowl, Derby, Saratoga, Santa Anita, Hollywood or other books, whether on the Strip or downtown. Longtime handicapper Dave Cokin remembers actual scrums at outside phone booths.

Nevada legalized gambling in 1931. Sports betting, however, was not popular due to reported fixes, allegations of nefarious activity, and dodgy taxes.

In 1951, a 10% federal sports betting tax both regulated and shut down businesses. In 1974 this was reduced to 2%; in 1983 to its current ¼ of 1%.

The Union Plaza, in 1975, became the first hotel-casino to incorporate a book into its premises. A year later at Stardust, Chicago native Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal — who had directed the Rose Bowl — developed the “theater-style” decor that has become de rigueur.

These independents kept the business afloat between the early 1950s, when politicians banned the creation of books almost twice, and the mid-1970s.

“Very inhospitable places,” Rosenthal said in Nicholas Pileggi’s 1995 book “Casino.” “Sawdust joints. I had spent my life in these places and I knew what they needed.


In June 1976, at Bill Dark’s Del Mar north of Las Vegas, well-known Vegas hothead Cryin’ Kenny bet on Game 5 of the Suns–Celtics NBA Championship Series to finish under his projected total.

The triple overtime game sailed. Before it was over, the wild-eyed Texan had left and returned with a gun, detonating six bullets into the Zenith television hanging from the ceiling.

Kenny returned the next day, South Point sports betting manager Chris Andrews wrote in his “Then One Day. . .” book – and apologized to Dark who, after charging Kenny for the TV, took Kenny’s bets. As per usual.

South Point sports marketing director and Vegas institution Jimmy Vaccaro said the last of the independents were Little Caesar’s and Churchill Downs, at opposite ends of a single strip mall.

In the late 1990s, this stretch of the Strip became Paris Las Vegas.

Tommy Lorenzo, a 49-year-old Southern California resident, snuck into Little Caesar’s out of curiosity when he was 19. The casino books have it all carded. But at LC, he bought a beer in a 16-ounce Dixie mug for a dollar.

“The thinking characters,” Lorenzo said, “could have inspired the canteen scene of ‘Star Wars.’ dive.

Boyles called it the vibe.

“Runyo-like characters in every corner. At the Rose Bowl, they faked a robbery; they had lost all kinds of money and couldn’t pay people. Handwritten tickets. Could make a movie about them.

The Rose Bowl, run by Gary Austin, never reopened. The horse races were recreated, after the fact, by broadcaster Joe Deluca reading tickers on loudspeakers.

“Straight out of ‘The Sting.’ He would come on the mic, Boyles said, with that old racetrack voice and make the call. Huge.”

Vegas stalwart Michael “Roxy” Roxborough dated the Santa Anita. In an email, he called the self-contained piggeries. You would never bring a lady to one of them.

He praised casino operating books.

“They had little tolerance for unsanitary characters who were regulars at old joints. In plain language, you could no longer stand on the chairs and throw beer bottles at the TV.

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