Nevada Gaming Panel Tightens the Line on Vegas Betting : Odd-Ball Wagering Tosses In the Deck

Times Staff Writer

OK, so casino owner Gene Maday was turned down on his request to post a line and take bets on whether evangelist Oral Roberts would raise the millions he said were needed to keep him alive.

By now, Maday is used to it. After all, it was just a few weeks ago that the Nevada Gaming Control Board rejected a bid by the owner of Little Caesar's Casino and Sports Book to offer odds and take wagers on who President Reagan would name as the replacement for former chief of staff Donald Regan.

As far as some in this gambling capital are concerned, the good old days are gone. Old-timers fondly recall the real what's my line, when betting was allowed on:

- Where pieces from the 77-ton space station Skylab would fall.

- Which "Dallas" character shot J. R. Ewing in one of the series' early season-ending episodes.

- When the coffin of presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was exhumed, who, if anybody, would be found to be inside.

- Who the winners would be among Oscar nominees.

- Whether the baby of prospective parents would be a girl or a boy.

Jackie Gaughan, owner of the El Cortez Hotel and Casino, recalled as if it were yesterday the weeks in 1979 when his casino was taking action by the tens of thousands as to precisely where Skylab's remains would fall.

To refresh your memory, six years earlier a satellite the size of a five-room house had been launched by the United States for experiments by crews, and now it was about to crash through the atmosphere and back to Earth.

"We offered prices on each of the states, the oceans and foreign countries," Gaughan said. "The betting was heavy. And it wound up a successful proposition for us.

"We gave 12-to-1 on Russia, and I remember one guy who came in and bet $2,000.

"We packaged the five oceans as one, and made them the favorite at 5-to-1. As for the states, Rhode Island, being the smallest, was 2,000-to-1. California was 100-to-1.

"We even listed at 10,000-to-1 the possibility that the El Cortez would be where the thing would crash. I think one person took those odds."

And, lo, Skylab's pieces fell onto sparsely populated Western Australia. Those who had thusly played were paid off by the El Cortez at 30-to-1.

On a Friday night a year later the nation was glued to its TV sets, eagerly awaiting the disclosure of who had shot "Dallas' " despicable oil baron J. R. Ewing.

For some viewers, it was more than just the outcome of a plot. They had real money at stake.

"I wrote odds for every character in the story," said Sonny Reizner, sports book director at the Castaways Hotel and Casino. "We even gave odds on real people, such as coaches Tom Landry and Dick Motta.

"I don't exaggerate when I say that we got calls by the thousands. Two girls from California came in and said sheepishly that they lived on the same street as the TV show's producer, and felt that they were taking advantage, but they wanted to bet $300 on a certain character, and we took it. The next day they bet an additional $600."

Before much longer, however, the Gaming Control Board told the Castaways to take down the bet. All wagers were refunded.

"Then a guy called from Boston and said he wanted to fly in with a big wager," Reizner said. "When I told him the whole thing was being disallowed, he confided that he had inside information, and that now he might as well tell me in advance who shot J. R."

Then came the televised divulgence. "Not only were the two girls from California completely wrong, so was the supposed insider from Boston," Reizner said. "The person who pulled the trigger turned out to be the sister of J. R.'s wife, and she was my 7-to-2 fourth choice in the odds."

To Michael D. Rumbolz, one of the three members of the Gaming Control Board, "The J. R. event was probably the beginning of the end. It focused for regulators the possibility of having wagers where the outcome could be known to people in advance."

What it boils down to now, Rumbolz said, is that betting (aside from casino games), is pretty much limited to athletic contests and horse/dog races. An appeal for an exception can be made in writing to the board chairman, but you are odds-on to be rejected.

Oswald's Grave

This became quickly apparent in 1981--the year after the J. R. betting escapade--when the Union Plaza Hotel and Casino saw gambling possibilities when the grave of the assassin of President John F. Kennedy was about to be re-opened. Over the years, controversy had developed over whether the remains of Oswald, somebody else, or even nobody at all were inside the coffin.

The Union Plaza made a line on whether the grave contained Oswald, a Soviet agent, Jack Ruby (Oswald's killer), or nobody, said John Quinn, who runs the sports and race book.

But after a few bets had been taken, the gaming board halted the action, and everything was refunded. Oswald's body, it turned out, was indeed in the grave.

For years, Quinn said, bets were taken at the Union Plaza on the odds put out regarding Oscar nominees. Maday (of Oral Roberts fame) said Little Caesar's did likewise--"and the books lost to that every year. The players were able to weigh it better than the bookies. But I believe that eventually we would have caught up, if the betting had been allowed to continue."

You can never say Quinn quit trying on anything. "When the war broke out between Iran and Iraq, we put a bet up and made Iraq the favorite," he said. "But the board gave us an order that in the future we couldn't even put up such exotic wagering without first getting their permission."

In another office inside the sprawling downtown casino, 73-year-old Rod Morris sat puffing a cigar, staring across his desk at four closed-circuit TV monitors, which showed cards being dealt and roulette wheels being spun.

Morris is vice president in charge of casino operations, and he recalled the time a man came in and wanted to bet $5,000 that there would be a major earthquake in California within 24 hours.

"He wanted even money, but we didn't take it. We felt that if, by some incredible coincidence, there was an earthquake, news of our bet would have been bad publicity."

For years, however, his casino did take bets from parents-to-be as to whether they would have a daughter or a son. "It was no big deal, just a fun thing," Morris said. "They would bet $55 to win $50. But when it became possible to know for sure in advance, we stopped the proposition."

Quinn said the baby betting attracted a lot of action. "And the amazing thing was, even though it was pretty much an even wager, the parents guessed wrong 70% of the time."

Chief of Staff

As for Maday's request to take action on who would be President Reagan's next chief of staff, he disclosed what his odds would have been:

"I would have made (former Transportation Secretary) Drew Lewis the favorite at 2-to-1; (Treasury Secretary) James Baker would have been 6-to-1; and both former Sens. Paul Laxalt and Howard Baker (who got the job) would have been 10-to-1.

"We would book anything," the Little Caesar's owner said. "We'd book Little League games if the Gaming Board would let us."

As for whether evangelist Roberts would succeed in his do-or-die campaign to raise $8 million by last Tuesday, Maday said many gamblers came in wanting to bet when it was first disclosed that he was seeking to post a line on the venture.

"It would have been an over-and-under line of $4.6 million," Maday said. "The idea for it came up during a lunch I had with Bob Martin." The 67-year-old Martin, known as "The Man" and "The King," has for years ruled as the prime linemaker in this town.

But the times, they are a-changing. Inside an office in a high-rise overlooking the Strip, a 36-year-old yuppie-type, a New Englander given to three-piece suits and aerobics, holds forth with computers and data bases.

Michael (Roxy) Roxborough is president of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, sets the odds for 22 major Nevada sports and race books, and is the heir apparent to Martin.

He looks every bit the part of an upwardly mobile young investment counselor. And he is. The investments are just a little different.

And he is quick to assert that he was the first to issue Oral Roberts odds. "The paper in Gary, Ind., called me in January for a story they were doing on the fund raising," Roxborough said. "I told them he was a 1-to-5 favorite to raise the $8 million."

And despite the restrictions nowadays on far-out bets, Roxborough manages to offer a happy quantity of allowable possibilities. Whatever he and his computers come up with, the Stardust is the first to post the odds, and Caesars Palace handles the most money.

Super Bowl Bets

Usually it the meat-and-potatoes football action, and so forth, but not always. "For the last Super Bowl," the oddsmaker said, "one casino in Laughlin offered 11-to-10 (bettor puts up 11 to win 10) on this proposition bet: Pick which of the two teams would be the first to have a close-up shot on TV of a player yelling 'Hi, Mom!' "

Roxborough added that there were, in fact, close to 100 proposition bets for the Super Bowl: whether there would be a safety, whether three field goals would be kicked, whether there would be three interceptions, whether two fumbles would be lost. Some places even took wagers on whether the Giants or Broncos would win the coin toss.

"Last year, Caesars Palace offered betting on whether lineman William (Refrigerator) Perry would score a touchdown. The line opened at 15-to-1, and was so heavily bet that it was knocked down to 4-to-1. He did score, and Caesars lost $80,000 on that one.

"This year one of their bets was offering 250-to-1 that the final score would be 3-0. And there were some takers."

A casino in Sparks, Roxborough said, offered an over-under proposition of 14 1/2 on the combined total of quarterback sacks, touchdowns and fumbles (the unders won).

And now a scoop: He revealed that (remember, you read it here first) next year, for the first time, he will post odds on whether the game will go into overtime.

So, Gaming Control Board restrictions notwithstanding, enough variety is certainly available to add spice to the life of any gambler.

For instance, betting is permitted on how many of the 33 cars in the Indy 500 (over-under of 14 1/2) will be running at the finish. "Some people say we shouldn't have that, because the under bettors are rooting for crashes," Roxborough said, "but that kind of thinking is silly."

The beat goes on, the bet goes on. Gaming board member Rumbolz remembered that at the old Silver Slipper boxing matches, one guy would sit in the third row and book bets on which direction a knocked-down fighter's head would fall.

Gambling has been going on in the world since--probably before--underdog David upset the heavily favored Goliath.

And since this is a town that exists on gambling, it is a place that likes to tell gambling stories.

At a long bar inside Bally's, a woman who called herself Betty was sipping a martini and regaling anyone who would listen with the story of the golfer who bet a friend he could hit a golf ball a mile--with the agreement that he could do so from wherever he wanted to.

It was winter, they went to a frozen and windy lake, the golfer teed up the ball, and naturally it easily bounced and rolled the required mile.

On the ground floor of the Mint, in front of an elevator, two guests were making wagers on which floors it would stop.

"It's a shame," a man known only as Irving said in Los Angeles. Irving is national executive secretary of Gamblers Anonymous.

"People who are otherwise normal and methodical will reach the point where they cannot control their gambling. And strange bets often have an attraction for the compulsive gambler."

Sometimes the bets are more compulsive than odd.

"Four years ago," said Jack Binion, president of the Horseshoe Club, "a guy came in with a suitcase and bet $777,000 at one of our craps tables." He put it on the "don't pass" line, gambling that the player rolling the dice would lose. And that is what happened.

"About a year later, he came back with his suitcase, bet $538,000, again on don't pass, and once more he won.

"Then in November of 1985 he came back, this time with $1 million in his suitcase. He bet it all on don't pass, the shooter rolled a winning seven on the first throw, and the phantom gambler, as he was known, had lost."

He turned out to be an apartment building owner from Texas. Three months later his body was found in a hotel on The Strip, filled with an overdose of drugs.

'In-Progress' Bets

But, in the land of no clocks (except at the race books), the bets come in as relentlessly as the tide. In front of a TV set inside a bar at the Hilton, two patrons had money on whether the next foul shot would go in.

"In-progress" bets during an athletic contest, except perhaps football bets at half time or at end of quarters, aren't allowed to be taken by the casinos. This, however, doesn't prevent patrons watching, say, a telecast of the leisurely game of baseball from putting up money between themselves as to whether the next pitch will be a ball, strike, foul ball, or hit.

Sometimes during a football game, according to Vegas regulars, individuals will bet on every situation--whether a team will make the third-and-six.

Hang around a keno lounge long enough and you're sure to see a couple of people in seats, quietly interested not in any ticket, but rather in the outcome of their private wager as to whether more of the numbers will turn up on the top or the bottom half of the board.

Put a couple of gamblers in a car, Roxborough said, and they'll bet on how many red lights they'll hit before they get to their destination.

"It's reaches the point where a gambler passes a car, and afterward gets to thinking that he was probably just even money to get back into the lane," Binion said. "Your whole life gets to be: What are the odds?"

One story that has made the rounds at bars for decades concerns a bettor in the late 1940s who had a three-way parlay:

First he had the New York Rangers in hockey, and they won. Next he he had the New York Knicks in basketball, and they also won.

Then the entire sum went on the 1948 presidential election--and Tom Dewey.

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