He was the dean of Las Vegas sports bookmakers, a onetime professional gambler who started the first football handicapping contest and helped popularize teasers, propositions and other exotic wagers.
Sonny Reizner, who gained international notoriety in 1980 for booking bets on “Who shot J.R.?,” died of Parkinson’s disease Nov. 30 in a Las Vegas care center. He was 81.
As sports book director of Hole-in-the-Wall Sportsbook at the now-defunct Castaways Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas Strip from 1976 to 1987, Reizner launched Nevada’s first football contest -- the “Castaways Challenge,” started in 1978, which offered large purses to handicappers with the best season’s win records.
A year later, he went even further by offering the “Ultimate Challenge,” a contest with a $5,000 entry fee.
In addition to the usual football, baseball and basketball betting lines, Reizner established the first betting line on the Boston Marathon in 1979, and he was among the first to take wagers on other nontraditional betting sports such as NASCAR races, golf and tennis.
“He brought sports betting into the modern age,” said Larry Grossman, a friend of Reizner and host of a Las Vegas radio show devoted to gambling, “You Can Bet on It.”
Reizner also became known for his innovative proposition wagers in which handicappers could bet on everything from whether there would be a no-hitter pitched in a baseball game that day to whether a Super Bowl coin toss would turn up heads or tails.
But Reizner was unprepared for the response he generated in 1980 when he posted the betting line asking, “Who shot J.R.?”
Thousands of fans of the TV series “Dallas” placed wagers on who they thought was the unknown assailant who had shot the unscrupulous Texas oilman J.R. Ewing, played by Larry Hagman, in the previous season’s cliffhanger.
Reizner wrote the odds for every character on the show who had a reason to kill J.R. Always one to inject humor into the proceedings, he even gave odds on real people, such as Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry at 500 to 1.
“It caused such a frenzy,” Grossman said. “He had no idea it was going to be like that. He put up these kinds of things all the time.”
Bookmakers, Grossman said, “used to put up lines on everything from elections to who’s going to win the National League MVP. I remember a line asking where the comet Kohoutek is going to land.”
All that changed in the wake of Reizner’s “Dallas"-inspired betting line.
Before the episode that revealed who shot J.R. aired in the fall of 1980, Nevada’s Gambling Control Board ordered that the line be taken down and all bets refunded.
The board reasoned that the shooter had already been determined by “Dallas” and that people who worked on the show may have talked.
From then on, Nevada’s licensed books could take wagers only on sporting events.
“The person who pulled the trigger turned out to be the sister of J.R.'s wife,” Reizner said later, “and she was my 7-to-2 fourth choice in the odds.”
Born Julius Charles Reizner in Taunton, Mass., in 1921, he fell in love with sports as a child. He placed his first bet with a bookie -- on the Boston Braves -- when he was 16.
While working in the Sears mail order warehouse in Brookline, Mass., at 17, he supplemented his $15-a-week earnings by betting on sports and backing top local pool players.
After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II -- “When I went into the service, the Germans became an 8-to-5 favorite,” he would joke -- he turned to full-time gambling.
“He and Mother owned an antique store in Framingham [Mass.], but he made his living as a professional gambler on sporting events,” said Reizner’s daughter, Jann Reizner, a retired Las Vegas teacher.
She remembers the many times her father would be preoccupied watching a game, talking on the phone or simply worrying about a bet.
One time in the 1960s, he had $100,000 riding on the outcome of a single World Series game. He lost.
“We were never poor or hurting for anything, but there was a lot of stress on his part to provide for a wife and four kids,” she said.
The family moved to Las Vegas in 1970. Reizner went to work at the now-defunct Churchill Downs Race and Sports Book.
He worked at the Fremont and Stardust before he was hired by the Castaways Hole-in-the-Wall Sportsbook in 1976. After the Castaways was demolished in 1987 to make way for the Mirage, Reizner became director of the Frontier hotel’s race and sports book.
Reizner, who taught a course on the history of sports betting at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas for three years, helped open the Rio’s race and sports book in 1989 and served as its director for several years before taking over the same job at the Desert Inn. He retired in 1996.
In addition to his daughter, Reizner is survived by his wife, Rolene; sons Adam of Las Vegas and Alan of Austin, Texas; daughter Gale Levine of Hopkinton, Mass.; and five grandchildren.