"America's economy has definitely improved this fall," said the noted fiscal authority, Sneaky Pete. "I know for a fact that a lot of new money has been put into circulation."
Sneaky Pete is not happy about this development, because this money formerly belonged to him and members of the bookmaking profession across the country. This has been an unprecedented season when the nation's football bettors have been beating their bookies.
The winners have not been just the handful of sharpies who regularly expect to make a profit. Bartenders and cab drivers and the great mass of bettors are winning, too. Just about every gambler has concluded in the last three months that he is a football-handicapping genius.
"This is the first year since I've been in business that I'm not making money," Sneaky Pete said the other night as he made the rounds of local bars to meet and pay off customers.
Because members of his profession have been known to cry all the way to the bank, he hastened to add, "We're not crying wolf. This is real. I've had two winning weeks since August, and most of the guys I talk to say the same. One of the weeks was the worst I've ever seen. I had about 30 games up and I lost on all but two. I was going to head for the Calvert Street bridge, but I thought there'd probably be a waiting line."
The reason for this unprecedented phenomenon, bookies agree, was the pro football strike, which undercut the volume and diversity of wagering they need to be sure of a profit.
When a bookie takes bets on the Philadelphia Eagles versus the St. Louis Cardinals, he can expect this volume and diversity. His customers will probably have seen both teams play and they will have varying opinions about their relative strengths. But for a game involving Arizona State and Washington, most bettors will not have such convictions, and they may let their decisions be guided by one of the country's growing number of football-touting services, or "sports services" as they are known in the trade.
If a couple of influential services recommend the same team, a bookie's ledger on the game may be decidedly unbalanced. Sneaky Pete will commonly find that he has $5,000 on one side of a college game and $200 on the other. "Everything has been so one-sided," he said, "that I've been gambling instead of booking."
He wouldn't complain, of course, if he were winning these one-sided propositions. But most of the time the players have been winning on these "hot" games.
Pete Axthelm, the football prognosticator for NBC, says, "There's a big difference between college and pro betting. In the pros, where there's so much information available on all the teams, you can't often come up with a real edge. A point spread that looks like a gift will invariably be a trap. But in the colleges, there will be games when a specialist can come up with a genuine edge."
Some of the better sports services have been finding those edges with regularity this season. The most influential of them, the Boston-based service Score, has a remarkable 48-22 record this season. And there have been numerous games where the great mass of amateur handicappers have all gravitated toward the same team. When Maryland got 8 points from North Carolina State and won outright; when Notre Dame gave injury-plagued Navy 13 1/2 points and won, 27-10; when Penn State covered the 21-point spread in beating N.C. State, 54-0, local bookies were crushed.
Bookmakers have taken their lumps in college action in other years, too. But in those years, the gamblers who had won on Saturday would press their bets on Sunday. Those who lost on Saturday would press their bets, too. With this great volume of action, the bookies would invariably recoup and make a healthy profit. When there was no pro football, the winners had nothing to do but go out and spend their money. But now that the pros have resumed, the bookies have not had their vengeance yet. The public's choices--like San Francisco over Los Angeles Thursday night--have continued to win.
"With all the sports services and all the information that's available to the average player," Sneaky Pete said, "the bookmaker can't win when the player only has to lay 11 to 10. We've got to raise the odds to 6 to 5. I don't know how else we're going to survive."
Before the season is over, the percentages in the bookies' favor will inevitably begin to prevail and the gambling world will return to its normal state. But until this happens, bettors can continue to enjoy the sound that is sweeter than any music: the sound of bookies crying the blues.