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THE MEN WHO MADE LAS VEGAS - BOB MARTIN - The Oddsmaker

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BY BYRON CRAFT

If Bob Martin could have made book from the womb, he would have laid odds that he would be born on Dec. 14, 1918, in Brooklyn…and he would have won.  His parents were Phillip and Rebecca Blume.  They ran a neighborhood delicatessen in the rough-and-tumble Brownsville section of Brooklyn – home turf of Murder Inc.  There were times that Martin was left in charge of the store, even when he was 13 or 14 years old.  Bob would talk baseball with customers while listening to Philadelphia announcer Byrum Saam broadcast on the radio.  Listening to Byrum, he developed ardent opinions about the game.

Martin’s passion and wisdom intensified with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  During the season, he would miss the sixth period of high school, because that is when they played.  Subsequently his obsession with the game and the laws of probability led him to validate those opinions by putting money on them, and in Brownsville, it was easy to do.  “There were neighborhood poolrooms where you could bet a quarter or two,” Martin later recalled.  “Every few blocks you had one, and it was wide open.  Nobody cared.”

Bob Martin started booking limited action.  His customers were mostly high school kids. “I did six-hit bets, he related.  “You could pick any three players in the majors, and those three had to get six hits among them in the next games they played.”  Bob would pick the lead-off men, he would single out the left-handed batters against right-handed pitchers, and the ballparks where it was easier to hit.  Bob Martin had it down to a science, even though he was just a kid of 15.  He became very sophisticated in the betting game.

Years later Bob graduated from New York University with a B.A. in journalism.  He once planned to be a sportswriter, but decided betting was preferable to pounding a typewriter.  The events of Martin’s life led him to travel around Europe in 1944 with an anti-aircraft battery.  “As we were moving through France, I think the series that year was the Browns and the Cardinals, and we could hear the game by radio.  Baseball was huge anyway, in those days, and guys didn’t have a lot to do, so there was even more interest.  So I put up a price and everybody put up five dollars.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but it was fun.”  For a fellow that didn’t know what he was doing, Bob did very well.  He came out of the Army with $30,000, (about $270,000 in today’s dollars).  “With that kind of money, I figured I’m not going to work, I can make a living betting on baseball and football.  And I did.  I made a living.  I got so good, I even did it in reverse, and went broke,” Martin laughingly told a reporter.

An old friend of Bob Martin’s from the Army pointed out that at the Polo Grounds, every day, there were around fifty men who sat in the bleachers and bet on every batter and every pitch.  Martin looked them over and decided that those point men were as sophisticated as he was.  So he decided to try boxing instead.  He went home and started reading every ring magazine, getting information wherever else he could, and within time, he became an expert on the fight game.

Martin learned the fine art of distinction.  “If a kid’s a pretty decent fighter, with a well-connected manager, you think they’re going to put this kid in to get beat?  And there were other managers who ran meat wagons; whoever fought for them had to be carried out.”  Bob also noticed that, “Certain fighters would get battered for two rounds, then win by a knockout in the third.”  It is rumored that Bob Martin speculated that the winning prize fighter took a two round beating in order to wear his opponent down and look for an opening.  Martin would sit in the stands and if this fighter again spent the first two rounds getting thrashed, he would accept all bets against another miracle comeback.  Martin cleaned up.

The lessons were sometimes painful, as well. Once, after losing three straight bets against a fighter named Bozo Constantino, Martin reversed himself and arranged for Constantino to take on a patsy.  He envisioned a cleanup.  “I bet everything I had on Bozo,” he recalled.  “It was even money.  He walked out and got hit the first punch, a left hook on the chin, and it was all over.”

Bob started making a line on football, and did well there, too.  But the basketball scandals started him on a big losing streak.  Many teams were throwing games.  “You can’t overcome a fix,” he once said.  The insiders eventually broke him around 1950.  “For the next couple of years I had trouble raising a nickel to get on the subway.”  A bookie he knew from Washington, D.C. offered him a job and he took it.  The seminal moment of his Washington period was a bookmaking conviction that was ultimately overturned.  “The issue was that they used no wiretap, but used something they called a ‘spike mic’.  They drove it through the wall and hit my air-conditioning ductwork and they had somebody sitting in a nearby location with headphones and could hear every word anybody said in the house.  We contended that was too intrusive, and the court ruled it was...the case is in the law books today.”  Bob Martin’s lawyer, Edward Bennett Williams, predicted a 9-0 Supreme Court reversal on the case.  Martin promptly bet $100 there would be a dissenting opinion, gave 10-to-1 odds…and lost $1,000.  Even when his own freedom was at stake, Bob Martin could not stay away from the action.

Eventually Bob moved to Miami and met a redheaded showgirl named Carlotta Devine, who liked to bet the prizefights.  Later when she won three in a row, he married her.  In 1963 they settled in Las Vegas, where Martin’s occupation as oddsmaker was legal.  For a few years he made his living mostly as a bettor, but in 1967 he was invited by Harry Gordon to manage the sports book in his new Churchill Downs betting parlor.  It was at Churchill Downs that his posted numbers first became known as the “Las Vegas line”.  It was revered and followed by bookmakers, legal and illegal, all over the country.

There are people who disagree about who invented the point-spread system, but everybody in the business subscribes to the fable that an anonymous gambler once called it, “the single greatest creation since the zipper!”  The point-spread system made it possible that, for instance, instead of Notre Dame being a 7-1 favorite, they are a 14-point favorite, and if you think the underdog will lose by less, you bet on the underdog.  The new system attracted more bettors, and bookmakers could move the numbers to attract more customers on either side of a bet.  They could cautiously attempt to balance the money on both sides, making a profit entirely from the commission, or “vigorish”.  The vigorish, or simply the vig, a.k.a. the juice, the cut or the take, is the amount charged by a bookmaker for his services.

The line (the spread) Martin posted at Churchill Downs, the industry quickly noticed, hardly seemed to move.  Martin used to say that he tried to create a number that was so good he couldn’t decide which side to play himself.  That was the intellect of Bob Martin that put out numbers like that, and he did it day after day.  The end result was that the bookies didn’t have to move their numbers.  It was a stroke of genius.  Bob Martin’s system was hot.  The moment he posted the odds, there was a stampede for the phones, and the guys with the clipboards would call their locations.  It was highly illegal, but nobody said a word.  Martin’s numbers had credibility that others might not have enjoyed.  He had a reputation as being incorruptible.  His numbers were trusted from Las Vegas to New York.  It was believed, because the parlors would actually take bets on those numbers in the gambling mecca of Las Vegas.  Anyone could dream up a theoretical line, but these were real numbers you could actually bet against, and that was good enough for somebody in Kalamazoo.  “It was also important that they were first,” Martin said.  “As soon as the last pro football game closed, I put up a line for college games…the other guys in town wouldn’t put their numbers up because they wanted to see what we did.”

Bob Martin was right more often than most people knew.  A well-known case in point was Super Bowl III, when he set a now infamous opening line of Colts minus 17 against the New York Jets.  The Jets and their upstart quarterback, Joe Namath, pulled off one of history’s great upsets, beating the Colts 16-7.  Some confused the betting line with a prediction of the score.  Instead, it was merely a price meant to attract action on both sides, which it did.  Super Bowl III drew some of the heaviest betting to that date.

Bob Martin’s opinion was so well respected, that there was never a question as to its validity.  If someone thought that he, by hook or by crook, slipped up, all you had to do was step up to the betting window and back your opinion with cash.  Martin never flinched.  One time, an obnoxious man looked at the betting board, and in a loud voice, proclaimed that he couldn’t believe the point spread on a particular game.  He asked in an even louder voice if the joint would take a $10,000 bet.  Martin said sure, and added that if he wanted to bet more, he would book that, too.  The insufferable bettor then asked if he could make a larger bet at the same number.  Martin nodded yes.  The bettor then backed off and Martin didn’t move the line.  A few minutes later, while the first bettor was still hanging around, another bettor walked in and wagered $300 on the other side of the game.  Martin immediately moved the line a half a point.  The obnoxious bettor looked at Martin really angry and said, “I bet 10 dimes and you don’t move the line, this guy bets $300 and you move it.  Why?”  Without missing a beat, Martin said, “I respect his opinion.”  In the golden age of Las Vegas, Bob Martin was one of the most respected men in town.  He ran a clean store.  His integrity was above reproach.

Bob Martin, the wisest of the wise guys.  He was responsible for coming up with the betting numbers on a daily basis, in the days before computers.  He didn’t need one.  Bob Martin had feel.  He instinctively knew what the right numbers were.  He did most of his work at home near Bishop Gorman High School, in a den equipped with a sofa, a chair, a desk, bookshelves and a TV hooked to a satellite dish.  He didn’t use a computer or even a calculator, just a legal pad and a pencil.  He worked seven days a week from 7 a.m. until around 10 or 11, then about 11:30 he would meet his friends for lunch.  A crowd would gather at Jackie’s Deli in Commercial Center and later at the Celebrity Deli at Flamingo and Maryland Parkway.  Some of the regulars included Johnny Quinn, who ran the Union Plaza Sports book;  Johnny’s brother Larry Krantz;  Pittsburgh Jack Franzi, who ran the book at the Barbary Coast;  Lem Banker, the famous sports bettor;  Gene Maday, businessman and fearless bookmaker;  and Marty Kane and Joey Boston, who could make the odds, manage a book, or bet astutely enough to scare anyone, and they did all three.  —And then Bob Martin was home to work some more.

By this time in his life, Martin hadn’t been to a baseball game in 10 years, or a football game in around 25.  He prepared his football line by following the games on radio and TV, pouring over the sports pages and phoning contacts all over the country to check on player injuries.  Then at around 10:00 Monday morning, he would phone in the line.  The numbers would go up, and within a couple hours, they would hit every bookmaker in the U.S.  When it comes to setting the odds, it is not simply a matter of knowing football.  “The most important thing about handicapping,” Martin once explained, “is not saying Team A is seven points better than Team B.  That’s elementary.  The trick is to know who the money will be for.  You might say that mathematically the point spread should be seven, but the public will drown you by betting the favorite.”

Martin handicapped baseball as well as football, and bet on boxing and politics.  He won big on Jimmy Carter, but he abhorred horse racing, “It’s too slow.  You have to wait half an hour between races, and you’re drunk by the fourth race.”  He was indifferent about Las Vegas casinos.  “They don’t interest me,” he said on one occasion.  “I’ve walked by crap tables with more than $100,000 on them.  I could care less.”

In 1982 Martin was caught in a web that the federal government threw out to get another guy.  Martin wasn’t the target, but due to a phone conversation with someone he knew, the government gave him a choice:  squeal or go to federal prison.  “A guy from Providence (Rhode Island) called me a couple of times.  I never asked him to call me, but I knew him from Las Vegas.  Anyhow, he asks my opinion on a game and mentions that his son wants to get down a bet.  So I say, ‘How much does he want to play?  I’ll place it for him.’  That was the extent of it – except that the guy was being wiretapped as the subject of an investigation and I fell into the web.  I was insulted.  I wasn’t even the target.”  When it came to making a deal with the government, for Martin, there was no choice.  Anybody that knew him knew that he wouldn’t roll over.  Martin was no squealer.  Bob Martin was a stand-up guy.  What he knew would never be revealed, especially not to the feds.  Everyone knew the charges were trumped up.  Martin spent 13 months in prison for his silence.  His friends visited him regularly and brought him plenty of his favorite deli food.  He did his time and never whined about it.  He turned a setback into a triumph.  It may have changed him inside, but when Bob Martin was released, he acted as if everything was the same.  He handled it better than his family did and he did so to make it easy on everybody else.

At the age of 80, Bob quit making a line and simply bet on football and the fights whenever the price looked good to him.  Asked what advice he would offer to be a successful professional sports bettor he answered, “Marry a rich wife.”  In his heyday, Bob Martin was the nation’s most respected oddsmaker, dozens of gamblers gathered at the Churchill Downs Sports Book in Las Vegas every Monday morning in the pro football season to watch Bob Martin chalk the next Sunday’s point spread on a blackboard:  -6 next to the Oakland Raiders for example, or +2 1/2 next to the Minnesota Vikings.  “As soon as Bob’s numbers went up,” his pal Jack Franzi recalled, “all those guys would run outside to a bank of telephones and call bookmakers in all the big cities.”  

When on the town with high rollers, Martin never wrote down any of the bets he took in.  Walking to his ringside seat at a big fight, he would chat with several bettors, but never wrote down a bet.  He just remembered them all.  

Bob Martin booked big bets.  When somebody wanted to take the Rams and 11 points for $1.5 million against the Steelers in Super Bowl XIV, he never blinked.  When the Steelers won by 12 points, 31-19, Bob won the bet.  Before Super Bowl III, the late Mo Siegel, a Washington sports columnist, phoned Bob Martin to tell him that Vince Lombardi gave the Jets, a 17-point underdog, a chance to upset the Colts, because of Joe Namath.  “If I write that,” Siegel asked, “would that change the line?”  “That would depend,” Bob said, “how much did Mr. Lombardi bet.”  It is money that affects the line, not an opinion, unless there is money behind that opinion.  But for more than 20 years, Bob Martin’s opinion set the line that wasn’t meant to predict which team would win the game, so much as it was to generate as much betting action as possible.  “What you want,” Martin once put in plain words, “is a point spread that will make people on either side say, ‘That’s a steal.’  When you get that, you know you’ve put up a good line.”

In 1997 Martin returned to his native New York to live out his retirement years.  Bob Martin died of lung cancer on March 7, 2001 at his New York City apartment.  He was 82 and was fondly remembered in Las Vegas.  Old timers came to pay their last respects.  They told their favorite stories of a time when the wise guys gathered at the Churchill Downs sports book.  The conversation was peppered with nicknames and laughter.  It wasn’t a normal funeral.  It truly was a celebration of one of finest men Las Vegas had ever known.  Bob Martin wasn’t just another guy.  He was well loved.  Tough guys in a tough town remembered him as a guy who had the respect of everyone.  He was smart, quick-witted and dead-pan funny.  He was stand-up.  “He’s the best there ever was as an oddsmaker, a bookmaker,” said Art Manteris, the vice president for sports book operations at the Las Vegas Hilton.  “It takes computer programs now to do what he did in his head.”

The Men Who Made Las Vegas is a series by Byron Craft chronicling the growth of Sin City and the men who made it possible.

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