Sure enough, Spence discovers that while Arizona is favored by a point and a half in Vegas, the line in Minnesota is only one point. Duke, meanwhile, is favored by five points over Maryland. In other words, if someone bets on Duke "minus five," in order to collect Duke must win by at least six points. If Duke wins by exactly five, it's a "push," and no money is lost or won. There's also an "over-under" line on each game, a prediction of how many points will be scored by both teams combined. The over-under for the Duke game is 165 points.
The clock strikes one, Creedence Clearwater Revival is playing on the stereo, and the cordless starts ringing. Spence takes a phone call about every two minutes, chatting up his buddies and happily taking their action.
"All right, that's a lock, you got Michigan State. That'll take care of my next three insurance payments."
"I was paying you out so much this year that your Lexus was driving around with premium gas for a while."
"Okay, but you gotta call me back by 2:15. I don't want any of these 2:20 calls, either, 'cause I gotta get downtown and get some drinks in me."
"Christ, you got a craps table set up today too? Well, well. Welcome to MinneVegas. Okay, talk to ya."
All bookies want to have their bets relatively balanced from event to event. If Spence's books show, for example, that significantly more money is being bet on Duke than on Maryland, he'll "lay off" Duke to another bookie--i.e., bet on Duke himself to cover the difference. This way if Duke wins, he has money to pay clients who took Duke. And mostly Spence manages to play it just right, never swinging too far in either direction. "All bookies want their books at 50-50 on two teams, so the books are balanced as much as possible," he says. Spence's goal is to make his profit by taking ten percent of all winning wagers--a standard percentage known as "the juice." And if a client fails to pay up, he will keep that bettor off the books till the account is made good.
The clock is ticking down, and now the calls are coming in every minute or so. Spence lights cigarette after cigarette, keeps his bloody mary within reach, scribbles figures in his book, and, between rings, waxes poetic on capitalism: "I wonder what all the poor people are doing today?"
In just over an hour's time, Spence has booked more than $9,000 in bets. He's growing concerned that too many people are picking Duke to beat Maryland. He guesses that if he "lays off" $1,500 on Duke, he'll either win $3,500 on the day or lose $2,200. In the end, though, he opts not to phone his own bookie, and instead counts on his over-under action to see him through. (When all is said and done, his juice will total $3,300. "It was a very profitable night," he'll gloat.)
At a quarter past two, Spence stops taking calls, gulps the dregs of his drink, and heads out to do a little bar-hopping before game time. (He scored tickets from the father of an old girlfriend: "Never burn the bridge with the parents," he cracks.) Dressed modestly in a maroon turtleneck and khakis, he makes the trip downtown in his Pontiac Grand Am. "Hey, people always think I'm gonna be Italian and be like some guy on the Sopranos when they meet me," he quips. "But I don't want any $40,000 swings. I'm small-time. I'm just a German with a little alley cat thrown in."