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Bloody marys with a bookie at the height of March Madness

"Good afternoon," the bookie croons smoothly into his cordless phone. "Yeah, Scotty, I got a bloody mary in me and life is terrific, but look, you gotta give me ten minutes, alright? Try me back in ten. Okay, talk to ya."

Spence (not his real name) hangs up the phone, takes a final drag from his Merit Ultra-Light 100, and chuckles. "Christ, the calls have been coming all morning already," he says, stubbing the butt into a blue glass ashtray. "I hate it when they call too early." It's 12:50 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon.

He leans back on the tan leather couch that dominates his suburban Twin Cities duplex. The Allman Brothers blare from a Philips stereo. The TV is muted, tuned to The Weather Channel. Dressed in blue jeans and a white, short-sleeved shirt, the 52-year-old bookie sports a full head of wispy, graying hair, a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper mustache, and a nose just a few fifths short of bulbous. And this afternoon, there's a wily glint in his eye.

It's Final Four weekend, the culmination of the NCAA's three-week men's college basketball tournament. For Spence, it's always a big three days. While he's busy all during the NFL season, the Final Four is when he sees the best action--even more than the Super Bowl. And with the 2001 tournament playing out right in downtown Minneapolis, his clients are liable to bump up the stakes.

After mixing a fresh bloody mary, Spence plops a thin, black three-ring binder on the coffee table. He flips it open, revealing a few sheets of loose-leaf paper with names and dollar amounts written in neat, squat cursive. This is where he has kept track of his clients' ups and downs throughout the fall and winter. At a glance he can see who has lost money on football, who's on a hot streak and who isn't. In ten minutes he'll begin taking wagers on today's two semifinal games: Michigan State versus Arizona, and Maryland against Duke. His phone line will be open for exactly one hour and fifteen minutes--a precise window designed to discourage bettors from waffling on their wagers before tip-off.

For six years Spence has taken bets from a group of 20 regulars, including a few childhood buddies, some co-workers, and acquaintances made at the track or a poker table. A sports gambler most of his life, he took it up as a sideline after his own bookie went out of business. Spence puts limits on some of his customers, "so nobody's wife calls me wondering where the mortgage payment is." He also claims to be "pretty far down on the food chain as far as bookies go." Still, he says, he usually makes some $30,000 a year on the books. "This ain't my livelihood," says Spence, who has a white-collar day job for a local firm he'd rather not name. "But I love the action, and I love the sports, and it's a decent chunk of money at the end of the day."

This year has been a little off for Spence; his earnings are down a few grand. "Guys were winning too much," he snorts. But today he's feeling lucky, confident he can cash in on March Madness. "The whole weekend combined will be my highest volume of the year," he says. "I got guys in Vegas who tell me it's getting bigger than the Super Bowl for them."

He's right: Legalized betting at Las Vegas casinos is expected to top out around $100 million this weekend, compared with $70 million for the Super Bowl. And illegal wagering on the NCAA tournament could reach $6 billion. "The Final Four is sort of the end of the season for bookmakers," posits Norm Pint, who works in the Minnesota Department of Public Safety's Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division. Pint says the most recent estimates on illegal sports wagering in Minnesota are at $2 billion annually. Of course, he adds the usual caveat: "We don't have a true idea of how many bookies there are because it's an industry that is illegal and totally unregulated."

Nearly $1 billion is exchanged annually on NCAA tournament office pools alone, estimates Ed Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey. His organization also estimates that nearly $750 million is wagered on the tourney via Internet sites. "Those estimates don't even include the bookmakers who operate off-line," Looney emphasizes.

But for all the airtime and ink spilled on the tournament, not to mention the millions exchanged in the ticket-scalping trade, small-scale bookies like Spence fly under the radar. Though he wouldn't want to have his identity published in the newspaper, Spence isn't losing any sleep over the idea that the law might bust down his door. "I'm not worried about the cops. I know cops who'll bet," he chortles. "It's the IRS I'm concerned about."

At 12:55 p.m., Spence calls a fellow Minneapolis bookie to ascertain the final "lines" on today's games. The line, or "spread," is the point margin by which one team is predicted to beat another. It is usually based on early bets and set by oddsmakers in Las Vegas. Spence doesn't set his own lines, but he guesses the local spread will have "a Midwest bias," as he calls it. "For instance, people in Vegas aren't necessarily going to bet on Michigan State, because they don't know Michigan State," he explains. "But they know Arizona, so that's who they bet on. That makes the spread favor Arizona maybe more than it should, so we adjust for that."

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."

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