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Degenerate, Inc.: The Paranoid and Obsessive Life of a Mid-Level Bookie 

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They would also lower the "juice" (also known as "the vig") — the commission a bookie gets for taking a bet — to try to get guys to jump ship. It worked.

Do bettors realize they're not getting as good lines as they once were?

"I think the mind of a degenerate gambler is only in the present week," Steve says. "It gained us clients and we only did that for the first couple years but it got us guys. Casinos make their slot machines pay out more to get people in, and then they tighten them up a little bit. That's what we did. We got guys in and because of it, the web extended. Then we went back to normal and started moving lines against what people were taking, which made it much more lucrative."

Their base has now expanded five or six times from where it started.

"It's all kind of spiderwebbed out and we try to keep it so that everybody's at least tied back to somebody who's tied back to somebody who's tied back to us, so we can hold them accountable for him," Steve says. "Like I know you through him, so if you owe me money, I'd go to him and say, 'Dude, your fucking boy owes me $1,000, you need to get on him because I'm holding you responsible for that bullshit.' And after a while and you're good, we meet a couple times, have a beer and bullshit, now we're good, and you can tell me you got a guy, and if he owes me $200, it's on you. If we have no problems, you're good with me and I'm good with you, we meet a couple times and pay on time, then we're set."

Ben recruited a group of steady bettors for Steve several years ago when he was off playing college football. He found out some of his teammates were betting on other college football games through an assistant coach — about as clear of an NCAA violation as it gets.

"We'd come in from pre-game warmups and these guys would be checking their phones. At halftime, we'd come to the locker room and they'd check again," Ben says. "I told them I know somebody credible, they run it like a business and they run it very efficiently." Plus, getting busted was less likely if they weren't running action through their coach. So they switched. And it turns out rich kids in college are good customers.

"The kids like that, the younger kids we know who come from richer families, go to mommy and daddy for help with money for 'books,'" he says. "But that money for books is to pay off gambling debt. It happens."

Outside of the friend-of-a-friend network, there's other ways to recruit new clients. For example, you might find a new pal sitting at the bar. You know, that one one guy sitting by himself, wearing an Indians hat or Browns jersey but anxiously and attentively watching the blowout end of a regionally irrelevant game.

Steve explains: "You go to a bar and you can tell, you can just tell the guy's gambling on games, you can just fucking tell. The guy's paying attention to the game nobody should give a shit about, that's the first telltale sign. That guy has some money on it. A Dolphins-Rams game, who gives a shit about a Dolphins-Rams game? But some guy sitting at a BW3 is watching it at the bar and he's angry about why they're running a draw on 3rd-and-six. You walk over and ask who they got, you lead them into it. He'd say, 'Oh, I got the Rams.' 'I got the Rams too. What's your line?' You just ask them what their line is, they'll tell you. He says he got a -6. You tell them you got -5.5: 'You got a bad book.' It's just one thing like that and all of a sudden you got a new guy. You give them your phone number like you're picking up a chick."

***

With a large customer base and years of their betting patterns built up to analyze, Steve knows what he needs to know to keep the money come rolling in. The bookmaker's goal is to adjust the line to get an equal amount of money on one team as they do on the other, then just profiting off the commission (the "juice"/"vig") the loser pays to place the bet. If you get people betting $1,000 on Team A and a $1,000 on Team B, that's an automatic profit of $100 from the 10-percent juice the losers have to pay. That's what you want: The more even the distribution of money, the less you risk.

Much of the weekend during the college and pro football season is taken up by Steve on his couch, computer open to the spreadsheets he keeps on each client and the website that curates all of the betting trends of the eight major Vegas casinos and online sportsbooks that he uses to set his own lines, and typing on the prepaid Blackberry (registered under a phony name) he uses to send out his lines and take in his action. The Vegas lines are a guidepost, but his clients' previous plays — logged on his computer — ultimately dictate what he sends out go to the group a half hour before games begin.

It's all a guessing game based on what he thinks people might decide to bet on and the side they'll pick when it happens. He has a one-time shot to get it right, one group text to send out that can sway five figures in one night. "Once it kicks off, we always send each other texts saying 'let's hope we're right,'" Steve says about communication with Luke during games.

"It's knowledge of what your guys have taken in the past. You have to pay attention to trends," Steve says. "If you have 20 guys who take the Broncos every week, you move the Broncos line a little more, make them cover an extra point, force them to take the other team. That's all tracked: I have to know these things or I can't do my job. Every week, I need to know that for the past five weeks he's taken these teams, I need to know if he takes home dogs, road favorites, all that shit. You have to know what people are going to take. I know for a fact 30 people are going to take the over [total point total] for the Saints game every single week. I know that they're just going to do it. That over, every week, is going to be moved up a half a point."

The line moving is most obvious for Browns and Ohio State games. There are people who are going to "bet with their heart" regardless of the line, so he has to move the nationally determined line significantly more to compensate for the many clients who always want to pick the home team to give them an incentive to go with the opponent. It's a bluff: If people saw how he's moving the lines against the Browns and Ohio State — and other traditional popular picks like Oregon football, the Broncos and Saints — and took the other teams, they'd win more often than not. But they don't.

"None of them will fucking do it, none of them will call my bluff," he laughs. "If I'm going to move it, call my fucking bluff. And none of them do it. They just continue to fall into the pattern, so why wouldn't I do it?"

***

Northwestern was down 34-30 to Ohio State when they lined up on their own 8-yard-line with just enough time for one final desperate play to beat the Buckeyes on Oct. 5. It was a nationally televised back-and-forth matchup of two previously unbeaten teams, but people who put money on the Buckeyes were not celebrating: Vegas set the line at seven points, so the impending four-point victory after the final play would mean they'd lose their money.

Watching excitedly from his apartment, Steve was already documenting the spoils of his victory in the spreadsheets: Nearly everybody who bet with him put money on Ohio State, despite the slightly higher line he sent out. Even in Vegas, with the line increasing from 5.5 points to at least 7 as the game approached, there was significantly more money on the Buckeyes than Northwestern. A lot more. All Northwestern had to do was not turn the ball over and give up a touchdown on that final play and both Steve and the Vegas casinos would be raking in one of the biggest wins of the season.

But then something crazy happened: A Northwestern player fumbled a pitch and the ball trickled into the Northwestern endzone. A Buckeye defensive lineman pounced on the ball as the game clock hit all zeros. Touchdown. Ohio State's 34-30 victory suddenly became a 40-30 victory. They covered the line. It meant nothing to the outcome of the game, but even broadcaster Brent Musburger knew the implications went far beyond that:

"Scramble for the ball, touchdown Ohio State!" he exclaimed on the broadcast. "And you know what, there are some folks who are celebrating and others who are saying, 'You gotta be kidding me.'"

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