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Betting the House: The Mob and Sports Gambling

Bennett Baumer Jan 21, 2014

Larceny Games
By Brian Tuohy
Feral House, 2013

Mob Boss, The Life of Little Al D’Arco, The Man Who Brought Down the Mafia
By Jerry Capeci and Tom Robbins
Thomas Dunne Books, 2013

We root for our favorite NFL teams to express regional pride and to celebrate our tough, strong and powerful national character. Super Bowl Sundays past forged gridiron legends into our national folklore and featured roaring warplanes, field-length flags, classic rock, military recruitment commercials and marching bands. Some even call for Super Bowl Sunday to be a national holiday. This is why we play the game. Okay, that and billions of dollars in illegal gambling.

Humans have wagered on the outcome of sports for thousands of years, but modern gambling is defined by the “line” — a series of game predictions. Conceptualized in the 1930s by JFK’s math-teacher-turned-Chicago-bookmaker, the line redefined betting based not solely on the outcome, but also on the difference between the winning and losing scores known as the spread. The line is based on a series of calculations and public perceptions of who will win a game. Another gambling innovation occurred in the 1960s called the “over/under line” in which the bet is a wager on more or less total points scored as estimated by the bookmaker.

According Brian Tuohy’s Larceny Games, it was not long before organized crime took control of illegal betting lines and installed Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal to run sports gambling in 1970s-era Las Vegas. Rosenthal, whom Robert DeNiro’s character in Martin Scorsese’s film Casino was based on, ran the massive Stardust sports betting operation, helping to create the modern casino sports book and sports bar aesthetic of multiple large-screen televisions running games and showcasing betting lines. Today bettors can use online sites largely based offshore in Caribbean, Asian and European countries, making a police crackdown difficult if not impossible. While newspapers and sports talk radio openly opine on point spreads, giving betting a veneer of legality, it should be clarified: most sports gambling is illegal. Tuohy touts a semi-useful report from 1999 showing illegal sports wagers amounted to between $80 billion and $380 billion a year. This is in comparison to the $2.5 billion that changes hands in Vegas. 

Larceny Games posits that more professional sports matches are thrown than the public knows and it is not hard to change the outcome of games. A case in point is disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy, who made minor calls here and there to throw games. Tuohy’s strongest assertions are that professional sports promote the public perception that they are against sports betting but do little to combat its influence. Tuohy quotes sports gambling expert Larry Grossman: “Many people watch football just because of gambling … When a team’s leading 17-7 and there’s three minutes left and there’s a touchdown point spread, you’re holding your audience for the advertisers on television, why are they holding the audience?” The answer: to see if your team beats the point spread. 

Perhaps because of the shadowy nature of illegal gambling, Larceny Games sometimes slips into speculation. Tuohy relies on decades-old, heavily redacted law enforcement files to make somewhat convincing arguments that Luchese crime family money backed heavyweight champion Sonny Liston throwing his iconic 1964 bout against Muhammed Ali (then known as Cassius Clay). Other sports legends from the past who come under suspicion are Detroit Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg, who palled around with gangsters, and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, whose Cosa Nostra benefactors supplied him with prostitutes when the Yankees played on the road and may have benefitted from on-the-field hijinks in return.

A clearer documentation of law breaking is Mob Boss by New York journalists Tom Robbins and Jerry Capeci. Mob Boss is the biography of former acting Luchese crime family chief Alfonso “Little Al” D’Arco and is loaded with labor racketeering, graft, murder and, of course, Italian food and nicknames. 

Movies depict mafiosi as glamorous but code-bound soldiers and D’Arco positions himself in this old-school vein, opposing drug dealing and enforcing mafia morals in prison. Robbins and Capeci present a sympathetic character even as the working-class Brooklyn-born D’Arco conspires with business executives to make labor strife go away and helps the mob bilk the city’s public housing authority by supplying a million windows at inflated costs.

D’Arco — like the characters in the Italian film Gomorrah — was not glamorous. He lived in publicly subsidized housing and participated in the dirty work of illegal toxic dumping. He didn’t care for Gambino boss John Gotti’s flash and steered clear of the Little Italy-based Ravenite Social Club, even though he operated a well-reviewed Italian ristorante in the neighborhood. Robbins and Capeci gamble successfully on a tonal shift mid-way through the book, when D’Arco begins carrying out the multiplying murderous orders of Luchese crime family bosses Vic Amuso and Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso. A low-profile wiseguy turns into a killer and “the blood got not only on his hands,” the authors write, “it got all over his body.” D’Arco murders and murders again like a character in a Sopranos greatest hits YouTube video.

Though D’Arco is certain to live through the Luchese bloodletting, the reader sticks by Little Al to the end, when he suspects he’s next in line to get whacked and turns state’s witness. Mob Boss fully delivers on all the mafia tropes including the secretive induction scenarios.

“He’d [Frankie Pearl Federico] gone gray waiting to be made … Federico … suffered the deep gashes from Robert Kubecka’s nails as he fought for life. The mob didn’t give Purple Hearts. But it did award buttons.” 

Why do Americans love mafia tales? Mob Boss is the latest answer to the question. 

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