How it's done by the book

I knew a bookmaker who had a heart attack during the frantic end of a football game on television.

Updated: January 5, 2005, 1:23 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

I knew a bookmaker who had a heart attack during the frantic end of a football game on television.

He stood as the point spread teetered on a pass slung into the end zone with seconds left in the game, fell to his knees, his wife and partner called 911 like that, and he lived to collect another day.

The only time you would expect a bookmaker to even think about experiencing chest pains is on settle-up night when somebody might say listen, the dog ate the cash.

What does a bookmaker having a heart attack over a football game tell us?

That all is not as it seems in Palookaville.

People think that bookmakers make their money on the commission charged against losing bets, which is true to a degree. But the books on a game are not always balanced with half the bettors on each side. Bookmakers frequently wind up betting against an impressionable public because it's good business. The average person is not always wrong; but some weekends it's close.

In subjective wagering, like sports betting or horse handicapping, where an opinion is required to come up with a winner, the obvious can be a thief.

To be a successful bookmaker, you have to trust the line, which is to say that you are betting your livelihood that the people who set point spread after point spread after point spread know more than anybody except our Lord, who, to date, has never said a single thing against wagering.

Say you are a bookmaker and here comes Super Bowl champ New England going to play hapless Miami, hapless if you're a friend or relative of a Dolphin player, hopeless, if you're objective: And Patriots are only favored by 9! And here comes the money on New England, hundred-dollar bettors wagering five times that, people ahead two grand betting all and more. So what do you do? If you're relatively new to the bookmaking business, you lay off the excess on New England and keep your little 10 percent commission on the losers and buy the kiddies a new puppy. But if you've been around a good while, you have a nitroglycerine pill and let the sheep-like masses bring it with both hands on New England. If you have learned to trust the people who make point spreads more than you trust people who bet cash they can't afford to lose, you take all the New England money the schmucks can scrape together and let human nature take its course.

The impossible final score Dec, 20: Miami 29, New England 28; Hummers all around the bookie's household.

To be a successful horse handicapper in 2005, you have to trust the numbers as well, the big numbers -- you have to trust that the people making most of the favorites at the race track are the same ones who unloaded on the Patriots over Miami, they're victims of the obvious.

Anybody can play what's obvious at the horse races. You don't even need a pencil. All you need is a dollar or two.

The obvious is 6-5, it's 2-1; and it could lose as easily as it could win.

So there, the first unhealthy aspect of the obvious play at the horse races is that it doesn't pay enough.

As bad, it's not your pick. It's the program picker's pick. The obvious is thoughtless. It's what people without a Form bet. Many people have personalities that subconsciously put them onto obvious bets, no matter the abilities of the animal or conditions of the race. If you think you're at least slightly better than everybody else, you're prone toward playing what's obvious, the favorites. Nobody likes to say I'm comfortable playing underdogs because life has beaten the hell out of me since I was 16.

You have to learn to play what's unobvious.

There are times when you can bet the obvious. That's when your original thought trumps the tourists. I am at that wonderful point where even thinking about losing money on what's obvious makes me a little queasy.

It's all about trust.

Sometimes you really have to trust that the general public doesn't know what it's doing.

Here's to a creative 2005.

Write to Jay at jaycronley@go.com