By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Don Garcia first learned about sports betting in the 1970s. He was 5 years old, enjoyed the thrill and had an eye for the big bucks. More than 30 years later, he still remembers the moment he knew he’d be a bookie.
“My pops and his two brothers were sitting in my grandma’s tight one-bedroom apartment living room. It was wintertime, There was no heat in the house. I was dressed in my hand-me-down long johns, but my pops and my uncles were sweating. I wanted to tell my dad something, but as soon as I was about to say ‘dad,’ my uncle Cesar screamed ‘yeah’ and smacked my uncle Vic on the head. My dad was pissed and called my uncle all kinds of names. The tension was real, so I was like, ‘Nah I gotta stay for this.’
“They were watching basketball, so every time someone on their team made a shot or did something good, they went crazy. My dad was losing, but out of nowhere his team came back and kicked my uncle’s ass. I don’t even remember who was playing. All I remember was my uncle Vic taking a wad of cash out his pocket, giving most of it to my pops and keeping the rest. It was a wrap after that. I was in.”
Garcia said that he would beg his father for permission to participate in the action. But he was only a child and had no money to put in, so his father made him do chores around the house for an allowance of $5 per week.
“He would always tell me, ‘This is not a game,’” said Garcia. “He said first I have to learn how to make money; then I have to learn how to manage it before I start sports betting. On my birthday when my dad said I could be a bettor, I was hyped. I had $2,073 saved up and I lost it all in just one week of sports betting. It was after that that I knew I was going to be a bookie. Don’t get me wrong: Bettors make bank if they win. But that’s only if they win. Bookies get paid regardless, and if you’re a smart one like me, you [are] making serious bread in every game.”
The American Gaming Association estimates that $150 billion is gambled illegally on sports betting each year. Most of that money is through bookies like Garcia, who has a ledger of accounts and tracks bets often made with text messages or phone calls, or in person. Unlike legal sports gambling where a bettor gives cash to an outlet and receives a ticket, a bookie just tracks wins and losses and then settles up with his customers every few days.
Garcia said the manner in which he typically operates is to allow bettors to choose the winning team, with bets ranging from $500 to $2,000, depending on the intensity of the game. While such amounts might appear low for a bookie, Garcia said that, for example, if the Heat play the Knicks, he would typically have bettors lined up on both sides.
“There’s only two choices,” said Garcia. “So, if I have five guys for the Heat and one for the Knicks, and the Knicks lose, then it’s not that big a win for the five Heat bettors.”
In that case, Garcia said he’d get a bigger cut if the Knicks win. But even if the Heat win, the money he collects from the losing bet on the Knicks offsets the money he has to pay out to the Heat bettors.
During bigger games, such as the NBA finals when the Cleveland Cavaliers took on the Golden State Warriors, Garcia said that many participants bet on the outcome. But others’ bets are more intricate, such as betting on the number of times that Lebron James would make a three-point shot or would foul.
“It’s all about the money,” said Garcia. “I’m a hustler and this is my hustle.”
Garcia, similar to his uncle Vic, works as a bookie for a living. He has a wife, children and other family members who depend on him.
“I know it’s off the books, but I need to do what I have to do to feed my family,” said Garcia. “Why work a job that I hate for a boss who treats me like shit, when I can work doing something I love that doesn’t hurt anybody and keeps my family happy?”
Life for bookies may be about to change. The recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) has cleared the way for all states to implement legal sports gambling. Since the ruling, several states have moved quickly in hopes of collecting on the billions of dollars estimated to be wagered illegally each year in states across the nation, including New York’s neighbor, New Jersey.
However, state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach), the ranking member of the city’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee, told the Queens Tribune that New Jersey had moved too quickly.
“I don’t believe we should rush into it because Jersey is doing it,” he said. “So often we see that when Jersey rushes into something like with online gaming, it doesn’t quite do it right. Therefore, we don’t want to rush into something for our state and get it wrong. I’d rather we take our time and do it right as we look to protect the interest of the consumer and the integrity of the professional sport. Now that we won’t go back into session until January 2019, I think this gives us an ample amount of time to get the framework to do it right. And that’s working with our state’s gaming commission and certainly getting input from interested parties and doing it right.”
Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, the city’s Racing, Gaming and Wagering Committee held a hearing, during which it spoke to individuals, including Joe Asher, CEO of William Hill’s U.S. business in Nevada. Addabbo said that New York is looking to Nevada for inspiration because that state has offered legalized sports betting since 1949 and has been “doing it right,” according to the Southeast Queens lawmaker.
In addition to creating a contract for the companies that would operate sports betting, Addabbo said that there would also be a contract to hire an outside company with the job of protecting the integrity of the sport.
Regardless of whether the law is changed in New York, Garcia said that he will not change the way he does business and refuses to share his earnings with the state.
“I have my own way of doing things,” said Garcia. “When they legalize sports betting, there’s going to be so many rules and regulations. There’s going to be new bookies, most likely operated and controlled by the city so much that it’s not even personal anymore, and it’s not going to be fun. This is fun to me. I make my rules. If a bettor doesn’t like the way I do business, we negotiate and create a relationship. There’s never beef. I take care of my people and my people take care of me. The state is just going to turn it into another everyday job.”
One person looking forward to the legalization of sports gambling is Pete, a bettor who works for the city. He began betting during his freshman year at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
“I was just chilling with some guys I met through my roommate, watching an NFL game,” said Pete. “I didn’t know any betting was going on until the game ended and I saw one of the guys giving 20 [dollar bills] to the other guys in the room. ‘That’s right, pass that down,’ one of the guys said. I felt out of the crew because I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t get a $20 bill.”
Pete said he asked his roommate later that night what had happened and his roommate, a sophomore, informed him that some college students earned extra cash through sports betting.
“I started sports betting for the rest of my college years and have been doing it since,” said Pete. “But it’s not something I depend on, and I don’t participate in every sport. I keep it to the basics, like baseball, basketball, football, sometimes soccer. And I only bet on my team when I know they are playing against a team they have a reputation of winning against.”
Pete said that he was on edge during the interview as his phone vibrated with updates from the game.
“It’s just a side thing, but when you lose, man, it’s like a piece of pride goes with you,” said Pete. “It’s not just my money I’m betting on. I have faith in that team, so when they make a stupid move, that pisses me off.”
Pete told us his work with the city makes it challenging for him to participate in sports betting. He fears getting caught and possibly losing his job for participating in the currently illegal activity.
“I love my job,” said Pete. “And don’t get me wrong: I obey the law in every other area. This is just fun for me and on my low-income days, this extra money helps. I just wish it was legal so that I won’t have to sneak around.”
According to Addabbo, sports betting could become legal in New York in 2019. Moreover, unlike New Jersey, which overestimated the revenue for sports betting and ended up in a deficit, Addabbo said he can’t provide an estimate of how much the state would make by legalizing betting because “it’s revenue that we’ve never had before.”
“We don’t want our state to go down this uncharted territory and do it wrong,” said Addabbo. “We haven’t figured out how to arrange bets, where licenses should go, should casinos get it, what lounges or parlors will be participating, will these sports bets take place online. These are all issues we need to work out.”