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Original Issue

Using Your Computer For Fun And Profit

There is definitely a Jekyll-and-Hyde quality to the life of Dr. Ivan Mindlin of Las Vegas. Publicly, he is a gentle fellow with an intellectual air, a highly respected former orthopedic surgeon whose hobby is writing short stories in an elegant style. Privately, he serves as the alleged mathematical mastermind behind the mysterious Computer Group, which just might be the biggest known sports betting ring ever established anywhere.

Or at least it may have been the biggest before a series of FBI raids 14 months ago put a serious crimp in the operation. Since then federal grand juries in Las Vegas and other cities have been hearing testimony about the Computer Group. So far Mindlin has not been called and no indictments have been returned. But FBI special agent Thomas B. Noble, who was responsible for the investigation, says the case "is not going to go away. It's big, and the federal government moves slowly."

At the heart of the investigation is the question of whether the Computer Group was illegally engaging in bookmaking. Lawyers for Mindlin and his associates deny this, and insist that the group was using computer technology to make bets, not book bets, and was doing so legally.

What is indisputable about the Computer Group is that it was the bane of bookmakers from coast to coast. So big, so rich and so well organized was it that just before a game began, it could bet enough money from enough different locations that bookies not connected with the group took a terrible beating because they didn't have the time or wherewithal to lay off bets to protect themselves.

The group also used a cast of "beards," persons with no apparent ties to Mindlin's operation, to make its bets. It was so efficient that sometimes it could first bet one team in a game, then quickly switch so much money to the other team that the line would move up or down like a yo-yo. On some of those occasions, the group would wind up "middling" the changing point spread, so that it made money no matter which team won the game.

This was no penny-ante doctor's hobby, either. A confidential source told the FBI that Mindlin's Computer Group made a profit of $25 million in one year.

The improbable head of the Computer Group got his medical degree from the University of Manitoba in 1955 and eventually joined the faculty at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J. Monmouth was the first hospital in the country to have an IBM computerized record-keeping system. Mindlin taught himself computer programming.

Then in 1971 he went to Las Vegas to practice orthopedic surgery. He had lived near there before and had lost money playing the tables. This time his wife made him promise he would bet only on sports. Looking for the statistical edge, Mindlin programmed 25,000 past college basketball games through computer services from coast to coast to see how accurate the pregame spreads were against the final score. He also specialized in baseball and college football, but rarely bothered with pro football because "the line is too good." He devised his own programs to "make a number" on each game and he bet frequently as an individual.

Shortly before Christmas of 1981, Mindlin was in an auto accident in which he damaged a nerve in his right wrist and suffered back and neck injuries. He has since been unable to practice surgery. The Computer Group was launched after Mindlin was hurt.

The FBI began to investigate the group in 1984 after Noble, who is based in Las Vegas, picked up on it in local street talk. After months of undercover work, Noble filed a federal court affidavit on Jan. 18, 1985, requesting search warrants. The next day, FBI agents raided 45 offices and homes in some 22 cities from coast to coast, including Mindlin's vacation retreat in Vail, Colo. There, agents seized, among other things, gambling records, betting charts, computer printouts, checks payable to others totaling $206,234 and two Texas Instruments Silent 700 Terminals.

According to unsealed FBI affidavits, the group usually worked like this: A man identifying himself as Mindlin would first phone a Vegas associate, get the day's point spreads for several dozen games, put them through the computer, then call back to give the associate another number, which is believed to be a computer power rating for each game. These numbers were on a scale of zero to nine, with nine being the best. They denoted how heavily Mindlin believed a particular game should be bet. He quoted different power-rating numbers for different sets of point spreads. For example, in 1985, by the Computer Group's reckoning, West Texas State plus nine points was a power rating of seven, plus 8½ points a six and plus eight points a four.

After getting the spreads and power ratings, Mindlin's associate would contact various bookmakers around the country to place bets on desired games at desired point spreads. He would also contact various beards and instruct them to place certain specific bets for the Computer Group.

The group was reputed to win a remarkably successful 60% to 65% of its bets, and so many gamblers tried to climb on the bandwagon and to follow its bets that the group disguised its moves even more. For example, it would bet SMU-Texas A & M early in the week, betting SMU so heavily that the line moved two points from six to eight. Then an hour before the game it would bet Texas A & M with twice as much money at eight—which was the spread it wanted anyway.

Within the Computer Group itself, Noble's affidavit states, Mindlin received a 7% cut of the profits. Mindlin's attorney, Morris Goldings of Boston, insists that his client is totally innocent of any violation of federal law. "I don't believe that it has been definitely decided that a competent sports bettor can't enlist a friend to place bets for him," says Goldings. He also says, "Speaking purely hypothetically—and not for Dr. Mindlin—sports betting is predicated on such things as past performance by teams and players. Whoever can marshal the most information about past performances and then has the most ability to analyze it all has an advantage in deciding what bet to place. It is the entrance of the computer into betting that is really at stake here. The hypocrisy of the whole business is this: Who is really hurt by the sports bettor who can best marshal all this information? Illegal bookmakers!"

Mindlin readily admits to anyone who asks that he has bet on all kinds of sports events for years, but he is fervent when he says, "It has never been anything but an intellectual exercise."