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Original Issue

Bad Bounces: Gambling On College Basketball, Legally And Illegally

THE ODDS: One Season, Three Gamblers and the Death of Their Las
Vegas/by Chad Millman/Public Affairs, $26

FIXED: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball/by
David Porter/Taylor Publishing Co., $24.95

March Madness is a good excuse to reflect on one of our national
manias: sports wagering. Americans risk more than $80 billion a
year on athletic contests, and the chief stoker of this fire has
long been Las Vegas. A fascinating culture has grown up around
the betting parlors of Sin City, and in The Odds, Millman has
written an intimate, hilarious and, at times, terribly sad
portrait of it.

Millman is nostalgic for the Vegas of old, when bettors such as
Barry the Donut and Hungry Hal would lay odds on who could eat
more doughnuts in an hour. Before the Internet and ESPN, the only
way to bet intelligently on college basketball was to follow the
sport obsessively. That was impossible for people with jobs, so
professional gamblers had a better chance of winning. Today
anyone with access to cable and the Web can size up the most
obscure teams. Online bookies claim a huge share of the action,
and the Vegas wiseguy is an endangered species.

Millman's hero, if one may call him that, is a professional
bettor named Alan Boston. Intelligent and sensitive, rare traits
among Vegas bettors, Boston makes good money, which is even
rarer. However, his occupation requires him to think about
nothing but betting lines, and that takes the fun out of sports
and almost everything else. Imagine losing $50,000 when a
freshman dribbles off his knee, and you'll understand what it's
like to be Alan Boston. "The last time I had a grocery list,"
Boston says, "it said bananas, oatmeal and a life." As the city
around him changes from a colorful gambler's paradise into a
corporate tourist trap, Boston grows increasingly depressed. One
hopes he will aim his talents in a more constructive direction,
but Millman hints that it's unlikely. For a gambler such as
Boston, Millman writes, to have bet joylessly and lost is better
than never to have bet at all.

Fixed concerns a different kind of gambler, one for whom winning
is the only possibility. In 1978 gangsters Henry Hill and Jimmy
Burke, later immortalized by Ray Liotta and Robert De Niro,
respectively, in the 1991 movie Goodfellas, recruited several
Boston College basketball players in a point-shaving conspiracy.
The scheme appears to have yielded little profit for Burke and
Hill, but it devastated the players. Porter argues convincingly
that the government was selective and hypocritical in prosecuting
team members: Jim Sweeney, a white, working-class point guard,
was given a pass despite admitting his involvement, but
prosecutors went hell-for-leather after shooting guard Ernie
Cobb, a black inner-city kid. Cobb was acquitted, but the trial
helped quash any chance he might have had for an NBA career.

Porter is preachy and, at times, disorganized--he waits until
Chapter 8 to explain how point shaving works. Still, he makes a
powerful case that prosecuting college-age knuckleheads is a
poor strategy for curing the social ills that gambling brings.