Though he now spends 80% of his time away, Jimmy the Greek is as indelibly associated with Las Vegas as salt water taffy is with Atlantic City. For several years the longtime gambler ran his own “book” as the Hollywood Sports Service. In 1962 he was convicted of illegally sending gambling information across state lines and fined $5,000. Since then he has operated a public-relations company. A handful of relatively anonymous Las Vegas bookmakers dictate the odds and point-spreads quoted in organized and illegal gambling—an estimated $20 billion-a-year business. But Jimmy still sets odds too that are nationally disseminated through his thrice weekly column in some 240 newspapers and by half-minute radio spots over 360 stations of the Mutual network five times a week.
Jimmy is currently living in Durham, N.C. where he is taking Duke University’s famous “rice diet” weight-reducing program. There Sidney Stapleton and Victor Bockris interviewed him for PEOPLE.
Who hung you with the name Jimmy the Greek?
Some kid in school. Who the hell can pronounce Dimitrios Synodinos? I changed my name legally to James Snyder in 1939. When I check into a hotel, I have to sign Jimmy the Greek Snyder because so many people call and say, “Let me have the Greek,” or, “Give me Jimmy the Greek.”
What do you do for a living?
Basically, I’m a PR man. I have a firm called Jimmy the Greek’s Public Relations, Inc. We have offices in Las Vegas and Miami, 19 people on the staff, and we gross about $800,000 a year, representing companies like National Biscuit Company—the candy division—and Aurora Toys. For three-and-a-half years, I handled PR for Howard Hughes.
What did you do for Hughes?
Different things. Hughes was opposed to atomic testing so close to Las Vegas. Every time there was a megaton-plus test, the windows of the hotel shook, and there were already cracks in some of the buildings. He didn’t want the people he brought to Vegas hurt. Mostly, he was afraid of the radiation. Mr. Maheu, his manager, would call and say, “Mr. Hughes is against megaton-plus testing, Jimmy.” And I’d say, “Well, what else?” And he’d say, “That’s it, Jimmy.” And you were on your own from there on. I was very happy working for him. And $175,000 a year isn’t hay.
What do you consider your greatest public-relations ploy?
Recently it was getting Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King to wear T-shirts with the name “Sugar Daddy” (one of the Nabisco candy products) on them at their match. At the end of the match, Bobby gave Billie Jean a big Sugar Daddy. I paid Billie Jean and Bobby $15,000 apiece to do that. And Nabisco doubled our retainer without our even asking for it.
How do you go about setting odds?
There’s a rating system for everything. In professional football, for instance, you have seven categories: speed, the defensive secondary, the quarterback, the running game, the kicking game, the home team advantage and the intangibles like who are the coaches, who’s hurt, who’s well, who has the best game plan. You add up the points, subtract the lowest from the highest, then crank in intuition and come up with the odds.
Can you be more specific?
Oddsmaking equals knowledge times energy times intuition. It’s my formula. I don’t want to give anything away, but, look, 5% of a team are the “phenoms”—superstars. You have to know if they are hurt. Now team speed is the most important factor in football. And next season they’ve moved the kickoff back five yards which is going to give the fast receiver an advantage. Right now, I’m calculating how much extra weight to give team speed in my formula. The kicking game is going to be more important next year too, because they moved the goal post back ten yards. So what was a 30-yard field goal is now a 40-yard field goal.
How do you get the information for setting odds on politics?
Through polls. Most of our polling is done by my staff over the telephone. We poll especially in certain key precincts in New York, Illinois, Ohio and California. We’ve been polling them since 1948, so we know the demographic breakdowns and all that. We go one step further than the pollsters like Harris and Gallup. They give you the percentages, but we break it down into odds. They’ll tell you a guy has 52% of the vote, but we’ll tell you that guy is a 9 to 5 favorite.
Are there other differences between you and the other pollsters?
We’re kind of mavericks, but our way is better. Some of the other pollsters get so caught up in this scientific crap they forget to ask the guy who the hell he’s going to vote for. We’ve missed 3 of 36 senatorial races, but never been wrong on a presidential election. We even called the Truman-Dewey race back in 1948 a toss-up when everybody else said Dewey had it in a walk.
I understand you offered some odds on Nixon’s impeachment.
We polled the House by mail back in February and found of those who responded—and we got a 70% return, which was fantastic—91 were against, 64 for, 105 undecided, 23 leaning against and 23 leaning for. That works out to 50 to 1 against by my formula, which is another trade secret. In the House, I’d say impeachment is a toss-up. But in the Senate, the odds against conviction are prohibitive, like 100 to 1.
How would you bet?
Since our poll, the transcripts have come out and that’s made a big difference, and even the toss-up is just for today. Who knows what’s going to happen, like what Colson is going to say?
How do odds of 100 to 1 against conviction translate into actual betting?
I’m betting he won’t be convicted: I put up $100 to your $1. If he isn’t convicted, I win your dollar. If he is, you win my $100. Recently, I’ve bet a lot of people like Art Buchwald and Red Smith 1,000 to 1 Nixon would not be convicted. I do it on condition they give me their $1 with their autograph. So far I’ve got about 20 autographed dollar bills. If he’s convicted I’ve lost $20,000, but I don’t think that’s likely.
What made you quit gambling?
Well, I got out the first time in 1952 because Joannie [his wife] said she wouldn’t marry me if I didn’t. I went in the oil business—which you could call gambling of another kind—and after I drilled 22 dry holes, I went back to real gambling. But I got out for good because the laws passed against transmitting information for gambling purposes across state lines made gambling too risky.
You were afraid of further prosecution?
Sure. But more than that, if I could not bet across state lines, I stood to lose 7 to 8 percent of what I otherwise would win.
How do you mean?
Say the Jets and the Rams are playing football. People in New York like the Jets, so there the Jets are only 11 point underdogs. In California people like the Rams, so there the Jets are 14 point underdogs. Then it’s a choice of numbers. If I like the Jets, I bet in California and take 14. If they lose by anything less than 14 points, I win. If I like the Rams, I bet in New York, where I only have to give 11. If the Rams win by 11 or more, I win. Now one out of 17 games will fall into this kind of spread, and if you can’t bet across state lines to get the odds, you have to cut 7 to 8 percent off your possible winnings.
Was there a situation where you got odds against the pack and were right?
It wasn’t odds, and it was in politics. Ten days before the Republican convention in 1968, I said Agnew would be the Vice-President, and nobody else had ever heard of him. Paul Laxalt (then Nevada governor) was with
Agnew the night Nixon was nominated and told Agnew, “Jimmy the Greek has already named you for the vice-presidency.” Agnew said, “He’s crazy.”
Was there a situation where you were really wrong?
The 1969 Superbowl. Everybody else was saying Baltimore by 21 to 30 points. I gave ’em only 17, and the Jets won it 16 to 7.1 was in the hospital being operated on the day the game was played. The next morning I woke up and turned on Joe Garigiola, and he was saying, “Even Jimmy the Greek was wrong.” I was bonehead of the year.