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High-Tech Bookie : The Man Who Took Vegas by Computer

January 08, 1989|RICHARD ZACKS | Richard Zacks is a New York free-lance writer .

WHEN VIC SALERNO was a dentist, his patients sometimes rinsed out their mouths and wound up catching a glimpse of a celebrity's yacht.

In the 1970s, Salerno's eighth-floor office faced west over the harbor of Marina del Rey. Sunsets painted the sails pink as soft rock music was piped in to calm nerves. The drills and other instruments of pain were carefully hidden so as not to distract from the ocean view out floor-to-ceiling windows.

Salerno's clientele rewarded the conscientious dentist with more than $200,000 a year for working 3 1/2 days a week.

In 1978, after eight years of what many would call the "good life," Victor Salerno, at 34, was bored. Increasingly, his Fridays turned into "triple-headers," starting out at Hollywood Park for the afternoon races, buzzing over to Los Alamitos for the evening schedule and then, if he still had cash, winding up on Western Airlines for the 11 p.m. hop to Las Vegas.

"That was the most hyper, crazy flight ever, that last flight to Las Vegas," recalls Salerno, a passionate fire plug of a guy who bears a slight resemblance to John Belushi and has the unbelievable stamina for a daily routine of three packs of Marlboro and half a dozen Cuervo Gold tequilas. Mid-flight dice games sometimes blocked the aisle and many passengers lost their bankroll before landing. Salerno confesses that he never had any money past 2 a.m. and that the wait for the 7:30 a.m. flight back was excruciatingly long. So were the hours at the office.

While some men might have gone out and bought a red Corvette, Salerno abandoned his dental practice for Leroy's Race & Sports Book, a hard-luck bookie joint in downtown Las Vegas smack-dab in Glitter Gulch. Since then, Salerno's had a view that couldn't be more different from Marina del Rey.

Through the strip of two-way mirrors that line his office at Leroy's, Salerno has seen "Cryin' Kenny" lose a bundle in the last seconds of a game and then run full throttle down the length of the bar to crash headfirst into the wall. He has seen a 60-year-old grandmother climb on top of the cigarette machine to attempt a bump-and-grind striptease.

Now his office is filled with the high-adrenaline voices of track announcers calling horse races and the rumblings of drunken customers. But there are other sounds as well: the quiet drum of fingertips on computer keys and the staccato tap-tap-tap of two printers at work.

Salerno is more than just another sports bookie in Nevada, the only state where betting on sports teams is legal. (Betting on horse racing is legal in 43 states.) Salerno and his partner, Javed Buttar--a lanky, aristocratic Pakistani computer whiz, who once didn't know a daily double from a double-header--are the founders and co-owners of CBS Computer Systems, a company that specializes in hardware and software designed for the sports-betting business.

Together, this unlikely pair helped drag the bookmaking business out of the old-fashioned coziness of the corner booth and the handwritten ticket and into the precise, high-tech style of modern-day Wall Street. Their systems have enabled bookmakers to speed up betting transactions and cash winning tickets faster. And come Super Bowl Sunday, bettors in Nevada, who are expected to plunk down a record $40 million, can cash their tickets immediately after the game instead of waiting to "settle up" on Monday. The systems also cut down on employee theft, and they've even helped local regulators double-check what once was very questionable bookkeeping.

In just four years, CBS Computer Systems has dominated the market and brought automation to 43 of Nevada's 60 licensed sports books, including some of the biggest neon palaces, such as the Las Vegas Hilton, the Stardust Hotel and the Golden Nugget.

Setups range from the smallest--combining an IBM Series / 1 mini computer, a Cubix workstation and C-Itoh printer--all the way up to the most elaborate, such as the one at the Las Vegas Hilton which features 30 workstations, 30 printers and 30 optical scanners to electronically read exotic bets such as parlay cards. All customers receive customized bookmaking software.

The company charges from $40,000 to $800,000 to install a system, and as much as $2,500 a month for the service contract. And if the system crashes, all users have backup copies of their records.

America's increasing enthusiasm for betting is helping to make a bull market for Salerno's wares: Bettors in Nevada last year plunked down more than $1.1 billion in legal wagers on sporting events, up from a mere $41 million in 1975, according to estimates based on figures from the Nevada Gaming Control Board. Football, America's most popular betting sport, soaks up about 40% of that action, followed by basketball (32%), baseball (21%), boxing (5%) and hockey (2%).

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