‘Sportsman’s Paradise’ shakes off its notorious sports gambling past

‘Sportsman’s Paradise’ shakes off its notorious sports gambling past

  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports
August 25, 2021 11:20 PM
  • John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports

Wherever he ended up, I hope Dickie Stevens kept a sense of humor.

I thought of Stevens and some other dinosaur illegal bookmakers from the South earlier this summer after reading about Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signing into law two bills to enact legalized sports betting in the state.

Louisiana, of course, has been doing a fine job of gambling illegally on ballgames and horse races for generations.

With the football season upon the sports world, the idea of betting legally on games in Louisiana has been a long time coming. Louisiana is a “Sportsman’s Paradise” in many ways.

Which brings me back to Arthur Richard Stevens, whose name is well known among veteran sports gamblers from Vegas to Venezuela. Back in the early 1980s, his Shreveport-based illegal bookmaking operation had agents and outs in at least 10 states, and likely several more.

It eventually attracted the attention of the FBI, which at the time was busy with multiple illegal gambling cases. It’s probably no surprise that most of those investigations had a Las Vegas connection. In that era, Las Vegas had as many bookies sitting in sports books, poker rooms and bars than standing behind counters in the casinos.

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By the summer of 1983, the Shreveport operation was under surveillance. For his part, Stevens wasn’t hard to find in Louisiana. And once the court-authorized wiretaps went up in December of that year and were extended into early 1984, the shadowy picture of the Stevens’ operation began to gain clarity. More than 2,500 phone calls generated nearly 1,750 wagers and a gross approaching $4 million. The group averaged $3 million a week and the phones burned day and night.

The multistate operation was far from unique. Bookmakers of any size need to reduce their exposure should the public jump hard on one side of a game. Stevens was among the best-connected bookies in the country, as the wiretaps showed. With a listening device on Stevens’ own phone, agents identified calls from at least 10 states.

When the 69-count indictment was unsealed in late 1984, 18 defendants were named. Among them were Las Vegans Dickie Carson and Ruby Goldstein. Ben “Sonny” Rogers was from Louisville, but also knew his way around Las Vegas.

The Stevens’ setup had allies in Fresno, Lafayette, Tulsa, South Carolina, Texas, Oklahoma, Illinois, Alabama, and elsewhere. Accompanying the indictment were scathing headlines and a fair amount of suspender-snapping by the FBI and Department of Justice. New Orleans FBI SAC Edmund Pistey said, “In terms of your average Joe bettor, these would be the bookmakers’ bookmakers.”

I suppose that was, in its way, a compliment.

Convictions were soon in order and the story was replaced by other illegal betting scandals, including the even more notorious Computer Group case that rocked Las Vegas.

John Bel Edwards

Through all that time, no one in the legal or illegal ends of the craft believed that sports betting and bookmaking would ever be legal, accepted, and enthusiastically embraced outside Nevada sports books. But here we are in 2021 and Louisiana is making its entry.

The state that does nothing in a small way will soon offer legal options in 56 of 64 parishes as the NFL regular season gears up. Many of those, no doubt, will become popular additions to the state’s nearly two dozen casinos. In 2020, Louisiana ranked sixth in gross gaming revenue. It’s a safe bet to spike with the addition of safe betting.

Like other jurisdictions, a fair amount of competitive shakeout is expected in Louisiana. And like the others, the sportsbook brand names will sound familiar. DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, Caesars, and more see it as a vibrant market.

The interstate competition is already hopping from Arkansas and Mississippi with others edging closer to the water. At one point, more than 40 licenses were in the process of being issued.

On Aug. 19, when the Louisiana Gaming Control Board unanimously adopted emergency sports betting rules in order not to miss the start of the fall football season, it was an undeniable sign that a new era was about to begin.

Maybe those old bookmakers were just ahead of their time.