Vegas profile: Art Manteris, dean of Nevada bookmakers

AP Photo/Isaac Brekken

On an early September 1998 evening in Las Vegas, the phone was ringing in the back of the sports book at the Hilton. It was the boss, and he was unhappy.

"Who's the genius who made Sampras minus-two-dollars over Rafter?" Arthur Goldberg, the boss, chirped sarcastically.

Art Manteris was that genius. The Hilton sports book director glanced up at the TV and knew exactly how this chat was going to go down. The odds in question were for a U.S. Open match between No. 1 Pete Sampras and No. 3 Patrick Rafter. Sampras, with a gimpy leg, was not 100 percent. Manteris factored the injury into the odds, made him a 1-2 favorite and attracted a big bet -- $200,000 on Sampras -- from a very high-end player.

The six-figure wager had caught the boss' attention. He continued berating Manteris over the phone for what he thought were ridiculously low odds on the top player in the world at the time.

"It's over, two sets-to-one. Rafter has no chance," Goldberg said. "How could you do this?"

"Uh, Mr. Goldberg," Manteris replied, "you're watching the replay, tape-delayed. Rafter wins in five sets."

Four years earlier, in March 1994, the Hilton sports book office phone had rung. That time, when Manteris picked up, it was an official from the Pac-10 conference. He was concerned. The fix was in, and Manteris knew it.

For weeks, there had been unusual betting patterns on Arizona State college basketball games. More money was being bet on Sun Devils games than normal, lopsided amounts against ASU that caused the point spread to move erratically.

After it happened twice, leading up to a Jan. 27 game against Oregon State and a Feb. 17 game against UCLA, Manteris knew there was a problem. He notified Nevada Gaming Control and subsequently the NCAA. On March 5, the point spread on Arizona State's home game against Washington moved eight points. The Sun Devils went from 11-point favorites to 3.

"By the third game, we were lying in wait at that point," Manteris recalled. "The surveillance video was hooked up ready to go. We wanted to see who was betting it."

With Manteris' assistance, the Nevada Gaming Control Board uncovered one of the most notorious point-shaving scandals in the history of America sports. Arizona State star guard Stevin "Hedake" Smith and teammate Isaac Burton would plead guilty to conspiracy charges for shaving points. A handful of illegal bookmakers from outside of Nevada were indicted on sports bribery charges.

The ASU scandal remains a reminder of the dangers of sports betting. But Manteris also believes it exemplifies the value of a regulated sports betting market.

"I was proud that we saw the problem and took the appropriate steps," Manteris said in April, in his office at the Red Rock casino sports book. "I felt good about my industry. I felt that it indicated that our industry does everything we can to protect the integrity of the game."

A veteran bookmaker of four decades, Manteris is the dean of Las Vegas sports book directors. A Pittsburgh native, he left home for Sin City during his college years. Manteris would go onto become one of the youngest sportsbook directors in town, when he took over at prestigious Caesars Palace in the mid-1980s. He later moved on to a vice president role at the Hilton, where he's credited with designing the modern, theatre-style sportsbook.

Now approaching his 40th year in Las Vegas, Manteris, the vice president of Station Casinos' sportsbooks doesn't do a lot of media interviews anymore. But, in April, as he looked over his desk at the Red Rock, it was clear what the silver-haired Manteris wanted to discuss: his passion for the legal sports betting industry, its past and its future in the U.S.

"Art Manteris has won more money for Nevada sportsbooks than anyone ever." -- Roxy Roxborough, iconic Nevada oddsmaker

For believers in the bottom line, that would mean Manteris is the greatest bookmaker ever. Those who might disagree? Sophisticated bettors. They're not fans of his. Manteris knows it and smirks, when asked if the best bookmakers are supposed to be liked by the sharpest bettors. "My responsibility is to my employer," he said.

Manteris' rivalry with Vegas mega-pro bettor Billy Walters dates back for decades. It's a bookie-vs.-bettor cat-and-mouse game that Micah Roberts, a former sportsbook director under Manteris, called the "biggest feud in Vegas." "Art stood up to him," Roberts added.

"I respect what [Walters] has done," Manteris said with a smile, "but that doesn't necessarily mean I want his business."

Like all of the Nevada sports betting industry, business is booming at the Red Rock, with or without Walters' action. In 2014, more money was bet on sports at the state's regulated sports books than any other year, according to Gaming Control. The books also won more money than any other year, bolstered by a record $19.6 million win on Super Bowl XLVIII between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos. Manteris says his book won more money on the Seahawks' 43-8 rout of the Broncos than any other game in his career.

With one eye on retirement, Manteris is proud of how far the industry has come and bullish on the future of sports betting in the U.S. overall. But he also looks back to a decision by the horse racing industry that could have changed everything.

The biggest blunder in gambling history

It was the early 1990s, just years before the federal prohibition on expanding sports betting was put into place. Manteris and Roxborough began to discuss bringing Vegas-style sports betting to horse racing tracks across the nation. The two influential Nevada figures travelled around, meeting with officials at race tracks like Laurel Park and Churchill Downs. They were making headway at Laurel Park in Maryland. The track had even begun construction of an on-site sports book, when the tone of the discussions changed suddenly.

Horse racing powers-that-be got involved, teamed with the professional sports leagues and adamantly opposed sports gambling. The result was the Professional Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, a federal statute that has prevented the expansion of sports betting in the U.S.

"It's the biggest blunder in the history of racing," Manteris said. "The horse racing industry opposing sports wagering as aggressively as they did tops them all. Instead of sports bettors today having the opportunity to go to their local race track and bet sports, now they do it online, internationally, theoretically into illegal jurisdictions and markets.

"Where would the race tracks be today if they would have brought the entire online sports betting industry to the race tracks instead of sending it offshore?" Manteris asked. "Would they have turned the corner? Would they have exposed their product to whole other generation of new customers? Would sports and race gambling thrive, co-exist nicely like they do day in Nevada? I think they would."

'You're going to marry a gambler?'

It's a true Vegas love story. In 1989, a young newscaster, on one of her first assignments in town, popped into the Hilton for an interview on Super Bowl Sunday, the busiest day of the year. Manteris was on his game.

"He was so gracious with his time, despite being so busy. Very nice," recalled Sue Manteris, Art's wife of 20 years, who jumpstarted her path to becoming an anchor on the Vegas NBC affiliate with that Super Bowl Sunday interview.

Art Manteris played it cool, took his time before reaching back out to Sue for a date. They went out a few times and hit it off. He'd need to meet the parents.

Sue Tripathi had arrived in Las Vegas in the mid-1980s. She was an aspiring television journalist of Asian Indian heritage, whose career stops included Billings, Montana, and Casper, Wyoming, where gaming means "hunting."

"When I first told my parents that I was going to be marrying this guy, they were like 'What? He's a gambler. You're going to marry a gambler?'" Sue Manteris recalled. "They had no idea that there was a legitimate side of gambling, legalized gaming in Nevada. Growing up, I had never really known that. That kind of talk never entered into our home."

Art Manteris' passion and knowledge of the industry eventually won over his in-laws. But he has not been able to persuade the NFL on the value of regulated sports betting.

Over lunch in April at the Red Rock, Manteris was cautious, but clearly frustrated when the subject turned to the NFL's longstanding opposition to legalized sports betting in the U.S. He doesn't buy the league's "integrity of the game" argument, emphasizing that a regulated sports betting market is really the best way to protect the game's integrity. While many are quick to call the NFL's stance on sports betting hypocritical, Manteris stopped short of that line and seemed understanding of what it takes to operate a billion-dollar business like the NFL.

"They clearly feel that they have to take the public perception that they've taken in order to maintain their position in society, their position with the justice department and legal community," Manteris said. "But that's not the real reason. I think everybody knows that."

Will the NFL relent on its opposition to legal sports betting before he retires? Manteris doesn't know, but he's watching closely and preparing to be a part of the discussion, before calling it a career.

Looking back, memories and lessons learned at one of his first gigs in town still resonate. As a student at UNLV, Manteris operated the manual odds-board during the early prime of the Stardust sportsbook.

"It looked like the scoreboard at Fenway Park." he recalled.

The Stardust at the time was the pre-eminent sportsbook in Vegas. When it put a game on the board, there would be a rush to the pay phones outside of the book from interested parties relaying the line. The bizarreness of the atmosphere and the characters who ran the book stoked Manteris' fascination with the industry.

"I learned lessons at the Stardust that I still use today," he said. "I learned to protect the assets of the operation."