Snyder, James ("Jimmy the Greek")

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SNYDER, James ("Jimmy the Greek")

(b. 9 September 1919 in Steubenville, Ohio; d. 21 April 1996 in Las Vegas, Nevada), sports gambler, handicapper, oddsmaker, public relations director, and television personality who was the most famous sports gambling figure of the twentieth century.

Snyder, born Demetrios Georgos Synodinos, was one of three children of Greek immigrant parents, George and Sultania Synodinos, who operated a small neighborhood grocery store in the tough mill town of Steubenville, Ohio. As a teenager Snyder demonstrated a facility with mathematics and statistics that proved invaluable to his later gambling career. By age fourteen he had found employment as a runner for several of the town's bookmakers and also was working as a youthful professional card and craps dealer. He naturally gravitated toward sports wagering, demonstrating unusual skill at picking winning horses and college football teams. Speaking of his years in wide-open Steubenville, he once joked, "You had to bet to survive. I was twenty-five before I found out gambling was illegal."

Snyder dropped out of high school in 1935 at age sixteen to move to Florida, where he earned a living at the racetracks. On 28 March 1942 he married Pauline ("Sunny") Miles; they had one daughter and divorced after approximately five years of marriage. Snyder married Joan Specht in 1951; they remained married until his death and had four children, three of whom died of cystic fibrosis.

By 1950 he had relocated to New York City, where he was widely admired as an uncanny handicapper who routinely bet $10,000 on a race or game, sometimes increasing his wagers to six figures when he felt he had identified an exceptionally attractive opportunity. In 1951 he was identified as one of the nation's most prominent sports gamblers by witnesses before the Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce chaired by Senator Estes Kefauver. When the federal governmentlaunched an aggressive campaign against gambling in the wake of the hearings, Snyder relocated to Nevada, where gambling was legal.

In Las Vegas he pursued his craft free from worry about the authorities and honed his skills of self-promotion. Unlike most professional sports gamblers who shun the public spotlight, Snyder aggressively cast himself as a highly visible and popular character. His high-stakes bets were the talk of the Strip, and he caught on as a lines maker for the Las Vegas Turf and Sports Club. A 1961 laudatory article in Sports Illustrated identified him as "The Greek Who Makes the Odds."

That same year Snyder's luck turned sour when he was caught in a federal wiretap discussing an upcoming Utah–Utah State football game with a friend in Salt Lake City. Indicted by federal authorities for transmitting gambling information across state lines, he pleaded nolo contendere (accepting the conviction but denying guilt) and paid a $10,000 fine. Snyder believed that he had been singled out by Attorney General Robert Kennedy for a comment reported by the press in the wake of the passage of a harsh anti-gambling bill: "They lost in Laos, they lost in Cuba, they lost in East Berlin, but they sure are giving the gamblers a beating." President Gerald Ford pardoned him in 1974.

Snyder began in 1963 writing a column on sports betting for the Las Vegas Sun. Within a few years it was syndicated in more than 200 daily newspapers. For a time he worked as the publicist for the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, who had purchased several prominent hotel-casinos. Snyder's own public relations firm, Sports Unlimited, landed many prominent clients including Caesars Palace. Having forsworn the horses ("Never bet on anything that can't talk"), Synder continued to handicap football and basketball, selling his betting lines and personal evaluations of upcoming games to a select clientele.

He also set odds on major elections, a practice that was legal in Nevada until 1985. He won $100,000 on Harry Truman's 1948 upset presidential victory over Thomas E. Dewey after his sister advised him women were suspicious of men with mustaches; over the years several political pundits had openly praised his ability to handicap political races. In 1971 a Jim Berry cartoon showed a worried President Richard Nixon looking at polling data on the upcoming re-election campaign with an aide and commenting, "Frankly, John, I don't care about the Gallup Poll or the Harris Poll—What does Jimmy the Greek say?"

His national reputation as a superior handicapper was primarily the result of his own continuous self-promotion campaign. His standing among his professional gambling peers—the so-called Las Vegas wise guys—was that of someone who was greatly overrated. Even the Las Vegas Sun, for which he wrote, humorously acknowledged as much in a farewell editorial-obituary when it noted that among the wise guys "those in need of a big win would tune into CBS's Sunday football pre-game show, get Snyder's hottest pick, and then bet the other side."

In 1976 Snyder found himself in a position to greatly enhance the public's awareness about sports wagering when he joined the high-profile Sunday-afternoon program The NFL Today on CBS TV. Although he glibly interacted with cohosts Brent Musburger and Phyllis George, his primary role was presenting "The Greek's Board," a segment in which he released his predictions on the day's upcoming games. He exploited this opportunity to do what he had long done best—promote himself as the nation's Wizard of Odds. Although no record of all of his picks remains, it was mediocre at best.

After a twelve-year run on The NFL Today, Snyder's much-publicized public fistfight with Musburger over his on-camera time allocation, as well as his many disagreements with the show's producers, made him dispensable. Snyder was unceremoniously fired in January 1988 after a Washington, D.C., reporter published his off-the-cuff comments about the qualities of African-American athletes. Those comments were widely condemned as both historically inaccurate and even racist. One month later he suffered a serious heart attack. It proved to be the first of a series of major health problems that eroded his spirited outlook on life, including a painful case of shingles, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a broken hip. In late 1995 he suffered a major stroke; he died in April of the following year in the city he loved, Las Vegas. He is buried in Steubenville. One newspaper obituary aptly summarized his impact upon American society: "His gift for gab was responsible for helping make sports betting one of the most popular forms of mainstream entertainment."

Snyder is the subject of a warm but woefully sketchy biography by a family friend: Ginger Wadsworth, Farewell Jimmy the Greek: Wizard of Odds (1997). It draws heavily upon Snyder's own peripatetic autobiography, Jimmy the Greek by Himself (1975).Michael Rogin's "The Greek Who Makes the Odds," Sports Illustrated (18 Dec. 1961), introduced Snyder to a national audience. Art Manteris seeks to place Snyder in a Las Vegas insider's perspective in Super Bookie: Inside Las Vegas Sports Gambling (1991), and Mike Lupica provides a sound analysis of Snyder's comments about African-American athletes and his subsequent firing by CBS in "The Greek in Purgatory," Esquire (Jan. 1989). An obituary is in the Las Vegas Sun (23 Apr. 1996).

Richard O. Daviesm