Sports bookies work Lawrence, seeking new prey for games stacked against gamblers.
Former Chicago mobster William Jahoda ran a $20 million-a-year betting operation before turning against his brethren, sending 19 hoods to prison.
Lex Varria was a hairdresser by day and a sports bookie by night. With ties to the Boston mafia, he targeted wealthy East Coast college students for a decade.
Before a Student Union Activities lecture Tuesday at Kansas University, Jahoda and Varria conducted research on gambling in Lawrence.
- Of the bars visited, all provided access to illegal sports betting.
- They found two bookies serving the city. The ceiling bet per game was $500. Most people bet $200 per game.
- Among the players, the biggest gambler wagered $2,400 for the weekend.
"I'm not saying it's an epidemic," said Jahoda, an alum of the federal witness protection program. "I'm not saying it's a problem. I'm saying it's here."
Jahoda and Varria were at KU Tuesday to warn students about the evils of gambling.
Varria, who made a living hustling the best and brightest at Harvard, MIT, Brown and Providence and compelling them to do petty crimes to erase gambling debts, challenged the gaming industry's estimate that 5 percent of Americans had a problem controlling their wagering.
"In my experience about 12 to 15 out of 100 would get dirty before it was over," he said.
People at the lecture were asked to stand if they knew two people whose college careers were being influenced by gambling. About 20 out of 75 stood.
"I took advantage of kids because they were vulnerable," said Varria, explaining why he targeted freshmen. "Of those who got in trouble, none made it past their junior year."
His busiest time of year: March Madness, the NCAA Tournament.
He said popularity of sports bars and satellite dishes increased business for bookies. Gamblers can sit and watch four or five games at once, he said.
"They're stimulated more to gamble," Varria said.
Jahoda said he didn't have moral or religious objections to gambling. His point: It's mathematically impossible for a community of gamblers -- all bettors at KU, for example -- to beat the house.
Successful bookmakers, he said, never become more than social gamblers.
"They know the story behind the story," he said. "They know they can't win."
Jahoda and Varria work with Americans Against Organized Gambling. They share responsibility for promoting illegal gambling. Both hope disclosing their past might keep people from getting hurt in the future.
"If I get to one kid, it's worth it for all the lives I trashed," Varria said.
They were joined at the forum by Tom Grey, executive director of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion.
Grey said Americans have been promised that legalized gambling would provide entertainment, economic prosperity and revenue for states while putting criminals out of business.
"That's not reality," he said. "We need to educate people."