The clerk took his place behind the counter of the South Point sports book and prepared to take football bets from a long line of customers that began assembling before 8 on a recent Sunday morning.
Although he’d been around the business all his life, the changing technology behind the counter gave him the jitters and had him feeling like a rookie.
The elderly lady approached the counter with her parlay card picks and a few bucks in her fist. While the clerk fumbled with the keys, the old woman blitzed him with, "Can’t you get those cards out faster than that?"
"Sorry, ma’am," the clerk replied. "I’m just a trainee."
"Well they shouldn’t have a trainee working on Sunday."
"You’re right," he said.
The transaction eventually completed, the woman tipped the clerk an epithet and returned to the huddling masses. In no time the sports book was filled with bettors, many of whom wore jerseys and caps reflecting their NFL fan loyalties. With games kicking off from Miami to Green Bay, that grand and garrulous American secular tradition, the Church of Football, was in full swing.
A short while later, the clerk relaxed in the back office and traded friendly barbs with South Point sports book director Bert Osborne. He could get away with it. The part-time clerk was Michael Gaughan, and he owned the joint.
But Gaughan, 69, knew his annual tradition of joining his clerks on Sunday mornings during football season was coming to an end.
"There was a line back to the deli," Gaughan said. "I can’t work that machine fast enough. They’ve changed. Last year they kind of knocked me down. This year I got knocked off. Like this morning. When a little old lady calls you a dumb—-t, you know it’s time to stop."
The back office looked and felt like a command center, and Gaughan was right at home. He resembles a big cowboy and has played an integral role in the development of the National Finals Rodeo. But he was raised on this range of underdogs, bad beats, parlay cards and money lines.
His grandfather ran roadhouses in Omaha. His father, downtown casino legend Jackie Gaughan, made book out of storefronts in the Nebraska city before moving his action to Las Vegas. It was down on First Street at stand-alone race and sports books called the Derby and the Saratoga – in those days, betting was so notorious it wasn’t allowed in upstanding Nevada casinos – that young Michael first soaked up the atmosphere. The betting line was written in chalk back then.
"I remember being here as a kid and going down on Sunday with my dad and stealing the colored chalk," Gaughan said. "It was all blackboards in those days. All different colors of chalk. I’d go play with it. I was 8, 9, 10 years old."
The technology has changed dramatically, and the NASA-style sports books can overwhelm the uninitiated.
"Between the straight bets, teaser bets, parlay cards, and the money line, you can’t hardly tell where you’re at," he said, sipping coffee.
Nice try, boss.
In reality Gaughan’s veteran team work the betting lines and keep the pulse of the action throughout the day. They not only track every number, but they can also read the way the parlay bets are going from the roar and the silence of the Sunday morning crowd.
As if to prove the point, moments later the Patriots scored an early touchdown against the Dolphins. The churchgoers cheered. Gaughan groaned like a wounded bear.
Today there’s a growing trend inside the corporate casinos to cut jobs and let the machines gradually take over. Las Vegas bars are adding betting kiosks that are quick and convenient, but take no one on the scene to operate.
Gaughan hates this idea. His business prospers because people choose to come into his place and spend time as well as money.
"I argued against phone wagering accounts," he said. "All this new stuff that they’re doing, I think it hurts the casinos. You see how many employees I’ve got? The bar across the street, they don’t have any (workers operating the betting kiosk). It’s almost the same thing as Dotty’s (slot bars.) They have no investment. They hire no employees. You lose a little bit here, a little bit there, and all of a sudden your bottom line is cut in half. I want the sports book to bring people in and let them play something else."
Although no one weeps for the bookmaker, there’s no arguing that local sports books during football season are a genuine crowd-pleasing phenomenon that add an important dimension to the casinos’ overall marketing.
The competition has increased along with the technology, but the South Point book maintains its traditions and its popularity.
Come Monday night, the casino’s showroom will add a big screen and fill up with even more players who didn’t get enough pigskin praising the day before.
And the South Point’s slowest clerk?
He’ll stay out from behind the counter.
Some guys just can’t take the heat.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.