From humble roots, football handicapping contests thrive

Long after the death of Sonny Reizner, his contributions to sports betting in Las Vegas are remembered, especially at this time of year.

In 1978, Reizner had the foresight to create the state’s first football handicapping contest at the old Castaways. He watched his idea blossom before he died of Parkinson’s disease in 2002.

Football contests remain as popular as ever, and Jimmy Vaccaro has been around since their beginnings.

"Everybody started trying to top each other, and it made for good, friendly competition," said Vaccaro, who was director of the Barbary Coast sports book in the early 1980s. "It morphed into what it is now."

Almost every casino off the Strip hosts contests, which are mostly aimed at triggering foot traffic from locals. There is a buffet of options, some free and some for big money.

"You can pick and choose now," Vaccaro said. "Some people take a day out of the week when that’s all they do is go around and play the free contests."

Vaccaro, director of operations for Lucky’s sports books, formed the Progressive Carryover Football Contest. For $5, players can take a shot at predicting straight-up winners in all of a week’s NFL games.

The most prestigious is the Las Vegas Hilton SuperContest, created by Art Manteris in 1989 as a takeoff from Reizner’s Castaways contest.

Manteris, vice president for sports book operations at Station Casinos, now oversees three contests, including the $2 million Great Giveaway Football Contest with a $25 entry fee.

The Hilton SuperContest, requiring a $1,500 entry fee, drew a record 505 entrants in 2005. The numbers have declined since, but Hilton sports book director Jay Kornegay said he’s "seeing a spike in interest" this year despite a poor economy, and he’s on pace for more than 400 contestants.

Cantor Gaming, based at the M Resort sports book, offers contests with buy-ins of $10,000 and $3,000. Leroy’s sports books host three statewide contests, with entry fees ranging from $25 to $250.

Some are more successful than others, but there’s no doubt the contest concept created by Reizner more than three decades ago remains a hit.

■ R-J CONTESTS — Two free contests are being offered by the Las Vegas Review-Journal at lvrj.com/football. A wide array of prizes will be awarded.

Pro Picks Blitz is an NFL contest that requires picking straight-up winners. Ultimate Wiseguy is a new point-spread contest in which entrants select seven college or NFL sides and totals each week.

Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907.

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