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Super Bowl XIII was dubbed ‘Black Sunday’ by Las Vegas bookmakers

Two years after the movie “Black Sunday” hit theaters in 1977, another Super Bowl disaster played out in Las Vegas, where sports books were buried by bettors who middled Super Bowl XIII.

The Steelers opened as 2½-point favorites over the Cowboys, and the line closed as high as 5 for the Jan. 21, 1979, game. It landed on 4, and Pittsburgh’s 35-31 victory made winners of virtually everybody who had action on it. Bookmakers lost an estimated $3 million on the day they dubbed “Black Sunday.”

“That game was the biggest losing Sunday for the Super Bowl that ever was,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said Friday. “That was the first big loss I took as a young aspiring bookmaker with black hair who could stay out late at night. Those days are gone.”

At the time, Vaccaro ran the sports book at the Royal Inn, the first casino owned by South Point owner Michael Gaughan.

“At the little Royal Inn casino, where we had just three betting windows at the time, we lost $185,000,” Vaccaro said. “Lefty Rosenthal lost $1.6 million at the Stardust because they were getting all the big action. Jimmy Girard’s place, the Royal Las Vegas, lost about $700,000, and the Union Plaza downtown didn’t do well, either.”

Rosenthal, the inspiration for Robert DeNiro’s character in the movie “Casino,” ran a promotion at the Stardust offering bettors the chance to lay 3½ points with the Steelers and take 4½ points with the Cowboys. When it was over, the line of bettors cashing tickets reportedly stretched from the Stardust sports book to downtown.

“You won’t see those promotions anymore,” Vaccaro said. “First of all, there’s too much money involved now. You’d blow $30 million if you did that for two weeks and let people bet both sides. You’d be carried out.”

Longtime Las Vegas sports book director Vinny Magliulo was one of the bettors who cashed in on the promotion.

“I was a break-in dice dealer at the Royal Inn at that time. I laid the 3½ and took the 4½ for everything I could at the time, which was a grand total of about 300 bucks,” he said, laughing. “I was on the public side of Black Sunday but converted shortly thereafter.”

After Dallas tight end Jackie Smith infamously dropped a sure touchdown catch in the end zone in the third quarter, Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns in 19 seconds in the fourth to go ahead 35-17. But Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach threw two touchdown passes in the final 2:27 for the backdoor middle. After his 7-yard strike to Billy Joe DuPree cut the deficit to 35-24, Dallas recovered an onside kick. Staubach then hit Butch Johnson for a 4-yard TD with 22 seconds left.

Vaccaro spent half the night paying out.

“In those days, it was handwritten tickets,” he said. “It took me like four hours to grade all the tickets.”

As he was marking a pile of winners, his boss called for a damage report.

“Michael Gaughan calls me from his yacht. He was on the Sea of Cortez or somewhere,” Vaccaro said. “I said, ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ He said, ‘Give me the bad news.’ So I said, ‘The bad news is we lost $185,000.’ He said, ‘What’s the good news?’ I said, ‘The good news is we only lost $185,000.

“Somehow he kept me on, so it all worked out pretty well.”

Since the state’s Gaming Control Board started tracking Super Bowl betting numbers in 1991, Nevada sports books have lost money on only two of the past 26 games. Bettors beat the books for $2.57 million in 2008, when the 12-point underdog Giants upset the previously unbeaten Patriots 17-14, cashing on the money line. The books lost $396,674 in 1995, when the 49ers covered as 19-point favorites in a 49-26 romp over the Chargers.

“But they weren’t carry-you-out Sundays,” Vaccaro said. “What helps in today’s environment, as it didn’t in the ’70s, is we can still make a lot of money off the props, so at least there’s some cushion there, even if you get carried out on the game.

“On Black Sunday, you lived and died with the final score.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

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