Movie time: Separating fact from fiction in Big Shot

By Jimmy Vaccaro  (VSiN senior oddsmaker) 

January 23, 2018 06:33 PM
"Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie" came out in 2002.

Gambling movies have been a staple of my free time ever since I can remember. Not one to have many hobbies and not too much free time, I could watch these things over and over again and still be entertained.

“Mr. Lucky,” an early ‘40s movie with Cary Grant and Lorraine Day (she was married to Leo Durocher in real life), was one where all the crossroader tricks were used such as palming coins, kiting checks and false bottoms. Fast forward to the ‘70s where James Tobak’s semi-autobiographical “The Gambler” was first seen. How can you ever forget the bathtub scene when Jerry West missed all three free throws?

Tobak, for all you sports bettor historians, is the guy who had the incredible run in the early ‘80s when he was betting a minimum of $1 million a day in Vegas and the bulk of it at the Barbary Coast. That is for another story. I rank “The Gambler” in the top five of all gambling-oriented movies, but good or bad I watch them all.

And then there is the 2002 movie “Big Shot: Confessions of a Campus Bookie.” It tells the story of the infamous point-shaving scandal that happened in 1994 concerning the Arizona State basketball team.

The main character is a kid named Benny Sillman, who masterminded this scheme, supposedly got in over his head first by playing, then turned to booking.

The focal point is an early March game in ‘94 where ASU opened up an 11-point favorite and closed at 3.5. That part is very accurate.

Truth be told, this was not the first time they had done this and could have done it more if they were not so inept. As for Las Vegas alerting authorities, that is really not all truthful and to be quite fair some people still would not know except, as I stated earlier, the gang that “could not bet straight” had a lot of flaws in their delivery.

Some calls were made but not to the NCAA, as is so readily talked about. Of this part I am as sure as the Super Bowl will be played every year as I am that all regulatory outlets from local to federal agencies that began the exercise were like the “Katz n Jammer kids.”

The Mirage properties, on the day of the game, had taken about $200,000 from the three kids who basically were the runners. They bet the game at various numbers. When all the other properties in the city had stopped taking wagers, local authorities had asked me what they should do. I said, “Well, the people you are after are sitting in the lounge and have basically done nothing wrong, so let us see what happens with the game and proceed from there.”

I know it’s a movie and movies can take license that screenwriters are so good at doing. But it was interesting to see their take on reality.

The next two things are sort of related.

  • Bill Freider, who was coach of the team at the time, showed up in the Mirage racebook the following day banging the horses like he frequently had done for years, and did not have a clue of what was about to happen as far as scrutiny of him and his program.
  • And oh, by the way, the gang that couldn’t bet straight lost their cheese and never were heard from again.
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