One Smart Bookie

He can't tell right from wrong
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MAX WEISBERG: See, I don't have the education other people have.

JUDGE: That's right, but you are better with numbers than I am.

WEISBERG: What?

JUDGE: But you are better with numbers than I am.

WEISBERG: Well, I try my best anyway. That is all I know, is numbers. I don't know the other stuff.

—Ramsey County, Minnesota,
District Court, April 19, 2000

Photograph by Craig Permann the morning of February 5, 1999, agents from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety invited themselves into Max Weisberg's house, on Iglehart Avenue in St. Paul, showed a search warrant, and began picking the place apart. They found cash everywhere, including $7,028 in a garbage bag in a bedroom; $2,000 in a dresser drawer; $5,521 in the pockets of pants tossed across the dresser; $10,930 in two grocery bags; and $2,090 in a flannel jacket. They also discovered a skeleton key that opened a locked front-entry closet. The closet held an additional $37,420. The agents hauled away the money, a total of $126,989, along with notebooks containing gambling information, betting sheets, and scorebooks.

Weisberg, then seventy-five, did not read the receipt the agents left him. Written documents are difficult for him to understand. He cannot do his laundry or figure out his electric bill without help. One of the most celebrated sports bookmakers in the Midwest, he is mentally disabled, with an IQ that has at various times been measured in the mid-50s to the low 70s. Although Weisberg's speaking skills, as reflected in court records, appear roughly normal, he is not, in fact, an articulate speaker, and he has a sharply limited conversational range. But few people can approach Weisberg at calculating odds and handicapping games. A St. Paul pool-hall owner whose establishment regularly filled with bettors and bookies testified in court in 1990 that Weisberg has "probably the greatest gambling mind in the world."

Weisberg is a man with savant syndrome—"someone who has special abilities that stand in stark contrast to his overall handicap," according to Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist whose book Extraordinary People (2000) examines the cases of mentally disabled and autistic people with unusual talents. These savants, whose special abilities come in several varieties, usually excel in calendar calculating, music, art, or numerical ability. Weisberg is the only savant Treffert has ever heard of whose gift has run him afoul of the law. In repeated raids the police have seized betting records and about $700,000 from Weisberg's house and safe-deposit boxes. Three times in 1989-1994 Weisberg faced felony charges of sports bookmaking. The first time he pleaded guilty and received five years' probation. Since then judges, a jury, psychologists, and psychiatrists have determined that Weisberg is not responsible for his actions because his mental disability prevents him from distinguishing between right and wrong.

Despite all the evidence of bookmaking seized in that 1999 raid, Weisberg faced no charges afterward. "It was a sure bet that we were going to lose if we charged him again," says Susan Gaertner, Ramsey County's chief prosecuting attorney. "He would obviously again raise a defense of mental disability. Based on his previous [psychological] examinations, I didn't see how to go against that." Law-enforcement agents feel similarly stymied. Norm Pint, a special agent at the Department of Public Safety, says that his agency will no longer target Weisberg. "The courts have spoken," Pint says. "It would be foolish for us to pursue any investigation" of him. Weisberg remains free, a bookmaker with a license to take bets.

LAWYER: Now, after they found that money, they found the money and took it from your house. Did they leave you at the house?

WEISBERG: Yes, they did.

LAWYER: What did you do next?

WEISBERG: What could I do? I ate my supper.

—Ramsey County District Court,
April 19, 2000

Weisberg lives in a corner-lot house that his parents bought half a century ago. He conducts his business in the kitchen, seated at a table that holds a TV set, usually tuned to a football or a basketball game; the day's sports pages; sheets of paper listing wagers in crooked columns; the remnants of meals past; and a battered telephone. The rest of the house is dark, even during the day, with only the glow of a space heater illuminating a bedroom. Bars cover the windows, and a stout two-by-four secures the back door. Most of the furnishings, decorations, and floor coverings remain as they were in the 1950s.

Ever since the death of his older brother, Solly, in 1998, Weisberg has lived here alone. "Solly was like my right arm," he says, in the thick and moist voice that signals his mental disability. His blue eyes and sagging face are composed now when he remembers his brother, but the loss of Solly depressed Weisberg for months. That face, along with Weisberg's waddling gait and the baggy pants that puddle at his feet, are well known to anyone who has spent much time in Minnesota's capital city during the past six decades. Weisberg began his working life in the 1930s, helping his father sell junk and vegetables door to door. Later he joined Solly in a newsstand at Seventh and Wabasha. Eventually Weisberg became a highly visible flower vendor whose stakeouts of prominent intersections and sales expeditions into bars earned him the nickname "Maxie Flowers." Everyone, from bankers to cops to politicians, bought flowers from Weisberg.

Flower selling proved a great cover for taking bets. Weisberg attended school only through the fourth grade, but the streets gave him an education in gambling. In St. Paul's saloons and alleys, which had provided a haven for such crooks as John Dillinger and Ma Barker, Weisberg absorbed the fine points of bookmaking. A successful bookie weighs a team's strengths and weaknesses, judges the home-field advantage, and senses the enthusiasm of bettors, all with the aim of "setting the line." The "line"—the Vikings over the Giants by four points, for example—establishes the point spread that the bookie believes will attract gamblers in equal numbers to each side of the bet. On this delicate balance, divined by psychological as well as mathematical art, the bookmaker's financial success hangs. Ron Rosenbaum is an attorney who frequently ran into Weisberg and other bookies in St. Paul pool halls in the 1960s. Back before Las Vegas odds makers supplied the whole country with computer-generated point spreads, Rosenbaum says, "Max was considered the best at setting the number." Working in his head, Weisberg could perform the calculations necessary to set odds on complex parlays and wagers based on the total number of points opposing teams would score.

Weisberg's slow speech becomes even more hesitant when he tries to explain how he arrives at his odds and point spreads. "I look at a line and find this game five to six points off," he says. "[Other bookmakers] are mad at me because I look at a line and don't see how the points they gave are right." He maintains that he works with only half a dozen customers now—guys whose bets he has taken for decades, and whose fondness for him allows them to forgive those occasions on which the legal forfeitures of money have kept him from paying off clients. "I don't want any more [customers]," he says. "I don't take any more."

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