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Sports Saturday

Chicago native Chuck Esposito a lover of books

He has been directing the sportsbook at Sunset Station in Las Vegas since 2011.

Chuck Esposito
Chuck Esposito, a Chicago native who runs the Sunset Station sportsbook.
Rob Miech/For the Sun-Times

LAS VEGAS — The kickoff had just been booted. Chuck Esposito swiveled his eyes from the prodigious Caesars Palace sportsbook crowd to scan the computers behind the counters, to triple-check all operations. “To make sure everything was good,” he said, “everything is locked out.”

A low rumble started.

“Like a jet engine . . . just getting louder and louder and louder,’’ Esposito said. ‘‘I turned around and was like, ‘Holy you-know-what. He scores a TD!’ From an industry standpoint, it was not a good prop for us.”

Devin Hester, the Bears’ speedy rookie, had just dashed 92 yards in Miami Gardens, Florida, returning the opening Super Bowl XLI kick against the Colts for a touchdown.

For a Chicago native and local sports fan who also happened to be manning a post behind the counter of a Las Vegas sportsbook on Feb. 4, 2007, the day’s grand paradoxes still resonate.

Esposito was ecstatic about his Bears beginning with such flair, but he knew that many proposition wagers on Hester and a kick return for a score would affect his house’s bottom line. As it turned out, the Colts would win 29-17, and the shop would make its customary profit in an NFL title game.

“There were a number of props tied to Hester,” he said in his office in the Sunset Station, the property in the southeast nook of the valley whose sportsbook he has directed since 2011. “The bettors did well on those props.”

Hester, at most area casinos, was listed at about 20-1 odds to take a kickoff into the end zone, at any time, against the Colts. For him to score the game’s first touchdown, odds were between 50-1 and 60-1 around town, several book directors confirmed.

Tom Barton, a lifelong Bears fan and handicapper-bettor in upstate New York, thought of Hester’s heroics about 10 days ago, when he wagered on Chiefs rookie Mecole Hardman, at 22-1 odds, to score the first touchdown of Super Bowl LIV in Miami Gardens against the 49ers.

In the regular season and playoffs, Hardman has returned only one of a combined 57 kick or punt returns for a TD. But Barton, 43, also believes Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes could throw a deep one to Hardman, who has six TD receptions. That multifaceted threat, Barton figures, represents value.

FRIDGE ICES PROP

Hester, Hardman, odds, parlays, teasers . . . all of it will forever fascinate Esposito, a 57-year-old veteran of the sports-betting industry whose exuberance makes it seem as if he’s still that 22-year-old college student who had just started writing sports-betting tickets, part-time, at the Sands.

Best job in the world, Esposito said, being able to talk sports every day. He is indefatigable as he strolls through his Sunset Station book, chatting with regulars and tourists alike about the numbers on the tote board, teams that are sliding, players who are on a roll.

There is much more to Esposito, though, than his keen bedside manner with a punter who has lost a few quid or his engaging, relentlessly positive personality that endears him to everyone he meets.

He is damn good at his job.

At the Sands, where the Venetian now stands, Art Manteris hired him for that first post when Esposito was still studying hotel management and broadcasting at UNLV. When Manteris moved to start the extravagant site at the Las Vegas Hilton, whose SuperBook now falls under the Westgate aegis, he took Esposito with him.

Esposito would eventually oversee the book at Caesars. But when he ventured out to design and run a new operation at the Fontainebleau, a rite of passage for seasoned sportsbook directors from Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal (at the old Stardust) to Jimmy Vaccaro (Mirage), snags developed.

The Great Recession of the late 2000s stung Vegas, and Fontainebleau funding evaporated. Esposito pivoted, but subsequent moves to the Tropicana and Venetian also fizzled. “Learning experiences,” Esposito called those episodes. He was able to reunite with Manteris.

As the chief of the sportsbook operations for the 20-property Stations brand, Manteris works out of the Red Rock Resort, in Summerlin. At the other end of the valley, Esposito directs the Sunset Station and participates in the company’s hub nerve center, having input on point spreads and totals, moving a number a half-point or altering a price, or both, affecting parlay cards, influencing promotions.

Esposito said his bond with Manteris means the world to him: “The fact that he saw something in me as a young guy, that pushed me. It pushed me to want to work harder to learn it. I couldn’t learn enough of it.

“He told me early on that we all want to win, but you can’t always control wins and losses on a daily basis. You can’t control a missed field goal, a fumble or somebody who’s a 98 percent free-throw shooter missing both free throws at the end of a game. What you can control is staying on top of policies and procedures, and making sure that you’re always looking at things and looking at the big picture.”

Vinny Magliulo, the South Point’s veteran oddsmaker, worked with Esposito at Caesars many years ago.

“We’re friends and have been co-workers and colleagues,” Magliulo said. “I hold him in very high regard.”

Manteris, a titan in the business, dropped the first seed that has sprouted into this ferocious beast called Super Bowl prop betting when William “The Refrigerator” Perry captivated the country. He had scored twice during the 1985 regular season, and Manteris set 20-1 opening odds of Perry scoring in Super Bowl XX against the Patriots in New Orleans.

Other houses copied Manteris’ action. It got bet down to 2-1 at game time, and Perry scored in the third quarter. Manteris, in his book ‘‘SuperBookie,’’ estimated that Caesars lost $120,000 on the offering. He wrote, “But how much was the publicity worth?”

“Art’s baby,” Esposito said. “We put it up, and they continued to bet it and bet it. We were telling upper management, ‘No chance he scores. No chance.’ Of course, he scores. Well . . . he fell into the end zone. At first, there were long faces on our side of the counter. [We] did lose a considerable amount on that prop, and not just at Caesars, industrywide.

“Little did we know that it would propel prop betting to where it is today. That made us [say], ‘Wait a minute, I think we have something here.’ That is kind of where it all started.”

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT

Friends and relatives in and around Park Ridge and Arlington Heights, where Esposito grew up, don’t exactly refer to him as Mr. Vegas. They often call him Hollywood, or tell him his Clinique shipment just came in, or they say, Cut, more makeup!

It’s impossible for him to talk without sounding excited, no matter the subject. He liked broadcasting, so studying it at UNLV was a natural. But when, long ago, Manteris asked Esposito to fill in for him for the televised taping of a show called “Pro Line,” in which pro bettors Jim Feist, Larry Ness and Chip Chirimbes discussed the lines and games, the apprentice soared.

“We talked about the odds, the numbers,” Esposito said. “The first time I got in front of the camera, I loved it. People say you can hear the passion in my voice. I’m still that guy. Like the first time I walked into a sportsbook: Wow!”

That voice can be heard regularly, on various radio shows and podcasts from coast to coast, as Esposito has become something of a sounding board for the rapidly growing legalized industry.

He said his reaction to his family’s move to Las Vegas in the early 1970s, when he was 11 and his father’s retail employer transferred him west, was — surprise — nothing but positive. He was eager and adventurous.

“Actually got to see Elvis,” Esposito said. “Fortunate to see a lot of entertainers and saw the explosive growth of Vegas. A lot of people were moving out here, and I’ve seen all the phenomenal changes this city has gone through.”

He attended Valley High School and played all sports, with one curveball.

“Unfortunately, at 5-7 on a good day, it was jockey or bust,” Esposito said with a laugh. “And I was a little too heavy for the horse.”

He is grateful that his two daughters and son have all adopted Chicago teams as their own. He most fervently supports the Blackhawks, and he and older brother Joey, who lives in Southern California, trekked back to the United Center to watch Stanley Cup playoff games in 2010, ’13 and ’15, all of which resulted in the Hawks lifting the Cup.

Another scene makes him pause, though. The Cubs were looking good in 2016, in their second year under skipper Joe Maddon, when something clicked. They reached the World Series. Trailing the Indians 3 games to 1, they battled back to force a Game 7.

Chuck and his 11-year-old son, Nicholas, had started watching it at an establishment. The Cubs led 5-1. They headed home. The Indians tied it 6-6 in the bottom of the eighth. Rain fell . . . and in the top of the 10th, the Cubs took an 8-6 lead and held on for the 8-7 victory. The drama took 4 hours, 28 minutes to play out, a single heartbeat to some who had waited decades for this moment.

Nicholas glanced at his pop: “It looks like you’re crying a little bit.”

“Son,” Chuck Esposito said, “you have no idea what you just experienced.”