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Sports Saturday

Chunce the ’capper: A look at the life of Vegas mainstay Jimmy Vaccaro

Bet on it: The sports-betting Hall of Famer has had a full life, including a guest spot on ‘‘The Simpsons.’’

Jimmy Vaccaro
Jimmy Vaccaro is the South Point’s vice president for sports marketing.
Rob Miech/Sun-Times

LAS VEGAS — Long before learning last month of his imminent induction into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame, before legalized sports wagering started its national sprawl in 2018, Jimmy Vaccaro became mainstream.

In 1995, as the Mirage sportsbook director, he appeared — as his three-dimensional human self — on the popular animated series “The Simpsons.”

Who shot Mr. Burns?

“Everyone thinks Homer and Smithers are sure things, but I’m looking for suspects that pay big,” Vaccaro said on the show. “I’m spreading my money over several long shots.”

Vaccaro installed barkeep Moe at 8-1 odds, Bart’s pal Milhouse at 80-1. Krusty the Clown was the 3-1 favorite. Over Vaccaro’s shoulder, the Mirage listed the characters and their odds on its huge tote board.

Alas, 70-1 shot little Maggie, angered that Burns tried stealing candy from a baby (her), did the deed.

Months later, when Vaccaro drove to Our Lady of Las Vegas School to retrieve young daughter JonLyn, he learned of his newfound fame.

“She says, ‘You were on ‘The Simpsons’ last night!’ I didn’t know,” says Vaccaro, now the South Point’s vice president for sports marketing. “She goes, ‘Yeah, everyone at school was talking about it!’ I just said, OK.”

THE THRILL OF THE HUNT

In the Pittsburgh suburb of Trafford, Jimmy acquired the nickname “Chunce” from an Italian grocer, when he was 7 or 8, during daily jaunts to fetch a soda pop.

That’s how all of Jimmy’s friends know him, what older brother Sonny has been calling his 76-year-old sibling — pronouncing it CHUN-see — nearly all his life.

Sonny, the former sneaker maven, laughed when he saw a recent social-media photo of South Point owner Michael Gaughan, sportsbook director Chris Andrews, longtime bookmaker Art Manteris, and others.

Among the sports coats, dress shirts and pressed slacks was Jimmy, in his usual long-sleeve white South Point T-shirt, jeans and dark sneakers.

Unassuming. Comfortable. Relaxed.

“That’s the beauty of it,” laughs Sonny, from his home near Palm Springs, California, of Jimmy landing in a Hall of Fame. “You can’t physically visualize it. A million-to-one shot. Chunce has been the outsider from the beginning.”

Jimmy took to numbers and gambling early, especially Barbut, a dice game believed to have originated in Greece around 450 BC.

The Shooter wins if he rolls a 3-3, 5-5, 6-6 or 6-5. He loses on 1-1, 2-2, 4-4 or 1-2. The Fader sets odds before every roll. Bets are made on or against the Shooter.

In the early 1970s, Jimmy, and pals AJ and Anthony, hit a big Barbut payday, then nailed the lottery-like numbers — three random figures determined by horse races or the stock market — the next day.

“The greatest!” says Sonny. “Like hitting a bases-loaded homer in the bottom of the ninth.”

Sonny recalls Jimmy backing pool-hustling pal Mike, from Youngstown, Ohio, like George C. Scott handled Paul Newman in “The Hustler.”

“He liked the backwoods pool rooms, the thrill of the hunt,” says Sonny. “That’s Chunce.”

A VEGAS FIXTURE

Jimmy visited Vegas frequently, moving here permanently in January 1975. He ran Gaughan’s book at the Royal Inn, then the Barbary Coast, where a greenhorn Manteris once found his till $1,100 short.

Vaccaro gave Art the cash. Manteris would open the SuperBook at the Hilton (now Westgate) and oversee the many Station Casinos books. He was inducted into the Sports Betting Hall, a Euro-based virtual entity, in 2019.

Manteris retired in May.

“I said, ‘Here, take the [bleepin’] money. See you tomorrow.’ It was a big deal,” says Jimmy. “Art is a straight-arrow guy. He might not have continued [in the business], he felt so bad.”

Jimmy helped design and operate Steve Wynn’s book at the Mirage, where he’d take billionaire Carl Icahn’s $2.4-million Super Bowl bet. Icahn won $300,000.

He set the first NFL season-wins total when a female patron dumped $30,500 on the counter and asked about Dallas’s figure. Such a proposition didn’t exist in Vegas. Jimmy set a low number. She bet Over. The house won.

The only autograph he ever sought was from Bears legend Gale Sayers.

“Couldn’t help it. He was sitting right over there,” says Jimmy, pointing toward the South Point deli. “An honor. I told him, ‘If you don’t get hurt . . .’ He was so good. He injured that knee and everything went south.”

Today, Jimmy straightens the daily-sheets counter, cleans after messy patrons. During one of my visits, he okayed a $50,000 World Series bet from a scruffy kid toting a backpack.

The notorious Stardust bookmaker Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal invited Jimmy to talk shop, twice, over lunch at the Riviera. He resisted asking the mob-linked figure why he spoke so softly — Jimmy just leaned in closer.

“I was in awe that he asked me, so it felt good.”

As good as receiving those monthly $600 checks, which arrived for years, from Homer Simpson.

When a new company took over the cartoon’s network, it offered Jimmy a one-time opt-out fee of $6,000 or the no-guarantee continuation of the monthly royalties. He says, “I signed for the 6,000 as fast as I could.”

When the producers appeared with cameras and lights, they found Vaccaro in his typical long-sleeve T-shirt. They hustled to a men’s store in the Mirage, returning with a light-colored sports coat and pink dress shirt.

Jimmy buttoned the shirt to his neck.

Action!

Afterward?

“I gave both to someone in the sportsbook.”