Jimmy the Greek’s Tragic Bet

As Yogi Berra once said, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”

Jeff Cunningham
6 min readNov 21, 2022
James Snyder, aka Jimmy the Greek, in Las Vegas

It was the first bad day James George Snyder had since his mother died when he was ten. An insane uncle shot and killed Snyder’s mother and aunt with a gun before turning it on himself and committing suicide. Snyder escaped because he chose to stay at the grocery store rather than walk home. It saved his life. It also motivated him to become a gambler. Snyder, better known as Jimmy the Greek, learned that getting the right odds can be life-changing, which explains why he was suddenly having such a bad day.

Snyder was a tough kid from Steubenville, Ohio, where he grew up and played with Dean Martin as a teenager. His family came from the small village of Tholopotami, on the island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, a place where wering a suit and tie was a step up in the world. Lacking formal education, the next best thing was to be a successful gambler. Some would call it an addiction that paid well. It began in 1948 when Snyder bet on a hunch. In his autobiography Jimmy the Greek, he disclosed that in the 1948 election between Thomas Dewey and Harry S. Truman, he gave 17–1 odds for Truman. The bet was $10,000, more than a year’s average salary. Synder didn’t care about politics. He was so sure of the odds against Dewey because “American women didn’t trust men with a mustache.” He cleaned up, and his bookmaking career was born.

In Washington D.C., on January 15, 1988, an intrepid reporter for the NBC affiliate WRC-TV was standing by the entrance to Duke Ziebert’s, a famous hangout for sports celebrities. On an otherwise uneventful news day, he wanted to highlight Martin Luther King’s birthday. Just then Snyder comes bounding through the tinted glass doors framed in polished brass. The reporter, Ed Hotaling, sighted his big game gun on Jimmy the Greek. If only he could get his take on African Americans in professional football. On the record. What could be more de rigueur?

Snyder understood the ancient science of probabilities. That was his business. His forte was reckoning the odds and knowing how to communicate them without appearing to do so. As gambling was illegal in the United States (except in Las Vegas), he could never mention betting in his CBS reporting. Instead, Snyder would predict the score. For example, he would point out that the Los Angeles Raiders would beat the Los Angeles Rams by a score of 31–21. Bettors could read that in one of several ways. If they knew the spread was five, the range suggested the Raiders would beat it. Although the NFL had to avoid any connection between gambling and football, Commissioner Pete Rozelle was a friend of Snyder’s. He may also have thought it was good for the game. Snyder was allowed to do his magic act.

Snyder became the reigning sports bookmaker in America and made a handsome living sharing betting odds with CBS fans. Although not well known outside sports circles, by 1974 he achieved international fame when in the middle of a David Frost interview, the world’s boxing champion, Muhammad Ali, yelled: “All of my critics crawl… All of you suckers bow… If you wanna know any damn thing about boxing, don’t go to no Jimmy the Greek. Come to Muhammad Ali.” From that moment, Snyder and sports betting were synonymous. He was parodied in sketches on Saturday Night Live, and Phil Hartman and John Candy ably portrayed his jowly, teamster driver demeanor. He was featured in an episode of The Simpsons titled “Lisa the Greek,” named after him.

Then in a moment of indiscretion it was gone. Snyder wagered his career on a bet that went south, and a thirty-second soundbite turned into a death knell. What was so astonishing was not that it ended a legendary career but that he didn’t see the obvious. When he blurted out a frank answer to a tricky question, the impromptu interview took a wrong turn, just like the asteroid that crashed into the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

The subject of African Americans and pro football was something Snyder had considered and used in calculating football odds. He never imagined, however, that he’d be asked why African Americans were so dominant in the sport. It was a given. Although most people saw blacks on the field as gladiators, Snyder knew there was more to it than that. They made the difference between winning and losing.

But there was more. Unfortunately.

Snyder was accustomed to making quick on-air takes. His calling card was provocative and punchy, and he enjoyed telling it like it was. One time he was asked for the formula for choosing football team winners. He responded, “There are five things I look for. Overall, team speed is number one. Then the front four on defense. Then the back defense, especially the cornerbacks. The fourth is the quarterbacks.” Then Snyder added a fifth factor, perhaps the most important, “I always have to consider the intangibles.”

As the ancient Greeks discovered, success takes forever; failure is instantaneous.

In answering the question about African Americans and football on that ominous Friday afternoon, he wanted to explain why there was a discrepancy between what viewers saw and what went on in the back office. Snyder wanted to underscore a little-known fact that there was a lack of diversity in pro football. “Whites control the coaching jobs — the Black talent is beautiful, great, (and it is stuck) out there on the field.” That was when Snyder took an unfortunate philosophical detour that lured him into the region where the sharks lurked, and the piranha swam freely.

Snyder went on to observe that African Americans were naturally gifted. His exact words were: “The black is a better athlete because he’s been bred to be that way. They can jump higher and run faster because of bigger thighs. And he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back to the Civil War, when, during the slave trade, the slave owner would breed his big black man to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid, see?”

But Jimmy the Greek didn’t see. He broke his own betting rules. He never considered that what he said might be misinterpreted and that his audience wasn’t sports bettors who only cared that he helped them make money.

He forgot the intangibles.

His words shocked viewers and his bosses at CBS who dropped him as a long-time NFL Today contributor like a charred briquet. Las Vegas abandoned him. He began having heart problems (which would later claim his life). From that moment on his work was over. A lifetime of making bets turned against him as he had wagered all his chips on one indiscreet comment. To Jimmy the Greek, it must have seemed a heavy price to pay for a slip of the tongue, and he went to court unsuccessfully to disprove the charges. The plea was rejected. Jimmy the Greek became a poster child for what ancient Greeks discovered two thousand years ago, that success takes forever; failure is instantaneous.

In 1991, Snyder sued the CBS network for age discrimination, defamation, and breach of contract.[13] According to court papers, Snyder maintained that his firing aggravated his health problems. Snyder’s attorney, Jeffery L. Liddle, stated that by “firing and repudiating Mr. Snyder, CBS quashed his dream, his dignity, and his spirit.”

According to the New York Times obituary, Snyder regretted his comments: “What a foolish thing to say.” His CBS coworkers publicly stated that they disagreed with Snyder’s theories and that they did not oppose CBS’s decision to fire him. Black former NFL player Irv Cross said in the 30 for 30 documentary about Snyder that he had worked alongside him and did not consider him to be a racist at all. In the same documentary, Frank Deford sympathetically noted that Jimmy often tried to sound more educated than he actually was and that his comments were basically him trying to make a point about a subject on which he knew nothing.

It doesn’t take an ancient philosopher to recognize we are born uncertain of who we are until we become that person and our dreams begin to be realized. That can last decades. Equally mysterious is the process by which it breaks down. As Ernest Hemingway said in a different context, it happens gradually, then suddenly. Whether intentional or not, a lifetime's good work can come undone in an instant. Poof. We fly, and like Icarus, we fall. Then collapse. What separates the victors from the losers is a talent for measuring probability. That means knowing the intangibles. When you’re Jimmy the Greek, that is tragic.