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Men of Action: Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder

by Bob Pajich |  Published: Apr 17, 2013


Jimmy ‘the Greek” Snyder was born to immigrant grocers as Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1918. By the time he was 28, he was known as man who could pick winners after nailing the 1948 Presidential election.

Steubenville was a river mill town that had so many gambling houses that Snyder jokingly said he didn’t know gambling was illegal until he left. Situated on the rail line between Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it was known as place to get your jollies, gambling being only one. It’s the city Snyder would learn his trade.

Snyder, with his huge handsome head and vernacular right out of mill town, was determined to forge his own path after quitting his father’s store over an argument about ham, water loss and shrinkage.

It took him to a newspaper, public relations and broadcasting career that began with the third World Series of Poker.

Loved the Underdog

Jimmy’s first big score came in 1945, when he took the Great Lakes Naval Training Center’s Bluejackets football team over Notre Dame, getting no points, at 10-to-1.

“I knew how good some of the Ohio boys on the Great Lakes team were, and I knew a couple of key Notre Dame players had been hurt the week before,” he told the News and Courier in 1982.

The boys from Ohio took it to the Irish 39-7. He won $54,000 that day. Notre Dame went 7-2 that year. Snyder surely knew about Marion Motley, a future Cleveland Browns star fullback who played for the Navy’s Bluejackets.

The Bluejacket’s coach that year also was Paul Brown, who coached Ohio State before WWII, and the Cleveland Browns after. The Browns are named after him. It was Brown’s last game with Navy. Snyder had to have a good feeling with former college star Motley running the ball and Brown at the helm.

“Notre Dame simply could not handle Motley that day, and even had trouble knocking him down as he ran several trap plays that became his specialty over the years,” said Brown, according to the Biographical Dictionary of American Sports.

In 1948, Snyder’s career as a political pollster began when word got out that he won $170,000 picking Harry Truman as the winner of that year’s Presidential election. He took Truman at 17-to-1 against the huge favorite Thomas Dewey.

Jimmy SnyderSnyder claims he was the first gambler to use his own pollsters to determine who would win, a decision sparked by a short conversation with one of his sisters. As Snyder told it – and he repeated this story over and over – he was examining his face in a mirror before a date and said aloud that he was thinking about growing a mustache.

“Jim, don’t do it. Girls don’t like mustaches,” said his older sister, Mary.

A few days later, Snyder spotted a newspaper and, as he wrote in his biography, “What caught my eye was that neat, manicured little mustache. Instantly my brain echoed the girls: Girls don’t like mustaches.”

So Snyder called his local priest and asked him to provide three women that he’d pay $15 a piece to stand in front of a Steubenville A & P store and poll women. They did not ask who the ladies would be voting for, but asked if they liked men with mustaches.

The results were overwhelming against lip hair: 347 to 122, with 31 saying, “they didn’t care as long as it was on a man.”

In the next few days, he sent out his three pollsters to places all around town to anyone who had their vote. The slight edge was on Truman, so he got on a train and took it to New York City where, Snyder said, “they loved favorites in the big cities – especially the Big Apple.”

Through his connections, he found a man “who paid,” willing to take a $10,000 bet at 17-to-1. A few days later, when he heard Truman carried Ohio, he knew he was on to something.

He took some of that money and invested in 22 oil wells, all of them were dry. He also built and managed theaters, but his real talent of understanding odds and percentages took him to Las Vegas, where he first worked the book at the old Horseshoe.

“During this time, I started working on odds. I watched book-makers, discovered I could beat the book. I gambled compulsively. If I made $50,000 a year, I gambled $40,000 of it – that doesn’t mean I always lost that much but I’d bet that much. Then in 1963 I swore off. I quit gambling just like that. At the time, I’d hope to sell my line on the open market,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1970.

The open market he was talking about not only included Vegas, but the thousands of gambling joints around the country like the ones he knew existed in Steubenville.

“Then President Kennedy put through those laws making it illegal to use communications betting across state lines. If I couldn’t bet in another state, I figured I might as well forget it.”

Snyder was referring to the Wire Act of 1961. When Snyder did that interview in 1970, sports gambling was still $20 billion a year business.

But soon after it was implemented, the Feds caught Snyder passing a friend a tip on the Utah-Utah State game on a telephone. He was convicted of a felony, fined $10,000 and put on probation for five years.

That ended his time as gambler and a bookmaker, which, strangely enough, he denied ever being to a Toledo Blade reporter in 1983. He said he was solely a gambler.

As his son Anthony put it in ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on Snyder in 2009: “It was all about a big door closing – a big door closing — that cost him everything, his whole livelihood at the time. It kind of shifted his direction.”

Information Unlimited

The sign on the door read: Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Information Unlimited Public Relations Advertising Publicity Sports Letter. This was 1963 or thereabouts, right after Snyder got pinched.

There was a man walking around the entire top floor of the Desert Inn in sneakers who appreciated a man who knew how to handle information and retained Information Unlimited on a monthly allowance of $7,500. Snyder put it this way in 1970:

“Things are going good in Nevada because we got a middle linebacker named Howard Hughes.”

If Hughes was Snyder’s middle linebacker, then Snyder was on the defensive line, gobbling up men to allow Hughes to dominate.

Hughes used Information Unlimited several different ways, from planting articles in newspapers about his disdain for above ground atomic testing — which rattled his windows and nerves – to manipulating news stories to influence stock prices.

The short of it is that Hughes wanted to buy domestic carrier Air West and he wanted to buy in for $22 a share, well below its actual value. Snyder’s job was to make the public – and the shareholders – believe that Hughes’ offer was more than fair and that Air West was company in dire straits.

According to Howard Hughes: His Life His Madness, one press release that went public read in part: “Directors of Air West who think the Howard Hughes offer of $22 a share isn’t enough are barking up the wrong tree. Hughes usually makes one offer for properties he wants to buy and it’s usually above market value. After that – no quibbling.”

The negative bombardment worked and Hughes bought Air West at the price he wanted in 1968. The SEC didn’t appreciate the maneuver, investigated and charged Snyder and seven other men with defrauding stockholders out of $49 million in 1975, a year after President Ford pardoned Snyder for his gambling felony as part of the traditional White House Christmas time pardons.

The SEC’s case fell apart and only one person who wasn’t named Snyder or Hughes was charged.

All the while, Snyder published – at an expense of around $40,000 to $50,000 a year, a column picking NFL games and also setting odds for sports teams that ran in about 200 papers around the country. The payoff made him a nationally known personality and gave him “in” with newspaper editors from every corner of the country.

Snyder and the WSOP

In 1968, Snyder played in the first and only Texas Gamblers Reunion, a ramshackle get-together in Reno that consisted of several high-stakes poker games. Two years later, Johnny Moss would win the first World Series of Poker by popular vote.

Snyder, along with Binion, is credited for pushing the freezeout after a reporter mentioned to Snyder it needed to be more like a contest. Snyder’s Information Unlimited was also hired to publicize the event, which was first for poker.

Binion thought Snyder did a great job. This is from Mary Ellen Glass interviews she did for the University of Nevada Oral History Program in 1973:

“We got Jimmy the Greek, he handles this poker game. And I think he’s getting to be about as good a man as there is around. He’s got that column, he’s got a lot of personality, he’s a good speaker, and he’s going around all over the country. And he knows all – he’s got that column in a lot of papers and knows a lot of newspaper men, you know. And I think he can just get about as good a coverage as anybody. And we use him some. Fact of business we use him exclusive for the poker game.

“The first year, when he put on the poker game here for us, he didn’t charge us anything. Howard Hughes had just let him go, and he wanted to prove himself, what he could do, he just took this poker game. Hell! Nobody thought you could get this much publicity out of this poker game! I didn’t, but he did. He said, ‘I just want to show ’em what I can do with this poker game. Let me have it.’

“We said, ‘You got it!’ He put it in seven thousand newspapers. So I’d say that’s pretty doggone good.”

In 1973, Snyder’s company filmed the WSOP for the first time. It aired on CBS’s Sports Spectacular. Snyder also narrated the final table and he would reprise his role in 1978 (with Brent Musburger) and 1979 (with Frank Glieber), the next two times the WSOP was filmed.

In 1974, President Ford pardoned Snyder for his interstate gambling conviction as part of the traditional Christmas season pardons.

By this time, Snyder, who also had a great career predicting election outcomes, was famous as the country’s odds maker. In 1976, his fame grew immensely as the roughish prognosticator on CBS’s NFL Today. Without actually using the term “point spread,” Snyder told the nation who he thought would cover it by predicting exact scores. He actually got the job with the help from then-commissioner Pete Rozelle.

The gig with CBS lasted 12 years until he famously fell from the nation’s grace when he said in an interview:

“The black is a better athlete to begin with because he’s been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade… the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid.”

And just like that, Snyder became a symbol of racial ignorance. All those years building himself as the great odds “equalizer” fell to ruination. He was fired, retreated to Vegas, and died in 1996 from complications from diabetes. He was 77. He is buried in a cemetery in Steubenville.