A few months ago I published a short Kindle ebook about Max Weisberg, a remarkable mentally disabled savant I met during the 1990s. Max could barely read and didn’t know how to pay his monthly electric bill, but he was mysteriously gifted at setting odds and point spreads for football and basketball games. He grew notorious as a skilled bookie who did little to conceal his illegal activities or the huge amounts of cash he often carried.
I first wrote about Max in 2001 for The Atlantic. I offer that article here, with apologies for its length as well as for the caveat that in the years that followed, my thoughts about Max changed as I considered the paradoxes and legal conflicts this gentle man presented us. Max died in 2003 and was buried in a memorial ceremony attended by characters that even Damon Runyon lacked the imagination to invent. The following year, I used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Max’s FBI file — a collection of documents filled with evidence of federal agents’ doubts that such a criminal as Max Weisberg could really exist. I incorporated it all into the research for my Kindle ebook.
One Smart Bookie
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.
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
On 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 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.”
Now Weisberg’s legs are in a bad state, and he can no longer go out and sell flowers. He awaits calls from his customers with greater eagerness than ever. It’s not that he likes sports—he doesn’t. “I get tired of watching all those millionaire owners and players,” he says. If he didn’t have a financial stake in a game, “I wouldn’t give a damn what they do.”
* * *
JUDGE: Now, I want you to look me in the eyes, Mr. Weisberg, just so you understand and know this: Bookmaking is over unless you choose to go to prison for 15 months. I don’t think that our prison system is a place for a sweet and nice man like yourself, but that’s where you will go. The first time you make book and you are brought into court, Mr. Weisberg, you are the person calling the shot as to where you will live for 15 months. It won’t be me, it won’t be anybody else, it will be yourself making that decision. Do you understand me, sir?
WEISBERG: Yes, I do.
—Ramsey County District Court, November 16, 1989
In 1966 the police arrested Weisberg on suspicion of sports bookmaking, but the charge was dropped. Seven years later he served four months at Sandstone Federal Prison after he was arrested in a gambling raid, and he paid several hundred dollars in fines for two other gambling convictions. But his real adventures with the law began on December 4, 1988, when police officers made the first of many searches of Weisberg’s house and safe-deposit boxes. Max and Solly lost $437,000 that day—the most money seized in the St. Paul Police Department’s history, according to the chief of police. Seven years later a judge divided the money among the city, the police, and Weisberg’s lawyers.
In June of 1989 Weisberg pleaded guilty to the bookmaking charge stemming from the previous year’s raid. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and a stayed fifteen-month prison term. The following year another police search turned up $4,500 and more betting slips. This time Weisberg had a new lawyer, Ron Meshbesher, who requested a jury trial and developed a new defense strategy: documenting his client’s mental retardation. He presented evidence that Weisberg had spent more than a year in a state institution for the retarded, where the staff measured his IQ at 55 and described his condition as “mental deficiency: moron, cause undiagnosed.” Kenneth Perkins, a psychologist, testified that Weisberg’s general reasoning and comprehension skills fell within the range of the mentally retarded. Meshbesher argued that Weisberg was incompetent to know right from wrong. He called Weisberg a Rain Man-like savant with a miraculous ability to make book. The jury found that Weisberg had indeed taken bets on sporting events, but it acquitted him of bookmaking on the grounds of mental deficiency. Probably no other bookmaker in American legal history has been acquitted on those grounds.
Despite the acquittal, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office used the jury’s finding that Weisberg had made book as evidence that he had violated the terms of his probation. After a lower court agreed, Meshbesher took the matter to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, which determined that Weisberg had not violated his probation; but Weisberg had already served twenty days in the county workhouse, a sentence that District Court Judge Lawrence Cohen had shrewdly staggered to include the dates of the Super Bowl and the boys’ state high school hockey and basketball tournaments. “There is no doubt in my mind that Max knew what he was doing, and that he knew it was wrong,” says Cohen, who is now the chief judge on the county bench. “And he tried to do it in a secretive way, which indicated it was wrong.”
The county’s continuing pursuit of an elderly and mentally disabled man outraged many in the Twin Cities, including Kenneth Perkins. Perkins had measured Weisberg’s IQ in the low 70s but had found that Weisberg had remarkable numerical skills. “My position all along has been that Max was not competent or capable of understanding what was going on,” Perkins says. “He firmly believed that he was doing absolutely nothing wrong. He believed that taking bets was just as legal as what goes on in Las Vegas or the Minnesota lottery.” In Perkins’s opinion, Weisberg should be left alone: “At what point do you get to harassing him? I don’t feel he’s hurting anybody, and considering who he is and his history, he’s not a threat or a menace to society in any way.”
All was then quiet until October of 1993, when the police returned to Weisberg’s house and took away $47,000 and the usual collection of betting slips and gambling records. Tried on bookmaking charges the following summer, Weisberg won another acquittal, this time from a district court judge. Meshbesher says that when he was celebrating this latest finding of mental deficiency with his client in a tavern, he said, “Max, you are the only bookie in the United States who has a free pass.”
Since then, despite the 1999 raid, Weisberg has not been charged with any crime. Although he acknowledges that much of the seized money came from gambling, he insists that he has done nothing wrong. “A bookmaker is someone who has thirty or fifty customers,” he says. “I’m not bookmaking. I just want something going. If I turn the TV on, it gives me something to watch.” Meshbesher, who has now been representing Weisberg for twelve years, smiles at the mention of his client’s name. “I love the guy,” he says. “I’ve made a few bucks on him too.”
“I don’t think the law envisioned this,” says Darold Treffert, the expert on savants. “It would need to be more creative to deal fairly with a circumstance like this.”
* * *
LAWYER: What kinds of things do you not understand that other people do?
WEISBERG: What is that, ma’am?
LAWYER: You just said … you don’t understand those things that other people do. What do you mean?
WEISBERG: That means I try my best to do everything I can and some things I understand and some things I don’t understand.
LAWYER: Okay. And are legal papers one thing that you have a hard time understanding?
WEISBERG: Yeah, right.
WEISBERG: If you didn’t have the education, you probably would be the same way.
—Ramsey County District Court, April 19, 2000
People who knew Weisberg as a child recall a disheveled and awkward boy who habitually chewed on his shirt collar. “Maxie always failed,” says Leon Frankel, a classmate of Weisberg’s at Franklin Elementary School in St. Paul. “They kept him behind in school—he was kind of dull.” Poorly equipped for book learning, Weisberg left school and hustled candy bars, peanuts, newspapers, or whatever he could sell to earn some money for his family. Weisberg’s sister, Helen Finesilver, remembers, “He had a habit of running away from home. He would ride freight trains, and when he was good and ready he would come home.”
In 1939 Weisberg, then fifteen, was committed to the Faribault School for the Feeble-Minded, a state institution in Faribault, Minnesota. For the next fifteen months he desperately wanted to get out. He says he was frightened by the staff’s threats to sterilize him, and he escaped from the school. After that he stayed out of institutions, living with his parents and Solly, and he never even came close to marrying. “I didn’t want nobody nagging me,” he explains. Only since Solly’s death has he lived alone.
Today Weisberg lives off his Social Security checks and the small sums he earns making book. He receives assistance and affection from an assortment of Good Samaritans, social workers, and friends who drive him around, clear his walk of snow, help him shop, and regularly check on him. “He can remember which sixteen teams are playing over the weekend, where they’re playing, and the odds on each game, but he cannot remember my name,” says Bettyann Pappenfus, a telecommunications analyst who for two years has volunteered to clean Weisberg’s house and do his laundry.
In April of last year a Ramsey County judge presided over what may have been Weisberg’s final court appearance. At issue was what should be done with the $126,989 that the police had seized the year before from Weisberg’s house. In the end $51,687 went to the Internal Revenue Service and a similar amount went to his lawyers. But for once a little bit returned to Weisberg—at least indirectly. In a moment of compassion the judge ordered that nearly $13,000 be spent to bring the electrical system of Weisberg’s old house up to code and to add air-conditioners.
There he sits in the kitchen every day, dressed in layers, taking bets from his customers over the phone, and scrawling the wagers on yellow legal pads. His reputation for paying off is excellent—except after police raids. His payouts are fairer than the state lottery’s. Most important to Weisberg, his honesty is rarely questioned. (“Sure, everything I say will be true, ’cause I always tell the truth,” he once told a startled court clerk who was administering the oath.) For Weisberg, now seventy-seven, it is enough to run his business, live independently, and stay healthy. “My parents always told me, ‘Your name is Weisberg, you can be a person with dignity,'” he says.