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Wagering With the Wiseguys

Scrutinizing games separates professional sports bettors from the squares
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

(continued from page 1)

I know this for a fact because it happened to me at a major hotel-casino. When I tried to lay down my fourth limit bet -- the first three totaled less than $5,000 -- I had the line jacked up on me and was told that I could make no more bets that day unless I made them all immediately.

It seemed an odd way to treat a big-spending customer -- especially one who would eventually wind up losing two of his three bets. S. P., who hates it when casinos don't treat all bettors the same, has experienced this himself. It seems that if some sports book managers see someone betting the limits, walking in and out between wagers, they figure that the bettor must know something or be in cahoots with someone. Of course, if you're laying down more than $1,000 per bet, the thinking goes, you ought to know something -- surely the sports books know something when they put up their line. Right? Well, yes, acknowledges the manager at the sports book where my limit bets were cut off. But "it looked like you were getting outside information," he tells me, acting vague about the exact nature of "outside information" that would upset him. Then he cuts to the chase: "The nature of this business is that we only want people to bet if they have less information than us. We want the money."

Not surprisingly, most big bettors side with S. P., rather than the casinos, on this one. Billy Baxter, a jovial Georgian who frequently gets the best of any wager he makes, has earned enough money from sports betting to live in an elegant home around the corner from Mike Tyson's place. He risks $175,000 a day, just on baseball totals, and wagers similarly huge sums on everything from football to tennis. "You used to be able to bet so much in Las Vegas that it was a joke; now you can't bet anything," drawls Baxter, sounding nostalgic for the days when a $100,000 wager at Binion's Horseshoe failed to raise a single eyebrow. "Las Vegas has shot itself in the foot. There wouldn't be demand for these offshore places if Las Vegas had done what it should have. Hotels ought to let you phone in bets from anywhere in America." But they don't. And instead, "you've got other countries selling [bookmaking] licenses to guys and making money instead of Las Vegas."

Regardless of what limits the casinos set, Baxter says that his edge resides in an ability to observe a sporting event, analyze play, and use a series of arcane details to figure out the best player (no, he will not reveal those details). Baxter says that this ability has allowed him to manage three undefeated professional boxers, including former junior lightweight champion Roger Mayweather. The secret of his success with the fighters, Baxter says, resided in a knack for matching up his guys against subtly weaker opponents. He applies the same thinking to other one-on-one sports. Hence, golf and tennis have been very good to him. "I like tennis because the linemakers make mistakes that allow me to win bets," says Baxter, relaxing in a home office outfitted with three TVs that allow him to scrutinize seven football games every Sunday. "They would have Pete Sampras at 5-1 at the French Open. But he's probably 100-1. He couldn't win in a million years -- not because he's a bad tennis player but because the surface there is not the surface he plays well on. I took 40-1 on a guy named Sergi Bruguera a few years ago, the first year he won it. He's great on a clay court and I knew it. The next year he came back and won it at 15-1."

Like all serious bettors, Baxter is careful about timing his wagers -- always looking for the best point spreads. "If it's a popular team that I like, I get my bet down early; if it's a team that the public doesn't like, I wait and let the public get their money down on the other team," says Baxter, pointing out that the most critical time to bet might be in the middle of a game.

He and other bettors love making halftime bets, which allow gamblers to watch the first half of a game closely and place money on the second half's outcome, often benefiting from linemakers who don't have the luxury of viewing a single, particular game as carefully as a bettor might. Peter Ruchman agrees that halftime action ranks among the best in town: "Oddsmakers can't see every game, so what they often do is take the spread and cut it in half. It's a gift. You've seen what they haven't. Suppose a team is winning 35-3, and say it's Bowling Green versus Ohio in college basketball on a Saturday when Kansas, UCLA, and St. John's are playing. Oddsmakers are not looking at Bowling Green. What often happens is that the team leading at 35-3 lets up during the second half. The losing team will take wild risks to catch up and will not score many points either, because that team wasn't any good to begin with. This situation makes an under bet" -- betting that the score will be under a certain total as opposed to over it -- "the best bet in the world."

Not surprisingly, casinos offer numerous other bets that are anything but the best in the world. Among the worst are parlays, in which the sports books allow bettors to wager on several teams that all need to win for the gamble to pay off. Tourists love making these bets because they provide cheap wagers on whole afternoons of games. The potentially big payout of 66-1, for a three-team parlay, doesn't hurt, either. But Marc Nelson, director of ancillary gaming for the newly opened Palms Hotel and Casino, acknowledges, "Parlays are a losing proposition."

He says that a better deal can be found in certain types of teasers -- so named because bettors lose payoff odds in exchange for the point spread being teased up or down. "The best teaser bets are certain types of two-teamers in pro football," says Nelson, describing bets in which the winners of two separate games must be picked. "If you can get a two-teamer that pays even money or 11-10 and you take a team that is between a 7- and 8 1/2-point favorite and tease it down to less than a field goal favorite, you can make money on that. A lot of books put that bet at 6-5 because it is such a strong bet."

Even though serious bettors consider proposition wagers to be goofy, Nelson maintains that some can be favorable -- so long as you think through the proposition being offered. Nelson recounts a proposition bet from last year's Super Bowl, an over/under bet on yards rushed by the Giants' Ron Dayne: "It was only six or seven yards and everybody bet it over. I bet it under because he hardly ever gets the ball. As it turned out, he was in the game for only two plays, he got the ball once, and ran a yard. There's another proposition, the three-unanswered-score proposition -- where you bet that one [football] team will score three times without the other team scoring once. Everybody bets that it won't happen, but it happens between 70 and 80 percent of the time. With those proposition bets, it is a matter of perception."

In the end, regardless of the wager, perception is the thing that bettors thrive on. It's about how you perceive the line, the competing teams, the flow of action. It ultimately comes down to absorbing as much information as you can and reaching conclusions that will be truer than those of the sports books and the other gamblers. Billy Baxter, who eschews elaborate computer programs and describes himself as "a pencil-and-paper guy," makes it sound simple: "I come up with a number, and if my number is different from that of the sports book, I bet it. There's nothing else to do. You've got to be smarter than they are or else you lose." He shrugs, smiles gently and adds, "Then you have to go out and get a job."

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