Scrutinizing games separates professional sports bettors from the squares
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The Mandalay Bay sports book is a sea of action. Diode-lit rows of numbers flicker, giving and taking points from favorites and underdogs. Drinks from the bar flow down to the SRO crowd. Guys take last-minute looks at football stories in the Las Vegas Review Journal and slip beyond the sport book's no-phone zone to make cell calls to anyone in the know. At the betting window, money continually changes hands. Worthless betting slips litter the carpet. Though small monitors broadcast basketball, baseball and golf, evryone is glued to a big wall screen, where a wide receiver eludes teo defenders and scrambles into the endzone for a touchdown. The favored team covers its point spread. On this Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, the roar of men making money rises from the crowd.
This sound reverberates into a utilitarian back office where sports book manager Nick Bogdanovich makes his adjustments to various lines. "I can tell who scored just by the sound of the crowd," says Bogdanovich, widely regarded as one of Vegas's savviest sports specialists. Like most people in Vegas, he divides the world into two categories: wiseguys and squares, the former being professional gamblers and the latter being tourists. Wiseguys tend to spend the entire week placing bets, forcing the book to move around the line so as not to be too heavily biased.
Come Friday morning, squares pile into Vegas for the weekend, laying down their action that, hopefully, will offset the smart money Bogdanovich has gotten all week. "Wiseguys dissect these games like turkey dinners," continues Bogdanovich, tall, lean and steely eyed. "They're getting injury reports, weather reports, computer analyses. They speak to the coaches if they can. They want information and they get it. They're super sharp. Maybe 100 guys are winning players in this town, and they work hard to make their money." They have to: for every $11 bet, the Vegas sports books keep a $1 commission.
Big, professional sports bettors lay down millions of dollars during the course of a week, distributing action from Las Vegas to the Caribbean, always looking for what they call "value": point spreads that are slightly off and can be exploited. Professional bettors absorb all the information they can find, divine their own lines for games, and when they discover a large enough discrepancy between what they think the line should be and what the books are putting up, they slam in their wagers. A weekend bettor would be as likely to out-handicap these guys as a casual stock investor would be to out-think the analysts of Merrill Lynch. But, as the wiseguys reveal to me during a recent visit to Vegas, there are plenty of ways to reduce the odds against you. To begin with, keep in mind that the public -- i.e. the squares -- has a tendency to favor certain teams: the Rams in football, the Lakers in basketball, the Yankees in baseball, Notre Dame in college sports. Bookies know this and take advantage of it, shading points against those teams that will draw action regardless of how fair or unfair the spread may be. Another thing to remember is that nearly 15 percent of all football games go off with lines of three -- which means that the key to winning will be held by the place kicker. In this instance, you should put extra weight on the team with the better foot.
In broader terms, it's important to think like a pro: to bet against your heart and with your wallet, to do your research, and to consider taking a contrarian approach. "I only bet on underdogs," says Peter Ruchman, author of the forthcoming gambling history After the Gold Rush: The Rise and Fall of Gambling's Glory in Las Vegas and a fairly serious handicapper who used to own an odds-making service. "There are two ways to win if you bet on an underdog -- straight-up or by covering the spread -- while the favorite has to win the game and cover the spread. Last week, for instance, Dallas was an 18-point underdog. And, yeah, they suck this year, but they don't deserve to be hung with 18 points. It was a coyote-ugly bet, but I took them and won. When you see huge point spreads like that, go against them. Nobody gets rich laying double digits in the NFL." And, adds Ruchman, try to look beyond the win/loss column. "Last year San Diego was terrible, with a 1-15 record. But seven of their games were lost in the fourth quarter -- so they really weren't as bad as their record would make them seem." And that made San Diego a better bet than the linemakers would have you believe.
Offering an example of how he might approach a game, Ruchman looks at an upcoming contest between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, with the Giants favored by three points. "First you ask yourself, who will win the game?" says the cigar-smoking handicapper. "If you think the Eagles, take them with the three points. If you think the Giants will win the game, it becomes a question of superiority. Handicappers look at numbers related to offense versus defense, passing versus pass defense, rushing versus rush defense. If one team has a bad rush defense but its opponent doesn't run the ball very much, then that shouldn't get much weight. You look at weather, the importance of this particular game, how a team plays on artificial turf versus grass. Turf teams are built for speed, grass slows you down. All these things are factors to look at. Some people go with trends -- New York has beaten Philadelphia nine times in a row, so you take New York because they always manage to pull it out -- or situational handicapping, which looks at coach and player changes. But what does the public do? The public gets up at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning and places a bet. There is no handicapping."
While a casual bettor might not have the patience to analyze reams of information, he can glean key details from recent history. "If a team that looked good last week is playing against a team that looked bad last week, the price will be compounded," says Lem Banker, a second-generation gambler who continually emphasizes the importance of finding value in every wager. Sitting near the pool in the backyard of his ritzy Las Vegas home, he adds, "When the line moves in my direction, I always go further. Last weekend I took Colorado State with 7 1/2 points. When the line moved to 8, I went further and laid down another bet. You have to remember that any team is capable of beating the spread against any other team on a given weekend."
Another handicapping element is to downplay the weight that sports books give to injuries, maintains one of the biggest, sharpest players in town, a man we'll call S. P., who lays in excess of $1 million every weekend. "The Lions game may be at 7, then the quarterback goes out and it moves to 13," S. P. begins, over dinner at Piero's, an Italian restaurant where the bar is bookended by TVs tuned to the big game of the night. "Well, I'll tell you, the quarterback is worth something, but he isn't worth 6 points. He might be worth 2 or 3. So, theoretically, if you took the other side, game in and game out, you will win. In terms of looking for advantages, if you see the sports book moving its line drastically, you can usually find an opportunity in playing the opposite side of it. The other night at the Excalibur, for instance, I saw somebody come in and bet a game where he took 14 1/2 points. Then the line dropped down to 12 and he bet it the other way, hoping to middle the thing." It became a no-risk bet for him -- with a push being the worst that could happen, and winning both bets, if the difference in points landed at 13 or 14, a distinct possibility.
You can also find an advantage over the sports books by becoming an expert where they are not. For the most part, Vegas linemakers focus on the biggest teams and the biggest games. This makes sense, since they draw the most action and create the most potential liability. But the books still have to spread all the college action on a given Saturday. It creates opportunities for bettors who can focus on an obscure conference that the linemakers don't pay much attention to. This also comes in handy when a little known team is playing a famously regarded one. To attract action for the little known side, the sports book needs to skew the odds in that team's favor. That is when guys like S. P. swoop in for the kill. "A lot of these teams -- like Troy State, for instance -- nobody has heard of," says S. P., as a giant veal chop is placed before him. "Let's say the Akron Zips are playing Michigan. What the hell do you know about the Zips? Nothing. And you won't bet on them." He tucks into dinner and adds, "But I will."
Guys like S. P. frighten the sports books around town. Because of him and his type, casinos put limits on the action they will take from people who are known to be smart bettors. This isn't the case with blackjack, craps and other casino games, where large bets are welcomed from guests (who surely lose more than they win). But if you walk into a number of the sports books around town, make a series of bets for the limit, and arouse even the slightest amount of suspicion -- say, walking in and out of the casino between wagers, which shouldn't exactly raise the red flags -- you may not be allowed to continue placing bets that day.
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."
Michael Kaplan writes about gambling for Cigar Aficionado.
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