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Sports Book Betting

A gambling theorist turns to sports betting to beat the odds--and the house
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00

On the big screen in front of me, Doug Flutie stands on the sideline wearing his helmet. The newly demoted Bills quarterback is watching erstwhile backup Rob Johnson run the Buffalo offense in the first round of this year's National Football League play-offs. So is most of America. But I'm more interested in the 16 other TV monitors here at the Mandalay Bay Race and Sports Book.  

Any minute now on one of them, the University of Louisville's men's basketball team will be tipping off against Southern Mississippi. And if you think that's an obscure fascination to have on a play-off Saturday in January, understand that the games I'm really interested in are the ones that aren't important enough to be shown at all.  

I'm in Las Vegas to test a theory about casino gambling. I figure I can beat the house by wagering on sporting events of lesser interest, knowing plenty about just a few teams and picking my spots. Certainly it won't happen any other way. I'll never learn enough about blackjack to come out ahead, and rolling dice must be a bad idea because the term is also a metaphor for relying on dumb luck. Roulette, slot machines...those are just various forms of entertainment. What they cost for a night is exactly as much as you're willing to lose.  

But sporting events are different. Sports bets aren't based on games of chance that the casino controls, but on outside events. I'm convinced that I can know just as much about Louisville-Southern Mississippi as the oddsmakers know. In fact, I'm convinced I can know more.  

Horse racing would be an even better way to beat Las Vegas, if I were willing to put in the hours of handicapping necessary to gain an edge. Because it's a pari-mutuel, I don't have to be smarter than the oddsmakers, just smarter than the guy next to me. But even if I could do the math like a real handicapper, I wouldn't get that thrill of beating the casino. I want my winnings to come from Mandalay Bay's pocket, not yours.  

So I'm playing the sports book, all day Saturday and Sunday. Most of the people in the room are betting football--and I am, too. I have $50 riding on the Titans, giving points. "People love to watch what they bet on," says Gene Kivi, manager of the race and sports book at Mandalay Bay, and I'm no exception. But that's just to get me to the basketball games. Even though I follow football intently, switching from one game to the next each week with my DirecTV Sunday Ticket, I'm not expecting to win on the NFL. The oddsmakers know too much.  

The experts at Las Vegas Sports Consultants--which sets the lines here, and at most of the other sports books on the Las Vegas Strip and beyond--have spent the past few days crunching numbers and checking injury reports so they can create a point spread that will attract about the same amount of money on both sides. That's what they're hired for. It's a big business, and a faulty line on an NFL playoff game can mean a multimillion-dollar loss to a casino.  

The bets on a typical college basketball game play out on a far smaller scale. Even Las Vegas Sports Consultants must make manpower decisions on a football weekend, and most of the basketball games I see on the electronic tote board on the back wall here hardly rate more than a moment's attention. The odds making on Louisville-Southern Mississippi probably took all of three minutes; Wright State-Butler maybe half of that.  

"The only people who will play some of these games are the so-called professionals, and then only if they believe that the line is off," Kivi confirms. "Regular-season college basketball is probably the easiest sport to win at if you're a smart handicapper who follows a single conference. In that case, yes, you do stand a good chance of knowing more than the oddsmaker."  

I've been planning for this weekend all season, monitoring various teams and checking with friends who do the same around the country. My Louisville source insists that the Cardinals have the potential to be a Top-10 team. And my sister, a fierce University of Connecticut supporter, is certain that her Huskies will bounce back from a loss to Notre Dame with a big victory against Pitt tonight.  


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