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Betting the Super Bowl

From Super Bowls to the World Cup, Michael "Roxy" Roxborough Makes the Odds for Las Vegas--and the World
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

Watching the 1995 AFC Playoffs in his office on the Las Vegas Strip, Michael "Roxy" Roxborough pumps his fist as the San Diego Chargers score the go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers. For Roxy, that touchdown means millions of dollars.

"You'll probably never see me this excited about a game," Roxy says. "In fact, I generally try not to watch. But everybody in the world is on Pittsburgh, and we really need San Diego. It's by far the biggest game of the year for us."

By "us," Roxy means his clients--sports bookmakers from around the world. Roxy Roxborough is the man who sets the Las Vegas line, which in turn becomes America's--and the world's--line. When you call your bookie in Milwaukee to find out how many points the Bucks are giving to the Clippers, the number you'll hear was gleaned indirectly from Roxy. When Al Michaels and Dan Dierdorf joke about the over/under total on ABC's "NFL Monday Night Football" ("If the Lions kick this field goal, the game will truly be over, in more ways than one!"), the number they're referring to came from Roxy. And when you wander into a casino like the Sands and see a phalanx of propositions on football, baseball, basketball, hockey, boxing, NASCAR and Indy racing, the World Cup, tennis--even PGA golf--the one bet you can reasonably be sure of is that Roxy Roxborough is the guy who came up with the odds.

From his buttoned-down appearance, you would think Roxy more apt to prepare your taxes than to declare the Knicks a 6-to-1 dog to win this year's NBA Championship. His conservative mien is no accident. "We run this business as a corporation--objectively," he says. "Over $2 billion was bet in Nevada sports books [the place where sports bets are made] this year. We can't afford to get involved emotionally."

His company, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, employs a staff of analysts and clerks who, with the aid of computers, news wires and video monitors, determine the relative power of every team and player in America that someone might conceivably want to bet on. Then they make "the line," a numerical expression of probability. (Note to Cuba watchers: Roxy's odds of Castro losing power before 1996--5-to-2 against). Contrary to a popular misconception, Roxy and his people do not have "inside information," nor are they in the business of "predicting" the final outcome of a sporting contest. An oddsmaker's job is to generate action. Generally, the larger the bookmaker's handle (dollar volume of bets), the more profit.

"Odds-making is a little art and a little science," Roxy says. "Sports are so well covered these days, especially the NFL, that we have virtually the same amount of information as the sharp gambler. Having the information is not difficult; it's the interpretation of that information that makes a difference."

Roxy's clients pay him between $1,500 and $2,800 a month for his odds, updates and reports. (His odds also appear in syndication in more than a hundred newspapers.) Though many of Roxy's odds produce "two-way action," where the betting is balanced on both sides, some, by design, do not. In those cases, such as the AFC Championship game, where Pittsburgh was favored by 9 points, the bookmakers badly need one team. "The money is pretty balanced on the NFC game," Roxy says, glancing at one of the many computer terminals that line his office. "But the AFC game will be a multimillion-dollar decision."

Despite the prodigious sums at stake, Roxy claims to hate watching the games. "In the six hours it takes to watch two football games, I can analyze 50 teams. At this point in my life, all the teams, all the players are simply numbers." He rubs his chin pensively. "The irony is that 95 percent of the public bets for entertainment, for the rush of adrenaline you get in the last two minutes, when your money is on the line. Like everyone else, I started out as a sports fan. Now I'd rather listen to ocean music."

Given his background, the line against Roxy one day becoming the heir to Bob "the Man" Martin, Las Vegas' previous Arbiter of the Odds, must have been about 100 million-to-1. After a respectable Vancouver, B.C., childhood, a stint managing a fast-food restaurant and a few semesters at American University in Washington, D.C., where he majored in betting the ponies, Roxy settled in Las Vegas in 1976. "I came to Vegas to be a professional gambler, so I wouldn't have to hold a conventional job. But I ended up working 60 hours a week at gambling to escape working 40 hours a week."

He was particularly successful at betting baseball totals, charting the wind and atmospheric conditions at the ballparks. "Today, no bookmaker would think of posting odds without getting a weather forecast. Back then, believe it or not, no one ever checked." He was so proficient that the sports book at Club Cal-Neva in Reno asked him to set their baseball totals. Soon Roxy was making the line across the board. With only a single customer, he founded Las Vegas Sports Consultants in 1982, working from his kitchen table. Assignments at other northern Nevada casinos followed, and in 1983 Roxy landed the high-profile job of setting the opening line for the Stardust. "I had to decide then if I wanted to be a professional gambler or a professional oddsmaker," he recalls. "I felt doing both would be a conflict of interest, so I gave up sports betting and became an oddsmaker."

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