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Basketball Bedlam

For many hard-core college basketball fans, March Madness is a sure bet
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

(continued from page 1)

It makes for interesting moments when a long-shot team is getting slammed on the scoreboard but remains neck and neck on the tote board. “To the TV announcers, a game might seem like a rout,” acknowledges Robert Walker, recalling just such a game from last year, in which a team was ahead by 40, the spread was 38, and CBS chose to stop covering the game in favor of a closer one. “That game got switched,” continues Walker, “and it made our customers crazy! If the executives at CBS believe that people watch a 40-point blowout just to see what the final score might be they are removed from reality.”

While out-of-town gamblers jam into the casino sports books, yelling and screaming at TV monitors, queuing up to place bets, and generally having the times of their lives, others view these games as solitary, silent, high-pressure business. Vegas-based Keith Glantz works out of a home office, stocked with four TV sets. An oddsmaker for the Associated Press as well as a consultant with several sports books, Glantz provides opinions on what the lines should be for various games. The sports books consider the information he provides and use it to create lines that will generate action on both sides of a wager.

Usually, when making a line during the regular season, the goateed Glantz has time to be reasonably thoughtful about the numbers he’ll put up. But March Madness is a whole other situation. “The big challenge is to come out with an accurate line within minutes after a game is over,” he says, explaining that the books like to post numbers as soon as the next matchups become clear, which, due to the single-elimination format, is after both games, between four potential opponents, have ended. “The upside for me is that I’ve been dealing with these teams all year long, so I have an idea as to what the line should be prior to the matchups being confirmed. If the games play out to numbers that we were expecting, that’s fine. If not, though, quick rethinking needs to be done.”

One phenomenon of March Madness is the large, cumulative sums being wagered by amateur gamblers—squares or the public in casino parlance. Typically, during any weekend in Vegas, save that of the Super Bowl, what the public wagers is inconsequential, and the only real impact to a casino’s line is money bet by professional bettors, who are known as wiseguys. “During March Madness, after a side gets pounded by the public, you wind up with two or three points of line movement,” says Russ Hawkins, president of, an online watchdog of the offshore gambling industry. “It creates value for professionals and for smart amateurs.” Agreeing that square money and square opinions are generally too inconsequential to matter, Hawkins adds, “If a wiseguy bets $1,000, books move the line. If the public bets $10,000, they don’t. But if the public bets $100,000, they have to move it to get buy-back action on the other side—and they will get it from the wiseguys. Otherwise the casinos’ exposure is too high. When that kind of money comes in from amateurs, you have to respect it. Or else it could do you in.”

For guys like Alan Boston, the public influx helps turn the NCAA championships into a boon that can transform a mediocre betting season into a great one. “The limits [that casinos allow to be wagered on each game] go up and you’re not just butting heads with the guys who know what they’re doing,” says Boston. “The line is not totally beaten down by wiseguys and you can find opportunities. Like if NC Asheville plays Texas. I know that Eddie Biedenbach [coach of NC Asheville] gave Rick Barnes [coach of Texas, an obvious favorite] his [big coaching break]. So Rick Barnes won’t run the score up on him and that might make me want to bet Asheville if I can get the right price”—after it’s knocked around by square bettors who might not consider things that deeply.

Boston is an NCAA addict who devotes his days and nights to handicapping. He reads college newspapers online, listens for subtleties that coaches might reveal during postgame interviews and factors in everything from injuries to teams’ previous schedules to whether a game is being televised. “A little known fact is that when games are on national TV, they are more tightly officiated,” he says. “But in the NCAA [tournament] the refs allow teams to play more physically. That favors the more athletic teams, which are from the bigger conferences. They get a better shake, but that’s not how it’s refereed during the rest of the year.” In other words, there might be slight, sometimes overlooked advantages to betting teams from bigger schools during the NCAA tourney.

Then again, some believe that underdogs usually represent the best-value bets—particularly if you wait until game time to lay down your money, after all the square action has come in on the favorite. “Ninety-something percent of the time, the public will bet the favorite,” says Keith Glantz. “Let them put in their money, sit tight, and watch the line move in the ’dog’s favor. Then make your bet.”

Bob Scucci, who runs the sports book at the Stardust, the Vegas casino that’s known for posting lines before everyone else, remembers a prime example of an NCAA tournament underdog being overlooked by the public: “A couple years ago Butler was playing Florida as a ’dog. We opened the line with Butler getting 8. A lot of real sharp bettors took advantage of a mid-major like Butler getting those points”—but the public kept betting on Florida and the point spread moved to 10. “The true line should have been 4 1/2. It was like an overlay at the racetrack.”

But even as Scucci makes it clear that there are plenty of overlooked opportunities during March Madness, he emphasizes that it’s not as easy as it sounds: “You need sophistication to know which ugly teams to put your money on. Some of those ugly teams get completely blown out, regardless of how many points they’re getting.”

Among the most astute handicappers of NCAA games is Mickey Appleman, a slender, long-haired guy with an MBA from Case Western Reserve and a long-standing reputation as one of poker’s top high-stakes specialists. But his success at the Hold’em table is eclipsed by his talent as a sports handicapper. In the 1980s Appleman was one of the biggest players in gambling, impacting lines by making massive wagers. These days he bets less, but his talent as a handicapper is just as respected.

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