For many hard-core college basketball fans, March Madness is a sure bet
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Ted Hume is a mild-mannered dentist based in Dallas, Texas. While he ordinarily exudes a calm,professional demeanor, his voice becomes hoarse and he gets excited when he talks about March Madness, the string of 64 NCAA championship basketball games that begin this month.
Hume has viewed hundreds of suspenseful and thrilling games from his perch at the sports book at Bally’s in Las Vegas. But the one nail-biter that sticks in his mind was between Valparaiso University and Mississippi in 1998. After Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew landed a last-second three-pointer allowing the small Midwestern college, and that year’s Cinderella team, to beat favored Mississippi, 70 to 69, Hume says, “The casino went completely wild. People were standing on tables and screaming their hearts out. It was amazing.”
Hume is just one of the thousands of hard-core college basketball lovers who each year flock to Vegas for the opening games of March
Madness, which this year begins on March 18. These diehards camp out in casino sports books and spend the second or third long weekend in March watching dozens of games, gambling on most of them and having a generally wild time. “Emotions run so high that it’s almost like being at the game. Plus, of course, the gambling is great—I’ll bet on three-quarters of the matchups,” Hume says, adding that attending the opening weekend in Vegas is an annual rite for him and a group of equally obsessed friends.
This is not the sort of fervent fandom that one usually associates with grown men watching college basketball on TV, but the match-ups that define March Madness, a single-elimination tournament that concludes with the two winningest teams squaring off for the NCAA championship, are not your ordinary basketball competitions. “It’s bedlam, absolute bedlam here during those games,” says Robert Walker, race and sports book director at Vegas’s MGM Mirage. “The sports books are packed to the rafters. You have a clientele in here that wants to bet $50 on every single game”—the point being that individual wagers may not be huge, but cumulatively they add up—“More bets are made over the course of that first March Madness weekend than on the Super Bowl. Admittedly, the Super Bowl is huge, but this is like Mardi Gras”—complete with free drinks.
An extra level of intensity arises from the single elimination aspect. Lose one game and a team is out of the tournament; keep winning and your previously unknown, backwater school suddenly snags banner headlines on sports pages across the country.
While it is widely acknowledged that college basketball teams play particularly hard in general, March Madness ups the ante because for most players, it’s their only chance to play hoops on national TV. “You get very pure results in these games,” says Alan Boston, a veteran Vegas-based professional gambler who specializes in handicapping NCAA basketball.
Intensely wired and completely plugged into the
game, Boston juts his shaved head forward and adds, “These guys play
hard every second of every minute because it’s so important to
win.” While that makes for exciting games of heartfelt, do-or-die
ball, it does
something more important for seasoned gamblers: “You can benefit by ways of thinking that are not in the line,” says Boston. “For instance, superior coaching often wins in the first round because every team has had many days to prepare for its first game.”
Asked for a real-life example of this, Boston recalls a West Region matchup between Colorado State and Duke last year: “Despite what people think, [Duke coach] Mike Krzyzewski is the most overrated coach of our time—of any time. His team takes bad shots, and you cannot take bad shots in an NCAA tournament because the other team will be ready for you. Duke totally outmanned Colorado State, but Colorado State played a lot smarter. Duke won but failed to cover the point spread. It was a typical first-round game with a very well coached underdog pulling a big upset.”
As you can tell by the way Boston describes this game’s outcome, the actual score is meaningless to Vegas’s March Madness gambling fanatics. For them, the spread is everything—the final score is important only as the basis for who actually covered or didn’t.
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 majorwager.com, 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.
One of his strengths is dissecting what he calls the “component character” of a team. “It defines where the team is going and how they’ll do in the future,” says Appleman, sipping decaf tea at a Chinese restaurant near his home in northern New Jersey. “It could be how they handle adversity when they’re stuck 11 or 12 points. If they dig deep and come back, then their component character is very high and it can transcend the line. Sometimes, though, you have a team that was so well coached that they overachieved all year”—and will not be able to maintain that level of play during March Madness.
After emphasizing the importance of knowing which theory to apply to a particular game—he refers to “the internal octopus of knowledge” that successful handicappers must possess—Appleman acknowledges that even top handicappers who have all the angles covered can make errors.
Such was the case last year when Syracuse University squared off against Oklahoma State in a second-round contest in the East Region. “Oklahoma’s coach is famous for his defense, and I thought his team would win easily,” recounts Appleman, explaining that his belief was further bolstered by Syracuse’s lopsided defeat in the Big East tournament. “But as the game played on I could see Syracuse’s zone [defense] flustering Oklahoma. I thought the opposite would happen, that Oklahoma’s defense would break Syracuse.” Appleman knew he’d lose his bet, but he also recognized something that would prove to be valuable in future games: “I realized that Syracuse would do better [in the tournament] than a lot of people thought. I saw a component confidence that was infectious. They made the comeback and went on this tremendous run”—which concluded with the Orangemen winning the NCAA championship for the first time and Appleman capitalizing on their strength.
But even he acknowledges that operating with those kinds of instincts and insights—he’s a handicapper who can literally envision the way in which a game will unfold—is impossible to do without complete devotion. Or, as Appleman puts it, “There’ve been times when I never left my apartment for days on end.”
OK, so what about the rest of us? What advice is there for a reasonably knowledgeable sports bettor who wants to hang in Vegas for March Madness without enduring maddening losses at the hands of flinty-eyed bookies and hard-edged wiseguys? “The endgame in college basketball gives you information about how a team is playing,” says Appleman. “If they consistently shut down the other team with seven minutes to go, you have a legitimate contender for the title.”
There’s a lot to be said for smart money management. The Stardust’s Scucci has seen more than his share of gamblers bottom out early. He suggests coming to the casino with a level head and advance knowledge of the wagers you want to make. “You can empty your pockets trying to catch up with losers,” he says. “Do your research, know who you want to bet ahead of time, and stick with it.” He smiles, shrugs, and says something that would surely draw gleeful nods from bookies around the world. “But people make all kinds of bets they hadn’t counted on. They just can’t help themselves.”
Michael Kaplan is Cigar Aficionado’s gambling columnist.