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Long Balls & Long Shots

For many longtime gamblers, the challenge of beating baseball is irresistible
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 1)

Similar to Fezzik, who has found his edge in making proposition bets, Murray focuses on winning bets against bookies who take action on the outcomes of the first five innings. "There are teams that are really piss-poor after five innings," says Murray, explaining that their best playing takes place before the game's midway point. "The Royals and Cubbies blow a lot of leads because of their lousy bullpens. But if you bet them for the beginning of the game, and they've got good starting pitchers, you get good value."

But aren't the bookies taking all of this into account as well? "Sometimes," acknowledges Murray, who recently got 200-to-1 odds on the Oakland A's winning the World Series (though it's obviously a long shot, he believes that their actual chances are 20-to-1). "But they don't spend as much time on the first five-inning lines as they do on the entire game."

Tougher than getting down bets and making lines is the sheer money- and information-management aspects of baseball. Many games are played each day of the season, and the heavy schedule necessitates careful attention to ever-fluctuating statistics, lineups and situational changes, such as the weather and the stadium. For instance, as Murray points out, some ballparks tend to be the homes of high scores. Coors Field, in Denver, inflates league scoring by 40 percent, he says; Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City deflates it by 11 percent. And the long season, with inexplicable streaks and slumps and upsets, can wreak havoc on a gambler's bankroll. "Go 5-and-6 one week in football, and you're fine," says Murray. "Do it every day for a week in baseball, and you have big problems."

If anyone can ride out the bad streaks of baseball, it's a professional blackjack player, the kind of gambler who's accustomed to running bad night after night but has enough faith in his card-counting system to recognize that, ultimately, he'll wind up with a profit. Such had been the case for a successful under-the-radar counter who's known by several names to bosses in the blackjack pits. For the purposes of this story, he asks to be called Baseball John (it's how sports book managers referred to him when he'd suddenly pop up at the start of the season and make massive bets). John says that he managed to win $700,000 over nine years of betting baseball.

His interest in baseball began when he discovered that a rogue computer programmer of his acquaintance—a guy who was famous for implanting tiny computer units in shoes for professional blackjack players—had designed a baseball-betting program for two top poker pros. Through a series of happy coincidences, John happened to receive a firsthand look at how the programmer devised his baseball lines; then John decided to sit down and do it himself. "You hear people say that the pitcher is 90 percent of the game," he explains over a lavish, comped dinner at Mix, Alaine Ducasse's chic new restaurant on an upper floor of The Hotel in Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. "To me and the programmer, a guy who's a certifiable genius, pitching and hitting are two sides of the same coin. So the starting pitcher is less than 50 percent of the overall equation. Most people underestimate hitting and overestimate starting pitchers. The other thing is knowing how much unpredictability is involved. Coming from blackjack, I knew better than trying to handicap a winner. I handicapped the line. If I had an underdog at plus $1.30, but the line being offered was plus $1.40, I would happily bet the 'dog and know that I'd win enough of those games to turn a profit. I loved false favorites."

In doing his handicapping, which was sheer pleasure for the mathematically oriented John, he thought about the pennies that each aspect of a game would be worth for a team. For example, he'd look at the home-field advantage, giving extra credit to teams with artificial turf and indoor stadiums, which could total 20 cents. Next would come batting and pitching. "You look at two players, maybe Mike Mussina versus Pedro Martinez, and figure out who's worth what against the other," explains John. "Maybe Martinez would be 25 cents better. Then I would look at the relief pitchers. On average, one-third of the innings would be pitched by relievers, but you don't want to factor in the relievers as one-third of your pitching decision because it's such an unknown. You overweight the starting pitcher," he says, adding, "as for fielding, I tried to keep it simple and focused on errors. Finally, I'd bet against positive streaks [that is, teams that were winning multiple games in a row] because they get over-bet, and you can get good prices by going in the opposite direction of everyone else."

But getting to that point—and making his 700 grand—was hardly simple. Unlike his computer-programming friend, John did his stat keeping with pencil and paper, partly because he's a bit of a Luddite, partly because he saw some advantages in operating the old-fashioned way. "There were things that I would do better than the computer could," says John. "The computer couldn't think. I would sweat every game and develop a feel for the players. Then that would be factored in along with everything else." One disadvantage of the flesh-and-blood approach is the man-hours required to do all the calculating, which made it impossible for John to handicap each game. Ever the advantage player, he found a relatively simple solution: "I only handicapped teams that had been underrated or overrated by the line makers"—and, of course, those teams changed day to day.

Though John admits that he's never been any kind of an athlete and isn't even much of a sports fan, his adventures in baseball were a lot of fun, an interesting challenge and, of course, profitable. Ironically, considering its lackluster popularity among most gamblers, baseball stands as the only sport he'd be interested in betting. "I prefer a money line to a point spread and would never like the idea of betting a favorite at football or basketball," he says. "In that instance, you're dealing with a team and a coach that are not trying to cover the spread. They're trying to win the game. They want something different than I do. So why should I bet on them?"

For all of that, however, baseball is a tough nut to crack—so much so that John's given up on betting the sport altogether—at least for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, he's decided that it's less risky to devote all his time to blackjack. And he's not alone. Even some of Vegas's most venerable, long-term successful gamblers find it difficult to turn a profit by betting on runs and hits and pop flies. "I don't like to lay $1.60 [that is, put up $1.60 to win $1], and that hurts me in baseball," admits veteran sports bettor Lem Banker. "Nobody wants to lay a price. We all prefer betting on a live underdog [that is, taking the worst team and getting points, as in basketball or football]. The smartest guys I know—including the legendary bookmaker Bob Martin—went broke betting baseball."

Yet, like a lot of other sharp sports bettors in town, Banker continues the uphill struggle of trying to beat the game. How come? He shrugs and acknowledges the difficulty of ignoring a put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is challenge. "What else are you gonna do?" asks the action-hungry Banker. "It's a long season. But I know a lot of guys who can't wait till July or August, when exhibition football kicks in."

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