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In the Month of Madness

For sports book directors, oddsmakers and many gamblers, nothing rivals the sheer betting mayhem of March Madness.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Armand Assante, Mar/Apr 2008

At 8 a.m. on March 20, the Mirage in Las Vegas will be a little different than usual. Typically at that hour, the casino is populated by an intersecting mix of bright-eyed golfers carting clubs to valet parking, washed-out gamblers who have spent the night blowing money while losing brain cells, and freshly shaven conventioneers off to their first meetings of the day. On this particular Thursday, however, the smart crowd will be piling into the sports book, chasing Starbucks coffee with swigs of lime-infused Corona. They'll be wearing college colors, smoking cigars and strategizing for four days of relentless gambling.

As Kenny White, one of the top oddsmakers in town, puts it, "The day is a nonstop thrill ride. And you never know what'll happen. You come out here and have a chance of winning pretty good."

The day in question is the opening of March Madness, aka the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship, three long weekends of college basketball games that, all told, generate more money wagered than the Super Bowl. Over that period, small fortunes will be won and lost, previously disparaged teams will emerge as shooting, dribbling, shot-blocking Cinderellas, and guys such as White will work nonstop to keep the point spreads as tight as possible.

As the owner of Las Vegas Sports Consultants, a company that Vegas casinos employ to make their betting lines, White sends out his predictions. Upon receiving them, sports book managers post point spreads (sometimes the numbers get massaged a bit) and thus begins a daily tug-of-war between casinos and gamblers. Based on how the bets come in, lines move up or down or simply stay where they start, reflecting an unending quest to achieve a balance that will minimize each casino's exposure.

In the moments leading up to the tourney's first tip-off, things become acutely intense. A lot of action, bets and emotion drive people's decisions. "On Thursday and Friday, it's nonstop for the fans, beginning when they eat breakfast and go to the sports book," says White, a trim, neat but casual guy with bristly salt-and-pepper hair. "You're betting halftime, the start of the next game and then the game after that. It's like being at a horse race where you are placing a new wager every 20 or 30 minutes. It's college sports all day, teams giving 100 percent, more than the usual number of buzzer beaters. And you have a chance to wager on this as well. You know it's got to be heart-pounding." White draws a breath before adding, "Then, at the end of the night, you have 100 tickets in your pocket and you just keep cashing and playing."

Or, in some cases, praying.

It's a week and a half before the 2007 NCAA tournament, and White starts receiving phone calls from Robert Walker, who oversees the sports books for all MGM Mirage properties (Bellagio, Mirage, MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay among seven others in Vegas). Walker is confirming that by 5 p.m. this afternoon, White will provide him with lines for the first group of games.

White promises to deliver, even though it puts a bit of pressure on him and four other college basketball oddsmakers with Las Vegas Sports Consultants. Matchups for the first-round games are announced on Sunday afternoon between 3 and 4 o'clock, just four days before the start of the first game. Sitting in their war room, not far from McCarron International Airport, White and his team stare at a wall of TVs. They simultaneously watch CBS (it broadcasts the matchmaking live) and ESPN (you never know what gems of wisdom the talking heads will offer), not making any decisions until the brackets have been confirmed, and then getting into efficient but intense debates over what the true numbers should be.

On this particular Sunday afternoon, they reach their decisions in 45 minutes. "That's one and a half minutes per game," says White, smiling proudly, pointing out that they managed to put up 32 games in so little time. "We each have ratings that we've been maintaining all year. So I can go through them in seconds and devise good numbers."

I ask White to demonstrate how he does this, and he invites me into his roomy office. On his desk is a black binder, filled with sheets of paper that contain stats collected over the course of the college basketball season. Each team gets its own page, and each player is assigned a numerical rating based on his quality of play. One of the 2007 matchups is Old Dominion versus Butler. White opens his book to show me how he reaches the number that will impact bettors and bookmakers around the world.

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