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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

(continued from page 1)

He's added up the numbers assigned to players and overall team quality and reached a sum of 147 1/2 (including an extra 2 1/2 points for defense and an extra 2 1/2 for coaching) for Butler. Old Dominion comes in at 148. "So," says White, "I have Old Dominion by half a point. They both play man-to-man defense. Neither team is very big. They're evenly matched in size, coaching and overall talent. The game takes place in Buffalo, so nobody gets home-court advantage. But because I raised Butler up through the year, I'll make it a one-point gameÉin favor of Old Dominion."

White's colleagues do not agree. Their opinions are all over the map, and the company's odds director, Tony Sinisi, winds up making Butler a 2 1/2-point favorite. So how does all that number jockeying shake out? In the end, Butler goes on to win 57-46. Which goes to show how difficult it is to predict these final scores and why, as White puts it, "one of our goals is to create a number that divides the room. If there are 100 people in the room, we want 50 who will like Old Dominion and 50 who will like Butler." Then the casino takes no risk and keeps 10 percent vigorish on all the bets it loses.

Once the numbers hit on Sunday evening, professional gamblers start circling the betting windows like jackals in search of fresh, slow-moving prey. Alan Boston is one of those pros, and he loves March Madness. It's not out of fandom; it's because these games provide great opportunities for so-called wiseguys, sharp bettors who know more than the amateurs and take advantage of mistakes made by all those Corona-sipping tourists who enjoy their annual pilgrimage to the Strip's sports books.

One night before the opening of the 2007 NCAA tourney, Boston is eating dinner at his favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant. Between bites of steak smothered in black bean sauce, Boston explains why he and the other pros embrace the Madness. "For one thing, there is a lot of public action [i.e., bets made by amateur gamblers] and a lot of volume, so the lines move in ways that create opportunities; tourists come into town, and they're going to bet.

"Plus you get a very pure, true result in these games," says Boston, heavily muscled and intense, with a shaved head and expressive facial features. "The kids [that is, the players vying for NCAA glory] are ready and they work hard for 40 minutes. It doesn't matter if it took them seven days to get there by plane. You know you're going to get a peak effort."

In terms of handicapping, Boston and the other pros hit their stride by the start of the NCAA tournament. They've been betting college basketball all season, accumulating information, gaining an understanding of what makes particular teams tick. "You have 20 weeks of basketball, 20 weeks of history, all rolled up into one game," continues Boston. "It's awesome to be coming in at this point. They put up a line and I react. That's the ultimate: your instinct just takes over. You find out what's relevant for each of these teams. That makes it so good for someone who's a thinker like me. The NCAA [tournament] is a free thinker's dream."

Early in the morning, on opening day of the 2007 NCAAs, the Mirage sports book resembles a cross between Mardi Gras and a college pep rally. One gambler describes it as "Disneyland for adults." Cocktail waitresses get a workout (drinks, after all, are on the house) and the line of eager gamblers, waiting to place wagers, never dissipates.

Behind the scenes, on the other side of the betting window, things are considerably more sober. That's where sports book director Robert Walker sits in front of three computer monitors. He tracks the lines and the inflow of cash, watching four- and five-figure sums flurry past him like so many snowflakes. A broad, dark-haired guy, dressed up in a sport jacket for the big day, Walker maintains a reserve of sunflower seeds on his desk—"It's going to be a three-bag day," he sagely predicts—and his coffee in a Styrofoam cup slowly gets cold.

The first two rounds of the NCAA tourney, he says, represent his favorite four days of the year. He enjoys the action, the new numbers that continually need to be posted, and the challenge of maintaining lines that will prevent him from getting burned. "Professional gamblers are the true oddsmakers," Walker says, quickly adding that he has an adversarial relationship with them, because they want to take his money and he wants to take theirs. "We put up the line as best we can and they put us in our place. Then, if you don't move the number, the pros will keep hitting it." He gestures beyond the confines of his office, with its wall of small TV monitors and dry erase boards, then says, "The pros are out there. They lurk at all times. If they're laying 7 on Duke and we inch up to 8, they bet it the other way [which is known as middling, and creates pretty much of a can't-lose-but-may-win situation]."

Walker's assessment notwithstanding, it's hard to figure out who exactly is the sharpy at the Mirage. To my admittedly untrained eye, everybody looks as if they're here to party and gamble. Countless players are palming chips and cash, gripping longnecks, conspiring to come up with what they view to be can't-lose wagers.

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