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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 2)

In the rear of the room, I spot a posse of recent college grads, betting slips in hand, rooting desperately for their alma mater, the University of Maryland, while plucking fresh beers from disposable plastic ice buckets that are pretty much ubiquitous here. "I slept today from 4 a.m. till 6 a.m.," one of the grads tells me, sounding a little breathless. "I got up early, but obviously not early enough. Or else we wouldn't be sitting all the way in the back." Down but not out, he and his buddies mark their turf with a scarlet Maryland banner.

High rollers plant themselves in reserved ringside seats, affording great views of the big screens and outfitted with their own personal TV sets. Fathers and sons who return every year for March Madness savor the routine and seal it with backslaps and betting, feeling nostalgic for simpler days. One pair, in from Seattle, dopes out handicapping strategies and the delineation of their cigars, while all around them groups of far-flung friends booze through their annual stag trip to Sin City. And there is at least one guy whose leanings are unmistakable: in a comfy seat up front, he keeps a plush version of the Maryland Terrapins' mascot face down in a small, plastic toilet. He munches from a big box of Krispy Kremes and grimaces every time the Davidson Wildcats blow a play, totally absorbed in his orgy of action.

As halftime hits for the first of the day's games, Walker is already in motion. He's getting second-half lines from Kenny White and is entering those into the casino's system. Fans on the other side of the wall react immediately, crowding up to the counter and placing wagers that will either double their pleasure, increase their pain or maybe serve as a Band-Aid by washing out a loss.

Just as the gamblers consider their prospects, Walker does the same, roughly calculating where MGM Mirage stands in terms of the bets it's taken, how the teams are doing and their prospects for the second half. Sounding like every gambler in the universe, he mutters about debacles, routs, lucky breaks and, particularly, the situation in the Louisville-Stanford game. "I'm gonna wait and see what the consultants come in at [for the halftime line]," he says, mostly to himself, already ripping through his first sack of sunflower seeds. "But I think Stanford will be a second-half favorite. You have to expect them to come back a little bit. They want things to be at least slightly respectable." Indeed, Stanford outscores Louisville in the second half by six points, pulling to within 20 by game's end.

Halfway through Day 1, things heat up a bit at Las Vegas Sports Consultants. In the never-ending factoring of March Madness information, White and his team need to start putting together point spreads for the next round of games. This process is a mellow bit of consensus gathering: the guys sit down in the war room, each offers a spread that he believes is right, and Tony Sinisi takes it all in before laying down the line that will stick.

In the case of Butler's second game, against Maryland, the guys' numbers are all pretty close, agreeing that Maryland is a 5- or 6-point favorite. Sinisi considers everything before going with the consensus and explaining his rationale for not making the spread even bigger: "Butler had started out strong but has recently been struggling. So there was a sense that Butler had peaked and wasn't coming into the [tournament] very well. But this Butler that we're seeing here is a much different animal. Butler is a more dangerous club than it was before. His sentiment is correct, but the number is slightly off: Butler wins 62-59 and clearly doesn't need the points.

On the other side of town, inside a large and luxurious house filled with oddly comforting round rooms, Alan Boston has laid out a spread of ribs, brisket and apple pie from a barbecue joint called Buzz BBQ. Boston sits behind a large desk, planted in his living room and affording a perfect view of the 62-inch TV that is the focal point of a far wall. He punches info into a computer, endlessly IMs with his gambling buddies, and occasionally has wagers in excess of $10,000 when one of the continually moving lines strikes his fancy.

He's hosting a handful of friends, most of whom have their own wagers to worry about. They're all sweating the games and gossiping about the poker scene while Boston works with a bit more fever and brio. No doubt he's got more at stake. At his feet are a couple of black binders—very much like the books in which White tracks teams' progressions—full of stats and power ratings from this basketball season. But Boston, who seems to be an inveterate malcontent, insists that they aren't doing him a whole lot of good. When a friend calls from his car and asks what he should bring over, Boston replies, "Nothing. I've got plenty of food and drink. I've got everything except winners."

Dusk is settling in. Boston ventures outside to blow off some steam by putting golf balls on the green in his backyard. By the time he returns, he looks rejuvenated and maybe even a little relaxed. "Virginia Commonwealth should be buried, and they're only down six," he says, trying to find an upside for himself. "And that's why I'm going to bet them at the half. They're the deeper team."

He reaches for the telephone and tries taking advantage of what he views to be an unnaturally soft line.

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