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Sin City Superbowl

Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas is Mardi Gras and Spring Break all wrapped up into one huge party
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Hugh Grant, November/December 2009

For a lot of sports lovers, attending the Super Bowl live and in person, rides high on their bucket list. And, no doubt, securing a 50-yard-line seat at the big game is something that everyone should do—at least once. But if you can't make it to Miami this season, take it from me and 300,000 or so gambling crazed football fanatics, Las Vegas for Super Bowl Sunday runs a close second.

Vegas teems with energy all week, top hotels' reservation rolls fill up early, and big gamblers and their hangers on hit the town in full force. The NFL's final showdown, on February 7, will stand as Nevada's single biggest sports-betting event of the year. I've been told that $100-million worth of wagers is the brass ring: attainable but tough to grab. As expressed by Palms Casino executive vice president Anthony Brandonisio, "Super Bowl weekend is the Las Vegas equivalent of Mardi Gras."

Flash back to the run-up toward February 1, 2009, and Super Bowl XLIII, in which the Arizona Cardinals squared off against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cardinals fans blow into town and appear downright rabid, desperate to see their team take down its first NFL championship since 1947. Steelers supporters, of course, are accustomed to winning, and they radiate confidence that nothing has any reason to change. Testosterone hangs heavily in the air, and this weekend is perfect for an all-boys getaway to Sin City. Even as the country gets used to operating in financial-meltdown mode, all the best restaurants in town are booked to the gills and Strip traffic resembles a logjam of limos. Gaming-table minimums have increased by a good couple of notches above their recessionary nadirs, and gamblers belly up to the felt, undaunted by newly raised stakes.

None of this ever happens by accident. Never mind that to the casual observer, Super Bowl weekend in Vegas—with its over-indulgent boozing and eating, irresistible smorgasbord of proposition bets, and fever pitched carousing—appears to come together as organically as the flowering of buds on a backyard rosebush. In Vegas, though, reality is rarely as it seems. Down at the Palms, for example, with its young, stylish patrons crowding VIP check-in on a Friday afternoon, everything is as setup as an African safari in Walt Disney World. Brandonisio, trim and dapper and detail oriented, knows this as well as anyone. He exudes nervous energy while nursing a bottle of Fiji water in the bar adjacent to the high-limit blackjack salon.

His indispensible Blackberry buzzes the way some people chain-smoke—that is, with each call bleeding into the next—and his eyes keep darting to the caller ID before deciding whether or not to answer. Brandonisio has good reason to be a little anxious. The next three days will mark the culmination, and payoff, of a project that began 12 months ago. "Before anybody knew who would be in the Super Bowl, we were sending helmets autographed by Terry Bradshaw to our Steelers fans," says Brandonisio, pointing out that competition for the biggest players (and their gambling dollars) is brisk. "A couple weeks ago, when the Eagles and Cardinals met for the play-off in Arizona, we were there with a bunch of high rollers. The Philadelphia fans got one suite, and the Arizona fans got another. Regardless of who won, we were laying the groundwork for this weekend."

While Brandonisio has his hands full in terms of juggling accommodations and customers ("If a big enough player calls and says he wants a particular suite, we put it aside right now and send a plane to pick him up."), he doesn't seem to be sweating the action that his customers are expected to generate. "It's not much of a sell," he insists. "Las Vegas is the only place in America where you can legally bet on the games, and our people come here because they like to gamble. They want to do it in Vegas."

Vegas on Super Bowl weekend may turn into a bacchanal of comped dinners and countless hands of blackjack for Brandonisio's favored big spenders, but for another ilk of gambler this period surrounding the NFL's finale is about turning a profit rather than having a party.

Professional football bettors love the two-week ramp that goes from division championship games to the Super Bowl. It presents them with myriad opportunities to capitalize on the failings of recreational punters and casino line-makers. The array of proposition bets, over/unders and teasers (more than 450, all told, spread across town) doesn't exist at any other time. Bolstered by loose money from weekend dabblers, who blithely wager without factoring mathematical realities, these bets provide great deals for those who devote their gambling lives to pressing every edge.

Pro bettors and their confederates circle the casino sports books, waiting for amateurs to move the odds in directions where the pros can find favorable positions. Over lunch in the Palms coffee shop, professional sports bettor David K. points out that the actual outcome of the game might not even be all that important to him. "To be honest, I don't have an opinion; the 6 1/2- to 7-point spread is pretty efficient, so I'm not going near it," he says, explaining that he uses a computer program to find advantages during the season and that he has come up with 15 or so wagers for this game. "Bookies usually set the over/under high for the Super Bowl because the public likes to bet overs. So I'm heavy on the under."

Digging into a big plate of salad, David (who's got an MBA but prefers sports betting to stock trading) explains that a lot of his heaviest lifting is already completed. Once it became clear that Pittsburgh and Arizona would be squaring off, it was simply a matter of breaking down data that's been accumulating all season. "We get the prop sheets and start betting them right away," he says.

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