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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

(continued from page 1)

"You hammer a prop bet on Monday, and it's not going to be the same on Tuesday." David K. is not the only one with computers full of stats. Shadowed by McCarran International Airport in a low-rise office building, Kenny White, boss at Las Vegas Sports Consultants, has been doing his own calculations over the course of the NFL season. As the name of his company implies, he advises casino sports-book managers and provides the bedrocks for their betting lines. "Two weeks ago, prior to the conference championships, I had already put together four scenarios," he says explaining that he used information taken over the course of the regular season to handicap any possible combination for the Super Bowl. "After Arizona won its game, though, we made adjustments. I was impressed by the way they came back. So we shaded down the points a little bit."

That is just a start. Once early money begins pouring in, especially from sharp, professional gamblers, many of White's calculations get rejiggered. At that point, casino bookies work hard to maintain a balance between the various bets they put up. The idea is to offset risk and focus on the vigorish, a 10-percent commission that the sports books charge for taking each bet; winners get back their vig (if you bet $100 on a game, you lay $110 and collect $210) but losers do not.

Recalling the Super Bowl from 2007, when the Giants unexpectedly covered the spread and Nevada sports books took a $3-million bath, White explains that setting a proper line requires more than simply devising a workable number. "Eighty percent of this is math, 20 percent is art, but there's also an element of science that grows out of knowing which way gamblers will bet," he says. "This year I kept in mind that there are a lot of Pittsburgh fans in this country and that the general public likes to bet favorites. In making a line, you need to think about how it will get driven and where the money will go and what the casino needs to do to keep itself from getting middled." This is sports betting's textbook form of arbitrage, in which you place bets for one team to win and the other to lose, but catch a gap between the points you give and take; that way you are only risking 10-percent vig on one side of the bet in exchange for the opportunity to win both bets if the score differential falls between the two point spreads.

"Getting middled," White adds "is one thing that management really hates."

It is late Saturday afternoon, just 24 hours before kickoff, and Mike Shackelford looks pregnant underneath his gray Baltimore Ravens tee shirt. The self-dubbed Wizard of Odds picks at a plate of fish and chips inside the brew pub at downtown Las Vegas's Station Casino. Underneath his shirt is a beige money belt, protruding with tens of thousands of dollars in banded 100s. He holds a sheaf of documents. They lay out fair lines for every bet that Shackelford might be interested in making. If he finds prices that are better than fair, he'll snap them up.

A stickler for getting his money's worth, Shackelford has been trawling tatty joints down here, hoping to uncover the best odds and spreads. Potential wagers for him range from most first downs to time of ball possessions to most penalties. This is his second, and final, round of prop-bet hunting. "I like to come out right before the game, after the squares come through, bet the overs like crazy and create opportunities for me to bet the unders," says Shackelford, who expects a seven-percent return on his Super Bowl wagers. "For example, the true probability for a safety is about five percent, so laying 10-to-one is a good bet there. I'm betting $5,000 to win $500, and if there is a safety, I really won't be too upset. Whatever I may lose will pale in comparison to money I've made on that bet in the past."

After lunch he leads me to a matchbook-sized sports book in the back of Binion's Gambling Hall. It's a far cry from the Bellagio's book, which qualifies as one of my favorite sports viewing spots in town. But Shackelford is not here for the ambience. Before placing a bet he reaches under his shirt and removes $10,000. He double-checks that the odds on offer provide suitable advantages and turns his back on a couple of low rollers who stare wide-eyed at his gambling funds. Considering the sums that Shackelford is putting into action, he appears pretty dispassionate about it all. His attitude underscores the fact that this is pure business and not at all about the thrills of gambling. "I won't be watching the game in a sports book," he says, despite the fact that he bets enough to warrant VIP treatment. "I'll be watching the game at home and quietly tracking how my wagers are doing."

Such will not be the case for a man we'll call Mr. H. He's a high roller who I happen to meet at the Palms. On a night when decent dinner reservations are virtually impossible to come by at any of the casinos, he invites me to join him and his three-man, three-woman posse for dinner at N9NE, a sleek, trendy steakhouse where just walking into the place makes me feel like an extra on "Entourage."

After ordering appetizers for the table, Mr. H tells me that football isn't even his thing. He comes to Vegas for craps and blackjack and poker. And thanks to a small windfall he's received through astute maneuvering in the music industry, he can afford to gamble for sums that make hosts smile. "Soon after the season's opening kickoff, casinos start sending me offers and invitations," he says, referring to the mailers that woo whales. "They gave us a nice suite, we have a table at the club tonight," he rolls his eyes skyward, toward the dance-floor at Moon, "and let's just say that we put enough on the Steelers to keep it interesting."

He pulls a fistful of betting slips and displays his team loyalty in the only way that really matters.

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