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Wagering With the Wiseguys

Scrutinizing games separates professional sports bettors from the squares
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

The Mandalay Bay sports book is a sea of action. Diode-lit rows of numbers flicker, giving and taking points from favorites and underdogs. Drinks from the bar flow down to the SRO crowd. Guys take last-minute looks at football stories in the Las Vegas Review Journal and slip beyond the sport book's no-phone zone to make cell calls to anyone in the know. At the betting window, money continually changes hands. Worthless betting slips litter the carpet. Though small monitors broadcast basketball, baseball and golf, evryone is glued to a big wall screen, where a wide receiver eludes teo defenders and scrambles into the endzone for a touchdown. The favored team covers its point spread. On this Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas, the roar of men making money rises from the crowd.

This sound reverberates into a utilitarian back office where sports book manager Nick Bogdanovich makes his adjustments to various lines. "I can tell who scored just by the sound of the crowd," says Bogdanovich, widely regarded as one of Vegas's savviest sports specialists. Like most people in Vegas, he divides the world into two categories: wiseguys and squares, the former being professional gamblers and the latter being tourists. Wiseguys tend to spend the entire week placing bets, forcing the book to move around the line so as not to be too heavily biased.

Come Friday morning, squares pile into Vegas for the weekend, laying down their action that, hopefully, will offset the smart money Bogdanovich has gotten all week. "Wiseguys dissect these games like turkey dinners," continues Bogdanovich, tall, lean and steely eyed. "They're getting injury reports, weather reports, computer analyses. They speak to the coaches if they can. They want information and they get it. They're super sharp. Maybe 100 guys are winning players in this town, and they work hard to make their money." They have to: for every $11 bet, the Vegas sports books keep a $1 commission.

Big, professional sports bettors lay down millions of dollars during the course of a week, distributing action from Las Vegas to the Caribbean, always looking for what they call "value": point spreads that are slightly off and can be exploited. Professional bettors absorb all the information they can find, divine their own lines for games, and when they discover a large enough discrepancy between what they think the line should be and what the books are putting up, they slam in their wagers. A weekend bettor would be as likely to out-handicap these guys as a casual stock investor would be to out-think the analysts of Merrill Lynch. But, as the wiseguys reveal to me during a recent visit to Vegas, there are plenty of ways to reduce the odds against you. To begin with, keep in mind that the public -- i.e. the squares -- has a tendency to favor certain teams: the Rams in football, the Lakers in basketball, the Yankees in baseball, Notre Dame in college sports. Bookies know this and take advantage of it, shading points against those teams that will draw action regardless of how fair or unfair the spread may be. Another thing to remember is that nearly 15 percent of all football games go off with lines of three -- which means that the key to winning will be held by the place kicker. In this instance, you should put extra weight on the team with the better foot.

In broader terms, it's important to think like a pro: to bet against your heart and with your wallet, to do your research, and to consider taking a contrarian approach. "I only bet on underdogs," says Peter Ruchman, author of the forthcoming gambling history After the Gold Rush: The Rise and Fall of Gambling's Glory in Las Vegas and a fairly serious handicapper who used to own an odds-making service. "There are two ways to win if you bet on an underdog -- straight-up or by covering the spread -- while the favorite has to win the game and cover the spread. Last week, for instance, Dallas was an 18-point underdog. And, yeah, they suck this year, but they don't deserve to be hung with 18 points. It was a coyote-ugly bet, but I took them and won. When you see huge point spreads like that, go against them. Nobody gets rich laying double digits in the NFL." And, adds Ruchman, try to look beyond the win/loss column. "Last year San Diego was terrible, with a 1-15 record. But seven of their games were lost in the fourth quarter -- so they really weren't as bad as their record would make them seem." And that made San Diego a better bet than the linemakers would have you believe.

Offering an example of how he might approach a game, Ruchman looks at an upcoming contest between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Eagles, with the Giants favored by three points. "First you ask yourself, who will win the game?" says the cigar-smoking handicapper. "If you think the Eagles, take them with the three points. If you think the Giants will win the game, it becomes a question of superiority. Handicappers look at numbers related to offense versus defense, passing versus pass defense, rushing versus rush defense. If one team has a bad rush defense but its opponent doesn't run the ball very much, then that shouldn't get much weight. You look at weather, the importance of this particular game, how a team plays on artificial turf versus grass. Turf teams are built for speed, grass slows you down. All these things are factors to look at. Some people go with trends -- New York has beaten Philadelphia nine times in a row, so you take New York because they always manage to pull it out -- or situational handicapping, which looks at coach and player changes. But what does the public do? The public gets up at 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning and places a bet. There is no handicapping."

While a casual bettor might not have the patience to analyze reams of information, he can glean key details from recent history. "If a team that looked good last week is playing against a team that looked bad last week, the price will be compounded," says Lem Banker, a second-generation gambler who continually emphasizes the importance of finding value in every wager. Sitting near the pool in the backyard of his ritzy Las Vegas home, he adds, "When the line moves in my direction, I always go further. Last weekend I took Colorado State with 7 1/2 points. When the line moved to 8, I went further and laid down another bet. You have to remember that any team is capable of beating the spread against any other team on a given weekend."

Another handicapping element is to downplay the weight that sports books give to injuries, maintains one of the biggest, sharpest players in town, a man we'll call S. P., who lays in excess of $1 million every weekend. "The Lions game may be at 7, then the quarterback goes out and it moves to 13," S. P. begins, over dinner at Piero's, an Italian restaurant where the bar is bookended by TVs tuned to the big game of the night. "Well, I'll tell you, the quarterback is worth something, but he isn't worth 6 points. He might be worth 2 or 3. So, theoretically, if you took the other side, game in and game out, you will win. In terms of looking for advantages, if you see the sports book moving its line drastically, you can usually find an opportunity in playing the opposite side of it. The other night at the Excalibur, for instance, I saw somebody come in and bet a game where he took 14 1/2 points. Then the line dropped down to 12 and he bet it the other way, hoping to middle the thing." It became a no-risk bet for him -- with a push being the worst that could happen, and winning both bets, if the difference in points landed at 13 or 14, a distinct possibility.

You can also find an advantage over the sports books by becoming an expert where they are not. For the most part, Vegas linemakers focus on the biggest teams and the biggest games. This makes sense, since they draw the most action and create the most potential liability. But the books still have to spread all the college action on a given Saturday. It creates opportunities for bettors who can focus on an obscure conference that the linemakers don't pay much attention to. This also comes in handy when a little known team is playing a famously regarded one. To attract action for the little known side, the sports book needs to skew the odds in that team's favor. That is when guys like S. P. swoop in for the kill. "A lot of these teams -- like Troy State, for instance -- nobody has heard of," says S. P., as a giant veal chop is placed before him. "Let's say the Akron Zips are playing Michigan. What the hell do you know about the Zips? Nothing. And you won't bet on them." He tucks into dinner and adds, "But I will."

Guys like S. P. frighten the sports books around town. Because of him and his type, casinos put limits on the action they will take from people who are known to be smart bettors. This isn't the case with blackjack, craps and other casino games, where large bets are welcomed from guests (who surely lose more than they win). But if you walk into a number of the sports books around town, make a series of bets for the limit, and arouse even the slightest amount of suspicion -- say, walking in and out of the casino between wagers, which shouldn't exactly raise the red flags -- you may not be allowed to continue placing bets that day.

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