Published May/June 2000Betting By The Book A gambling theorist turns to sports betting to beat the odds--and the house
By Bruce Schoenfeld
On the big screen in front of me, Doug Flutie stands on the sideline wearing his helmet. The newly demoted Bills quarterback is watching erstwhile backup Rob Johnson run the Buffalo offense in the first round of this year's National Football League play-offs. So is most of America. But I'm more interested in the 16 other TV monitors here at the Mandalay Bay Race and Sports Book.
Any minute now on one of them, the University of Louisville's men's basketball team will be tipping off against Southern Mississippi. And if you think that's an obscure fascination to have on a play-off Saturday in January, understand that the games I'm really interested in are the ones that aren't important enough to be shown at all.
I'm in Las Vegas to test a theory about casino gambling. I figure I can beat the house by wagering on sporting events of lesser interest, knowing plenty about just a few teams and picking my spots. Certainly it won't happen any other way. I'll never learn enough about blackjack to come out ahead, and rolling dice must be a bad idea because the term is also a metaphor for relying on dumb luck. Roulette, slot machines...those are just various forms of entertainment. What they cost for a night is exactly as much as you're willing to lose.
But sporting events are different. Sports bets aren't based on games of chance that the casino controls, but on outside events. I'm convinced that I can know just as much about Louisville-Southern Mississippi as the oddsmakers know. In fact, I'm convinced I can know more.
Horse racing would be an even better way to beat Las Vegas, if I were willing to put in the hours of handicapping necessary to gain an edge. Because it's a pari-mutuel, I don't have to be smarter than the oddsmakers, just smarter than the guy next to me. But even if I could do the math like a real handicapper, I wouldn't get that thrill of beating the casino. I want my winnings to come from Mandalay Bay's pocket, not yours.
So I'm playing the sports book, all day Saturday and Sunday. Most of the people in the room are betting football--and I am, too. I have $50 riding on the Titans, giving points. "People love to watch what they bet on," says Gene Kivi, manager of the race and sports book at Mandalay Bay, and I'm no exception. But that's just to get me to the basketball games. Even though I follow football intently, switching from one game to the next each week with my DirecTV Sunday Ticket, I'm not expecting to win on the NFL. The oddsmakers know too much.
The experts at Las Vegas Sports Consultants--which sets the lines here, and at most of the other sports books on the Las Vegas Strip and beyond--have spent the past few days crunching numbers and checking injury reports so they can create a point spread that will attract about the same amount of money on both sides. That's what they're hired for. It's a big business, and a faulty line on an NFL playoff game can mean a multimillion-dollar loss to a casino.
The bets on a typical college basketball game play out on a far smaller scale. Even Las Vegas Sports Consultants must make manpower decisions on a football weekend, and most of the basketball games I see on the electronic tote board on the back wall here hardly rate more than a moment's attention. The odds making on Louisville-Southern Mississippi probably took all of three minutes; Wright State-Butler maybe half of that.
"The only people who will play some of these games are the so-called professionals, and then only if they believe that the line is off," Kivi confirms. "Regular-season college basketball is probably the easiest sport to win at if you're a smart handicapper who follows a single conference. In that case, yes, you do stand a good chance of knowing more than the oddsmaker."
I've been planning for this weekend all season, monitoring various teams and checking with friends who do the same around the country. My Louisville source insists that the Cardinals have the potential to be a Top-10 team. And my sister, a fierce University of Connecticut supporter, is certain that her Huskies will bounce back from a loss to Notre Dame with a big victory against Pitt tonight.
UConn-Pitt is hours away. So is Stanford-Arizona, another game I've targeted because I believe top-ranked Stanford is ready to be upset. In the meantime, I've wagered the $50 that the Titans will beat Buffalo by more than four points, and $75 that the Redskins will beat the Lions by more than 6 1/2. Should I win these bets, I'll actually make $45.45 and $68.15 profit, respectively, because the casino is risking 10 percent less than I am on each bet. To win $45.45, I must first invest that amount plus 10 percent more ($4.55), or a total of $50. That 10 percent margin, called the vigorish or the rub, creates profit for the house.
I've also put $75 on Louisville, giving 10 points, and I'm thinking hard about Arizona getting 5 1/2 against Stanford. I sprawl out in an oversized velvet chair, with the odds board looming overhead and a cocktail waitress circulating. I order a club soda and settle in. Unlike blackjack players, I can't lose more money while I sit.
Of the hotels on the Strip, the Mandalay Bay is among the new generation, though that definition changes every few months amidst a new flurry of construction. I chose it over Caesars Palace and the MGM Grand, which have the best-known sports books, because Mandalay Bay is also the home of some of the finest restaurants in North America. Without walking outside, I can eat at Charlie Palmer's Aureole, Wolfgang Puck's Trattoria del Lupo, the Too Hot Tamales' Border Grill, or an outpost of Miami Beach's Red Square, among others. Man cannot live on spreads alone.
Mandalay Bay's sports viewing area is large and comfortable, a living room setting. It doesn't try to replicate a sports bar. (Mandalay Bay is also the only hotel on the Strip in which you can ride down the elevator from your room and walk out the front door without passing through the casino. That's either a bold design move reflecting an increasing amount of convention business, or a monumental miscalculation.)
Before breakfast Saturday, I'd stopped by to look at the betting lines. Unlike in horse racing, in which you know the exact odds you're holding only after the windows have closed, in sports betting you keep the line you had when you placed your bet. That can be hours or even days before an event actually starts.
If betting on one side gets particularly heavy, the oddsmakers compensate by shifting the line to counterbalance the play, like sliding the weights on a scale until the arm steadies. Sometimes lines shift by several points. That sends the professional bettors scurrying from one sports book to another, looking for half-point differences here and there, trying to get down action that offers insurance against a loss and provides the opportunity to win twice.
Win twice? Well, consider that if you can get the Titans giving four points and then the Bills getting six, you're going to win at least one of the two bets. It's a mathematical certainty. If you win just one, you'll lose the 10 percent vigorish on the other for your trouble. But if the Titans happen to win by exactly five points, no more or less, you'll win both.
If too many bettors succeed at doing this, the casinos lose big. But a casino can win big if the majority of the betting money is wrong. The ideal is to equalize the money wagered on each team so the casino will take its 10 percent cut with no risk, but often one team is too popular, no matter what the odds. "What I'm trying to do is predict the game better than [the bettors] do and make Mandalay Bay a winner," says Kivi. "Every week of the football season, the betting on four or five games is one-sided. I'm flat-out gambling against the customers on those games."
While I ate breakfast, several lines moved. Louisville had been giving 11 points, but was now giving 10. Like the stock market or getting a mortgage on a house, you choose between momentum and locking in a favorable number. I liked that 10-point spread enough that I placed a bet, but I shouldn't have. Sitting in my comfortable chair now, waiting for the game to start, I notice the line has shifted to nine.
I don't want to bet on too many games because my odds will diminish with each. In this case, the sports book is unlike the stock market, where diversified accounts are optimal. The odds here favor the house, so it's necessary to carefully select games in which you believe you have an advantage. For every loser, there's a winner, and the laws of probability will inevitably send random bettors toward 50 percent. The betting equivalent of owning the S&P 500 will end up getting you a 10 percent loss on the vigorish.
It's also important to resist unfavorable lines, no matter how much you know about the game. I'm aware that woeful Harvard, my alma mater, managed to beat Dartmouth last month in Cambridge. Getting eight or nine points at Dartmouth tonight, the Crimson would be a good bet. But the line opens at 6 1/2 and doesn't move. Regretfully, I keep my money in my pocket. (And regrettably, as it turns out: Harvard upsets the Big Green.)
But I do want to bet. That's what I'm here for. So with the Titans leading late in the third quarter and Louisville up five early on, I again approach the betting windows. Three clerks who could be bank tellers sit behind a row of computerized printers, ready to take my money. Television screens mounted behind them show games and races, so I don't have to miss the action while I'm betting.
Standing there, I see a fat man in a T-shirt--there are a lot of those here--put 20 $100 bills down on the University of Iowa. I scramble to see that Iowa is playing Michigan State, and that the Hawkeyes are 6 1/2-point underdogs. That spread seems too close to me. I figure I know more than the fat guy, who's probably just an Iowa grad with money to burn. (Turns out I do.)
Instead, I listen to my sister and bet $30 on UConn, giving 10 points. I take Colorado for $30 at home against Kansas, getting 4 1/2 points, knowing the Buffs have played good teams close all season. I bet Arizona and 5 1/2 points for $50. And I put $30 on the talented but weary Charlotte Hornets and four points against the Nuggets in Denver, gambling that they'll have one more good effort left in what has been a tiring road trip.
Then I walk back from the betting window and spot a familiar face. In a VIP area separated from the rest of us by a velvet rope, watching horses on a tiny screen with a pair of portly friends, sits the most famous sports bettor in America. Pete Rose has gained weight and a bald spot, but remains instantly recognizable.
I had known him when I wrote for The Cincinnati Post in the mid-'80s. I even won a casual basketball bet from him once during an NCAA tournament. If he was wagering on baseball at the time, as he is accused of, I was not aware of it. I do know that he was a regular at the Tampa, Florida, dog track during spring training, and he loved the horses, too.
On the big screen, the Titans have returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the game's final seconds. The screams and moans from half a hundred assembled fans can surely be heard as far away as the baccarat tables. But Rose remains fixed on the small screen in front of him, where he has a horse running. Evidently he wins, because he high-fives his colleague with a resounding thump.
I've won, too--on the Titans. But I've also lost. Louisville did beat Southern Mississippi, but not by enough. With my afternoon bets already made, I decide on a change of venue. The Redskins are beating up on the overmatched Lions, and I watch part of that game and the beginning of Arizona-Stanford from the exercise bike in the Mandalay Bay spa. I feel doubly virtuous as I sweat and the Redskins win.
The Arizona game is on in the spa locker room. I relax in the sauna, dip in the hot-water plunge, sip green tea in a bathrobe, cheer out loud as Arizona pulls away down the stretch. Winning feels good, I decide. Then I go upstairs and dress for dinner.
I have no way to watch UConn-Pitt, a game deemed too unimportant for even the small screens. But that doesn't mean I can't win money on it. When I return to the sports book at 7 p.m. in a sport coat and tie, I see on the tote board that UConn has won, 73-51. Rose is still there, sitting between two large-chested women. I watch the Hornets play the Nuggets on one screen, Colorado play Kansas on another, and Pete play the pari-mutuels a few feet away from me. "Finally, a winner on a dog," he exclaims at one point, throwing his hands in the air.
Rose and I reminisce about a dog we knew in Florida one year that won 17 straight races. He tells me about a dog he's seen since that would vault over its rivals at the finish line. But even the lure of talking to Rose again--he has a quick, logical mind, which is what made him a heady player and a good manager--can't keep me from focusing on my games.
I watch Kansas hold a second-half clinic and dismantle Colorado. Dismayed, I postpone dinner for the end of the Nuggets-Hornets game. With :06 left, the Nuggets have a five-point lead, which is a point too many for me. Only a foul can doom them now, so they let the Hornets advance the ball to the top of the key unmolested. The Hornets could drive to the basket and score, which would bring them under four points and get me a win, but instead someone throws up a three-pointer that clanks off the rim.
I have been a victim of a betting adage that says the more your aims differ from your team's aims, the more trouble you're likely to have. Sometimes you'll hear a fan screaming at his team even though it's up by 12 points with a minute to go. That means the spread was probably 15. He wants more points, but the team doesn't care.
Nevertheless, I'm up for the day. I've split my $75 bets, losing $6.85; won both my $50 bets for a $90.90 profit; and won one of the three for $30 for a $32.75 deficit. I decide to splurge on dinner at Aureole as a reward for my hard work, acknowledgment that the day's betting is only a means to an end.
Not everyone shares that opinion, of course. Some bet purely for the adrenaline rush of competition. They love to win, but if they can't win they'd rather lose than not have played at all. I don't share that philosophy, but I can understand it.
I leave Rose standing at the betting window, getting a close-up view of the dogs on a small screen mounted in the wall behind.
Unlike the rest of the casino, where day and night are interchangeable and clocks are notable only by their absence, the race and sports book runs on a real-world rhythm. On Sunday, the starting times of most of the games I want to bet are early, so I pull myself out of bed at 7:30 a.m. to look at the lines.
I watch the numbers flicker onto the electronic screen. I'd wanted Xavier against Rhode Island, but 13 1/2 points are too many. On the other hand, I'm thrilled to find Wake Forest giving only 5 1/2 points at Clemson. Some nationally televised games will undoubtedly get more attention, but I'm benefiting from the obscurity of two Atlantic Coast Conference also-rans on a January morning. Others obviously agree with me; the spread on the $50 bet I place at 5 1/2 points is up to 7 1/2 by tip-off.
For $75, I like the Vikings giving seven points to the Cowboys. The Seattle-Miami game troubles me, however. I believe the Dolphins are capable of winning the game, but also of collapsing under the weight of Dan Marino's stubbornness and Jimmy Johnson's expectations. The three-point spread favoring Seattle, down a half-point from the day before, seems irrelevant.
I decide to ignore the point spread and bet the Dolphins to win. In this kind of bet, you lay down money at odds. I put $50 on the Dolphins to win $80, and it is a full $80 this time, without the 10 percent commission. To make its money on this kind of wager, which is how baseball is usually bet, the casino sells the Seahawks at a $100 bet to win $50. (It's like the currency traders who buy French francs at 6.5 to the dollar and sell them at 6.) With no point spread to consider, I've aligned my interests squarely with the Dolphins'.
What I don't play, don't even look at, are the exotic, or gimmick, bets. As a rule, the bigger the game, the more extensive the array of propositions a sports book offers. For the Super Bowl, it's possible to bet on the number of points scored in each quarter, whether a quarterback will or won't exceed 200 yards passing, or which particular player will score the first points. One sports book once offered a Sunday afternoon bet on total points scored that day, Michael Jordan vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
Mandalay Bay offers action for any of this weekend's games on total fumbles lost, sacks, and field goals made. These bets aren't sucker bets, but they put the informed bettor back on the level of playing roulette. The Dolphins and Seahawks don't care how many fumbles they will collectively lose, and that number may or may not even play a role in the outcome of the game. You might as well buy a lottery ticket, or bet with a friend on when the traffic light will turn.
The long-term propositions offered by the casino are even worse. I can get odds on each surviving NFL team getting to or winning the Super Bowl. I can bet on an NBA or NHL team to win the championship, even the 2000 pennant races and World Series. Some sports books offer odds on European soccer, Australian Open tennis, even NASCAR racing.
But those odds grossly favor the house. In any given pari-mutuel, all the possible chances must add up to 100 percent for the bet to be fair. If three friends are racing and the odds on two are 3-1, meaning there's a one in four, or 25 percent, chance each will win, the odds on the remaining one must necessarily be 1-1, or a 50 percent chance. No other outcomes are possible, ties excluded.
The odds on the tote board before this weekend had both Jacksonville and Indianapolis at even money to win the American Football Conference championship. That would be fine if those were the only two teams remaining, but it also offered the Dolphins at 4-1, or a 20 percent probability; the Seahawks at 3-1, or 25 percent; the Titans at 2-1, or 33 percent, and the Bills at 6-1, or about 15 percent. That's almost 200 percent of probability. That means I'd be risking my money for only half the return I ought to get. If it were a stock prospectus, I'd throw it in the garbage.
After placing my bets, I take a walk. In more than 24 hours in Las Vegas, I've yet to get outside, which is good news to the casino but bad for my mental health. So I walk up one side of the Strip and down the other, pausing to visit sports books along the way. What I see gives me greater appreciation for Mandalay Bay. At the MGM Grand, which is trying to draw more families, lions roam in glass-enclosed habitats just off the casino, and highlights of the hotel's shows play on a huge video screen all day; the sports book, however, is contained in two small rooms in a corner. The atmosphere is dead; if it were a bar you'd turn on your heel. And I do, but not before noticing that the Vikings are beating Dallas.
At Paris, Le Rendez-Vous Race & Sport feels claustrophobic. Enthusiasm abounds, like at a sports bar, but there aren't enough seats and only five screens show sports. On one, unaccountably, is a college wrestling match. Just as in Paris, France, sports are obviously not a priority here.
By the time I return, the Vikings have covered the seven-point spread. I get a take-out pizza, simple and delicious, from Puck's Trattoria del Lupo and spend the afternoon rooting the Dolphins to an exciting 20-17 victory over Seattle, which means $80 for me. Simultaneously on a smaller screen, Wake Forest cruises to a 67-53 win over Clemson. I'm three-for-three for the day, and it's only midafternoon.
With no more college basketball, I turn my attention to the NBA. This is what the casinos count on. I haven't even thought about any of these games, and my mindset is that I'm playing with found money. Up more than $200 by now, I could buy a new shirt at one of the boutiques in Mandalay Bay's shopping arcade or splurge on a bottle of wine at Aureole. Instead, I put $40 on the Sacramento Kings, giving 2 1/2 points against Indiana. I take it as a good omen that, moments later, the line shifts to three.
I know that Indiana is tired and coming off a game in Los Angeles the night before, and that Sacramento plays well at home. The truth is, however, I just want another game to watch. I eat an early dinner at the Border Grill, then return to the sports book for my evening's entertainment. It's more expensive than a movie, to be sure, but less than a Wayne Newton show. And I might win.
The Kings, up 90-77 after three quarters, get cold in the fourth. The plush chairs are so comfortable that I could curl up and sleep if I didn't have money riding. As it is, I'm focused. When alarms go off throughout the casino and an announcement comes on loudspeakers that the emergency system has been activated, neither I nor anyone else at the sports book pays the slightest attention. If we need to evacuate, they'll come tell us. But for now, Jason Williams passes to Chris Webber, who dunks. The Kings are up seven.
In the end, the Kings take a 116-113 victory. Had I bet a few moments later than I did, it would have been a push. I'd get $36.35 back and lose the $3.65 vigorish. But I had the Kings giving 2 1/2, not three, so when my ticket is inserted into the computerized slot, it confirms that I'm owed $76.35 for my labor. That makes me 8-for-11 on the weekend, and nearly $300 in the black.
I can't gloat, however. In the games that the oddsmakers knew the most about, the NFL playoffs, I somehow went four-for-four. Two of my college basketball wins, Arizona's and UConn's, came from high-profile teams. That Louisville bet I'd been so proud of was a loser. So were Colorado and the Nuggets. Only Wake Forest served to confirm my theory that obscure is better.
Still, as I leave the sports book I gaze longingly at the scores of games like Marshall-Kent State and Bowling Green-Buffalo. Someone made money on those games, and I'll bet it wasn't Mandalay Bay.
Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.