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.
"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.
Early on game-day afternoon late-betting fans filter into the casino sports books, checking out the lines and odds. Nothing is moving too heavily, a lot of the serious money is already in place, but a long day's worth of small and medium sized wagers will add up big-time. Behind the scenes at Mirage, computer-monitors flicker with action rolling in from affiliated casinos that stretch from one end of the Vegas Strip to the other.
Horse racing is up on the big wall-mounted screens, and gamblers seem to be betting the ponies as a warm-up for today's main event. However, Jay Rood, director of sports betting for MGM Mirage, isn't thinking equine at the moment. He rolls a lucky baseball around in his right hand, holds an energy drink in his left and watches the flow of Super Bowl action.
Behind an aural backdrop of continually ringing telephones, Rood takes time to okay a $5,000 bet and keeps tweaking the odds, money-lines, and point spreads. "It's going good," Rood says, as much to steady himself as to inform me. "We have $2 million on each side and can come out at around $10 million all told. I'm trying to get us into a position where we are on a freeroll with the Steelers. If the Steelers win, we do well. If the Cardinals win, we'll be even and relying on prop bets. We throw 100 of them out there and it's like a blackjack shoe."
He tells me about one offbeat bet in which a gambler took the Cardinals with an inflated 21½ points, but, in exchange for that, he's laying 8. This means that for every $8 bet, he can win $1. This guy, who clearly is willing to lose big in exchange for an almost sure thing, bet $400,000 to win $50,000. "It is the most we'll take for that one," says Rood. "For us, though, it has the potential for a high win with a low risk. If there happens to be a Steelers blowout today, I just might get to sign a new contract."
I figure that Rood is joking, but he's not laughing. He surveys a growing crowd at the betting windows, sips from his energy drink and braces himself for what will soon be a rush of last-minute wagers.
Over at the nearby Hard Rock, preparations are under way for its infamous annual lingerie show (a special, private perk for the casino's heartiest gamblers). Over at Wynn Las Vegas, at least one craps table is a crush of competing jerseys. And inside the Palms sports book, a ton of Cardinals action suddenly materializes. The money-line moves and bettors follow suit, now flirting in the opposite direction, illustrating the yin and yang of sports wagering.
The Palms' best customers, including an ebullient, single-malt sipping Mr. H are gathered in the Playboy Club, snacking on fried munchies and taking in a 52-story view that is dwarfed only by statuesque playmates who ferry drinks and deal blackjack. As gametime nears, Mr. H and his group head upstairs to a high roller accommodation that is known as the Hardwood Suite. In lieu of a formal living room, it's outfitted with a regulation-size half-court basketball setup. Today the Hardwood is reserved for the Palms' elite Super Bowl viewing party.
Waitresses have been decked out as scantily clad cheerleaders, and their job seems to be part socializing and part cocktailing. The guests, mostly guys of course, don't mind mixing with the help. In fact, up here, the emphasis would be more on the party than on the Super Bowl. Everybody cheers the big touchdowns, the big hits and all the good commercials, but nobody takes it too seriously. George Maloof slips in, checks things out in the shadows, sips a Fiji, then splits. Hosts, showing a bit more edginess, circulate and schmooze heavily, keeping customers happy and (Anthony Brandonisio's earlier assertion aside) doing what they can to gently insure that their guys return to the tables after the game ends.
As the final seconds of the first half tick down, even the most jaded in the suite have to take notice as the Steelers' James Harrison intercepts an Arizona pass and runs it back 100 yards for a touchdown. Disbelief—for good and ill—is the overriding response as TV commentator John Madden shouts about the setting of a new Super Bowl record.
As Harrison crosses the goal line, a quartet of Steelers fans explodes with a storm of high-fives. They obviously love Pittsburgh, but, just as obviously, they love money even more. The play is worth $20,000 to one of the guys who haphazardly made a prop bet that the Steelers would rack up 14½ points or more by halftime. "Dude!" one of the group exclaims. "That's a $40,000 swing. If he didn't score right now, you'd have lost 20K." His bottle of Corona in the air, he mock chants, "Har-ri-son! Har-ri-son!"
Clearly inspired and not wanting to go down to the Palms sports book where things are louder, weirder and, yes, a little more desperate at this moment, one of the winner's buddies whips out his cell phone and promptly places a bet with his bookie. "Give me a thousand on Pittsburgh winning the second half," he orders.
A bikini-topped cocktail waitress watches the celebratory moment and coos, Paris Hilton style, "That's hot."
Seconds later, it's all summed up by the guy who actually won the bet. He double-checks his slip from the book, holding it up to the light, and says, "This is the reason we dig sports, baby!"
I'm not sure whether he's talking about winning the money or impressing the girl in the bikini top. Either way, though, by micro-local standards, he's right. And either way, regardless of what happens during the remaining 30 minutes of play, his sentiments illustrate why people love visiting Vegas for the Super Bowl. v
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor and coauthor of the poker book Aces and Kings.