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A bettor's life for me
Story by Joshua Longobardy and Illustration by Aaron McKinney
To make a living at the pinnacle of sports wagering, you need talent, discipline, a good wi-fi hookup — and, increasingly, a sports book that will take your action
See the people, more than a thousand of them converged in the sports book at LVH, among the largest and most extravagant in the world. Converted years ago from the theater made famous by Elvis Presley, back when it was the Hilton, the room retains something of its old excitement, now manifested in the foaming insides of the sports bettors awaiting kickoff. A motley collection of men, squares for the most part — that is, recreational gamblers — surrounded by television screens and waited upon by young women in tight outfits:
Jan. 6. The night of college football’s national championship game between Auburn and Florida State. The majority of the betting action had come in backing the underdog, Auburn. Among those were 14 bettors who, even before the season began, had bought tickets on Auburn to win the title — at 1,000-to-1 odds, a serious potential loss for the house. At least two of those ticket-holders returned to the LVH to watch the game. They were joined by many in the sports book that night, some who’d taken Auburn on the money line for petty bets ranging up to $100, and others purely for the schadenfreude of seeing the house take a big hit.
The city’s wiseguys — that is, elite professional bettors — were responsible for much of the money that sided with FSU, a favorite by more than a touchdown. Though absent from the sports book, the wiseguys’ presence was felt, as their money carries the power to move betting lines, and their wagers evoke respect and sometimes — because they can cost the house big money — apprehension from bookmakers.
Indeed, few in town are any longer game to accept the challenge. Jay Kornegay, director of the LVH sports book, is one who is. He’s experienced, confident, sharp himself and chiefly responsible for LVH’s reputation as a place where wiseguys’ bets are welcome. Despite his book’s potential liabilities, Kornegay betrayed no insecurity. Behind the betting counter he stood, unruffled and slightly amused. “I’m not stressed at all,” he said without a tremor in his speech.
Making him about the only one. By the time FSU’s Levonte Whitfield took an Auburn kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown, putting his Seminoles up 27-24 with fewer than four minutes left, it was necessary to recruit two more cocktail waitresses from elsewhere in the casino; the entire theater was in a state of tension.
With 79 seconds left, Auburn running back Tre Mason took it to the house, not only reclaiming the lead for the Tigers, 31-27, but also seeming to fulfill an omen already written for this “team of destiny,” as the media had coined it. In the sports book, bedlam. Men fell to their knees very near tears. Others rose from their seats as though weightless. The uproar drowned out the calls of the cocktail waitresses.
So the celebrants nearly missed the end of the game. FSU’s quarterback, Jameis Winston, drove his team the length of the field in the remaining minute and tossed a two-yard touchdown pass to complete the victory, 34-31. What followed in the sports book was an instantaneous and surreal quiet, and the rank stench of so many gamblers forced to eat shit. Only the waitresses broke the silence.
That’s how the squares experienced the big game.
Many miles removed, wiseguy Chuck Edel watched it in his living room, as though he’d seen it all before — clinical, sober, impervious. Because the hard work of handicapping had been done prior to placing his bet, he brought to his reclining seat a sangfroid that resisted the visceral excitement inherent in gambling. Nor would you be able to tell, by watching him watch the game, which team Edel had bet on — let alone that it was a four-figure wager (a fractional, disciplined allowance from his bankroll). Even after it became clear that Florida State would not cover the eight-point spread, Edel didn’t flinch. He swallowed his loss with the last bite of his steak dinner, turned off the TV, tucked his daughter into bed, then went back to work handicapping games for the rest of the week.
Observed from a distance, Edel’s is a quiet suburban life. This is a departure from the old guard of professional sports bettors, who used to scamper from book to book looking for the best lines, but it’s typical of modern wiseguys. Edel and his contemporaries invariably work out of a home office, the essential paraphernalia little more than a TV, a computer and a handheld device. Nor do they look the part. Most are fathers, clean-cut, unassuming, difficult to identify in a crowd of tourists on the Strip. Yet make no mistake: With the recent explosion in the popularity of sports betting, and with their ability to make $50,000 to $500,000 a year from it, these wiseguys are 21st-century standard-bearers for Las Vegas’ enduring mystique.
‘THE WHOLE THING HAS GONE CRAZY’
According to Nevada’s Gaming Control Board, the NCAA basketball tournament elicits around $100 million in wagers, spread over three weeks, among the state’s 183 sports books. That’s a figure comparable to what people bet each year on the Super Bowl, in addition to the $100 million more in economic activity generated by gamblers who descend on Las Vegas for the game. These numbers are indicative of the ever-rising popularity of sports betting. Yearly revenues reported by the state’s sports books have steadily risen at a 45-degree angle on growth charts since 1975, and in 2012 the total amount exceeded $170 million, or about 5 percent of the $3.5 billion handled. In other words, as longtime oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro put it, “The whole thing has gone completely crazy.”
Las Vegas is its epicenter. In lieu of a professional sports team, we champion the betting lines, which in turn is a conduit to following every team in all the major sports. Skilled and experienced bettors — sharps, in the language of the profession — fill the slots in local media vacated by pro athletes; those with the most elusive insight are the wiseguys, some of whom can be found on the handicapping information site pregame.com, where they provide counsel as paid touts, and where each was recruited and retained by the website’s founder and CEO, R.J. Bell.
“I’m lucky that the model of pregame.com has brought together some of the sharpest minds in town,” says Bell.
He has positioned himself to be a voice in great demand — bylining weekly columns for Gaming Today, as well as for Grantland, an ESPN offshoot and home to perhaps the hottest sportswriting in America. Between football season and March Madness, Bell maintains a weekly regimen of roughly 10 media appearances, ranging from CNN to the Wall Street Journal, most prominently on ESPN’s widely syndicated sports talk radio show “The Herd,” with Colin Cowherd. To prepare for these appearances, he taps the wiseguys tethered to pregame.com, such as professional bettors Edel, Ken Thomson, Bryan Leonard and Steve Fezzik; sometimes he checks with a top bookmaker like Kornegay. So ubiquitous and authoritative has Bell become that for many sports fans he represents Las Vegas.
[HEAR MORE: Learn about a recent bookmaking scandal on "KNPR’s State of Nevada."]
‘IT’S A GRIND’
See Ken Thomson. With his sunny appearance showing no signs that his day started very early in the morning, Thomson wrapped up his weekday radio show on 720 AM at 9 p.m. on the last Friday of November, and, as he always does, drove straight home to scour the lines for the weekend’s games. In particular, college basketball, for which Thomson had spent 25 years on the sidelines as a broadcaster before moving to Las Vegas. Two from that Sunday’s lineup piqued his interest: Pacific vs. North Dakota, and Memphis vs. Oklahoma State.
Pacific was a good buy at minus-2.5. The worth of a sports team is never centrally determined by any one analyst or media network, but rather by the betting market at large: the bookmakers, the sharps and the public, their regard for any given team reflected in real time in the betting lines. In this way Las Vegas propagates the true value of every team. Yet because football attracts an inordinate amount of attention, it was a good time for college basketball sharps like Thomson to catch the market in a moment of inefficiency. Which, in short, is the wiseguy’s warrant. To locate inefficiencies in the lines. All of Thomson’s knowledge, talent and time go toward attaining this edge.
It’s an unrelenting process. Pregame.com’s Bryan Leonard puts in some 60 hours a week reading newspapers from around the country, injury reports, anything that might lend itself to his purposes. On Tuesdays he breaks from this ruthless scholarship to conference over lunch with the Tuesday Group, a handful of wiseguys who, in roundtable fashion, pick apart future games and their nascent lines. One of these is Steve Fezzik, another of Bell’s sharps. During football season his Sundays commence at 6:30 a.m., so he’ll be prepared for the opening lines of next week’s college football schedule, and continue at top speed online and in the sports books until the final game of the NFL’s lineup concludes, typically around 8:30 p.m. At which time Fezzik grabs a breather, a snack and a comfortable place on his couch to scout the games he’d missed during the day.
“It’s a grind,” says Leonard, ruining any romantic preconceptions about the lifestyle of professional bettors. “Day in, day out.”
Thomson scrutinizes each game like a college student does novels, rarely for pleasure but always with purpose. So that while bookmakers and the analysts downplayed Memphis’ chances against a tough Oklahoma State team that had crushed Memphis two weeks earlier, Thomson had seen something in that blowout that told him Memphis would prevail in the rematch. Whosoever would be a professional bettor must first and foremost be a nonconformist.
“But you can’t be a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian,” adds Bell. “You also have to be right.”
With Pacific and Memphis, Thomson felt sure that he was. Since the start of the college basketball season he’d gone 21-5 with his picks. “I felt locked in,” Thomson says. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
Yet despite this, he placed only a dime — that is, $1,000, less than 5 percent of his bankroll — on each game. It was a cautious reflex. For in that temporary transaction, Thomson had coupled his fate with that of college-age men wholly unaware of his interests and who themselves are made up of the least reckonable factor in the world, human flesh and blood. So a sure-lock bet is as liable to fall apart as any other. “A game is a game is a game,” says longtime sharp Doug Fitz. “And a play is a play is a play.”
Thomson’s worked out well on that Sunday; Pacific won in a blowout and Memphis pulled off the upset. “It’s always a thrill,” Thomson says. And then, drawing up the shades an inch into the wiseguy’s psyche, he added, “The money of course was nice, but it’s more about knowing you were right.”
On the high-traffic forum pages of pregame.com, Thomson was hailed as a virtuoso.
‘AFTER A WHILE YOU BECOME PESSIMISTIC’
For wiseguys, betting is neither entertainment nor an addiction, but a taxable means of livelihood. And so it’s only natural that they take losses harder than the weekend gambler. Especially bad beats, those defeats that occur suddenly and unexpectedly. “I’ve known a lot of professionals,” says Leonard. “And not one of them thinks luck’s on their side.”
See Chuck Edel. In December, he bet a nickel — $500 — on the Buffalo Bills to cover at home against the foundering Atlanta Falcons. Watching the game from his living room, in which he has a setup of three televisions to take in as much football as he can, his play looked good all the way to the last minute of the fourth quarter, when, facing a fourth-and-long, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw an errant pass that all but sealed the game for Buffalo, bringing a rare rise out of Edel. Then, out of nowhere, like a personal affront to Edel himself, a yellow flag appeared. Penalty on Buffalo. Edel didn’t need to watch the rest to know his bet was doomed. That pass-interference penalty would help the Falcons send the game to overtime and then ride the shift in momentum to victory. Edel sunk into his seat, sunk deep into himself. The feeling is bottomless.
“I can go on for the next 45 minutes telling you in detail about bad beats,” he says. “They stick, and after a while you become very pessimistic.”
‘IT’S NOT A NORMAL LIFE’
By custom, wiseguys like Leonard and Fezzik bet the house limits, anywhere from $500 to $5,000 per game. It’s not unusual for them to have a blue-collar worker’s yearly income at stake on a busy day. Oftentimes Leonard’s day is so packed, his bets so voluminous, that he doesn’t have time to watch the games on which he’s placed a wager. Besides money, pride and ego are on the line with every bet. What hurts most about a loss is not always the money, according to Leonard, but rather the realization that you faltered in your handicapping.
Such is the romance and potential payoff of the gambling life that many people come here intending to make a living at sports betting. Most are ill-formed and ill-prepared. “Besides talent, it takes incredible discipline to make a living from this,” says Bell. “I’d say one out of every thousand bettors has the talent; one out of every 10,000, the discipline.” Of the millions who place bets in Nevada’s sports books, a fraction of a fraction are profitable in the long run.
Because the bettor must put down $11 to make $10, on account of the house’s commission, he must win at least 52.38 percent of the time to come out ahead, and roughly 55 percent to make a livelihood. To pick sides in a game, many sharps rely strictly on stats, algorithms and other quantitative measures; others, on situations, historical analyses; yet all bets are founded on supposition and never prescience. All of which is to say, good handicapping is rare and always has been, and only reveals itself over thousands of repetitions, with the difference between success and failure a few perentage points.
All of Bell’s wiseguys have sustained losing spells that unsettled the ground beneath their feet, and other handicappers less resilient have fallen by the wayside. “It’s not a normal life,” says the Southpoint’s Jimmy Vaccaro, an icon in the business and one of the last remaining vestiges of the old guard of bookmakers. “To get to this point you had to have gone broke a bunch of times. It’s enough to drive you crazy.”
Still other wiseguys — with far less scruples — try to counter humans’ fickle nature by corrupting athletes and fixing games. Recall Tim Donaghy. In 2007 the NBA referee collapsed under the weight of a scandal, having moonlighted for several years as a handicapper while officiating basketball games. Presently a tout with his own syndicate, Donaghy had defended himself back then by asserting that he’d never bet on games that he refereed. But that claim was dispelled in a masterful analysis Bell produced on his website.
That was how Bell introduced himself to the mainstream media, which had been tracking the Donaghy scandal. His name now in their contact lists, Bell became the nation’s go-to source for stories involving matters of sports betting, which is in reality all sports stories. Whenever there is competition, betting odds have risen, attracting handicappers and turning innocent bystanders into inveterate gamblers.
Bell’s practice is to seek out the best sources possible to prepare for interviews with the media. For this reason his wiseguys are all handpicked.
Among them are some of the most incisive betting minds of the past three decades: Fezzik, once a vice president of the TransAmerica Asset Management insurance company, who’s won the World Series of handicapping competitions — the LVH SuperContest — twice, in succeeding years, fattening his bankroll by a total of $400,000 and change; Leonard, a founding member of the Tuesday Group and veteran handicapper of 30 years, who hasn’t worked a single day in a straight job; Thomson, host of “Sports X Radio,” a sports betting show that for 10 years has been essential listening for the city’s bettors; and Edel, who has supported every one of his past 17 years in Las Vegas by no means other than making weekly withdrawals from the city’s sports books.
“Many of those who try to be pros will fail,” says Bell. “But that, too, is the American way.”
‘THE SITUATION HERE IS GETTING RIDICULOUS’
Kornegay’s LVH is known as a sharp book — it takes on a lot of wiseguy action. There are few left in town that do. The sports book at the M Resort, run by Cantor Gaming. Jimmy Vaccaro’s sports book at the SouthPoint. “With the Internet, and all the information it makes accessible, everybody’s a wiseguy,” says Vaccaro. “But there’s always a few who are very good at what they do. They’re known as respected money.”
Bell’s wiseguys are respected money.
“I like being around guys who know more than I do,” says Vaccaro. “I’ve always tried to treat them fairly.” That attitude among bookmakers is disappearing.
In 1975, the year Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal established the archetype for the modern sports book in the Stardust, casino activity accounted for 58 percent of the Strip’s overall revenue, according to the Gaming Control Board. In 1999, as modern nightclubs began to proliferate, casino revenues dipped below 50 percent of the overall pot for the first time. Today, that figure stands at 35 percent.
Now, many casino-resorts no longer even operate their own sports books, but contract with global companies like Cantor Fitzgerald and William Hill. And very few bookmakers are willing to jeopardize their casino’s bottom line by accepting wiseguys’ bets.
Bell says it takes a lot of guts to book bets the way Kornegay and Vaccaro do, just as it was done in the days of the Stardust. The problem is, Las Vegas’ corporate climate no longer employs such gamblers.
“The situation here is getting ridiculous,” says Bryan Leonard. “It’s getting harder and harder for me to get a bet down. And I’m not going to travel to Beatty or Reno to bet a line. I live in Las Vegas. I moved here for a reason.”
Moreover, says Bell, with today’s technology allowing for wagers to be placed via handheld devices, it’s become easier for sports books to track individual bettors. Above all those like Leonard, Thomson, Edel and Fezzik; that is, winners.
The Gaming Control Board allows bookmakers great latitude when it comes to accepting or rejecting bets. Leonard has been turned away point-blank from several sports books in Las Vegas for “betting into too good of numbers.”
Quizzical, exasperated, he responds, “Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?!”
So that even as a record handle came into Las Vegas for this year’s Super Bowl, plus an expected $100 million or more for March’s NCAA tournament, Leonard says, “Las Vegas is the hardest place in the state to be a professional gambler.”
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