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Real Madness? Trying to beat the pros

By Brent Musburger  (VSiN managing editor) 

The sports books are packed this week, but writes Brent Musburger: "Remember, to make money against my guys in the desert, you have to hit about 53 percent."

LAS VEGAS--Everyone in the crowd has fingers crossed. There are mamas with their heads down. They can’t stand to look.


Yes, it is March Madness. And I am not even talking about the arenas. I just described the scene at every sports book here in Las Vegas, where tens of thousands of people have packed the casinos to bet on the NCAA Tournament.


We certainly have a lot of fun talking about the action and the spreads and everything that goes with them--like those fans wearing their school colors and hoping that they win and advance while they cover and cash. But believe me. It is not easy. Even the professionals will tell you it is hard work.


Think about what you saw if you were watching us on VSiN on Sunday. That is when we had a whale plunk down a ton of cash on our studio set at South Point – $352,000 – and bet $11,000 on each of the first 32 matchups right after the brackets were filled on Selection Sunday. Derek Stevens, majority owner of The D Hotel downtown, found himself 3-14-2 through Thursday’s games, going 3-7-2 on underdogs and losing on all the others. That means the only way Stevens will come out ahead on his big bet is to run the table with the last 13 games on which he has action on Friday.


“Man, these things have been tough,” Stevens told me Thursday. “This has been brutal. The boys at the South Point, oh, they’ve been right on the number. Isn’t this amazing how great these bookmakers are in Las Vegas?”


And haven’t we all said that – no matter how much or how little we have ever bet? That is a point worth stressing. It is not easy beating these professional bookies. They are in the business to make a profit. That is why I alert everyone to be careful if you think you are going to beat them. Just hitting 50 percent can be a job well-done. Remember, to make money against my guys in the desert, you have to hit about 53 percent.


Consider what Michael Craig, the senior research analyst and sports gambler from Sports Insights, told VSiN’s Gill Alexander.


“Not that many people win,” Craig said. “It’s difficult to find an edge. When you do this and you’re successful at it, people tend to think you win every day and you don’t lose. I bet a lot of games. A successful season for me is 53½-54 percent. There’s a misperception out there that handicappers hit at 60 percent. That’s asinine. It’s absolutely crazy. Just getting people to understand what a realistic, successful expectation is is really a challenge.”


The pressure to win works both ways. Senior linemaker Jimmy Vaccaro has been working for South Point owner Michael Gaughan for 41 years. Yes, there are days when he has seen the book lose. But you will never see my friend Jimmy sweat the losses.


“I grew up in an atmosphere where, every day you’re a kid, you think you’re broke,” said Vaccaro, who was born and raised near Pittsburgh. “You’re broke 90 percent of the time. I understood losing. So it really never hit me. Not that I like it, but I go home and have a ham sandwich, go to sleep, come back tomorrow and do it all over again.”


Vaccaro said the Super Bowl and the NCAA Tournament lure what he calls “event bettors” who zero in on a particular target. One unidentified young man who has been otherwise anonymous around Las Vegas has been the talk of South Point since last week.


“This guy is in for a huge payday if Duke happens to win the championship,” Vaccaro said. “He took 10-to-1 for $10,000, disappeared into the sunset, came back a day-and-a-half later and took 7½-to-1 for $10,000 more. Then earlier (Thursday) morning he took 6-to-1 for $10,000.”


While the big bets got the immediate attention of sports-book supervisors like Vaccaro, the folks behind the counter tried to be non-chalant.


“He simply tells the clerk ‘Duke for $10,000,’” Vaccaro said. “I walked over and try to put a name to a face. But you don’t cut in. You just let them alone. Anybody who has any understanding of this racket knows that you never go up to a guy making a big bet and say ‘good luck.’ You never do that. I’ve seen wise guys throw tickets in the face of the ticket writer. They don’t want to hear about good luck. They just want to hear that they have the best number and they’re going to win the game.


“This guy just stood there, but I have no idea who he is. He has never asked for a hot dog. He’s never asked for anything. But he’s in $30,000 looking to win like $230,000. And he’s never said a word.”


The whales make for great stories, but in truth, it is the average fan that drives this industry. And yes, despite what you may think, I am not one of your sharks. I am a recreational and even an emotional bettor. I would not say overall that I am a winner, and if I am it is small. I do this for recreational purposes, and so do most of the people who have staked out their seats in the Vegas sports books at 5 in the morning just to immerse themselves in the party here that is March Madness.


I must say that I got a chuckle when I was kidding Vaccaro about how sharp his lines are.


“Oh, here we go,” he said, rolling his eyes at me. “Let me put you on the spot, Mr. Wise Guy. Make the line on the Gonzaga game right now.” This was moments after my alma mater Northwestern survived a nail-biter against Vanderbilt to set up a second-round meeting with the ’Zags.


After chewing on it for a few moments, I said, “Gonzaga by 10½.”


Jimmy went back to his office with the other boys to make the line, and wouldn’t you know? In came word that they made Gonzaga a 10½-point favorite – with a note from Jimmy that said “Mr. Gaughan has fired me and wants you, Brent, to be our new oddsmaker.”


No matter who makes the numbers here in Vegas, just remember that you had better be on top of your game if you want to come out ahead. And even then, it will not be easy.

Follow me on Twitter: @BrentMusburger

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