LAS VEGAS – In journalism, we’re taught to find the 5 Ws and 1 H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. For today’s story, the 5 Ws are pretty straight-forward.
Who: Stag Capital team of former college football teammates & roommates Mike Hall, 36, New York; Andy Traba, 35, Chicago; and Chris Lewert, 34, Beverly Hills, Calif.
What: Inaugural $5,000 buy-in SuperContest Gold NFL handicapping contest.
When: NFL 2017 season.
Where: Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino SuperBook
Why: To win the winner-take-all $470,000 first-place prize.
We don’t want to be accused of burying the lead (or lede) to this story, so, with a few extra facts added, we should start with the 5 Ws: Stag Capital won $470,000 by topping a field of 94 entrants in the inaugural $5,000 buy-in SuperContest Gold NFL handicapping contest at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino.
The H is going to take a heckuva lot longer.
The longform version of our story begins in 2002 when Chris Lewert, a high school football player in the Chicago suburbs, visited Claremont McKenna College in the Los Angeles area. The coach assigned Mike Hall to be Lewert’s host to give him a tour of the campus. Hall just happened to be roommates with Andy Traba (who Lewert had actually played against in high school). When Lewert joined the football team (the Stags, filling in another piece of the back story) that fall, they became teammates and fast friends.
“You might as well call him our roommate as he spent enough nights on our couch,” Traba said.
Claremont McKenna is known for its economics and finance programs. Hall said he was a math major and had been interested in sports betting since high school, so after he and Traba took a sports economics class together, they decided to work on a quantitative model to predict sports scores.
Stag Capital was born.
The group admits to a disastrous March Madness trip to Las Vegas, but they continued working on it even after Hall and Traba graduated and moved away and Lewert stayed behind to live in Beverly Hills (or at least the “slums of Beverly Hills” as Lewert jokes, pointing out his area code is the less-famous 90211, not 90210).
“Don’t let them sell you short,” Lewert said, “Mike and Andy put in a ton of time over the years to get the formula down to where it’s performing now.”
Hall and Traba both moved to the Chicago area (where Hall worked with and became friends with Chris Kozak, aka Mucked Nuts, winner of the last two Friday Football Showdown contests at the Golden Nugget), but Hall now lives in New York as a commodity trader. Traba is v.p. of data science at Mattersight in Chicago and Lewert works in sales for Robb Vices, a spinoff of Robb Report luxury-lifestyle magazine.
Flash-forward to 2014 when the three decided to enter the Westgate’s SuperContest for the first time. They tweaked the model to optimize it for contest play, which allows for playing stale, locked-in lines, and had immediate success as they went 4-1, 4-1 and 5-0 to stand in third place at 13-2 after three weeks. They stayed in the Top 10 most of the year and finished 54-29-2 (65.1%) to tie for 12th place and win $26,306.25. That was the year CH Ballers set the SuperContest record by hitting 76.19% of their plays; Stag Capital had a “six degrees of separation” to CH Ballers as a good friend of theirs is the wife of one of the former high school basketball teammates that formed that winning group.
Stag Capital didn’t fare as well the last two years, going a still solid 48-37 (56.5%) to finish tied for 229th out of 1,727 entries in 2015 and then stumbled to 37-43-5 (46.3%) to finish tied for 1,212th out of 1,854. Lewert was in Las Vegas for work this past summer and told his partners about Westgate’s new contest, the $5,000 buy-in SuperContest Gold with a winner-take-all prize, and they debated how to invest their capital.
“We didn’t like the risk/reward of the biggest contest,” Hall said. “SuperContest Gold didn’t have the house vig [there’s no takeout in Gold while Classic takes an 8% administrative fee, or $120 of each $1,500 entry] and we were fairly confident we could have an edge against a smaller field in a no-vig contest.”
“Go big or go home!” Traba joked before adding that with Classic growing at such a rapid rate (it ended up closing with a record 2,748 entries) that the standard deviation means that there’s probably going to be an outlier (or two or three) that posts a really big score that’s hard to beat.
So, they decided to trust the math and Lewert bought just one Gold entry for $5,000. He also entered Stag Capital in the $2,000 buy-in Friday Football Showdown at the Golden Nugget.
As for how the team makes their selections, Hall said there’s no arguments as they let the model decide the strongest plays. Stag Capital had a decent start to the season as they were hitting above 55%, however, but every week they were ranked in the 20s out of the 94 entrants, which isn’t too promising in a winner-take-all contest, while a player going by the alias of BKSF looked to be running away with the contest and at one point opened up a 4.5-point lead over its nearest contender (note for those who don’t know: the SuperContest, as well as the Golden Nugget contest, award 1 point per win and half a point per push in determining its official standings).
“It’s embarrassing to admit now,” Traba said, “but halfway through we stopped paying attention because we thought we were out of it.”
In the meantime, they were near the top of the Golden Nugget standings. The Friday Football Showdown also includes college sides and totals as well as NFL totals and has entrants make seven plays a week for the first 12 weeks and then has a single-elimination, bracket-style playoff format the rest of the season, so they concentrated their efforts there.
But then Week 11 happened.
Hall recalled: “It wasn’t until later that week, around Thanksgiving, that I looked up the Gold standings and sent them an email saying, ‘Don’t look now but we just went 5-0 and we’re in 11th place and not that far out of the lead.”
They now had two contests to juggle again. They finished fourth after the 12 preliminary weeks at the Golden Nugget, earning $3,000 for making the playoffs and another $3,000 for being in the top four while earning a double-bye over the next two weeks and into the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Stag Capital went 3-2 in Week 12, posted another perfect 5-0 in Week 13 and went 4-1 in Week 14 to move into sole possession, half a point ahead of Midwest Square, the intentionally misleading alias of Las Vegas handicapper and professional sports bettor Erin Rynning of sportsmemo.com and ESPN Chalk (disclosure: even though Rynning is local, I submitted his weekly plays as his designated proxy).
While talking about proxies, this is a good time to mention that Stag Capital wanted to thank their proxies, Matty Simo and Toni Law of footballcontest.com.
Back to the actual contestants, NFL Week 15 was the team’s Golden Nugget quarterfinal matchup against a very familiar foe: Mucked Nuts, the alias of longtime friend Kozak, who the three members said it was OK to mention that they have an agreement with to split contest winnings 80/20. They definitely wanted to win, but went 2-5 to Kozak’s 3-3-1 to bow out of that contest (note: Kozak went on to earn $69,000 for winning the Golden Nugget contest for the second straight year). However, Stag Capital still managed a 2-2-1 mark in the Gold contest to hold onto a 1-point lead over BrettFavre444.
Stag Capital and BrettFavre444 then staged an encounter that will forever live in SuperContest lore. After Week 16’s Sunday games, Stag Capital and Brett Favre444 sat half a point behind co-leaders Midwest Square and BKSF. Stag Capital had the Eagles -8.5 in the Monday Night Football game held on Christmas night while BrettFavre444 had the Raiders plus-8.5 with the winner taking over the lead heading into the final week of the season.
As readers of this no doubt remember, the Raiders were covering the whole game and it was still tied 10-10 at the two-minute warning and looked like it was headed to overtime. However, Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby intercepted a Derek Carr pass with 54 seconds left in regulation to set up Jake Elliott’s 48-yard, go-ahead field goal at 13-10 with 22 seconds remaining but not enough to cover for Stag Capital. Then, with 3 seconds to play, the Raiders attempted yet another of those desperation lateral plays with the ball ending up in the hands of the Eagles’ Derek Barnett who ran it in for the spread-covering touchdown for Stag Capital at 19-10.
Hall was at a Christmas gathering where the game wasn’t on, so he was following it on his phone. Likewise, Lewert was checking his phone while cooking dinner and then playing cards afterward. Traba was the only one to watch the Monday Night Miracle live and Tweeted (@trabs9) the play to Lewert (@lewmandingorock) and Hall (@notthattricky).
“I had kinda given up on it and I think everyone else had, too,” Hall said. “I had left and was actually driving and my phone starts going crazy. When I realized what happened, I almost drove into a ditch.”
Even with a week to go, that unlikely victory was the key to Stag Capital’s victory. Holding the lead heading into Week 17, Stag Capital was able to use the biggest line-move plays on the board (Lewert even said that if they were trailing in the winner-take-all contest, his team might have had to take a similar strategy to the “Hail Mary” attempted by BrettFavre, who took the opposite sides of all the big line moves, and we might have been interviewing BrettFavre444 instead as he probably would have taken the line-move plays if the roles were reversed).
Stag Capital won with the Colts -3.5 vs. the Texans (the line was -5.5 by the time contest selections were due at 11 a.m. PT Saturday) and the Browns plus-11 vs. the Steelers (the line was down to 6 by submission time) in the early games Sunday. They lost with the Raiders plus-8 against the Chargers in the afternoon games but won with the 49ers -3 vs. the Rams (-4 at submission time and closed -6.5). Midwest Square was in the clubhouse, leading by half a point, as the contest came down to Stag Capital’s last play on the Buccaneers plus-7 against the Saints (down to 6 at submission time). A win would give the partners the $470,000 prize; a push would cause a tie with Midwest Square and drop the payoff to $235,000; a loss would result in their all-or-nothing gamble being for naught.
The Saints led 24-23 late, which was good news for Stag Capital, but the Bucs got the ball back at their own 5-yard line with 1:58 to play. It didn’t take a math major to know that a pick 6, strip-sack-fumble return or an all-too-familiar desperation-lateral-play could give the Saints a TD with a PAT kick being all it would take for a non-covering 8-point loss for the Bucs and Stag Capital.
On first down, Jameis Winston was almost intercepted by New Orleans LB Craig Robertson whose momentum was moving toward the Tampa Bay end zone. On second down, Winston was under pressure in the end zone and threw another incompletion as his arm was hit. On third down, Winston was under pressure again and threw into double coverage for yet another completion. The Bucs stayed on the field for 4th-and-10 from their own 5, bringing the very real possibility of the Saints taking over with 1st-and-goal with more than 1:30 to play and not being able to just take three knees (the Bucs still had one timeout), so probably three more chances to punch in the covering score.
Winston completed a pass to tight end Cameron Brate for the first down, but Stag Capital still had to sweat a defensive touchdown for the rest of the drive until Winston hit Chris Godwin with a 39-yard TD pass with just 9 seconds to play. A 2-point conversion gave the Bucs a 31-24 outright upset and officially clinched the SuperContest Gold title for Stag Capital.
When asked when they knew they were champions, Hall said, “I didn’t feel confident until Jameis Winston’s TD pass.”
As for the future, all three members of Stag Capital (who plan to meet in Vegas on NFL Championship Weekend to collect their winnings and celebrate) said they have their day jobs and intend to keep their sports betting and contest activities as a fun though lucrative hobby.
“We’re not just in this a quick score,” Lewert said. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
After more than 15 years, turning a $5,000 investment into $470,000 in Gold was a nice spike to the bottom line for Stag Capital.