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May 17, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

The Book Speaks

by Jim Baker

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Many years ago, Mad Magazine used to do this bit where they would have a drawing of a neon sign advertising some product or other. In the next frame, they would show the same sign with certain letters strategically removed to reveal an inner message. An example of this might be:

IVORY SOAP 99 4/10% PURE
Which would become
IVORY SOAP…PU
It was clever stuff, especially to the audience of 12-year olds for whom it was intended.

I bring this up now because I experienced a real-life occurrence of this gag last night by way of an example that is so fraught with irony that you'll probably think I'm making it up. Sunday night, I found myself outside of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada. On each side of the building's upper-most facades is a red-lettered sign announcing the casino's name. On the side closest to the Bellagio, the sign was experiencing a partial outage of such delightful insidiousness that it appeared as though Alfred E. Newman himself had vandalized it. Instead of saying Caesar's Palace, it read:

SAP'S PALACE
While one can accept the loss of the "C," "A" and "E" as perhaps being a part of some break in an electrical circuit because they are, after all, juxtaposed, it is the absence of the lower foot on the "R" that leads one to truly wonder at this occurrence. What set of circumstances led to the loss of this small portion of a letter three spots away from the next blacked-out letter? I will leave you free to speculate as to the cause of this improbable partiality, but offer these possibilities as jumping-off points for discussion:

  • Just one of those things

  • The work of a failed bettor who happens to know a lot about the accurate and effective sabotage of signage

  • A message from on high that all those who partake in the games of chance are consigned the name that was if not created by then certainly popularized by The Three Stooges: "sap."

While I'm sure there is a Three Stooges slot machine somewhere in this town--there are after all, machines featuring The Beverly Hillbillies and The Munsters (why anyone would have to have Yvonne DeCarlo watching you throw your quarters away is beyond me)--I think it more appropriate that we talk about that most-mysterious game of chance: baseball betting. Even for many ardent baseball fans, the concept of betting on a game is a great enigma, unlike wagering on the other two major sports in the United States: football and basketball. Why is this? It is, obviously or not, the lack of point spreads that sets baseball apart from the other major team sports. Since I'm in Vegas, I thought it would be interesting to get some insight into baseball betting from the bookmaker's viewpoint. I spent some time talking to Rich Dressler, the manager of the sports book for one of the center-strip casinos.

Dressler reports that about half of their overall action comes from football, with baseball generating about 15 to 18 percent and basketball, tennis, golf, NASCAR and other sports sharing the remainder. In his opinion, though, it is baseball that provides the biggest challenge to the bettor.

"The most dangerous mistake that baseball bettors make is trying to dig themselves out of a hole. Unlike the NFL, which only plays once per week, baseball has multiple games every day which can only add to your misery if you're on a losing streak. In baseball, because money lines are used instead of point spreads, this scenario happens a lot: a guy will come into town and have a couple of rough days. Let's say he's down $400. So, on Sunday, he wants to make it all back with a sure-thing bet, so he looks for an ace pitcher like Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez up against a really bad team. The trouble is, he's got to bet $300 or $350 to win $100 on a mismatch like that. So, to make his $400, he's putting up over a grand.

"Something goes wrong with the ace: he's off, he gets a blister, he pitches well but his team doesn't score for him or the bullpen blows it and now the bettor leaves town down $1,500. When people get desperate, they tend to bet favorites and overs. A bettor has to ask themselves, 'Would I make this bet my first day in town?' If the answer is 'no,' then they should let it pass--but they never do."

I asked Rich where the book was the most vulnerable. There is a wonderful logic to his answer: "I am required to put up a line on every game. You, on the other hand, are not required to bet every game. The player can pick their spots. The problem is, they don't. They load up with lots of bets on a lot of different games. Generally, players feel that any game they don't have money on is a lost opportunity when, in fact, it's just the opposite. The more games they bet, the more the odds go back to the house."

A perfect illustration of this, Dressler says, is college basketball. "The wiseguys do their best betting college hoops because there are so many games. We've got to come up with hundreds of lines a day. Baseball offers that same opportunity on a smaller scale provided the bettor doesn't go for the action on a whole bunch of games."

Dressler says there a handful of wiseguys in town who make a living in Vegas betting on baseball. They represent a smaller percentage of the wiseguy population at large, though, because a lot of them give baseball betting a wide berth. It should be noted that wiseguys in Vegas bookmaking parlance refers to that tiny minority of bettors who consistently do well and make a living at wagering. It is not the wiseguy of the parlance of Hollywood gangster movies. Frank Scatoni and Peter Thomas Fornatale profile one such player in their new book Six Secrets of Successful Bettors.

It is baseball that is often the undoing of those who think they can bet for a living, says Dressler. "People write to me and say, 'I'm thinking of moving there and making a go of it at gambling.' That just isn't going to happen. People leave town here every day who arrived a six months to a year ago with a foolproof system."

I asked Dressler if dissuading people like this will cost him business, in that there is certainly money to be made by a book from a bettor who is convinced he's figured things out. "Yes, we can make money from a person like that in the short run, but they're eventually going to quit gambling and not come back. Baseball--more than any other sport--gets people to quit betting because of the reason I mentioned before, the use of a money line instead of a spread. In the long run, we can make a living from tourists who come to town for a weekend at a time. That's fine with us. Everyone should bet for entertainment value."

One hears it said that a preseason over/under (predicting if a team will finish above or below a set number of victories) is a good place to catch a book in a vulnerable spot because--unlike the individual game which is played with a great number of known variables--the latter months of the season seem unknowable in February and March. Dressler doesn't necessarily agree with that, noting that the book will often throw an enticing number out there but make the bettor pay on the money line. "A book who is not confident in their over/under pick will move the game line anywhere from 1.5 to two games. A book who is confident in the game line will, instead, move the money line."

On the other hand, Dressler thinks that the preseason over/under is a great bet for a fan to make because of the extended rooting value it provides. "In a way, it's like having a bet on every game without having to be here. If you come into town anytime before the season starts you get your over/under pick down and you get five or six months of action out of it.

"In other businesses, the saying goes, 'The customer is always right,'" says Dressler. "In my business, if the customer is always right, I don't have a business."

Related Content:  The Who,  Sunday Night Baseball,  E-book

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