Bettors suffered their worst loss of the football season this past weekend. When talking to bookmakers in the aftermath, I didn’t really sense joy, but rather lingering irritation that it took so long to book their first monster win. Bettors throwing darts and laying 11-10 will lose 4.76 percent of money bet in the long run. To a civilian, that probably seems like a nice healthy profit. But to the bookmaker, that is only the starting point — and they are always impatient to get more.
College football was particularly brutal for bettors. A majority of sportsbooks reported Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss to be their biggest-bet game of the day, and more than one said the Rebels’ cover was their biggest win of the day. In the Red River Rivalry, approximately four out of five dollars bet backed favored Oklahoma, resulting in another big loser for the bettors. Utah’s outright upset of Stanford gave the bookies a 3-0 sweep on Saturday’s biggest decisions.
I've been to Las Vegas four or five times. It's always for work, which means I always go by myself. Public service announcement: Don't do this. There's being alone, and then there's solitude, which is aloneness plus contemplation. It's useful aloneness. You find out who you are. Vegas doesn't permit contemplation. Vegas is a machine designed to blast the quiet out of your brain. Vegas aloneness is aloneness stripped of all its spiritually nutritional value. I can stand it for about 36 hours. I can tell myself, as the plane touches down, that I'm somehow going to do it right this time, that I will engage with what Vegas has to offer without letting the town's ambient despair and desperation infect me. But in the end the house always wins.
Many rightly fawn over the accuracy of the betting market. It's the stuff that memes like "Vegas knows" are made of. But the “boys in the desert” exceeded even the most outsize expectations this week in college football, with the point spread favorite winning 55 of 57 games. Las Vegas was right picking the winner 55 times, and wrong only twice.
Las Vegas, one of our many deflating cities, managed to puff itself up for the Canelo Alvarez vs. Floyd Mayweather bout. The sights usually associated with fight week stayed more or less within expectations — the heads of retired professional athletes bobbing high above the scrum of drunk people streaming through the lobby of the Cosmopolitan; the women in sparkly tube dresses stumbling on the sidewalk in their newest shoes; the legions of Mexican fight fans playing roulette at the Wynn with red ribbons tied around their foreheads. What had changed was the scale of all these things — swap Carl Everett out for Charles Barkley, Steve Madden out for Louboutins, and add about 40 percent more Mexican fans and you'll get a decent idea of what Vegas was like this week.
This was more or less to be expected. Showtime, Golden Boy, Canelo, and Floyd put an unbelievable amount of effort into the promotion of this fight, and all that sweat equity certainly paid off. From the moment it was announced, Canelo vs. Mayweather broke all sorts of gate records and quickly became the most hyped fight since Floyd fought Oscar De La Hoya on Cinco de Mayo in 2007. This was the very best boxing could do — a young, popular TV star thrown into the ring against the richest athlete in the world. But the question surrounding this superfight wasn't one of scale. Getting slightly bigger wasn't enough. The question was whether this would be the revolution boxing needed to throw itself back into national relevance.
If Las Vegas voted for MVP, a quarterback would win every year. We explored the oversize impact of Johnny Manziel’s season of uncertainty, and I reported about Las Vegas sportsbooks freezing in their tracks when Tom Brady limped off the practice field a few weeks ago. Obviously marquee quarterbacks matter, but what’s not so clear is whether any defensive players move the needle. Or, what is the value of the league’s best running backs? Or, what is the value of non-elite quarterbacks? To get the legitimate answers, I went straight to the source: Las Vegas bookmakers and professional handicappers.
A stunning blonde approaches the table where Pete Rose is signing autographs. Rose is seated at a desk in Las Vegas's Mandalay Place, one eye on his iPad watching horse races, the other on the statuesque lady with the green top, four-inch heels, and big smile.
“Pete Rose! Oh, my god, this is so exciting! It's not every day you get to meet Pete Rose!”
“Nice to meet you,” says Pete, smiling. “It's not every day I get to meet someone … so tall.”
Pete is as friendly and inviting to drunken frat boys as he is to 6-foot blondes. He takes several minutes to chat with every visitor — “Where are you from? Montana? There's this great burger joint in Helena … you know the one?” — shaking hands vigorously, signing every autograph meticulously, even folding jerseys himself. He does all this while keeping the thread of a reporter's questions and keeping tabs on the ponies. He makes somewhere around $1.5 million a year for his Pete Meet and Greets here in Vegas, with a contract that runs through 2017. As documented by our friends at ESPN Films, he is uncommonly good at his job.
Super Bowl weekend was the one annual event I'd missed during my year in Las Vegas. I'd managed to take in every other special time in town: New Year's Eve. Independence Day. The World of Concrete convention. All of them, observed and processed. But I covered the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl from Indianapolis, and so I simply had to return to Vegas and fill in that missing weekend. As I'm sure many of you know if you've spent any time in Vegas, there is no steady, flowing story to take away from the weekend. A bunch of events happened, and they ranged from wildly exciting to downright tragic. Here, in roughly chronological order, are a few thoughts about what I saw.
“San Francisco. Baltimore. San Francisco. Baltimore. San Francisco. Baltimore.”
“What are you doing?” says Adam Eget.
“I’m thinking out loud. What do you think?”
“But you’ve said the same thing for the last hour.”
“I’m overthinking out loud.”
“Who do you like in the Super Bowl?”
“You got a good feeling?"
I want to kill Adam Eget, but Gabe Veltri is back and he’s got food. He’s dressed neatly and has two full bags from 7-Eleven. He empties them into the middle of the room with contempt. Food spills and fills the center of the apartment: Twizzlers and Butterfingers and Rolos and Creamsicles and PayDays and more and more and more. Gabe’s fridge is filled with Coca-Cola — Mexican Coca-Cola with cane sugar. Eget and I haven’t left Gabe’s apartment in four days.
I like to gamble. Gamble money on sports. Gabe calls it flipping coins.
Gabe’s still in Vegas and I’m here at the back of the World Famous Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard. Adam Eget is hovering around me, his tremulous right hand running through hair four days unshowered, his left hand steadying itself on my shoulder, his rheumy eyes looking somewhere at my shirt. There’s a guy up onstage and I think he’s saying some pretty important things because people are clapping a lot while exchanging sad and knowing nods.
“Why don’t you do a set?” Adam asks.
“Do a set. People will get a kick out of it. It’s a good crowd tonight.”
“Nobody wants to see me do a set.”
“Sure they do. Everybody loves you. You’re a legend here at the Comedy Store.”
“Tell your waitress. Maybe she’ll stop charging me four and a quarter for a Coca-Cola.”
“You’re still thinking about Vegas, aren’t you?”
“The hell I am!”
I stagger up from the table while thinking about slugging Eget one. Right in his big squidbilly head. A few years ago I woulda too, back when I was young. But now the world is young and I’m a fat old man. So instead, I shamble up to the stage and do my surefire bit about my answering machine. Nobody gets a kick out of it. The whole time I’m thinking about last Friday, when I was happy in the middle of the night, somewhere in the desert.
I like to gamble. Gamble money on sports. I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or frequent, or even occasion, prostitutes. But I do like to gamble. Gamble money on sports.
I’m not alone, of course. People who like to use big numbers say that sports betting is a multibillion-dollar business in these United States. And most of that money is wagered on professional football.
I’ve been told I have a problem. A psychiatrist once said that I gambled in order to escape the reality of life. I told him that’s why everybody does everything. But he had a point. There’s a certain arc to my gambling sprees. An arc that begins with me making modest bets after much study, then ends months later with me having no money.
When I told my friend Richard Feynman (all names of real people in my I-suck-at-football coverage have been replaced with those of noteworthy physicists) (I already forget why I decided to do this), whose fault this column is, that I was going to be in Vegas over the weekend, he said, "You've gotta watch a game at a sportsbook and write about it."
So, OK: I'm at a kind of gambling-workstation with a temperamental touchscreen in front of me; a wall of LED screens showing an afternoon's worth of NFL football (and some horse racing, and a little golf) looms above me in the middle distance. I'm sitting just a few steps from the Hard Rock Hotel's casino floor, but I can barely hear the Pavlovian bleeping of the slot machines or the never-ending high-energy-hits-of-the-'70s-'80s-'90s-and-today playlist that blares in all the Hard Rock's common areas at all times; I've turned my back on packaged rock-and-roll fun to do some serious football watching with serious men. There's a bar, and occasionally a pregnant waitress in a T-shirt promoting Guns N' Roses' imminent Hard Rock residency makes drink-related inquiries down the row — it's Vegas and it's well past noon — but barring the occasional neglected half-full Bud Light bottle, everybody here seems to be on a strict utilitarian-fluids regimen: coffee, water, Monster Energy.
If you’re incautious enough to spend any period of time looking at online gambling forums, two things will probably occur. Firstly, your faith in humanity will quickly disappear, and secondly, you’ll be amazed by how gullible people can be. Any online claim of extraordinary betting prowess will immediately be met with the challenge “pics or it didn’t happen,” but if you add a photo of a betting slip, the natural skepticism of the Internet’s gamblers will disappear immediately. Have these people never heard of Photoshop? However, there’s one gambler who never needs to be prompted to post a photo of his winning bets, and his bankroll is so huge that there’s no reason to suspect foul play: I refer, of course, to boxing’s undefeated quintuple world champion, Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr.
Mayweather is famous for his enormous bets, largely because he’s been tirelessly promoting himself on Twitter as boxing’s answer to Nick the Greek. By my count, between August 2010 (when he began tweeting his slips) and February 2012, Mayweather tweeted photographs of 46 betting slips, totaling $3,890,833 worth of bets, and every single one of them was a winner, netting the fighter a cool $3,938,722 (and 87 cents) in winnings on those bets. Losing betting slips have been conspicuous by their absence. When asked about his losing slips, Floyd responded, “Why would I ever show a losing ticket when I’m 41-0.”
At the end of July, I put together my much-beloved (at least by me) recap of the bets I'd plunked down in Vegas for the 2012 NFL season. I updated that list with three more small bets in my next column, but with a full month left in Vegas before I moved back East, I found a few more opportunities for action. In some cases, that meant getting additional bets down on some of my previous targets, but I also found some new targets for action.