The Super Bowl of Sports Gambling
By JAMES VLAHOSJAN. 30, 2014
David Frohardt-Lane, a financial trader from Chicago and a participant in the SuperContest. Bruce Gilden/Magnum, for The New York Times
Vegas Runner strode into the sports book of the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, a fat diamond stud glittering in his left earlobe. Moving through the cavernous room as though it belonged to him, he reached a bar table where his friend R. J. Bell was waiting and flashed a smile. “My man!” Vegas Runner bellowed.
It was mid-December, Week 15 of the National Football League season, and the two men needed to talk through that Sunday’s matchups. Vegas Runner, 42, whose name is Gianni Karalis and who is known around town as V. R., bantered and swaggered and generally looked the part of a reality-show professional gambler — glinting eyes, a trim goatee and heavily gelled black hair. R. J., who is 43, was earnest and clean-cut. He wore black slacks and a dress shirt and spoke with the quick, stat-supported assurance of a quant who graduated at the top of his class in the finance department at Ohio State University.
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Gianni Karalis, known as Vegas Runner, or V.R. Bruce Gilden/Magnum, for The New York Times
“Give me the games you’re leaning toward, and I’ll counterpunch,” R. J. said.
“Washington-Atlanta,” V. R. said.
They looked up toward the front of the room, where a giant electronic board showed the Washington Redskins as 6.5-point underdogs to the Atlanta Falcons. This seemed to make sense: The Redskins had a 3-10 record and had lost their last five games. The team had just benched its star quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and the firing of the head coach, Mike Shanahan, was imminent. Most gamblers predicted a solid Redskins loss.
R. J. and V. R. weren’t so sure. The Falcons also had a woeful 3-10 record. The benching of Griffin was assumed to be devastating, but his backup, Kirk Cousins, was highly capable. Plus R. J. had talked to a former N.F.L. quarterback who said that the possibility of new management was often motivating for a team. “It’s like in the corporate environment when they sell the company, and the new guys with clipboards come in,” R. J. said. “You’re not going to take a long lunch then, right?” After reviewing these and other factors, V. R. and R. J. decided that they should “fade the public” — go against prevailing opinion — and pick the Redskins. “I love that,” R. J. said. “Best bet of the week.”
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R. J. Bell Bruce Gilden/Magnum, for The New York Times
V. R. and R. J., working together as TeamVR, were making their picks for the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino SuperContest, the world’s pre-eminent football-handicapping tournament. The rules were simple. After paying an entry fee of $1,500, each team chose five football games per week and made picks against the point spread. (If the Minnesota Vikings were listed at +10.5 against the Dallas Cowboys, for instance, the Cowboys needed to win the game by 11 points or more for gamblers who picked them to triumph.) Competitors got one point for every game they called right and a half-point for every tie. At the end of the regular season, the top finishers won a share of a $1.5 million payout. The purse was enticing, but so were the bragging rights that came with finishing high in the standings — the SuperContest is to sports bettors what the World Series of Poker is to card sharks. As a sports handicapper named Ted Sevransky told me, “You are literally going up against the best in the world.”
V. R. and R. J. periodically looked up at the 31 cinema-scale screens displaying a brilliant collage of races and games. Dogs and horses sprinted around tracks, men and women ran up and down basketball courts, football players launched themselves into one another. It was nearly impossible to focus on any one game, but occasionally someone in the crowd would jump up cheering or swearing in response to something that affected whether they would win money or lose it. There were hundreds of gamblers in the room. Jersey-wearing fans lounged in long rows of leather easy chairs; hunched-over men sat at wooden carrels, like those in a university library, and scribbled out columns of figures. Breakfast was barely over, and the place was packed.
Four years ago, the SuperContest was a small affair with a few hundred competitors, most of them serious gamblers in Vegas. This year’s field was made up of more than 1,000 entrants from around the country, a tiny fraction of the millions who spend a significant amount of time and money betting on sports — not just in Vegas but in fantasy leagues and office pools, and from computers, tablets and phones. By the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl, sports books in Nevada are expected to crack $100 million in wagers, the most that has ever been bet on a single game.
There is no greater unifier in American culture than professional football, which is followed by 68 percent of men and 42 percent of women — Republicans and Democrats in equal numbers. Game telecasts accounted for nine of the 10 most-watched programs in 2013, and the previous three Super Bowls were the most-viewed television programs of all time in the United States.
The enormous amounts of attention now being paid to the prevalence of concussions among players and the tragic long-term health risks hasn’t diminished football’s popularity at all. The televised games are gladiatorial spectacles, overlain with obsessive strategic analysis. You don’t so much watch a football game as listen to experts dissect it. Vital to its popularity is the fact that the game’s complexity generates reams of statistics, which hard-core fans have always devoured. But in a world where everything — politics and exercise, diet and recreational time — has been transformed by the notion that slavishly crunched metrics can reveal deeper truths about our inclinations, lives and the future, every fan with a smartphone can now be an expert. “When I was a kid, following the statistics of your favorite team was a geeky thing,” says Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University. “Today, an exponentially larger number of people — kids, teenagers, men, women, people in nursing homes — are suddenly tracking all of these stats.”
More than 33 million Americans participate in the data-fetishizing hobby of fantasy sports, up from 18 million in 2007. Though it is generally not considered gambling, the core activity is arguably the same: You fanatically absorb sports information from cable TV, sports radio, the Internet and anywhere else you can find it and make predictions, usually for money. Winners of fantasy leagues can receive cash payouts of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
One in five American men polled by researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University (and nearly one in 10 women) said they bet on sports in 2012. In Nevada, where it is legal to bet via licensed bookmakers, the industry collected $3.4 billion in wagers in 2012, nearly twice as much as a decade ago. Around the country, vastly more sports wagering is estimated to take place illegally, through unlicensed bookies in person or, increasingly, online and through offshore websites, which by law are not allowed to take bets from United States residents. (Experienced online gamblers, however, claim that they have never heard of the law actually being enforced.) Sports economists say it’s impossible to know how much money is spent on illegal gambling; the National Gambling Impact Study Commission cited an estimate of somewhere between $80 billion and $380 billion annually.
Sports betting is so widespread that several economists I spoke with suggested that gambling was fueling the rise in N.F.L. viewership, rather than the other way around. “Betting and fantasy sports are extremely important to the popularity of the N.F.L.,” says Rodney Paul, a sports economist at Syracuse University. Todd Nesbit, an economist at Ohio State University, has found that fantasy-league participants watch 35 percent more professional football on television each week and attend 57 percent more games in person per year than nonparticipants. When money is at stake, every game — even preseason ones, tedious blowouts and humdrum matchups between nonmarquee teams — becomes must-see TV. “People will watch Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady, but why do you watch Jake Locker versus Andy Dalton if you’re not from their cities?” says Colin Cowherd, an ESPN Radio host. “The N.F.L. never wants to mention this, but one of the reasons that ratings continue to skyrocket is because of fantasy football and betting. Betting gives games juice.”
Dennis Montoro, a 59-year-old mechanical engineer living in Las Vegas, describes himself as a hard-working family man and says that he and his wife have put three children through college. He’s a fitness buff who has competed in multiple marathons and one triathlon and is also a fledgling author, having self-published a thriller about the mafia last year. Montoro says he bets on football — and has done so for nearly 40 years — not with the hope of paying the bills, but simply for fun. On average, he makes five to 10 bets on football per week, each typically for $300 to $500, but some for up to $3,000. Over the first couple of decades of his betting career, Montoro estimates, he lost around $100,000. “I went to the school of hard knocks, and there were plenty of them,” he said. But over the past two decades, he bet more judiciously and won all but $10,000 of that back.
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Dennis Montoro Bruce Gilden/Magnum, for The New York Times
In the SuperContest, Montoro teamed up with two friends from Greensboro, N.C., Robert Burns and Ronald Levine, to form Team Jarhead. Midway through the season, they ascended to first place. “I never bet with my heart,” Montoro said. “I am a Jets fan, but I will bet against them just as easily as I will with them.”
Because only the top 34 finishers would win money, the participants in the SuperContest were pitted against one another. But the true challenge, as in most forms of gambling, was to beat the house — in this case, the Las Vegas Hotel’s sports-book director, Jay Kornegay, and his team of bookmakers. When I met Kornegay in the casino during the 15th week of the N.F.L. season, he ushered me through a door marked “Staff Only” and walked behind a row of tellers taking bets through their windows. On a typical Sunday during football season, the casino’s sports book might accept more than 8,000 wagers, Kornegay said; roughly 90 percent are for less than $200, 5 percent for $200 to $1,000 and 5 percent for more than $1,000.
Kornegay and I stopped in a secluded area where two bookmakers sat facing computer monitors and a dozen television screens apiece. Pecking furiously at their keyboards, the bookies updated the odds for hundreds of available bets on football, basketball, hockey, golf, soccer and mixed martial arts. Football was by far the most popular sport, Kornegay said, accounting for 45 percent of the annual sports-book “handle,” or the total money wagered.
Leaving the two bookies, Kornegay led the way to his office, which had framed casino chips on one wall, more television monitors on another and chest-high stacks of paper on the desk. After we sat down, Kornegay explained that the classic business model for a bookmaker is to carefully evaluate the two teams in any given game and then set the point spread such that a bet for either team will appear to the public to have a nearly identical chance of winning. That way, the bookie hopes to attract “balanced action” from bettors — roughly equal money for each team.
Once the game is over, the winning and losing bets effectively cancel each other out. The bookmaker’s profits primarily come from collecting a commission of around 4.5 percent, which in the jargon-rich world of sports betting is known as the juice, the vigorish or simply the vig. Truly balanced action is extremely elusive in practice, Kornegay said, but his job is to juggle the odds on games so that the sports book is profitable over all.
Predicting which team might prevail in a football game and by what margin is a task of enormous mathematical complexity. The variables include numerical manifestations of individual athletic performances, coaching and the random bounces of a fumbled oblong ball. “The guys here in Las Vegas who make the lines — some of them should work on curing cancer,” Dennis Montoro said. The SuperContest rules require the casino to set the weekly point spreads and stick with them, but in standard wagering, the challenge facing sports books is eased by the fact that they can continually adjust lines according to incoming bets. For instance, if too much money is pouring in on, say, the underdog Packers at +7.5, Kornegay might shift the line to +7, thus reducing the team’s advantage and encouraging more people to bet on Green Bay’s opponent. A wager from someone who is known to be a well-informed bettor may also prompt a line move, on the assumption that he has chosen a particular team for a good reason.
“Betting odds are the best quantification of the future that there is,” R. J. Bell told me. “They reflect the collective I.Q., the wisdom of crowds, the aggregation of all of the best opinions in the world.” Point spreads so effectively balance the odds, in fact, that gamblers like Robert Burns joke that “a drunk monkey could pick games right 50 percent of the time.” Veteran sports gamblers are happy if they can do just slightly better, hitting 53.5 percent or more of their bets, which is the threshold for beating the vig and being profitable.
SuperContest players like Montoro who hoped to finish in the winners’ circle needed to perform at an even higher level because they were competing against so many other people. “Most likely, you will have to win over 60 percent of the time,” Kornegay said. To inexperienced gamblers, that sounds deceptively easy. “People go, ‘So, you’re telling me I can get into the money if I just pick three out of five correctly?’ ” Kornegay said. “I tell them: ‘Yeah, that’s it. Three out of five, for 17 weeks. Can you do that?’ ”
In the world of sports gambling, there are two types of people: squares and sharps. Squares make bets based on hunches, hometown favoritism, emotion. Nearly everybody who bets is a square — about 97 percent of sports bettors lose money long-term. Sharps are those few who can figure out how to beat bookmakers. To them, games aren’t athletic contests so much as complex probability generators. “Forget jerseys and pompoms and who is going to lift the Lombardi Trophy,” V. R. told me. “You don’t bet teams. You bet numbers.”
The prototypical Vegas sharp is someone like Steve Fezzik, who has made a living as a full-time sports gambler for nearly a decade. A 50-year-old former insurance actuary, Fezzik won the SuperContest back to back, in 2008 and 2009. This season, he was foundering in the middle of the standings but was sticking with the approach that served him so well in the past: crunching player and team statistics and taking in dozens of hours of football per week. “I’ll watch every game I can until I pass out,” he said.
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Steve Fezzik Bruce Gilden/Magnum, for The New York Times
Fezzik is known as a grinder, meaning he doesn’t risk his “nut” — his bankroll — on huge wagers but instead places bets of around $500 (and occasionally as much as $2,000) up to a hundred times a week. He might have $75,000 wagered in a given week, but his bottom-line risk is less because, like a trader practicing arbitrage, he often has money on both sides of the same game.
A gambler who splashes big money around is a “whale,” someone like Dave Oancea, a SuperContest competitor who goes by the name Vegas Dave. Oancea, who is 37, says he drives a Ferrari and bets up to $100,000 per week; after spending more than $1 million for bottle service at nightclubs over a couple of years, he was honored by a local trade group as the 2013 Las Vegas Socialite of the Year. When I met up with Oancea at the Las Vegas Hotel in mid-December, he had just returned from a trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. “It was my birthday, and I flew 10 waitresses down there with me to celebrate,” he said. He tweeted pictures of himself amid lapping surf, buxom women in bikinis and a bottle of vodka the size of a small child. “It was crazy,” he said.
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Dave Oancea, a.k.a. Vegas Dave Bruce Gilden/Magnum, for The New York Times
Like Fezzik, Oancea watches football until his eyeballs fall out. He doesn’t get as deep into statistical analysis but collects as much anecdotal information as he can about teams. He also has rules of thumb, including not betting against a premier quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, no matter what his numbers might indicate. And once he reaches a decision, he sticks with it. “I don’t like to second-guess myself,” he said.
Lately, he’d been on a roll. Early in the 2012-13 N.F.L. season, he picked the Baltimore Ravens to win the Super Bowl, an $8,000 long-shot bet that resulted in a $200,000 payout. Toward the end of last baseball season, he bet $30,000 on the Boston Red Sox to take the World Series and won $340,000. Two-thirds of the way through the SuperContest, meanwhile, he was tied for third. “I wake every morning like a kid on Christmas,” Oancea said. “I can’t wait to get up and go bet on games.”
In Week 14 of the contest, a financial trader in Chicago named David Frohardt-Lane dislodged Montoro’s team to grab first place. Frohardt-Lane, who is 36, became interested in sports betting when he analyzed data on N.F.L. games for a college class. After graduating from Carleton College with a bachelor’s degree in math and then earning a master’s in statistics from the University of Chicago, he got a “mindless” job in 2002 analyzing loan risks for a bank. He spent almost all of his spare time developing elaborate computer simulations for predicting game outcomes, primarily for baseball but also for football, and used his analytics as a basis for betting.
“My breakthrough year was 2003,” Frohardt-Lane said. With a starting bankroll of a little over $10,000, he made bets using offshore websites of $100 to $200 apiece on 50 baseball games and a few football games per week. By the end of the year, his average bets were in the $1,000-to-$2,000 range, and his bankroll had swelled to nearly $100,000.
Emboldened, Frohardt-Lane was ready to quit his job in 2004 and gamble full time. Instead, a friend persuaded him to take a job in high-speed electronic trading. Betting has been relegated to hobby status ever since. But sports wagering and financial trading have a lot in common, Frohardt-Lane said. The teams are commodities. The line is the price. Just like an investor, the gambler must judge whether that price is correct based on future expectations. “Some traders can make money by figuring out the soybeans are undervalued or overvalued,” Frohardt-Lane said. “The bettor’s skills are figuring out how good the teams are.”
His analysis of the Oct. 20 matchup between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets typified his process. First, he fed dozens of statistics into his computer model, like the average yards per passing and rushing play for each team and fumbles and turnovers per game. The computer then generated a “power rating” indicating that the Patriots were better than the Jets, but not by much. His final step was to manually tweak the number to include other variables, like the fact that the Patriots were missing three defensive starters to injuries.
Frohardt-Lane then checked the SuperContest odds, which listed the Jets as underdogs at +4. This didn’t necessarily mean that Kornegay thought the final score would be Patriots over Jets by, say, 24-20. Instead, +4 was simply the number that the bookies, following their classic strategy, thought would divide the bettors such that half picked the Patriots and half grabbed the Jets. Frohardt-Lane thought the number was slightly more generous to the Jets than it needed to be, because the public would otherwise lean toward the Patriots, who have won three Super Bowls under the future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady. The spread, in other words, reflected the bookies’ assessment of the public perception about the two teams but not necessarily the reality of their potential to win.
This distinction is key. When the collective perception of the point spread diverged from the expected reality as calculated by Frohardt-Lane, he had a potential winning bet. Just as an investor might load up on Pfizer stock that he thought was underpriced at, say, $31 per share, Frohardt-Lane “bought” the Jets at +4 — and subsequently netted himself a SuperContest point when they won 30-27.
Two decades before he became Vegas Runner, Gianni Karalis was the child of recent Greek immigrants, lobbing a football between the rowhouses of South Philadelphia. He lived close to where the Eagles, Phillies, 76ers and Flyers played, and although he fantasized about becoming a professional athlete, he said he “let that dream go as a kid, really young.” South Philly was also the center of the city’s underground gambling industry, where lacing up cleats wasn’t the only way to make money in sports. “Instead of wanting to be Joe Montana, I started wanting to be more like the bookie in our neighborhood,” V. R. said.
He started betting on football in fifth grade. “By the time I was 18, I had a full-blown book and was taking bets from everyone in the neighborhood,” he said. In his 20s, he affiliated himself with a major betting syndicate whose masterminds — nicknamed Bull, Seal, Tiger, Rooster, Baba the Black Sheep and the Philly Godfather — were known as the Animals and were “some of the sharpest minds on the planet,” he said.
Like other syndicates, the Animals wagered hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on individual games. The group employed computer algorithms and teams of handicappers — rooms full of Fezziks and Frohardt-Lanes — to come up with the best picks. The syndicates also cultivated networks of well-placed sources. A stadium groundskeeper, for instance, might let them know that the turf was soggy and that the score would probably be low. A locker-room janitor could leak information on which supposedly healthy running back was limping. Insider knowledge could trump dry statistical analysis. “If last night the starting quarterback found out that his wife was sleeping with the center, he is not going to perform like the numbers are saying,” V. R. said. In extreme cases, syndicates got leverage over particular players who had problems with drugs or gambling and might be inclined to share information or even influence game outcomes. Baba, for instance, whose real name is James Battista, was a primary recipient of tips from Tim Donaghy, a corrupt N.B.A. referee.
The challenge was that a syndicate member like Baba couldn’t simply stroll into a casino sports book and place a million-dollar bet, because bookmakers typically have far lower limits and refuse to accept action from known sharps. But Battista figured out how to make behemoth wagers. “Baba could get down more money than anyone else in the world,” V. R. said. To do so, syndicates employed handfuls of movers, who in turn distributed bets among dozens of anonymous runners.
In 1996, the Animals sent V. R. to Las Vegas to become their runner (hence his nickname) at the Stardust Resort. Every morning, V. R. would pick up paper bags full of cash and casino chips from a syndicate contact and then spend all day in the Stardust waiting for betting orders to come in over his two-way radio. “A play would come into my earpiece: ‘Dallas minus 3,’ ” V. R. said, referring to a desired point spread. “If the book had that number, I would run up and bet it.” In what were known as steam plays, V. R. and the other runners would bet simultaneously so that sports books didn’t have time to adjust their lines during the coordinated assault on a point spread that the syndicates thought was favorable. “If the sports books didn’t have a sharp line, we would bury them,” V. R. said.
Syndicates are still active today, and in the past few years, V. R. graduated to the role of mover. For the most part, he and his assistants no longer need to station themselves at casinos — “you can bet so much easier online with bookies across the country,” he said.
I visited V. R. one Sunday morning while he was working from a high-rise apartment. It was airy, with an expansive view of the city through floor-to-ceiling windows, and had an L-shaped white sofa parked in front of a huge TV. V. R. sat at a glass table, his four cellphones pinging constantly with text messages from syndicate sources. In less than an hour, he placed more than $30,000 in bets from his laptop. Using software that scrambled the computer’s I.P. address, he said, he could trick the bookies into thinking that many people were betting rather than just one. Sometimes he even used computer programs to fire off 30 or more bets at the same time. V. R. sounded enthusiastic and downright gleeful, like a school kid bragging about stealing the answers to a test. “I can’t imagine doing anything else than this,” he said.
With his syndicate background, V. R. would seem to have little in common with his SuperContest partner, R. J. Bell, who grew up in Shadyside, Ohio, a coal-mining community of about 4,000. R. J. admired Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton on “Family Ties,” not the neighborhood toughs; while V. R. never attended college, R. J. graduated summa cum laude. Like V. R., though, R. J. got hooked on sports gambling early on, betting through a friend of his father. “From the age of 14 until today, I’ve pretty much bet every single day,” he said.
After graduating from Ohio State, R. J. was accepted into Harvard Law School. But he had a strong independent streak — Ayn Rand was a favorite author — and couldn’t imagine fitting into the bureaucratic culture of a law firm. He decided to forgo law school and move to Las Vegas instead, “to my mother’s great chagrin,” he said. He was able to eke out a living for a few years as a full-time sports bettor and blackjack player, but he decided he could be more successful as an entrepreneur. In 2005, he started Pregame.com, which provides sports-betting advice and sells pick recommendations to the public — roughly $20 for a day’s selections and $400 for a full season’s worth. (V. R. and Fezzik are among the contributors to the site.) R. J. now does weekly ESPN radio and television segments on sports gambling, and in 2012 Pregame was valued at $5 million.
When V. R. and R. J. sat down together at the Las Vegas Hotel to discuss their selections for Week 15, R. J. pulled out a sheaf of papers containing his research and said things like, “Since 1990, any N.F.L. underdog that lost by 30 or more points the last game beats the spread 61 percent of the time the next game.” V. R., meanwhile, leaned back in his chair, puffed an electronic cigarette and trumpeted his street smarts. “I’m from Philly” was the launching point for many of his arguments. He gave credence to who in his syndicate networks had bet on a game as much as why, knowing that the big-money “wiseguys” always had good reasons. “Rooster and the Philly Godfather bet Washington,” V. R. said.
The matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers showcased V. R.’s brand of insider information. The syndicates, V. R. said, wanted to bet on the Steelers. The general public, meanwhile, favored the Bengals, who would be playing in Pittsburgh and were known as a good road team. Earlier in the week, sports books had the Steelers listed as very slight underdogs, at +1.5, but the syndicates wanted a better number. “So what they did was send out some smaller bets by known runners on Cincinnati,” V. R. said. “The books saw that money come in, and they were like, ‘Oh, no, the wiseguys are on us, and the public is, too?’ ”
Hoping to balance out the Cincinnati bets by attracting more action on the Pittsburgh side, the books increased their numbers to Steelers +3. This, of course, was the more favorable number the syndicates wanted all along. Rushing in with a steam play, the syndicates “took every +3 that they could find,” V. R. said. V. R. and R. J. might have benefited from the syndicates’ trickery; the Las Vegas Hotel put the Steelers at +3 for the SuperContest. “I think we’ve got a play right there,” R. J. told V. R. (That Sunday, the Steelers won outright, and the pair earned another contest point.)
V. R. and R. J. had hit on 60 percent of their picks so far in the contest, which put them in a tie for the seventh-best score. V. R. said that after two decades of toiling away in syndicate anonymity, he wanted the recognition of winning — a highly public endorsement of his expertise — more than he wanted the prize money. “All the work that I have done, all of the years that I have put into this racket — I’ve paid my dues,” he said. “I just want to bring a win back to Philly.”
On Dec. 29, the final Sunday of the N.F.L.’s regular season, hundreds of fans assembled in the L.V.H. Theater for the hotel’s free Football Central party — sponsored by Miller Lite and Bust Out Bail Bonds. The 1,700-seat venue, which hosted Elvis and Liberace for extended runs in the 1970s, was showing the games on screens that were even bigger than those at the sports book, including a 65-foot high-definition display.
Robert Marlow, a 55-year-old real estate agent from Southern California, and his son Jason, 26, who works in online education, sat in the middle of the theater. Along with one of Jason’s friends who wasn’t able to come to the hotel, they formed the team All You Can Eat. Jason watched mostly in tense silence, while his father was loud and emotional. When the Minnesota Vikings uncorked a long run against the Detroit Lions with two and a half minutes left to play, Robert jumped to his feet, pumped his fist into the air and yelled, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, yes, YES!”
Dennis Montoro was sitting in the same row as the Marlows. He and his partners picked the Packers when the team announced late in the week that the injured Aaron Rodgers was now cleared to play — great news that wasn’t reflected in the SuperContest point spread, which listed Green Bay as +4.5 underdogs to the Chicago Bears. In the fourth quarter, though, the Packers were trailing by 8 points. “Today is the day I die a thousand deaths,” Montoro said quietly. But then the Packers mounted a comeback, capped by a long touchdown pass from Rodgers that won the game with less than a minute to go.
As the day’s games wound down, the SuperContest gamblers counted up their points. In the final standings, Fezzik, the two-time champion, did not escape the middle of the pack and finished with a win record of just under 50 percent. TeamVR called nearly 59 percent of its games correctly, an enviable rate for professional gamblers but one that put the pair just outside the tournament prize money. “I expected to have more than 900 people below me in the standings,” V. R. said. “But the truth is, I’m angry to have 50 people above me. You don’t get to this level unless you think you’re better than everyone else.” Oancea, the high roller, finished a half-point below TeamVR And two teams with amateur gamblers — Jarhead (Montoro, Burns and Levine) and All You Can Eat — finished with striking win records of 64 percent, tying for sixth place and each winning $56,870.
The success of people who aren’t classic Vegas sharps didn’t surprise Jay Kornegay. Sports betting has changed greatly from when people like Vegas Runner were starting out. Much of the carefully acquired intelligence of betting syndicates — last-minute weather forecasts, player-injury reports — is now available to anyone with Internet access. The statistical parsing performed by analysts working in the unmarked offices of the Animals is now a mainstay of sports-talk radio and ESPN. And seemingly every gambler with any bona fides works as a tout, selling picks to squares. The true sharps and syndicates still have an edge over everyone else, but it isn’t as large as it once was. “Casual bettors are more sophisticated than ever before,” Kornegay said. “And they’re getting better each and every year.”
Some 1,500 miles from the Las Vegas Hotel, David Frohardt-Lane was attending his brother-in-law’s wedding in Chicago and couldn’t watch the final games. As the ceremony and reception progressed, he repeatedly checked his cellphone for score updates. His contest standing was precarious. The previous week, the third-place competitor, listed as Ebn Ozn, pulled off a perfect 5-0 and muscled into first place, a half-point ahead of Frohardt-Lane.
Once the wedding wound down, Frohardt-Lane and a large group of friends and relatives rushed to the nearest bar. It had a couple of small televisions showing the hometown Bears game. When that ended, the network cut to the San Francisco 49ers-Arizona Cardinals matchup. Frohardt-Lane had picked the 49ers; Ebn Ozn had the Cardinals at +1. Whoever was right would win the entire SuperContest. The game was tied 20-20, and there were only 29 seconds left to play.
The Cardinals kicked off. LaMichael James fielded the ball for the 49ers and ran it back 41 yards — then appeared to fumble when he was tackled. “I had this feeling in the pit of my stomach that this game could be lost in the next minute,” Frohardt-Lane said. When the officials ruled that James was down before the ball came loose, Frohardt-Lane’s emotions swung again. “Instead of being an unexpected opportunity to lose, it was an unexpected opportunity to win,” he said.
The 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, then completed two long passes, bringing the ball to the Cardinals’ 22-yard line. With two seconds left on the clock, Phil Dawson lined up to kick a 40-yard field goal, which was in “extremely makable range,” Frohardt-Lane said. But it wasn’t a lock. As Frohardt-Lane knew, Dawson had missed 26 percent of his field goals in the 40-to-49-yard range in his career. Frohardt-Lane felt calm nonetheless. He sensed what was going to happen before Dawson’s foot even struck the ball. “He drilled it,” Frohardt-Lane said. “It was never in doubt. It was about the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” The 49ers prevailed 23-20, and Frohardt-Lane won $557,850.
When I spoke with him by phone several days later, Frohardt-Lane ducked every opportunity to brag. To win the SuperContest, you needed to be more lucky than good, he kept saying. He reckoned that his computer-aided system would never be more than about 53 percent to 55 percent accurate over the long term, so he had been extremely fortunate to nail 68 percent of his selections during the contest. He planned to give half of his prize money to charity. I asked him if anything in his life had changed since winning. He told me that within minutes of the 49ers’ victory, his phone overflowed with text messages. Football bettors all over the country wanted to be his best friend. By the end of the day, he had hundreds of new Twitter followers. Several hundred more piled on in the next few weeks, and Frohardt-Lane fielded emails and phone calls from journalists and advice-seeking gamblers. The N.F.L. postseason was underway, and the members of his burgeoning flock wanted to know which teams they should pick.
The Super Bowl was a tough call, he told me. “This is the best matchup we have had in a long time,” he said. “Denver has by far the highest-scoring offense, and Seattle has the best defense in terms of points allowed per game.” His computer model calculated Denver as a very slight favorite at -1, but that was before Frohardt-Lane made his fine-tuned adjustments. Denver had lost several defensive starters to injuries. The game would most likely take place in cold weather, which tended to be harder on a pass-heavy team like the Broncos. And while Denver had a league-leading throwing game, Seattle’s defense was better suited than any other in the league to keep it in check, Frohardt-Lane said. After the adjustments, he believed that Seattle should be the true favorite at -1.5. “If the Vegas line is Denver -2, I think that Seattle is the smartest side to bet on.”
That was what Frohardt-Lane’s head told him, at any rate. But as a football fan, one who had always rooted for Peyton Manning, his heart was with the Broncos. He planned to make only a few Super Bowl wagers with friends and thought he could excuse himself for ignoring his contest-winning analytics just this once. “After the season that I’ve had,” he said, “I have earned the right to just pick the team that I like.”