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Small Time Player

by Ray Lastinger

For almost five years, until the play lost its flavor, I made a living as a sports bettor. I suppose it's possible that my success was merely a protracted run of luck--luck certainly played a part, as it does in every facet of our lives--but I believe it was due mainly to a certain talent for the game, to having the right instincts and a relaxed temperament. I had no intention of trying to become wealthy; my goal was to earn a modest living wage to augment the money I earned as a writer (my son was planning to attend an expensive university, so the added income would come in handy), and unlike most bettors, I went about the task with the dedication of a factory worker learning to use a complicated and potentially dangerous machine.

In the early fall of 1987 I found myself with a little extra money, and I decided to test my assumption that I could win on a regular basis. I knew that Gamblers Anonymous meetings were full of people who'd embraced similar assumptions, but I told myself that if I lost my stake I would simply back away. I had before me an example that proved a reasonably intelligent person could beat the oddsmakers by dint of studious application: my friend, James T., had made his living at the racetrack for nearly a decade, taking home a considerable annual profit. I have no doubt that the sport of kings provides the surest ground for a bettor. The past performances of horses and jockeys yield valuable data upon analysis, and even more significantly, there is a great deal of inside information to be gained by hanging around the paddocks and in other less savory venues. But due to an unfortunate incident with a runaway gelding at Camp Pinnacle in North Carolina during my seventh summer, I hated horses; I had no desire to be in close proximity to them and felt uneasy about wagering a significant sum on a thousand pound animal with a brain the size of a Milk Dud. It may seem unreasonable that I would feel easier about wagering on any sport, given the frequency of news items testifying to the erratic and irresponsible behavior of collegiate and professional athletes; but then I had never been carried on a terrifying cross-country ride by a spooked offensive lineman or dumped in a thicket by a deranged power forward.

To start with, I set myself two rules:
1) Never bet on any team that I was rooting for...unless the proposition was so solid that I could be certain I was not affected by emotion.
2) Never bet just for the sake of betting.

John C., a bartender in the restaurant I used for an office, was testimony to the importance of this second rule, by far the easiest of the two to break. He was a encyclopedia of sports knowledge and had a fine understanding of odds and point spreads, but he was unable to watch a televised sports event without having something down on the outcome. The thrill that drives a compulsive gambler is the risking of more than he can afford to lose. John had not reached this level of sickness, though he was clearly on the path to compulsion. For him, it was all about the action. He enjoyed winning, but he enjoyed more the sense of the interactive that betting gave him, the feeling that while he was not truly a participant in the game or fight or race, neither was he merely an observer. As a result he rarely had a profitable week, blowing what he made from carefully considered bets on spur-of-the-moment fliers. I will admit that early on he infected me with this passion and I made several rash bets; but I learned my lesson and thereafter wagered only when confronted by a proposition that I judged to be winnable. If on a given day nothing interested me, I did not bet; if there were seven or eight games that attracted me, I bet them all. Even when John understood that I was having success with this method, he refused to change his ways and continued on his downward spiral.

Another example of a gambler whose pyschology I had no wish to emulate was Davey D., a Boston Irishman, a bartender at a upscale club who took home up to four hundred dollars in tips each night and whose main claim to fame was that he had been part of a group of drunks who had one night beaten up Larry Bird in a Southey bar. Whether or not this was true, I'm not sure; but just the fact that Davey would claim responsibility for such a dubious act stood as evidence to the extent of his intelligence. I played poker in a weekly game at which Davey was a regular. None of us particularly cared for him, but we all appreciated his lack of skill at cards. No matter how much he was losing, and he almost always lost a lot, when asked how he was doing, he would invariably answer, "Ah, you know, I'm about even...maybe down a little." This answer was not based on a misapprehension, it was due to the fact that Davey's self-esteem was inextricably bound up with his image of himself as not only a mugger of NBA stars, but as a master gambler, a sort of Irish Kenny Rogers/Bret Maverick, If a habitual loser could delude himself to this degree, I figured anyone might fall prey to some similar delusion, and thereafter, whenever I had an especially good week and began to feel gifted with powers of prescience, I would think of Davey and reconsider my position.

I should state from the outset that I rarely bet on boxing. If I had lived in Vegas, I might have bet more frequently on the sport--in Vegas you can find a line on even the most obscure bouts, but I lived in a small New England island community and the local bookies refused to take bets on most fights because they couldn't get enough action on both sides of a proposition to make it risk-free; thus I was limited to a handful of high profile fights. In order to bet a mere $50 on Buster Douglas against Tyson (I never believed Douglas would win, but the 42-1 odds were too high to pass up), I had to get my bookie to lay the bet off on a bookie in Hyannisport, who in turn laid it off with someone in Boston. The majority of televised fights are mismatches, and not good bets--if you are a blue-collar bettor there is little more than anxiety to be gained in putting down $800 or $1000 to win a hundred on a favorite. So I hunted for live underdogs and had a number of successes--for instance, I went with Terry Norris and the over against Sugar Ray Leonard. I liked over bets in any competitive match-up. (Vegas assigns every major fight an over-under line, a round--and sometimes a minute--that defines the bet; if you think the fight be will shorter than the time stated, you bet under; longer, you bet over.) If you check out the results of recent quality match-ups, fights involving Reid, Trinidad, Mosely, Quartey, Vargas, Page, Lopez, Morales, Barrera, and others, you plainly can see the wisdom of taking the over. But at the time, since I bet intermittently on the sport I did not develop a feeling for the action. It may be something of a conceit, but when I was betting regularly on other sports, though my wagers were informed by analysis, I had the idea that I had gotten into a good rhythm, just like an athlete, and this sharpened my instincts. Even if I were still betting today, I'd be wary of boxing. Look at the major fights that, as of this date, we have upcoming: Tzyu-Chavez; Botha-Lewis; Ruiz-Holyfield, Tyson-TBA, Hamed-Sanchez; Bailey-Julio; Trinidad-Thiam. Holyfield may have slipped sufficently so that a Ruiz bet would be appropriate, but no one of them jumps off the page and yells, Bet me! If you're sitting in a Vegas sports book or are located in large urban area and have a good knowledge of the fight game, you can find interesting propositions in smaller fights; but if you're out in the hinterlands, your options are limited unless you want to start dealing with Vegas sports books. I did this when there was a line I could not get locally, but I didn't like betting over the phone. It was too easy, the money I was putting up had no reality. I preferred to sit a the bar with little envelopes containing bills in front of me, each marked with the details of an intended wager--it made the idea of loss more poignant and inspired me to caution.

I had been studying the Vegas lines for several years, and I habitually read a number of national publications focusing on the upcoming football and basketball seasons. Each morning after breakfast I read the sports sections of four or five newspapers. That, aside from being a lifetime sports junkie, was the sum of my preparation for the job. I subscribed to no tip sheets, no weekly newsletters. If had a question about a player's health (something that rarely factored in to my wagers) I would call a sports desk or, that failing, call an SID office and pretend to be a reporter (despite the NCAA's professed concern about gambling, I never had any trouble in gaining up-to-the-minute information this way). On a typical day I would walk to the restaurant around 11 AM, take a seat at the bar, and go over my picks for the day. At noon I would phone in my bets, and then I would either return home or stay to watch a game on televison. Like John C., I enjoyed the company of other bettors. Unlike him, I enjoyed not only the comraderie but also the unspoken competition among us, a competition I felt I was a lock to win.

For the most part I steered clear of betting on pro basketball and pro football, though late in the season I would bet on games in which one team had more to gain playoff-wise than did their opponents.

Small-time bookies will sometimes tell you that NBA and the NFL are better bets than the collegiate game, because the outcome of many college games turns on emotion. However, it's been my experience that the listlessness that afflicts almost every pro athlete at some point during a long season is a more difficult a variable to gauge than the passions of sophomores, juniors, and seniors (now that parity--or as Marty Schottenheimer calls it, "parody"--has been achieved in the NFL, pro football is even shakier a proposition). Further, professional handicappers don't seem to have as thorough an understanding of college ball as they do of the NFL and the NBA. Their lines, especially early in the season, are frequently way off, and they tend to overrrate many teams. Then there are teams like the Notre Dame football squads of the late 80s, early 90s. Ideally, handicappers like to set lines so that an equal number of bettors will wager on both sides in any given contest and then make their money off the vigorish. But with a poor team such as Notre Dame had in those days, I believe they knew they could set the line too high and make losers out of the legion of Irish fans. In New England the lines on the Boston Celtics, still a very good team at the time, were often skewed up from the Vegas lines so as to keep people from betting on them, and I found if I picked my spots, I could make money betting against them. Now and then when the line was exceptionally skewed, I would bet a middle, getting down on a game one way through Gene and the other through a Vegas sports book.

Another thing small-time bookies are prone to tell you is that major league baseball is a not such a hot bet. They tell you this because they know the opposite is true. To win at baseball you want to bet streaks. Winning streaks, losing streaks--it doesn't matter. Just find a streaking team and stay with them. Some gamblers of my acquaintance like to increase their bets on each successive game. You may wind up with a terrible pitching match-up and decide to get off the train, or you may ride it to the end and lose big on the game that stops the streak, but you'll make out overall. One of the more reliable bets in baseball is to bet against the previous year's World Series teams during spring training. Only a few times over the past thirty years have any of these teams had a winning record in the spring.

My favorite bet was college basketball. Between the time the season begins until the conference seasons open, you can win a lot of money if you pay attention. It never fails that the handicappers will present you with some outright gifts during those months, and you have to have the confidence to jump all over them. My first such gift was Iowa by 9 points at Northern Iowa. Northern Iowa was an small college with an undistinguished program picked to finish in the middle of their conference. Iowa was one of the favorites for the Big Ten crown, led by All-American center Acie Earl. I assumed that the handicappers had viewed it as a rivary game and felt that emotion would keep it close. But Iowa-Northern Iowa did not make my list of storied rivalries. Nine points was ridiculous. If I were handicapping the game, I told myself, I would set the line, conservatively, at 20. I jumped all over it. Iowa won by 28.

It was at this juncture I realized that if I was to maximize my potential as a bettor, it would be best not simply to look at the lines and judge if they were correct, but to become a handicapper myself, >From that point forward, before reading the morning lines, I would make a list of twenty basketball games and, using the information I had accumulated during the season, I would set my own lines. Then I would compare them to the Vegas lines. I found that in the majority of games my lines were remarkably close to those of Vegas, but there were always a handful of games in which the two numbers differed by a wide mark. I concentrated my wagers on these games and found that my winning percentage improved dramatically. In one stretch during the conference and NCAA tournaments of '88, I won 25 college basketball games in a row. Anytime you win 25 straight at anything there's a significant measure of luck involved, and I had my share. I lucked out one game when after the final buzzer the losing point guard threw the ball at the ref, earning himself a technical, and an eighteen year old freshman from the victorious team stepped to the free throw line and sank two meaningless (to him) foul shots, changing the winning margin from 1 point to 3, and thereby causing a $500 positive swing in my income. John C., who was down on the same game, took the result as sign that he should bet more and immediately phoned in a bet on several games to be played later that day. I thought, however, if there had been any message implicit in the result, it was a cautionary one, and I stayed away from the action until the euphoria generated by this unexpected turn of fortune had dissispated.

Wednesday was payday. As I've stated, I lived in a place where trust was enforced by geography, and gambling debts were handled with less rigor than they might have been in a larger town on the mainland. So it was that shortly after noon on Wednesday my bookie--a portly, fiftyish man named Gene--would drop by the restaurant to pay out to and collect from the various people who had bet with him during the previous week. One Wednesday in the fall of '89 he casually mentioned that I'd been doing so well, he had taken to betting game for game along with me, except he had been risking considerably more per wager. I found it irritating that he was making more money off me than I was off him, and I told him, only half-jokingly, that he ought to find some way to compensate me. I expected him to laugh or say "Fuck off", but he actually seemed to be considering the matter.

A couple of weeks later, on a Monday, Gene dropped by my house and handed me a sheet of paper on which he'd copied the early Vegas line for that weekend's college football games. He suggested that I try betting some middles. The idea was to bet games I liked using the Monday point spread, then wait until the lines shifted later in the week and bet the opposite side using the Saturday lines. For example, if I were to bet on USC getting seven at Washington on Monday, and then the spread narrowed to five and a half, I would bet Washington on Saturday, and hope that Washington would prevail by six--if they did, I would win both bets. The virtue of betting middles was that worst case I could only lose the vigorish on one of the wagers, and this allowed me to wager more on a single game. I had bet middles before, using the variant lines offered by different bookies, but I'd never had the advantage offered by using the Monday morning Vegas lines, which sometimes changed during the week by as much four points. And four points was a massive middle.

I managed to hit several decent middles during the remainder of the season--Gene, of course, hit them even bigger. He had come to see me as kind of a cross between a protoge and the goose that laid the golden egg, and apparently felt that he should secure my loyalty by tossing me a bone. He told me he had a friend at a small southwestern racetrack who knew when a longshot was coming in a couple of times a year. He would share this information with me--the only proscription was that I could not wager more than $750. If a larger sum were added to that already being bet on the particular horse, he said, the stewards might become suspicious.

Over the course of my involvement with sports betting, I wagered considerably more on single events, my largest bet being $2500 on the Denver-San Francisco Super Bowl, but the idea of risking more than pocket change on a horse had little appeal. But Gene informed me that once in a while at this track, there were races in which six or seven horses went to the post and all but one had little sponges inserted into their nostrils to hamper their breathing. I laid the bet, and took home nearly $13,000. Having these occasional windfalls to look forward to allowed me to be more aggressive in my daily bets, and as a result I started making nearly half again as much money on a weekly basis as I had previously.

Because of the Mayberrylike (relatively-speaking) atmosphere of my home, I saw little of the seamier side of gambling life. When people failed to pay Gene, he never resorted to muscle--Gene was a successful businessman with strong political contacts, and he was usually able find a way to squeeze a non-payer without breaking any bones. On one occasion a fishing boat full of Portuguese men from New Bedford took shelter in our port from a nasty storm, and were stranded among us for several days. The fishermen spent most of their time in the resturant where I hung out, spending money freely at the bar, and on the second night of their stay, the captain got hold of Gene and wagered a thousand on that evening's Celtic game, taking Boston and giving points. The Celtics got hammered. When Gene came to collect his money, it seemed the captain and his crew had spent all they had. According to the weatherman, the storm was due to blow over by the next afternoon. Gene called the harbor master, who owed him, and the harbor master declared the captain's boat unseaworthy, ordering it held in port pending inspection. A battle of the wills ensued between Gene and the captain. For 24 hours, it was a stalemate. But finally the captain capitulated and off-loaded codfish worth about $1100 dockside, which Gene sold to local restaurants for somewhat more.

I had my bad weeks betting, but I never made the mistake of the causal bettor and looked for a way to get even quickly; I simply continued to do my reading and to follow my instincts and my rules. A majority of the losing bets I laid were due to my breaking one of those rules, allowing myself to think of what I was doing as entertainment or sport, as anything less than an avocation. Betting on sports can't be reduced to a science, though you should begin by familiarizing yourself with the percentages that pertain to every proposition. Being a successful bettor requires the kind of application and passion that you would bring to any discipline you're trying to master. I came to think of betting in much the same way I thought about writing. When I started writing, I tried to gather as much information about the process, I read a great many books, but I did not overeducate myself, I did not study the subject formally, because I knew this would smother my instincts, and the instinctual choices one makes as a writer, their surety, is what distinguishes good work from ordinary. When I took up betting, I gathered information, I watched a great many athletic contests, but I did not attempt to formalize the resultant knowledge. Becoming a handicapper was the key to the success I had--it provided me a tangible framework upon which to focus, like the beginning of a novel or an article, and when I focused I brought to bear not only my informational resources but also my instincts, and I made choices informed both by sound research and a sense of what felt right within context of what I absolutely knew--I learned to differentiate between anxiety and the inner voice that tells you stop and think some more. Handicapping also allowed me to gain an understanding of the motivations of the men who set the Vegas lines, to recognize that there were occasions when they set those lines not so as to generate a 50/50 split on either side of a proposition, but for other reasons--reasons that had to do with their reading of certain elements of the public mind. This is not to say that pure percentage players cannot flourish--they do. My friend James T., the horseplayer, was a statistics junkie, and his plays were most often based on analytical judgments. But as stated, I believe horse racing is more suited to this sort of analysis than is sports betting in general. The hybrid of method and instinct I employed is simply the way I managed the problem and is not intended to be a template for other bettors, though I imagine there are many people who might utilize a similar approach with equal or better results. At the same time, not everyone is suited to be a successful bettor, just as not everyone is cut out to be a trapeeze artist or a sculptor or a dog trainer. It takes a certain talent, the capacity to judge when patience is appropriate and when it makes sense to be imprudent. If you don't have that talent, you're going to be in a world of trouble.

In late 1991 I moved across country to Seattle, a city where I knew almost no-one. My son's education had been taken care of, my financial situation had improved, and the city did not appear to offer a comfortable bar where gamblers might gather--it was a place of yuppied-out microbreweries and sports bars. So I quit betting. It's been nine years now since I made a serious bet. Once in a while I'll see a line that looks tempting, and I'll get the urge to hunt up a bookie. I have to admit I miss the action. I miss having a couple of shots of good bourbon after a big night, while jotting the plus figures in my ledger. I miss John C. flourishing his winnings, laughing, and saying, "I shoulda bet more!" I've got another run left in me, I'm sure of it. But I listen to my inner voice, I stop and think, and before too long, the urge passes.

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