A Pro Gambler’s Guide to Gaming the Super Bowl

“Noah” knows how the average bettor can make a mint on the big game. Only he’s no average bettor.

Noah (not his real name) is a 31-year-old professional bettor. He earns his cash the way many waste theirs: by wagering on sporting events. Before that, blackjack paid the bills. His profession has taken him across the lower 48 and made him persona non grata everywhere from Shoreline card rooms to Vegas casinos. It's also kept his bleary eyes trained on a computer screen for seemingly endless hours, watching betting lines move, half-point by half-point, until he decides they've gone too far. While Noah easily earns six figures annually, the life of a high roller is hardly that. He drives a Hyundai, rents a modest apartment, and dresses like a college student. Women lose interest in him when they learn of his vocation. And generally, he says, "People laugh when I say I bet on arena football, high-school football, the WNBA, and the Little League World Series." Gambling began as a hobby for Noah in late 2002. He was managing a small downtown retail store and playing 15 hours of blackjack a week on the side, usually pulling in somewhere between $10 and $20 an hour. When he was laid off in April 2004, he decided to try to turn that hobby into a job. The goal was to hit the blackjack tables and swell his bankroll from $40,000 to $50,000 by the time his severance pay ran out. If he could do that, he decided, "I could feel confident I could do this for a living." Right off the bat, he hit a losing streak, knocking him down to $25,000. Then a well-heeled player invited him on a trip to Minnesota's Mystic Lake Casino, promising to cover any losses that exceeded Noah's bankroll, with the two splitting profits. The pair went on a monster run, earning almost $60,000 in one weekend. Noah had found himself a career. Counting cards is a strategy employed by practiced blackjack players who monitor what cards have been dealt and then quickly calculate the likelihood of various cards being dealt in future rounds. It's been glamorized in the movie 21 and in the book, Bringing Down the House, upon which it was based. However, while those works largely portrayed "team play," wherein counters work together to identify opportunities and deceive dealers, casinos had caught up to that game by the time Noah started counting. The team play of the Minnesota trip was an exception; Noah otherwise worked almost exclusively as a lone wolf. Since Seattle bans card rooms—the (formerly) smoky little establishments containing 15 tables or fewer and no slot machines—Noah honed his counting skills in the 'burbs, mainly Shoreline. He recalls that "things got a little awkward" as the dealers who'd known him since he was a neophyte began to realize that he was taking the house's money—frequently, in large quantities, and not just because of luck. But he quickly tired of the lack of high-stakes tables, and eventually took to the road. Noah's friend Jeff Sobolow recalls gambling with Noah at a Tahoe casino. "It was one of the few times he let me play with him—he doesn't let friends play with him all that often," he explains. "I get a beer and he orders a soda or ginger ale or something. But he makes sure to tell the waitress to put it in a cocktail glass, so it looks like a normal drink. Then we're at the table and he's making eye contact with me, looking at the girls, chatting like everyone else. At one point he was looking at me, and the dealer shorted him a couple chips, and he turned to her and very nonchalantly said 'You may want to count that again.' She was like, 'What?' He just said, 'I think you might have miscounted.' He wasn't even looking at the table." "He looked like just another 20-something guy wearing a hooded sweatshirt and talking about sports," Sobolow adds. "You'd never know he's a professional card-counter. There's such an acting component to it. A lot of people, if they really focused, could maybe count cards. But they'd have to make it obvious and stare the whole time." The list of places in which Noah has gambled sounds like a Johnny Cash song: Phoenix, Reno, Prescott, Yuma, Tucson, Wendover, Tahoe, Primm, San Diego County, Bellingham, Hinckley, Red Wing, St. Croix, Danbury, Duluth, Atlantic City, and the Yukon Territory. Ditto the list of cities with casinos and cardhouses from which he's been "backed off," or told not to return. (While counting cards isn't illegal, casinos don't take kindly to it, and in all but a couple of states can simply make counters leave.) In one notable episode, four burly security guards in a Vegas casino surrounded him. "They were so close to me I couldn't move without touching them," he recalls. "The only way I got out of it was I managed to slip my cell phone out of my pocket and very visibly dialed 911. They backed off and I ran out the door. The woman on the other end said 'This is not an emergency,' and I said 'Bullshit—it is.'" While the days of Vegas casinos roughing up customers had passed by the time this incident occurred, Noah still counts it as his scariest moment as a gambler. In general, Noah says, casino employees and professional gamblers don't get along too well. "Gamblers enjoy beating the system and tend to have disdain for authority," he says, while "casino employees hate their jobs, you, their lives. They especially don't like me because I don't tip much." Why? "The margins are too small." While blackjack was profitable, the travel and confrontation got old. So around 2005, Noah hooked up with a group of sports bettors who were pooling their money. At the time, online sites were still offering "bonuses" as incentives to sign up for their service. "You'd put in 10 grand and they'd give you an extra two," recalls Noah. "We were getting about 100 grand a year just from the bonuses." But October 2006 saw the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA), federal legislation that prohibits the transfer of funds from financial institutions to Internet gambling sites. As a result, many gambling sites either shut down or, as with Party Poker and Pinnacle Sports, stopped accepting U.S. customers. Sports gambling has become much tougher since the passage of the UIGEA, says Noah. Online sites have a higher percentage of "sharp" money, or money from professional bettors who know what they're doing (as opposed to "square" money from ordinary fans betting on their teams). Moreover, by reducing the number of online sites and the amount of money being bet online, Noah says the UIGEA has made the market more susceptible to manipulation. Big, moneyed syndicates might bet one way offshore, where the markets tend to react to one another and move in unison. Upon seeing this shift, sports books in Vegas move their line half a point or a point, just to play it safe. The syndicate then goes back and bets even more money against that shift domestically, essentially wagering that the original line was correct. There's nothing illegal about such a ploy; the onus is on each house to set its line wisely. "I don't as an empirical matter know if that goes on—onshore or offshore—but there's certainly been a history of 'Who's bet enough money to move a point spread?'" says Jeffrey Standen, a law professor at Willamette University who has written about sports and gaming law and maintains the blogs "The Sports Law Professor" (thesportslawprofessor.blogspot.com) and "Gaming Law Memo" (gaminglawmemo.blogspot.com). "Bookies are sensitive to who their customers are and are pretty good at sniffing that out." Noah recently left his team for an arrangement in which he makes the betting decisions and a partner who lives in Vegas goes to the casinos and places the wagers. "I'd probably be better off playing blackjack," Noah confesses, noting that he backs a few blackjack players, providing their bankroll and taking a cut of their profits. "Sports is more of a lifestyle choice. I just don't want to be in those smoky casinos all the time." There are a few different ways to win at sports gambling, Noah explains: Originating: "This is where you use your own handicapping (research based on teams, umpires, weather, situations, etc.). This is easier said than done, because you always have to worry about the market getting sharper and catching up to your trend. Something that may have worked in the 1980s (such as betting NFL home underdogs blindly, which, supposedly, worked for a long time) may not work in the 21st century." Chasing Steam: "Steam is when a lot of people bet on one side and the line moves. Generally all the big sportsbooks with big limits will move in unison as a big group or a lot of like-minded people all bet on the same team...While the big books move quickly (namely, offshore), you can often find the original (stale) number at smaller sportsbooks [at offshore houses], but especially in Vegas. This is generally because the big bettors don't bother with these low-limit places and management is asleep at the wheel. By getting the original number you usually have a good bet." Following: "Following is sometimes similar to [chasing steam], but instead of waiting to notice the line move, you actually subscribe to a tout (someone who provides tips and handicapping advice for a fee). Most [touts] are snake-oil salesmen, but there are a few legitimate winning handicappers out there who provide this service—and when you get the picks from the tout, you act quickly to get your bets in before the line moves. The bigger the tout's following and the smaller the market, the harder it is to get (a bet) down before the line moves." Fading Steam: "This is the opposite of [chasing steam], in that you wait until you feel the line has moved too far and bet the other way. There is often irrational exuberance when a tout gets hot. Even if the tout is a good handicapper—picking, say, 54 percent winners over a number of years—if he goes on a winning streak and hits 70 percent for a short period, you can be sure he is getting a good dose of good luck and he will not hit 70 percent going forward. However, the unsophisticated followers will bet more and more as the win streak continues, and this will often move the line too far." Public teams: "More common is that the public is irrationally betting on public teams. Public teams are usually teams from big cities, with exciting offenses, popular players, and/or winning traditions. Examples are the Yankees, Red Sox, Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Cowboys, Packers, Lakers, Celtics, etc. When lines move on these teams, there is a good chance it is not sharp money, but fan money. When these teams get hot, you see some really crazy stuff, like last year with the Patriots. The opposite of public teams are non-public teams, which are often small-market, defensive-minded, traditionless, and/or expansion teams." February 1—Super Bowl Sunday—will be a big day for Noah. Last year he and his partners placed more than 100 bets on the game—for example, on the over-under for yards rushed by New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs in particular quarters. They also bet that Patriots fullback Heath Evans would gain fewer than 2.5 yards rushing over the course of the entire game. Noah held his breath as Evans was handed the ball early in the game. The fullback earned two yards and didn't get another carry. "I'd spent a couple weeks researching these [bets]," he explains, adding that the opportunity to wager on such trivia isn't available with ordinary games. "They were relatively low-exposure: Each was around $500." Meanwhile, loyal fans flooded the market with square money, making lines and odds go haywire. For example, rather than just betting that their team would win outright, Patriots fans kept betting up the line, to the point where the Patriots were favored by 14. Giants fans, rather than betting that the Giants would come within 14 points without necessarily winning, bet on their team to win outright. As a result, the odds for betting on the Patriots to win straight up were more favorable than they'd normally be with a 14-point favorite. Noah and his partners bet on the Giants in nearly every category—for example, to win most quarters and to beat the spread—but bet on the Patriots to win the game. The Giants' game-winning drive in the fourth quarter cost Noah's team more than $100,000 on that last wager—yet they still made about $10,000 on the day. Says Noah of the squares: "They were thinking like typical gamblers. They think it's a bad deal to risk a lot of money to get a small payoff, and a good deal to risk a little money to get a big payoff. It's the same mentality that drives slot machines." The professional gambler, by contrast, always looks for the favorable percentage without getting fixated on swinging for the fences. While his descriptions sometimes make it sound easy, Noah insists that betting on sports is getting tougher. Not only has the passage of the UIGEA pushed out square money and made sports betting more susceptible to manipulation, he says, but the market—both other bettors and bookies—keeps getting smarter. "It's a constant struggle to stay ahead of the curve," he laments. To wit, Noah is coming off a three-week losing streak in December that ate up around $300,000—almost 30 percent of his bankroll. But he says his ability to deal with losing is much of what's made him successful. "He can take an absolute beating and talk about it like [it's] ho-hum, like he just had a not-so-good day at work," says Sobolow. "I've seen really talented people go crazy over losing streaks," Noah says. "But shit happens." Having spent the past six years honing his probability assessment skills and running innumerable statistical models on his strategies, Noah remains confident of his prospects going forward. "People think I'm crazy with the winning and losing streaks, but I think my approach is more conservative," he explains. "Something like 80 to 90 percent of restaurants fail. You hear about the credit crisis—I'm not doing anything on credit. Sure, I win or lose a lot in a day, but my chance of success is greater than in a lot of businesses. At least that's what I hope." dagnos@seattleweekly.com

 
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