An inside look at the Las Vegas sports books -- and the men who run them.
Considering its “Sin City” nickname and “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” advertising slogan, it’s not surprising to find out Las Vegas has had a reputation for nefarious happenings, shady characters, and organized crime ever since mobster Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel and created modern Vegas. So it is extremely ironic that the city is our nation’s sole sanctuary from one of the most regularly broken laws in America -- a crime so commonplace, it is routinely committed by teetotalers and churchgoers, CEOs and grandmothers alike. Pitch in $5 to your office Super Bowl pool or buy a horse at a mint-julep-laden Kentucky Derby party and in most jurisdictions, you’re breaking the law. While casino gaming has moved beyond Atlantic City and Reno to cities like Detroit and New Orleans, and while you can find plenty of blackjack and roulette tables at hundreds of Native American casinos that dot the nation, Nevada remains the only place in the United States where betting on sports is legal. This is the reason many people visit Las Vegas, especially during marquee events like the Super Bowl, championship fights, and March Madness (the NCAA basketball tournament). For more than 15 years, thousands of sports fans have come to Vegas to see the action, bet on it, and -- whether or not they knew it -- do business with Robert Walker.
Like the Wizard of Oz, Walker has long been the man behind the curtain, but instead of pulling ropes and turning knobs, he does his magic with a keyboard at a dozen of the top casinos in town. Since 1996, Walker has run the sports books at Mirage Race & Sports Book and, through a series of acquisitions, all MGM Mirage Resorts, an empire that comprises the MGM Grand as well as a who’s who of Strip casinos, including the Bellagio, Treasure Island, Mandalay Bay, and the Monte Carlo. He is a passionate sports fan who favors polo shirts to ties and straight talk to hyperbole. His office, located just behind the betting windows at the Mirage, is disappointing -- it’s adorned not with flat-screen TVs and computers but with his daughter’s crayon drawings. I’m lucky to even be seeing his office, though, because Walker’s days of playing the wizard of Vegas are coming to an end: After more than 22 years in the casino business, he is retiring in order to spend more time with his daughter and family.
His replacement will be his protégé and right-hand man, Jay Rood. The workplace Walker is turning over to Rood amounts to mission control for Las Vegas sports betting. But it’s not reminiscent of NASA; it looks like any other office in America, except that instead of following bond prices or building websites, staffers are hunched over computers watching bets pour in. For more than a decade, a sizable portion of all the wagers on sports in Las Vegas have begun the same way: with Walker (and now Rood) setting the odds, or, as Walker calls it, hearkening back to the predigital days of hand-operated signs, “hanging a number.”
VEGAS has always been clouded in mystique, but few operations are more misunderstood than the sports book. There are several prevalent myths: One is that like in blackjack, you’re playing against the casino and thus at a disadvantage. Or, conversely, that as in poker, you’re playing against other bettors and that the house, making its profits on commissions, craves balance, so sets betting lines to ensure equal amounts of money are wagered on both teams. Other myths state that the city is crawling with professional gamblers who make their living by beating the sports books, that well-informed amateur sports fans can actually beat the house, and that many Vegas insiders consider the sports book the best bet in the casino.
Amazingly, every one of these “myths” is true, to varying degrees. In a perfect world, Walker wants half the money bet on each side, which would leave him in a no-lose situation, with a guaranteed profit from the commission taken on each bet, called vigorish or vig or juice. (The house averages a 4.5 percent profit margin in sports wagering.) But this is impossible, since many bettors wait until the last minute to place wagers, sometimes six- or even seven-figure wagers. Fans love parlays, bets that involve picking multiple teams in multiple games, because they pay extremely high odds (an 11-team parlay can pay 1,500 to one). But the reason they pay so high is that they are nearly impossible to win.
Straight win/lose or over/under bets give better returns. Fans tend to bet on “their” team, so with more popular teams from larger markets, like the New York Yankees, the only way Walker can equalize wagering is by changing the odds in favor of their opponent. He does just that but only to a small degree. If he changes them too much, his casinos become the target of Vegas–based professional gamblers and syndicates waiting to pounce on skewed odds. Such opportunists often use anonymous bettors to place maximum bets simultaneously, and at the last minute, at all his casinos, potentially taking advantage of the mathematical mismatch to the tune of millions.
Unlike in horse racing, odds in sports betting are locked in the moment you place a wager; thus, the numbers Walker posts are careful reflections of what he and his analysts, along with outside odds consultants they employ, think reflect the likely outcomes. They are like an investment bank, following teams or sports rather than companies or industries, and making informed bets through the odds they post. “I’m like our customers, except I have action on every single game,” says Walker. This can open the sports book up to enormous potential losses, as was the case with the last Super Bowl, when New York Giants fans won not just on the field but also at the betting windows. “I didn’t realize until then how many people despised the Patriots,” Walker says. “They just hate them. Right up until kickoff, we were still waiting for six-figure bets on them that never came.” This was especially unusual because the Patriots were heavy favorites, and, Walker says, “The public loves favorites. It’s human tendency to like the better team. There’s a reason they are called favorites.” The Giants’ win justifies one of Walker’s tips, which is that the underdogs are usually better bets, because the favorites attract more betting and casinos tend to set an artificially high differential, knowing fans will bet it anyway.
Walker also readily admits that enthusiastic fans may enjoy an advantage over his staff, a small group desperately trying to follow the entire spectrum of professional and amateur sports, from women’s basketball to NASCAR racing. If you follow a particular college team or conference all season, you can know the players and matchups better than the bookies. “You may know substantially more about a team than we do, when we are setting lines for 100 different college basketball teams. The best way to win is to gain expertise in a particular conference or sport,” he says. A glaring example is soccer, which just returned to the MGM Mirage sports books after a long hiatus. The reason for the departure? In one important overseas game that was little understood in the States, other casinos flip-flopped the favorite and the underdog, a mistake that lost them millions to knowledgeable soccer fans. As a result, betting on the sport was canceled entirely for the MGM Mirage sports books.
“I’m a little more interested in soccer and auto sports than Robert, so you might see a few more betting options now,” says Rood, who has served as director of the Mandalay Bay Race and Sports Book for the past three years. Before that, he spent three years working directly for Walker as manager of the Mirage’s sports book. “Otherwise, you won’t walk in and notice anything different,” he says. “I’ve worked closely with Robert, and we share the same philosophy, and his methods have worked, so we will continue those policies we have become known for: aggressive betting limits, friendly atmosphere, and great customer service. Our idea is still going to be to give customers the chance to come in and beat the bookies.”
Because many independent casinos have been consolidated and now fall under a few owners, odds no longer vary as dramatically from one sports book to the next as they used to, but there is still a wide range of styles. The Bellagio attracts a high-roller crowd, the high-tech MGM Grand is more contemporary, and the Mirage is open, laidback, and old school. All feature multiple massive video screens, free drinks, and, of course, betting windows and digital-odds boards. “It’s very daunting to come in for the first time and see all the LED lights and action, so we have brochures that explain all the different bets,” says Walker.
Most games or sports can be bet in myriad ways. Football has a point spread, a money line, an over/under, bets limited to the first or second half, and, in big games, bets such as first team to score. Baseball has a run line, a money line, and an over/under. If all this sounds confusing, it is, which is why the brochures and staff are there to help. But the bottom line is that it’s hard to go wrong, since most bets are designed to resemble coin flips.
Take $10 to a black jack or craps table and there is a good chance it will last you one hand, maybe not even a minute long. Bet it on a football or baseball game and you just bought three hours of excitement, win or lose. Even as he passes the torch to Rood, Walker has lost none of his enthusiasm for his particular casino fiefdom. “Let’s say you go to a movie,” he says. “You might like it; you might not. But either way, you’re out $ 10. You put it on a basketball game and you get the same entertainment, plus around a fifty-fifty chance of doubling your money. If you have a wager on a game, and I don’t care what sport it is, it makes it more exciting. You’re part of the game. It really is the next best thing to being there--maybe better. I don’t think there is a better entertainment value out there anywhere.”
WHEN (AND WHAT) TO BET ON: To experience a Vegas sports book at its most exciting, go for a big event. As Robert Walker says of the hierarchy, "It's professional football, then college football, then nothing else. Only the NCAA tournament comes close." The number one event is the Super Bowl, followed by college bowl games and any Saturday or Sunday game during football season. The next biggest party events are: the first four days of March Madness, the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup, the World Series, the NBA Finals, title fights, and any sporting event actually held in Vegas, be it ProRodeo, Supercross, or NASCAR. Visitors often like to bet on future events, like next season's World Series or Super Bowl. Winning tickets can legally be cashed by mail from home at later dates, so you do not have to stay to see the event. Sports you cannot bet on in Vegas include the Olympics and high school sports, as well as oddities that may be wagered on overseas, such as elections and the Academy Awards.
WHERE TO PLAY: Three major casino operators, MGM Mirage, Harrah's, and Station Casinos, now control the bulk of the sports betting, and each carefully keeps the odds exactly the same at all its properties, so you can no longer just walk down the street to shop around for odds. But odds still vary by small amounts between casino owners, and VegasInsider.com posts real-time odds from the big three, along with those from the Las Vegas Hilton and Wynn, for comparison. More often, visitors choose where to play based on atmosphere or comfort. The MGM Grand has skyboxes, which are popular with groups and bachelor parties, while the Excalibur sports book was just refurbished and is very welcoming to beginners and low rollers. Some, like the Mirage, serve free drinks liberally to all fans, while others, like Mandalay Bay, serve only bettors.
TIPS FOR WINNING BETS
Because lines are often set intentionally high, underdogs and the under in the over/under bet always represent the better value.
Run with It:
In baseball, the run line (a spread) often pays better odds than the ore popular straight-money wagers.
Fans love parlays, bets that involve picking multiple teams in multiple games, because they pay extremely high odds (an 11-team parlay can pay 1,500 to one). But the reason they pay so high is that they are nearly impossible to win. Straight win/lose or over/under bets give better returns.