The maddening world of gambling in March

In Sports, Spring Sports
North Carolina State fans rejoice after watching their school upset third-seeded Georgetown to advance to the Sweet 16. (Courtesy of MCT)

March Madness is underway, and all the attention of basketball fans everywhere is being diverted to the craziness of picking and following their favorite college teams.

This was especially true last week during the first rounds of the 68-team tournament, when games started at around 9 a.m. and ended at about 9 p.m.

In Las Vegas, thousands of people make the pilgrimage from all over the country to the city’s sports books to try and capitalize on their skills of picking teams and scores.

I made my first such pilgrimage in only my third year as a legal gambling adult. My friend Buddy and I landed in Vegas Wednesday night in time for the first game at 9 a.m. It was a raucous plane ride, and everyone was talking basketball.

Who could resist? Anywhere else in the country I’m a bookie, a gambler, always looking over my shoulder, being hassled by cops. But here, I’m Mr. Hernandez. Not only am I legitimate, but I’m picking winners, getting comped and having fun.

We checked into our free soundproof suite at the Orleans Hotel and Casino to set up the war room.

After some thorough late night research in the room, I chose North Carolina State, South Florida and Wisconsin to be my teams to ride out for beating spreads and making cash.

Everyone has their own betting system when it comes to this stuff. Some people play the point spreads by making straight bets for even money. I took to this approach myself, hedging picks with different wager amounts.

Others like to play the “over-and-unders”, or “o-u’s,” where players pick point totals for the games. If you’re expecting a defensive game, you go under. If both teams are hot shooters, you go over. There are also halftime variations of each of these kinds of bets on the menu.

People feeling lucky like to do parlays, where you lay picks on top of each other. Depending on how many picks you make, you can win a major payout. The only thing is any single bad pick can blow your whole ticket.

I opened my eyes at 9 a.m and realized I hadn’t gotten my picks in. I jumped out of bed and dashed into the casino. There were about 100 people in line at the book with about fifteen minutes until tipoff. Luckily, every station had an attendant working, and I got them in with about three minutes left.

Once that was taken care of, we got ready and headed to the Las Vegas Hotel (Formerly the Hilton), which is the town’s biggest sports book.

The line for the book wrapped around the walls at the hotel. In the bulk of the day’s action, the line goes upstairs to the craps tables in the other part of the casino.

Everyone in the place seems to mean business. They all come in with stacks of papers of their favorite teams’ split-stats and tournament history from years back.

Never will you see so many papers scattered all over a bar other than on a day like this.

The theatre at the old Hilton is legit. It’s an old-school Vegas showroom called the Shimmer — the same room where Elvis and Manilow did hundreds of shows. For March Madness, it’s full with people coming to see the five mega-sized screens showing different games. There is no price for admission. Instead, the box office is turned into a wagering station for all the games.

The gold-plated concessions stand sold cheap beer and hot dogs, with losing betting tickets scattered all over the floor. You begin to get an idea of how much money this place makes if you ever read losing tickets that are laying around the book. Some that I saw were as high as $10,000.

The $2 Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey shots are meant to make us rant and rave and go running to the book to post bets that we normally wouldn’t make. Without me asking, the bartender kept them coming, and they were more like full glasses of straight whiskey rather than shots.

Lucky for me, I decided on my picks early in the morning and posted them all before any of the action started.

At the book joints, the most nervous moments for everyone is when the game is winding down with a tight point margin, and those damn zebras start manipulating outcomes.

I asked some people around me at the bar whether they thought refs had money on their games, and the consensus was that there’s no doubt.

The referees always like to get games in the bonus as early as possible so they can decide who scores and when. You tend to sense the corruption when the officials start calling any incidental contact that happens between the players. Somehow, in most games, the point total will always hover close to the line that Vegas sets.

Day one was a successful day for me. I won nine of my 10 total wagers and more than doubled my bankroll on the first day. The only pick I lost was the Colorado State loss to Murray State; a pick I rushed to post in the morning. In the hallway going back to the room, I explained to Buddy that I knew full well that this kind of luck doesn’t last in Vegas.

On the way to the book the next morning, we were listening to Scott Van Pelt on ESPN Radio talking about how dull the first day was because there were no upsets, saying that they were all “chalk” picks because everyone who was supposed to win, won.

Right on cue, Norfolk State shocked No. 2 seed Missouri in the tournament’s first bracket buster.

I made it a point to stay away from all the high seeds because the spread was too high. It’s one thing to pick high seeds to win on brackets, but it’s completely another thing to pick high seeds when they have to win by about 20 for you to cash out.

In Vegas, if you want to pick a heavy favorite or high seed to win outright, you’d have to bet about $100 in order to win about $10. So there’s no point in doing this.

The second day was more modest for me. I won only half of my bets, which left me at even money. Duke was the biggest disappointment for me.

Less than 10 minutes after the game went final, my friend and I returned to the Orleans.

As Buddy skidded into a parking space at the hotel, we erupted into laughter when a dusty minivan directly in front of us had a Missouri license plate.

I tried to contain my laughter as I staggered to the van to write “Norfolk State!” in the dust of the back window.

Suddenly I noticed a lowly old man wearing a yellow shirt appear at the end of the parking lot aisle. His shoulders were slouched, his head was down and he was taking about a second between each of his steps.

I knew that this must be his car I was about to mess with so I backed off. When he finally got to his door I screamed, “How about that Norfolk State!?”

The man said nothing, but gave a cold stare back before he drove away to what was probably a long drive back to Missouri.

According to ESPN, out of more than six million bracket submissions on their website, Lehigh and Norfolk State are the reasons that none of them are right.

The Georgetown Hoyas are really shaky in covering spreads, and they have a tendency to completely blow games they should win. These guys, I felt, are untouchable in this

Sunday, in the second round, Georgetown was set to take on NC State. The Hoyas were favored by 4 ½, which I thought was a big mistake by the oddsmakers. So I weighed it heavy for N.C. State for my last game in Vegas and was able to get back home ahead.

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