Gambling Fever

At The Stardust Casino in Las Vegas, people from all walks of life, from all over the world, can step in and bet on whatever sport they want: football, basketball, baseball, horseracing, you name it. They are known as "squares," and over time, if not at the end of the day, they will have lost more than they've won.

Says, Joe Lupo, the sports book manager at The Stardust: "We'll happily take their money. They are not the ones we go up against. It's us against the wiseguys."

That competition, how it works and why it is disappearing, is the subject of Chad Millman's book "The Odds: One Season, Three Gamblers and the Death of Their Las Vegas" (Public Affairs). On one side are the obsessive full-time gamblers who lay down $20,000 on any game they're confident about. On the other are the bookmakers of places like the Stardust, trying to establish point spreads that deny the professional gambler any edge. But as the corporatization of Sin City ties the hands of bookmakers and off-shore Web sites suck away the wiseguy dollars, both groups know their Las Vegas is disappearing. The town is being reduced to a city of amateurs.

Millman, a former associate editor at ESPN The Magazine, takes readers through the 1999-2000 NCAA basketball season and the event that has eclipsed the Super Bowl as the center of the professional bettor's calendar: March Madness. NEWSWEEK's John Ness spoke with Millman. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What did you think of these characters-the bookmakers and professional gamblers?

Chad Millman: I thought they were great. They were guys' guys, out of some Damon Runyon story from the 1940's. In terms of their work ethic, Alan Boston [the pro gambler the book follows] is up every day at 5:30 reading every single newspaper in the country that he can get his hands on to glean as much information as possible about these teams. In the end, it's pretty irrational to think you can make a sound bet on the ability of an 18-year old to handle himself under the pressure of playing in a Duke-North Carolina basketball game. But I do think these guys work really hard and I do think their knowledge of any sport they do is up there. If these guys were stock brokers on Wall Street, they'd be profiled in the Wall Street Journal as movers and shakers of the industry.

Does a guy like Alan Boston ever do anything else?

Alan Boston wants to get out so bad. But the problem is two-fold. One, he doesn't know how to do anything else. Two, there isn't anything else he can do where he can make the money he makes, and he likes the lifestyle. We just talked about this two days ago. His lifelong dream would be to either go be a movie critic somewhere or be a high-school teacher. And I think he would be an incredible teacher. But what kind of pay cut is he gonna take?

You have a theory about what it's like to watch the NCAA basketball tournament in a sports book. It involves goldfish.

Goldfish only have a memory of thirty seconds. That's the reason why if you overfeed them, they will eat until they die, sometimes until they burst. The people watching the game in the sports book are kind of like goldfish. I'd be watching a game. Then I look at another game, and thirty seconds later I look back to the game I was watching and have no idea who was playing or what the score was. I would have no context at all, because there's so much going on. All these people were constantly looking back and forth with these eyes that were dazed and confused. I was surprised the guys didn't get up to eat every five seconds. You're living in this dark room with TV's and you forget when you're hungry, when you're tight, when you're drunk, when you're sober. You lose all contact and perspective because there is so much going on and there's so much screaming and yelling. It's the worst in the first four days of the tournament. The Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the first weekend, those four days are the real Final Four for the wiseguys.

Why?

As the tournament goes along, more and more people are betting, because it's more high-profile, and there are teams that people are aware of. After the first week the spreads are harder to manipulate and, of course, there are a lot fewer games to bet on. So the wiseguys love to get in there the first four days, and especially the first two days, because there are all these small teams that nobody's heard of that these guys have been covering for six months already.

People talk about how bettors hold on to an illusion of control, but their confidence does come into play, right? Slumps are real.

Oh, slumps are huge. I can't tell you how many times last year Alan lost by half a point on the spread on some freakish play at the end.

The difference between a 4-point-spread and a 4.5-point spread really comes into play that often?

It's amazing how often it comes into play. Alan is betting a lot of money. As much as I'm gonna earn in a year, he lays down in a day. Losing by half a point is really difficult to overcome, and it happens for the most inane reasons. And then it's a psychological barrier just like a basketball player in a slump. You just sort of get beat down.

So it's not denial then. If they can stay mentally in control, winning is not out of their hands.

Oh yeah. Well, they think it's not out of their hands. To me, and I've said this a thousand times to all these guys, the idea that you think that you can make a bet on a game and it'll be "accurate" is irrational. I could never do it. You have to have a gunslinger's mentality. You have to be an iconoclast and not really care about money or stability or family or anything. All you have to do is care about the rush of making a bet.

It seems like a lot of the gamblers got the habit from their dads.

Most people I met out there, it seemed like it was hereditary. They became interested in betting because their fathers did. And for whatever reason, the lifestyle appealed to them. It's kind of scary. The kids take what their fathers have done, low-end poker games or two-dollar bets at the track, and turn it into "I'm gonna bet thirty grand at the chips and thirty grand on a college basketball game," or "I'm willing to put half a million dollars on a football game."

Did you know any professional gamblers who had successful marriages?

I don't know any personally. I know a couple who are in the early stages of a marriage and everything seems to be going alright. Almost every guy I spoke to, bookmaker and wiseguy, relationships were just not part of the equation.

Is sex?

Sometimes. But it's not as important. For a lot of these guys, they have such an intimate relationship with betting that it replaces everything they need in terms of intimacy. They've admitted that. It's difficult to maintain any kind of communication when you're so wrapped up with how much money you're winning and losing every day.

It actually reminded me of writing.

Yeah, when you're focused on something you can't do anything. I was just doing a story for ESPN last week, and I was miserable human being to be around. It was my thirtieth birthday last week and it was only after my wife had read part of it and said, "Y'know what? It's pretty good so far," that I felt I could go on, go out, and exist. And these guys were the same way. But at the same time, my livelihood was never in jeopardy. I've never felt as bad about doing a story as Alan did on his worst day of betting. There was a game last year, St. John's vs. Ohio State, that he had so much money on. Way beyond anything he would normally bet. St. John's lost a 10-point lead in the last two minutes and the guy was just heartbroken. He still talks about it. "How could I lose that game? Ten points, in the last two minutes!"

It's always "I", not "them".

Of course. It's always I. Every team is a we, and it's always you who loses.