Super day in Vegas

Betting: At the Mirage, the oddsmaker liked the Ravens. But the flock betting on their `G-men' had him worried, for a while.

January 31, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

LAS VEGAS - Even at midday in the January desert, sunshine never steals into the Mirage Sports Book, a dimly lit place where grown men may scream, cry and curse and where they can make their day or squander a fortune.

The calculus of betting - "gaming" is the preferred term and "gambling" is now considered politically incorrect - surrounds a visitor on any day. But Super Bowl Sunday, a Vegas high holiday with loose money its opiate, tests senses and restraint like no other time.

In a claustrophobic office behind the teller line, Robert Walker sat as the book's boy king.

Walker, 39, so fresh-faced he might be carded if standing before a teller, had made the Ravens 2 1/2 -point favorites within minutes of their AFC championship win. Only moments after that, several bets totaling $10,000 on the Ravens prodded him to move the spread to three points, where it remained the next two weeks.

Walker actually liked the Ravens more but figured the public would be less enthusiastic.

"It doesn't really matter who you like; it's who are they going to bet," said Walker. "We're trying to split everybody."

An even amount of money on both teams ensures the casino a profit since patrons must lay 11-10 odds on an "even bet." Establishing a line based on personal bias can prove expensive.

Last year, Vegas casinos handled more than $75 million in wagers on Super Bowl XXXIV then had to refund all action on the point spread when the game fell on "the number," a seven-point spread between the favored St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans.

"The game has fallen on the number two of the last four years. That's unbelievable," Walker recalled on Friday. "You've got everybody at the windows for refunds. It's kind of a blah ending to the biggest day of the year."

There were no such "blahs" this year. Nevada's 148 sports books won more than $11 million on the Ravens' victory over the New York Giants, the highest profit since the casinos began reporting numbers to the state in 1991. More than $67 million was bet in the state.

The windfall was appreciated.

The Mirage and other sports books had been crushed by the big bowl games. Mystified at how the nation's No. 1 team could be made 12 1/2 -point underdogs, the public jumped to bet Oklahoma. Because regional favorites Washington and Oregon State covered the spreads in their bowls, parlay players had a field day. Major books like the Mirage/MGM properties counted losses in the millions.

"Our year usually goes as January goes," Walker said. "And January usually goes as the Super Bowl goes. But January didn't start well at all for us or any other book in town."

Ultimate betting day, too

Super Bowl Sunday is the ultimate get-even proposition. Losers during the regular season sometimes try to recoup their losses on one throw. Gamblers Anonymous receives more cries for help the week after the game than in any other seven-day period.

"For one day, there's nothing like it," Walker said. "The only thing close is a great championship fight, but those are few and far between now. You walk in here on Super Bowl weekend and turn on the current. It's electric."

And it can burn. At no other time is there so much action on one game. The 11 big screens ringing the dimly lit book are dedicated to one event only. Everyone has an opinion on the game and on this day the fans, or "dumb" money, can crush a casino.

Professional handicapper Jimmy Vaccaro once sat where Walker sits now. Until 1996, Vaccaro served as the Mirage race and sports book director. Known as "the last of the wise guys," Vaccaro, 44, sided with the Ravens early, hedged late, but remained solidly behind the AFC champions.

"The professionals bet early. The public bets late. If you have pressure in one direction early and in the other late, you've usually got it right," Vaccaro said

Walker's decisions are final for all Mirage/MGM properties. Only he may move a number. Indeed, he and the Stardust's sport book director Joe Lupo typically set the odds embraced by the rest of the city's casinos. Lupo liked the Giants; Walker loved the Ravens.

"You look at how they got to the Super Bowl," Walker said. "They beat a good Denver team, then they went on the road to beat Tennessee and Oakland where they were six-point underdogs. Then you look at the Giants, who won two games at home, neither against very impressive teams. To me, the Ravens showed themselves to be a demonstrably better team."

With one nervous exception, every six-figure Super Bowl wager the Mirage/MGM properties accepted on the Super Bowl backed the Ravens. Yet the popular money was so one-sided for the Giants it overwhelmed the knowledgeable or "wise guy" action.

Walker carries the power of Pavlov. With literally the flick of a finger to change the line, he can send patrons rushing to The Mirage's 30-yard-long counter as well as those at its eight sister properties. But last week, Walker showed a restraint that would be rewarded.

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