Beating odds as football prophet

Vegas man, 74, hits it big, as contests grow in Las Vegas


You could say that the 74-year-old Las Vegas man who earned one of the biggest prizes ever in the history of football handicapping contests came by his prognostication acumen honestly. Well, sort of.

Gary Garramone, the winner of more than $246,000 in the Las Vegas Hilton's football SuperContest last season, has a resume as a longtime handicapper and gambler -- which also happens to include a conviction for a federal gambling rap in Philadelphia about 30 years ago.

"Hey, it's a matter of public record," conceded Garramone, who said he moved to Vegas in the 1970s after his accountant suggested a change of scenery might simplify his life, considering his chosen avocation.

Last football season, Garramone made the score of a lifetime when he successfully selected 61 percent of the required NFL games (52-32-1) to win the Hilton contest, the most prestigious in a slew of events all over Las Vegas.

Actually, Garramone tied with two other entrants but wound up winning on a tiebreaker rule that the casino noticed several days after the first-place money had been divided three ways. The other two winners each received, and got to keep, $131,520.

"The Hilton took it real good, they were gentlemen about it," Garramone said. "They swallowed it because they realized it was their mistake."

Football handicapping contests have been an autumn staple in Las Vegas for more than a decade with the Hilton's considered the granddaddy of them all.

For that one, participants ante $1,500 apiece at the beginning of the season and are required to select the winners of five NFL games against the point spread each week. This year, the contest has a record 505 entrants, a 23 percent increase over last year's 411 hopefuls. The top 20 finishers will cash in with the winner expected to get $303,000.

"The popularity of tournaments with big prizes, like the poker tournaments, has seemed to really excite people," said Jay Kornegay, a veteran of the casino sports wagering business who runs the Hilton's sports and race book.

The Station casinos, a chain of mostly midrange gambling halls that cater to Vegas locals, have a contest for which the entry fee is $1,000. And there are a bunch of others, some charging as little as $25, and even a handful that are free, attracting thousands of would-be Jimmy the Greeks.

Kornegay said it looks a lot easier than it is.

"When you look at it, you have to go 3-and-2 every week to be in contention," Kornegay said. "But that means staying away from those 1-4 and 0-5 weeks."

Russ Culver used to be a fixture on the Las Vegas sports wagering scene, helping run the sports book at the swanky Mirage Hotel & Casino. He also won the 1999 Hilton contest and pocketed about $137,000 when there were 229 entrants. Culver said he won an additional $66,000 that year in other gridiron pick 'em competitions, mostly because he zeroed in on a surprise team.

"The biggest factor that year was Dick Vermeil and the St. Louis Rams," said Culver, who left the glitz of Las Vegas and now lives in Indiana. "Everyone said they were a terrible team. Well, they had been a terrible team, but they weren't going to be in 1999.

"Vermeil did with that team what [Bengals coach] Marvin Lewis did in Cincinnati and [Chargers coach] Marty Schottenheimer did in San Diego last year. And every year, there will be a St. Louis Rams, or a Green Bay Packers going the other way, but [bettors] are slow to change."

Nevada and more

Football handicapping contests -- big brother to the garden variety office football pool -- are offered legally only in Nevada. However, out-of-towners still can participate.

In the Hilton contest, for instance, non-Nevada residents can enter with the aid of a local proxy who, according to Kornegay, is required to show up weekly to make the five selections.

Bill Brennan, a former resident of Buffalo, N.Y., who now lives in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, is one of those contest players who has an out-of-town partner, his former accountant back home. They split the entrance fee and the handicapping chores.

Every Thursday, they go through that week's NFL games and come up with their favorites. Last year, Brennan said, they hit about 58 percent of their picks and finished around 40th -- in the top 10 percent but not good enough to make any money.

As an amateur, Brennan said he keeps track of what the professional football handicappers have to say about injuries and lineup changes but doesn't put too much stock on the touts' selections.

"I know 15 to 20 handicappers in the Hilton contest," Brennan said, "and believe me, if you're a serious sports person, you're as knowledgeable as any of them."

The business of football handicapping has gotten a bit of notoriety lately with the October release of the Al Pacino-Matthew McConaughey movie Two for the Money. Expert football picker McConaughey plays the protege of Pacino, a fast-talking football handicapper with a high-pressure telephone tout service.

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