Sports

Millions betting billions Q against the spread

Hal Quinn January 22 1979
Sports

Millions betting billions Q against the spread

Hal Quinn January 22 1979

Millions betting billions Q against the spread

Sports

Hal Quinn

When the Dallas Cowboys meet the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIII in Miami, Sunday, it will mean the end of the longest season in the history of the National Football League. The game will mean upward of $50 million for the coffers of hotel, restaurant, store and bar owners on the sun-bleached strip. It will mean millions of dollars in television revenues to the league, with more than 100 million people in the U.S. and another three to five million in Canada expected to watch the telecast. But more important to the millions of gamblers on both sides of the border, the early line from Las Vegas had the Steelers slightly favored and the Super Bowl is the last chance to score on the NFL this season.

Gambling is a multibillion-dollar business in North America, and the NFL has taken over as the hotline for illegal action. (Last year $50 million was wagered on the Super Bowl—in Dallas alone.) In the face of inflation, oil crises and wage controls, gambling is booming. Federal, provincial and state lotteries have helped fuel the instant riches syndrome and licensed bingo games and casino nights add outlets for action.

In 1977, legal betting in Ontario totalled almost $1.5 billion, with $400 million wagered on lotteries, $625 million at racetracks and $225 million on licensed games. Ontarians account for about half of Canadian betting.

It is estimated that over $67 billion is wagered illegally in the U.S. each year and that $20 billion of that is played on the NFL. Metropolitan Toronto Police

Morality Squad officers estimate that up to $3 million is bet each weekend on the NFL—in Toronto alone. A Montreal vice squad officer estimates the weekly play is between $2 million and $3 million. As one Toronto officer said, “It’s got to be mind-boggling.”

The NFL action ranges from personal bets between individuals (which are legal), to pool cards (which are not), to phone calls to Las Vegas shops (which are), to calls to local bookies (which aren’t). And throughout the exhibition season, the 224-game regular season, the eight playoff games and the Super Bowl, it matters not which team wins or loses, but whether they beat the spread.

Every Tuesday morning, the opening line on all the NFL games for the coming weekend is set in Las Vegas, by handi-

cappers like Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder. The line, published in many daily newspapers, establishes for bookmakers and bettors across the continent the team favored to win each game and by how many points—hence the point “spread.” The prediction is based on home field advantage, past records, injury reports, weather conditions, but is not designed to reflect the respective strengths of the teams. The point spread is gauged to make both teams attractive to bettors and thus balance the amount wagered on each.

It works this way: if the Pittsburgh Steelers are favored by three points over the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl, then they must win by four points for their backers to win. If the Steelers win by three, then it’s a tie. If they win by anything less than three points, then the Cowboys beat the spread and their backers collect. Bookies usually accept bets with a 10-per-cent “vigorish” applied. If you bet $50 and win, you collect, $50. If you lose, you pay $55.

“There are a lot of high rollers in this) city,” says a spokesman for the Metro Toronto Morality Squad. A lot of players are in the $5, $10, $50 bracket, but the rollers left the double digits long ago. “I know books in Toronto that will take $25,000 bets on a single game,” a local gambler says. There are enough regular big players in Toronto that one bookie, who was arrested in 1977 and convicted last year, took in $250,000 a week on the NFL. He was just one of the 98 bookmakers convicted last year in Toronto. In Vancouver 41 bookies were charged and 31 were charged in Montreal by the vice squad alone.

The heavy bettors are professionals— doctors, lawyers, businessmen. They have the solid incomes to afford their bets. They are the exceptions.

One who can afford it goes by the nom de plume of Lance Humble, PhD. He has a doctorate in psychometrics (the measurement of psychological variables) and teaches a freshman credit course on gambling at York University in Toronto.

His football system took a year to devise. It incorporates data on NFL teams over a 10-year period such as won-lost record against the spread, home and away record against the spread and straight up (neither team favored), performance after decisive wins and losses, performance on natural grass and artificial turf, losing and winning streaks, plus the early lines (Tuesday) and the closing spread (Sunday).

Lance then humbly applies the Kelly Criterion, after a mathematician who coined it. First, he establishes his percentage advantage based on his own past performance. If he won 60 per cent of the time, then he lost 40 per cent and

his advantage is 20 per cent. From this he subtracts five per cent (half the “vigorish” taken by the bookie) and arrives at 15 per cent. Thus, according to Kelly, to maximize profits and minimize losses, he bets 15 per cent of his bankroll each time out.

“This year my bankroll was $10,000,” Dr. Humble says. “Over the last nine years my system was 74-per-cent accurate against the spread. This year, with all the upsets, my percentage was 61 per cent and my profit $16,000.”

Just as unique as his approach to gambling, is his success rate. For a bettor to break even, he has to hit on 60 per cent of his picks, allowing for the vigorish. In this past NFL season, few could boast a split.

When Lance dons his academic hat as Dr. Igor Kusyszyn, he sets aside his success through his legal book in Vegas and ponders the players without systems.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of the people who gamble lose. Gambling is an adult form of play. We gamble to confirm our existence—the gambler gets excited, aroused mentally and emotionally, the heart pounds—and to affirm our worth by being smart enough to win. Only the professional gamblers play to make money, the rest to lose. It’s unconscious.”

The winners besides the pros? The bookies. A Toronto gambler tells of a local businessman who started up an NFL pool this season, just for the fun of it. He cleared $18,000. Though a small operator, his profit margin is not unique.

A spokesman for the Metro Toronto Morality Squad says that in the past bookies had to “lay off” bets (put money on the opposing team when too much is bet on the other) in New York and Las Vegas. “Now there are enough big bookies that they can lay off in town,” he says.

The heat on bookies has increased since Section 178.1 covering wiretapping was added to the Criminal Code in 1974. The books, and some high rollers, know they’re being tapped and have countered with sophisticated ways of avoiding detection. Some use a system of tapping their own calls. They call their own phone from a pay booth and write down the recorded bets on flash paper (which burns completely and instantly when touched to a match) then transmit a high-pitched electronic tone which triggers erasure of the tape. The books (who contravene Criminal Code Sections 179, 185, 186 and 187) match wits and technology with, in Toronto for example, a six-man full-time squad from Morality, up to 10 officers from

Intelligence, plus plainclothes officers.

The police officers’ investigations lead them to the seamier end of the spectrum. “Books that have debts that they can’t collect,” says one officer, “sell the debts to loan sharks at a reduced price. The sharks then go after all of it.” Two weeks ago, the bullet-riddled frozen body of known gambler and suspected bookmaker, Edward NeuflF, 33, was found in the trunk of a car at the Toronto International Airport.

Away from the computers that spew out warrants and aliases, closer to the whirling discs that program betting systems, Lance Humble is already looking forward to next season. “It’s

hard to make money on the NFL now, but it will be almost impossible in a few years. With more sophisticated gambling analyses being published, the oddsmakers are beginning to utilize the same methods. The point spreads will be tightened and games will be much harder to pick.”

So to jump in before the bank closes, Humble intends to play the NFL next season with a $50,000 bankroll, his system and the Kelly Criterion.

“According to my analysis, I should make about $200,000,” he says, and voicing the gambler’s dream, “then I should be able to retire.” He quickly adds, “But I won’t.”1^