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Gambling Expert RJ Bell Discusses the Super Bowl, March Madness, and Whether Athletes Fix Games

rj bell

RJ Bell is the founder of Pregame.com. He also contributes to Grantland, hosts a local radio show for ESPN Radio, and is a regular guest on Colin Cowherd’s show, as well as SVP & Russillo. He was recently profiled by New York Times Magazine, and will be presenting on sports betting in the mainstream at South By Southwest next month. We caught up with him in Vegas this past weekend and talked to him about why sports books bet against the public on the Super Bowl, what you should do if you’re flying out for March Madness, the likelihood of athletes fixing games, and the accusation that he’s “peddling bullshit”:

As TBL discussed after the Super Bowl, it seems like the most prominent Vegas sportsbooks had a sizable position on the Seahawks. You mentioned that 2/3’s of total public bets appeared to be in favor of Denver, and David Purdum had similar numbers. Given that they didn’t adjust the line to spur more equal wagering on each side, it seems like they were more or less okay with effectively betting on Seattle. The Seahawks win was so dominant that it almost seems inevitable in retrospect, but can you go over the thought process that leads the books to gamble their own money against the public in games?

I guess there’s two questions there: What made them like Seattle, and how unusual is it that they would take such a position in them? The classic belief is that the bookmakers want to have 50/50 action, and then they win either way. That’s not something that they would hate in a given situation, but they’re also willing to be lopsided on one team sometimes.

What are the factors that makes them willing to risk that? One of the factors is going to be their opinion on the game — do they have a preference on a side? Another is how much money is at stake. For most events — even an NFL game during the regular season that’s bet heavily — it’s not a significant enough decision, even if they’re lopsided at 80/20, that it’s gonna affect their monthly net profit in a way substantial enough for the bosses upstairs to have a problem with it.

The Super Bowl is the exception — it’s a game where, if they’re lopsided and they’re wrong, it could really clearly affect their bottom line. Not even just for that week, but for the month and even longer. The bookmakers I talked to on the Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl did like Seattle, and I think we saw clearly they were correct.

The number did open up in some spots with Seattle as 2-point favorites, so clearly that was their number. Within the first hour, Denver was bet up to the favorite, and soon enough they were giving 2.5 points. So, if you’re a bookmaker and you believe that Seattle should be laying two, but you’re operating a book where they’re getting 2.5 and you have the VIG to your advantage, that’s a formula where you’re willing to be lopsided.

Specifically with Seattle, I think because of that line move initially they were comfortable with the position. But, each book had a finite amount it was willing to risk. Specifically, South Point moved the number to three a few times to get a bunch of action on the underdogs, and then moved it back to 2.5 — they were mitigating their risk.

In your estimation, what percentage of the money that goes into the books is from sharps versus squares?

That varies greatly by the event. An extreme would be in Nevada for the Super Bowl, which is the most public of all games, and it’s even more public in Nevada. All you need to do here is walk up to the window and bet. If you’re not in this state, and you don’t normally bet, then you’ve gotta go and find a bookie somehow, which takes a lot of effort.

So, in Nevada for the Super Bowl, the estimate is that 90% of the action is public. Now, during the regular season, an NFL game is going to be 60-70% public on average. That varies both on the book, games’ time slots, and whether or not they’re on national TV. If it’s the Lions playing the Vikings for a regional Sunday early game, it’s not going to have as much public action as a game more people will see.

On the other extreme, like Portland State playing college basketball, a vast majority of that action is going to come from wise guys.

What’s your favorite sports book to watch games in, and why?

The LVH Super Book run by Jay Kornegay is my favorite, and it’s both because I’m an NFL fan first — that’s the sport I’m personally most passionate about — and on Sunday they actually have ample space and they have a ton of props at very fair odds. There are a lot of books in Vegas that have odds that are, frankly, not player-friendly.

The paradox about sports books in Vegas is that 95% of the time they’re empty. A small percentage of the time, they’re so crowded you can’t enjoy it. It’s hardly ever a sweet spot where there’s energy and you can find a seat. When you do experience a sports book when it’s just the right crowd, and there’s a decision at the end — a big money swing like a 3-pointer at the buzzer — it really is electric.

But, a lot of the time it’s empty. It’s one of the reasons why a lot of casinos look at sports books as an amenity, as something they’ve gotta provide because they don’t want players walking across the street. If you look at the square footage, and all of the high input costs like big screens and leather seats, it probably doesn’t make economic sense to give all this space to these chairs.

For people flying out for March Madness, I’m sure it’s going to be by-and-large the situation you just described where it’s almost overly packed. What are some tips you could give some people to optimize their enjoyment in sports books that first weekend?

Places-wise, it’s going to be driven by how much of a sacrifice you and your buddies are willing to make to get a good seat. If you show up at the crack of dawn, you can get a good seat anywhere. These games are starting early here in Pacific time, especially on Thursday and Friday. You can do that for a day or two but if you’re also staying up late watching the games and going out afterwards, then what do you do if you’re here for all four days?

From a betting standpoint, it’s important to manage your bankroll carefully. There’s nothing sadder than losing several games in a row on Friday afternoon and suddenly running out of money. You’re coming out here to have fun. In general, I’d say that most people bet too much per game for their bankroll, and my best advice is to wager a little bit less early on so you can afford to still be in action come Sunday.

For someone who has never met one, can you give a portrait of one or some Vegas sports book oddsmakers? Is there a distinctive feature that they all possess, and how do some of the more successful ones differ?

That question about sports book operators would be very different if we were talking about offshore oddsmakers versus Vegas. Talking specifically about Vegas, the dirty secret about this city is that most of the sports book operators do not really move the number in any creative way.

There’s a screen they look at, and they see where the market’s at. They might have a slight opinion about a certain team where they’re willing to get a little bit more lopsided, but other than those little subtle massages of their risk is there’s only a handful of guys in Las Vegas that are willing do to World Openers.

Let’s define what that is. This is the first number in the world on a certain event, and every sharp that is betting early wants to wager into those numbers. So it’s you against the whole world. Now, Jay Kornegay from the LVH is willing to do that. So are Johnny Avello at the Wynn and Tony Miller at Golden Nugget, who actually opens up as many as 250 college football games in June.

The limits on these games usually cap out around $3,000, but still, being willing to take who-knows-how-many cracks in that level against the world is quite ambitious. A lot of the other books aren’t willing to do that, so now their job is customer service, managing employees, and having a relationship with the suits upstairs. So, it’s a lot more corporate for the typical sports book director than you might think.

Given the three that you named that are special and willing to open early, how does a casino retain them, compensation wise, when you would think that they are so good at their job that they could make more money just betting it themselves?

Well, I’m not sure they are able to make more money just betting themselves. The reality is, if you knew for sure that you could be profitable as a sports bettor — and you were bankrolled — you could make more money in almost every circumstance than a sports book director is making. They’re well-paid, as they should be when they do a good job, but the best bettors in Vegas make much, much more than the highest-paid sports book directors.

It’s really a different skill set. Other than those opening numbers, and other than being willing to be lopsided, your ability to handicap as a sports book director is way down the list of necessary skills.

Do the major sports books out here have contingency plans to immediately use their brands and their systems to try and capitalize on if online gambling were to be legalized?

I think that question should be broken up into two categories. Are the sports books part of an existing property, as in a physical casino? The second category is going to be two companies in particular — Cantor and William Hill. These are sports book-first companies that come in and do a turnkey deal where they run the book for a given casino company.

For those two firms, it really needs to be much more of a profit center. My sense from talking to guys, both in the industry and from those companies, is the idea of legalization of online gambling is something that they anticipate and think will result in a huge payday for them.

The books who are more about serving as amenities for their properties are more about, ‘Let’s not lose too much on any one game, let’s make a little bit if we can.’ My guess is that most of them will be a little bit behind adapting to the legalization — if it happens — than the books whose profit priority is sports books and betting.

I was at the MGM earlier and I liked Philly at 12-1 and Carolina at 15-1 to win the Super Bowl. Are there any NFL futures bets out there that you like at all?

The thing you need to understand about the NFL is that parity is true. As much as you’re gonna have your good and bad teams in any given year, over the course of time the worst-to-first happens a lot more than might be instinctual to the average handicapper.

Now, if you have a franchise which was down last year — so the odds aren’t good — but also have an institutional history of success like the Steelers and Ravens. These are teams that have been successful more often than not for a long time now. I’ve seen the Ravens out there at 40-1, the Steelers almost at 40-1.

My advice is to look towards a decent long-term payout — don’t forget, they’re going to be holding your money for 11 months if you bet right now. That money’s out of your bank roll, and you’re not able to spend or bet it on anything else, so you’ve gotta really like a future bet to do it this early, but if you find a team you really are optimistic about that has that has institutional success and is in that 40-1 range, it might be worth a little “sprinkle” as my friend Vegas Runner says.

Do you think any major league or division 1 athletes are currently working with gamblers for point shaving or inside information?

For me the best approach to these sorts of things is to follow the money. In professional leagues, even the guys at the end of the bench are making enough money that it’s most likely not economically viable in relation to their legal, career, and reputation risk. It just doesn’t make sense — it’s not like you’re going to get paid $10 million for that.

On the flip side of that, there’s a lot of college basketball athletes that not only are not getting paid for playing, they’re never going to be. A chunk of them are going to have pessimistic career prospects, so now if you have a chance to make a relatively modest amount of money — in the neighborhood of $10,000 per game — all of a sudden, it becomes economically viable.

Therefore, my answer is extreme in both directions. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone in the professional leagues who’s a player — though the referees, as we’ve seen with Donaghy, are a more viable possibility — is on the take. But, in college basketball, there are almost certainly multiple games being fixed in any given year.

Speaking of Tim Donaghy, do you think he’s the only major league official who cooperated with gamblers in the way that he did?

I think officials are more likely than players at the professional level, but they’re still making a really good living. For a lot of them, it’s a passion, too — they love their jobs. Not only is there a legal risk, but they’d lose their professions. Therefore, I’m not sure whether or not it’s otherwise happened before, but I feel that it’s rare.

If a major fight were to be fixed — I’m not saying that it was (or wasn’t), but Pacquaio-Bradley for instance — and buy off the judges, how would that go down?

My sense is that whenever there has been corruption with boxing specifically, oftentimes it’s not a gambling matter, but a matter between promotions. You’ve got tens of millions dollars — if not more — at stake if, say, Mayweather wins or doesn’t win.

I’m obviously not saying that any of his fights have been fixed — they’re not even close enough to have corruption most of the time, but there’s so much money at stake with the biggest names in boxing regarding who wins and who loses in terms of who gets the big payday next. I think that is more motivation than a gambling fix.

Are there actually people who are so consistently good at sports betting that books know them won’t take their action?

In Nevada, the books are supposed to offer the posted limit. So, you walk in and they say, ‘We will take X thousand dollars on an NFL side,’ they’re supposed to offer that to anyone. What happens is, because of potential harassment and other ways that they try to limit these guys, that some of the best are not welcome at every book. Though that isn’t necessarily regulatory-wise supposed to be the case.

But, most certainly, there’s winning sports bettors. And, most certainly, some of them are betting significant amounts of money, and thus the sports books are not only unhappy with the action, they’ll make an effort to minimize it.

I won’t talk about specific books or specific players, but I know of one instance where the player was told, ‘You can come in and bet once a day — you can walk to the window once and bet — and you can’t come back that day.’ So, he can’t really sit and shop the numbers throughout the day; if something pops 10 minutes after he makes his bet, he can’t take advantage of it. But, it’s kind of a devil’s bargain because they’ll let him bet that one time somewhat unencumbered.

Another way they will discourage action is by simply being unpleasant. I was hanging out at a sports book here in town, and this was known as a squares book where they don’t want sharp action, they want the $20 bettors who are going to lose 99% of the time in the long run.

Points at self …

So I was sitting there having a casual business meeting, and I was looking at my odds screen. Any time I saw a college basketball line that was 1.5 points off because they were a little late to move, or they wanted to take a bet, I figured that the sharper book’s line was a reflection of something important. Plus, I wanted to have some fun. In the course of a half-hour, I bet six different games for $500 apiece, which was the limit.

The last time I went up, the ticket maker — not the manager — said, “Why aren’t you making all these bets at once?” I looked at him, and in my mind, I’m wondering how he has any right to ask the customer that, and I said, sarcastically, “It’s funner that way.”

Funner isn’t a word,” he replies.

What I think that story tells us is that in Vegas, at some of the casinos, it’s really not about the customer. It’s not about providing value. Quite frankly, they’re antagonistic with the bettors. To me, that’s one of the things that’s holding Vegas back.

Can you go over the business model for Pregame?

95% of the information that we provide is free. So, the things that are requirements to be a pro with us is expertise, to share what you know, and connecting with our customers. We consider everyone who visits our site to be a customer — it doesn’t matter if you spend a dollar or not. Quite frankly, one of the ways we differentiate ourselves from our competitors is the connection with our pros and our customers.

Right now, you can go onto our site and into the forum and communicate with Steve Fezzik. The case can be made that he’s the second-most famous sports bettor in the world behind Billy Walters. (I’m not sure whether you count Mayweather, but if you do, he’s obviously first.) Paying customers have the ability to ask him why he bet a game, and get an answer — and it’s not a choice of whether he wants to answer on a given day, he has to, that’s part of what we do differently.

There was an article on Wagerminds in which one of your pros developed a relationship with one of your customers off the site, and apparently scammed him. Can you discuss this incident?

I can discuss this to the degree of my awareness in it. I clearly had nothing to do with the transaction. Any time you have a community — e.g. even the comments section on The Big Lead — people can meet each other and decide to do business offline.

In this case, one of the sides of the transaction was someone that was working for us. The day that we identified, with proof — and it’s always about proof, because anybody can make an accusation — that the handicapper in question did do wrong (and we were able to prove that he did very quickly), he was fired that day with no notice. He’s never participated in a single thing with us since.

So our approach is that whenever you have anyone other than yourself that you have to be responsible for — and this case where you have a dozen, 18 pros of whom you can’t dictate their every action — all you can do is set a standard. You can try to pick those pros as judiciously and wisely as possible, and I think if you look at our history from A to Z, we’ve done quite well picking some high quality pros.

After you do that, all you can do is monitor closely if they’re acting appropriately, and then aggressively discipline them if they don’t. I think we see in this case, if you see 1 in 18 pros did wrong, the day it was proven he was fired, to me that makes our approach look really good.

Can you expand upon the due diligence you do on your pros’ backgrounds before hiring them?

As we talked about, the three criteria are level of expertise, willingness to share, and willingness to connect. The first thing I judge is expertise, because quite frankly that is rare in itself. I’m constantly on the lookout — if it’s Twitter, if it’s other platforms — for if there are people sharing in other channels that might be a good fit to share at Pregame.

Additionally, once I find expertise, I’ll approach them and get a feel for the personalities. You try to get a sense for if this person is forthright, though we all know this is imperfect because the best hustlers are the ones you never know are doing it. My first step through connecting with pros is to get a sense for them as people. Are they willing to work hard? Are they willing to share and connect? Do they seem sleazy? There’s certainly been times I’ve gotten a vibe from a guy who was an expert that I didn’t want to work with him.

All that said, anyone that’s an adult has known someone for years that has, at some point, totally shocked him. So, as much as we try to weed out the problems at the beginning, any business is going to have some of that slip through. The only thing you can do is to have diligence monitoring it, and to quickly discipline, and in some cases, let them go if they do wrong.

Other than Mike Hook in this one case, there hasn’t been anyone who’s done anything egregious enough to be fired that day in all the years we’ve been doing this. We’ve had guys that made a mistake with their record — we are adamant about our transparency — every pick, ever, from every pro, is available for review. Pros are able to promote themselves from their records, but it’s their responsibility to be accurate.

Like anything, there’s one-in-a-thousand human error-type mistakes. We had one handicapper that made an egregious one this football season. He was suspended from football sales for 110 days. Even though it was an “honest mistake” — and I believe it was — it was egregious enough that we suspended him. That’s probably the second-most egregious thing that’s happened in over five years. I think we’ve done quite well filtering out our experts.

After the New York Times Magazine article, there was some backlash, and you were accused in one instance of “peddling bullshit”. Can you issue an on-the-record response to that claim?

You will always have some who are against sports betting in general. Others watched the Al Pacino moving “Two For the Money” and believe the entire industry is a big scam. But just like the stock market has experts, so does sports betting. And I would gladly stack our experts’ collective credentials against any of our competitors.

Even so, if winning big money were as easy as buying sports picks on the Internet, not many people would work a 9-5 job! Expert picks are a start, but you also must avoid the traps – like betting too many games or betting too much per game relative to your bankroll. You also must obsessively hunt for the right numbers to bet at. Professional betting is nothing less than a full-time job.

Most don’t have the time, talent, or discipline that’s required. Expert picks improve your chances of winning, but there’s so much more to it. And that’s important to make clear. Some tout sports betting as a get-rich-quick scheme. Not a day goes by at Pregame.com that we don’t stress how hard it is to beat the bookies over the long run.

We encourage sports bettors to be realistic, to look at sports betting as a hobby — as recreation. For some, part of the fun is betting the same games as the experts. 95% of the info at the site is completely free – including five hours of live radio a week, plus podcasts, videos, and articles. This allows site visitors to judge the value of our experts without spending a penny.

And most never buy anything – sticking to all the free picks. Some, though, are willing to pay for that last 5% of available expertise. Our emphasis on honest promotion and fair dealings allows them to do that without the risk of being scammed. We are proud to have a perfect A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau. Every pick ever made from every one of our experts is publicly archived. No major competitor does that. This level of transparency allows customers to make a fully informed decision.

These standards at least meet, if not in some ways exceed, those of stock market mutual funds – another industry where some are willing to pay for expertise. Critics in the financial industry question whether these investors make more money following experts – but even with something as important as a person’s retirement savings, there are often motivations beyond counting every last dollar.

 

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