When he says it, the room goes silent. Sinisi is no Ramsey; his thoughts must be taken seriously. The clear waters of consensus have been muddied, and everyone looks at Robaina. If this had been a decade ago, LVSC's founder, Michael Roxborough, would have let the pencil he held against his forehead clatter to the desk and said, "Let's discuss this." A debate would have ensued, not only about the game at hand but also about sport itself and perhaps the meaning of life. Somewhere along the way, a number that made sense to everyone—a usable number, a number the sports books could hang, in the parlance of the industry—would have emerged.
But Robaina keeps his own counsel. Later that afternoon, poring over the games, pencil in hand, he'll come across the trio of sevens and Sinisi's 14, and he'll conclude that his own number might-just possibly—have been low. "Ten and a half," he'll say to himself, and that will be that. Within a half hour, nearly every casino in Las Vegas will have that number on its board: Robaina's work displayed in lights.
As recently as 1995, about the time a burned-out Michael Roxborough announced his intention to visit every horse track in North America, then sold LVSC for $6 million plus stock to Data Broadcasting Corp. (which, in turn, flipped it to CBS SportsLine for $12 million), LVSC had no competitors worth mentioning. If you put money on a sports event in North America, the odds you were quoted almost certainly originated on the second floor of a nondescript building that sits so close to McCarran airport that the row of TVs along one wall quivers with each landing.
In those days working for LVSC was the most prestigious job in oddsmaking. But now, because of the proliferation of offshore gambling sites, the industry is in flux. Rogue handicappers, banned from the Strip for various offenses, have found moorings in Antigua and Costa Rica. The sports books at the casinos, LVSC's best customers, are taking a hard look at the Internet numbers, wondering if they might get for almost nothing services for which they each currently pay LVSC as much as $1,000 a week.
LVSC is in flux too. Because Sports-Line has contracted to produce an NCAA website, it must divest itself of this gambling entity. In a couple of months LVSC will be sold to a group of Nevada-based investors. That explains the sense of uneasiness in the office: Veteran odds-makers such as John Harper, a curmudgeon with a stack of handwritten notebooks, wonder if the next paycheck will be their last. "There will always be an LVSC in some form," says Pete Korner, who recently left after more than a decade to start a consultant's service. "But what form it will take is anyone's guess."
Meanwhile, with a schedule and a pile of research at hand, Robaina and his staff concentrate on doing what they do better than anyone else in town. Whether it's Notre Dame-Purdue or a game only a gambler or a booster could care about—say, Brown and Dartmouth playing basketball on a snowy New Hampshire night—the relationship between two teams can always be expressed with a number. Finding that number, Roxborough used to say, "isn't voodoo, and it isn't rocket science. It's a combination of both."
It was mostly guesswork before Roxy, as he was known to the world. The stakes were lower, and the information available was salted with gossip and innuendo. Then Roxy, a college dropout with a mathematician's mind, arrived in Las Vegas from Vancouver in 1975, looking like nobody's image of a gambler. With his neat blond hair, button-down shirts and wire-rimmed glasses he was the opposite of Jimmy the Greek, who seemed to stink of cigar smoke right through the television. Roxy was respectable enough for the sports book at the Stardust—which was the first to post each week's football odds—to offer him $500 a week to make the opening line on all sports events.
Did he want to make odds or bet? He didn't see how he'd ever get rich earning $500 a week from a hotel. But he was tired of winning vast sums one month and giving them back the next. And Roxy was an oddsmaker by predilection. "There are people who can look at 40 taps of draft beer and say, 'I'll have what he's having,' " he says, "but I've got to handicap those 40 taps. I'm still looking for the perfect beer, just like I'll always be looking for the perfect number."
He accepted the Stardust's offer in 1983. Not long after, an excise tax on sports betting that had been as high as 10% was trimmed to 0.25%. Then the Las Vegas Hilton spent $16 million on the plushest sports book anyone had seen. One by one, the other hotels on the Strip followed suit, installing multiple video screens and huge electronic tote boards and selling an increasing array of propositions. And, one by one, beginning with the Hilton, they subscribed to Roxy's service, by now called LVSC.
They couldn't afford not to. Just as important as posting the right lines is posting the same lines as everyone else. If another hotel is giving three points and you're giving five, the wise guys—which is what oddsmakers call professional gamblers (as opposed to squares, which is what they call the rest of us)—will know it in a half hour. They'll put a bundle on the favorite at the other book and on the underdog at yours, creating what they call a tweener, then pray for the four-point result that will win both bets for them.