Forty-eight college football games on the board next week, and somewhere inside each is a number. In an uncertain world Cesar Robaina is certain of that much, at least. The lead odds-maker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants (LVSC) flips through a sheaf of computer printouts in his office on this Sunday morning in September. His skill at unearthing point spreads from masses of data has carried him to the top of his profession. The stack of paper before him is Carrara marble to his sculptor's hand: He'll chisel away at the information, sweeping aside irrelevancies, looking for the truth beneath. When the right number shows itself, Robaina knows.
You haven't heard of Robaina, have never seen his fleshy face and thicket of curly hair on your television screen. Yet few men in sports wield more power than he does. Robaina is responsible for betting lines used by four dozen casinos, two legal lotteries and hundreds of newspapers around the country. Those were his five points that Oakland was giving in last January's Super Bowl; those were his 17� and 23 and 37 in the first round of March Madness. For each game he calculates his number, then compares it with what the LVSC staffers assigned to handicap the sport have come up with. What might seem like a duplication of effort is a means to incorporate a range of thinking, for no two oddsmakers approach the task in quite the same fashion. "If we were looking at the same things and coming up with the same numbers, they'd have no reason to be here," Robaina says.
That's the theory, at least. Sometimes Robaina reconciles the numbers, his and theirs, but often he will stare at their numbers with incomprehension. "If Cesar has a game at 10 and everyone else has it at seven, and Cesar believes in his 10, that game is staying at 10," a former LVSC oddsmaker says. "Or 9� at the lowest." Experience counts more than enthusiasm here, and Robaina's judgment most of all. He is a likable man with a ready smile, but when it comes to his numbers, he has the confidence—no, the arrogance—of Roger Clemens shaking off his catcher with the game on the line. Just let him throw his pitch, and he'll get the out.
Still, there's a process. So Robaina and three other men sit at their desks on this Sunday morning, numbers in hand. Robaina has already gotten the input of a fifth party: the newest handicapper in the office, the low man in the pecking order. Scott Ramsey is so low, he works nights and isn't even there for the Sunday meeting. He phones in his college football point spreads from home.
Now Robaina sees what Ramsey has constructed for Notre Dame-Purdue the following Saturday, and he is certain that Ramsey is wrong. " Purdue by 13!" Robaina says, barely able to contain his disdain. It takes a physical effort to get such a blatandy incorrect conclusion out of his mouth. It would be like hearing Paperback Writer on the radio and forcing yourself to shout, " Rolling Stones!" On his own sheet Robaina has marked the spread as seven. He has power ratings for each college team, which he updates each Saturday night. He has charts on how schools have fared against each other in the past, home and away. He even factors in public perception, such as the betting support that Notre Dame gets just because it's Notre Dame.
Robaina isn't as certain about this seven on Notre Dame-Purdue as he is when a number "just jumps out at me—what it should be, has to be," he says. But 14 years of experience as an oddsmaker and more than 20 as a sports bettor are telling him that this game is not a 13, can never be a 13, shouldn't be mentioned in the same breath with 13. And when two of the other oddsmakers also have Purdue giving seven, Robaina's confidence in his handicapping is fortified.
It isn't Ramsey's fault, Robaina thinks. He's a nice young man who is learning the trade while doing the office's grunt work. LVSC is in the information business, and clients call needing the weekend weather in Green Bay or the starting time for Missouri- Texas Tech. Someone has to answer the phones, send the faxes, stay into the Sinatra hours of a Saturday morning. Ramsey was hired for that. To get experience, he makes lines on several sports, including college football, for there is no way to learn this job other than by doing it.
One day, perhaps, Ramsey will propose a counterintuitive number, then defend it articulately at a meeting such as this one. His logic and insight will persuade the others that he has seen something they haven't. That day hasn't come yet. For now, when one of the other oddsmakers finds himself at the far end of the range of numbers, he is said to be "out there with Ramsey," and it is not a good place to be at all.
For Notre Dame-Purdue, Ramsey is alone at 13, but there is one man still to be heard from. Tony Sinisi is the oddsmaker Robaina respects most, the artistic yin to his scientific yang, the fox to his hedgehog. Robaina, whose big belly makes him look like a linebacker gone to seed, might be characterized as a strict constructionist, a man who looks to the data for everything. Sinisi, trim and fashionable, takes a more narrative approach. To him, oddsmaking is about nuance. He runs his statistical analysis but also incorporates into his thinking what a coach told a reporter about the game plan or what a player said in a radio interview that Sinisi came across on the Internet. "There's so much feel involved," Sinisi says. "You do it through an accumulation of experience. You think, I've seen this before. You start to have a sense of what the right number might be. You're looking at a game, you're looking, you're looking. Finally you say, 'Aha!' "
Sinisi isn't searching for the number, as Robaina is, but for something more nebulous. He doesn't so much reach the right answer as intuit a possible answer. "His number is a philosophical statement," Robaina says. And for this game, Notre Dame at Purdue next Saturday afternoon, Sept. 27, Sinisi's philosophical statement is, " Purdue by 14."