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Parlays have become increasingly popular as bettors, in Vaccaro's words, want to "turn toothpicks into lumber piles," and they appeal mightily to the "bro" crowd, who see no reason why they can't compound their certainty. And this is where the Harvard miracle comes into our story. Parlays can be very exciting for the bettor but extremely damaging to the sportsbooks. In November, a number of NFL favorites covered (bettors overwhelmingly make parlay cards of favorites) and cost William Hill $2 million in one day. It never happens, except when it does.
Similarly, New Mexico, which was an 11½-point favorite in its Thursday-night game with 14th-seeded Harvard, was looming as a casino calamity. Vaccaro was horrified to notice that the Lobos, who had become a tournament darling, were linked to almost 70% of the tickets William Hill had written that day. Suddenly $10 investments in five-game parlays were set to go off at $250. I talked to a spokesman for a 16-man syndicate—well, a bunch of guys—at Terrible's, a gritty off-Strip alternative to the glitzier books. They had each arrived that morning with their top two picks, sifted through them and produced a five-game parlay that, leveraging their combined wisdom to a powerful advantage, would produce a $4,000 payout if New Mexico covered. And then four games into certain success, Harvard, a feel-good story anywhere outside these state lines, not only beat the spread but also beat New Mexico (really, who cares about that?) and crumpled thousands of tickets.
Vaccaro chuckled. Consulting his "what if" screen, he was happy to see that his books just went from a horrible 4% hold that first day to a 12% hold. Miracle indeed. "Things happen," he said, "but I kind of like my spot."
And yet for all the ways in which gambling can twist a fan's perspective—I saw UNLV boosters rooting against a possible three-point buzzer beater Thursday night, hoping instead for a tying two and a chance to regroup and cover: "Overtime! Overtime!" they chanted, but got neither—it seemed to me that betting was almost incidental to these two days. Everywhere I went I ran into groups of best friends, guys gathering anew, refreshing all those vows of young brotherhood. A surprising number of them were dressed in identical T-shirts, like bridesmaids. I saw a bunch of South Dakota State faithful in FEAR THE JACKRABBIT GARB (no need as it turned out), another group in 12TH ANNUAL MARCH MADNESS T's and the JOEY'S 30TH BIRTHDAY PARTY celebrants in Caesars Palace's so-called man-caves, where for $3,000 they got all-you-can-eat wings and unlimited Bud Lite along with four screens of their own (and, at 1 p.m., the chance to meet MMA great Ken Shamrock).
Lagasse's Stadium is a sports bar/book at the Palazzo, geared strictly toward this demographic, where for as little as $300 or as much as $10,000 you can enjoy every young male's fantasy of assisted-care living. There were huge monitors, of course, betting windows at the pit of stadium seating and all the bacon-wrapped shrimp and light beer you could consume. Every need was met, except that for which a catheter might be provided. I met two 36-year-olds, friends since kindergarten, frat brothers, best men at each other's weddings, who made March Madness the annual pretense for renewal of their fellowship. This was their fifth year and they promised many more, hoping to get together again with the bunch in the front row. They were fans of one team or another. I forget.
I also saw—and this was equivalent to spotting the ivory billed woodpecker in a Detroit parking lot—two young women there. In my two days, these were the only females I'd happened upon who weren't carrying trays of beer. One was a genuine Kansas fan, in all her Rock! Chalk! regalia. The other seemed along for the ride, but giddy at the odds this male gathering seemed to promise.
I hesitated to tell her the truth. In fact these young men, as a gender, had all been neutered by the powerful streams of plasma, nachos, alcohol and male bonding. So much male bonding. I watched over the course of a day, at sportsbooks up and down the Strip, as these guys practiced the rites of friendship, the morning's bottle clinking turning into afternoon fist bumps. Then, as the late games ran on, the lads doubled down on poor decisions and broke into confessionals, sharing their dreams and fears over the iced buckets of beer, collapsing in hugs, some even weepy.
These men were no good to our ivory billed woodpecker, not here.
Of course, March Madness is, to some extent at least, about basketball, bro-maraderie aside. Even here. The gambling is not 100% incidental. Las Vegas would not exist if it were. On Friday, I wandered back to Terrible's to see how my syndicate was regrouping. The big game that morning was Duke and Albany. Everybody loves Duke and there was no price that could move any money toward Albany. No doubt Duke led everybody's parlay card that day, too. The line started at 17 and got pushed all the way to 19, worse than a bad number, a ridiculous number, the sharps probably pouncing on Albany, scorching the public. I watched as Duke, in what seemed the most annoying and least satisfying victory ever, beat Albany by just 12, well inside the spread.
I caught the attention of my syndicate spokesman and asked if they happened to have had Duke. This spring break for the young professionals, all the dudes basking in the glow of giant monitors, extreme levels of bonhomie aside, had the occasional downside. He stared lasers at me and took a long pull from his Coors Light. It was 11 a.m.