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It's the fiercest, most unpredictable 48 hours in sports anyway, but add five-game parlays, chicken wings and enough of the gas released by giant plasma screens and you have the single oddest holiday in America—March Madness. Yet not even that begins to describe the lunacy, at least in Las Vegas, when all the bros and dudes, the best buds—the guys—convene for an annual celebration of sports betting that, as it turns out, has very little to do with either sports or betting.
The overarching premise for this congregation—made up almost entirely of young males, enough product in their spiked hair to gel lesser nations—is the NCAA hoops tournament, the first full round of a 64-team roundelay, 32 games on Thursday and Friday. This ought to be exciting enough, the Belmonts mixing it up with the Arizonas, the Dukes with the Albanys, the sheer volume and relentlessness of games tipping off one after another, until all the giant screens are bright with competing basketball and beer ads (and stay that way for 12 hours at a time), certain to produce the bizarre and unexpected.
Here in Vegas, though, favored by this particular demographic for the opportunity to bet its teams and to bond without embarrassment over iced buckets of light beer, that excitement ratchets up to levels that ordinarily would require a toxicological screen. You can go to bigger events, larger spectacles and certainly watch more epic games than Miami-Pacific, and in more comfortable environments. By far. But for sheer scale of derangement, you must at least once visit Las Vegas the first week of March Madness and watch a lot of young men shout at one another over the relative merits of Bucknell and Butler.
First, how many visit? I don't know. Lots. Most properties on the Strip were sold out. On Thursday morning the taxi line at McCarran snaked around more terminals than I thought the airport had. A more useful metric might be how much they gamble. Again, I don't know. But it's also a lot. It's been reported that the handle for Nevada sportsbooks, the total amount bet on the tournament, is roughly $100 million, about the same amount wagered on the Super Bowl. And a sportsbook director told me that most of that would be bet on this Thursday and Friday, not during the Final Four. This front-loaded action is not so odd when you think about it. There are more games incorporating many more loyalties, more ways to bet parlays and so much initial enthusiasm that the money just flies to the windows. Also, after those first two days, there is considerably less money to gamble with.
The ability to wager is a powerful attraction for these pilgrims, who are eager to appear grown-up and keen to profit from their purportedly informed opinions. The sportsbooks love having them because, as it turns out, their opinions are formed almost entirely by ESPN or else just based on collegiate allegiances. I asked one young gentleman in a PITT T-shirt if he was betting the tournament. This was at the Mirage, where the new 85-foot screen above us was putting out enough heat to warm, well, Pittsburgh. "I like the Panthers against Wichita State, the grind-it-out defense we have," he said. He added that he'd bet $400 on such conviction. But what did he know about Wichita State? "Well," he said, taking a pull of Coors Light (this was at 9:30 a.m.), "that's the catch."
This is the easiest money the casinos make all year. (Pitt's highly vaunted defense gave up 73 in an 18-point loss.) The silver-maned Jimmy Vaccaro—not a wise guy, could play one—has been making book in Las Vegas for 38 years and always looks forward to March Madness, once a sleepy little enterprise but now a tremendous growth vehicle for his property's sports gaming. The hold on all sports, the amount the books keep as profit, has actually been shrinking year by year as gamblers become more sophisticated. They are not beating the house—that's impossible as the casino retains a 4.5% vigorish (that is, you must bet $11 to win $10)—but they are coming closer.
Except during March Madness, when the "public" wildly outnumbers the "sharps." Even Super Bowl bettors, who still are more recreational than occupational, bring some sophistication to the window (along with much bigger bets). "But when I look out there and see a kid in a corn-cob hat," said Vaccaro, "I think I know how he's betting." There is no price, no line Vaccaro can set that will alter the corn-cob man's allegiance. There is nothing Dick Vitale can whisper that will sway him. He will bet his heart, his hunch, and that's that.
That mostly blind devotion, coupled with the risk-flattening volume of the tournament (an increase in transactions favors the house), means the books win big. Vaccaro said the hold for the William Hill books, which he now represents, jumps from a normal 6.5%-to-8% range to 10% to 12% during March Madness. That, my friend, is what you call corn-cob-hat betting.
Still, this is sports, and there are risks. I sat with Jay Rood, who hangs the number for all MGM properties. (No one actually hangs numbers or even writes tickets, but old-timey lingo is carefully preserved in the gambling industry.) Rood was sweating out the early Thursday action after the Michigan State game ended right on the line. (A meaningless dunk by an unthinking Valparaiso player ruined every casino's position.) "The public can crush you," he said, "all those 20-to-1 parlays and no way to fade the action." (Good for you, public!) He was surveying a number of computer screens in his behind-the-counter bunker and even flicking to his "what if" program, which was expressing the MGM's festering liability on open parlay cards. Could be bad. If this liability grew—five-game parlays continuing to mount—he might have to tinker with other games, halftime spreads, whatever. "I'm just a hedge-fund manager, trying to squeak out a percent or two for my company," he added. But he was clearly, and refreshingly, sweating out that percent or two.
(In the middle of all this, the hedge-fund manager took a call from another of his properties where a woman wanted to bet whatever he'd take on the Reds, 10-to-1, to win the World Series. "Marge Schott?" he asked. He took 10 grand.)