Gambling for a Living: A Madness to My Method
Writer’s Note: This is PART 4 in my ongoing series, “Gambling For a Living.” What follows is a partial recollection of my sports betting escapades over the course of 2016. For other chapters, please read PART 1, PART 2, and PART 3.
Sunlight sanitizes the dim hue of gambling daily.
All the time wasted and ultimately lost — days, nights, weeks, weekdays, and weekends — prodding often so pointlessly and more often still so profitlessly — crunching ideas, testing theories, reading injury reports on squeaky laptops and cracked smartphone screens — eyes darting back and forth between ball scores — the “previous” button battered on the remote control beyond recognition — my solitary self-made man-cave begins narrowing slowly. Life becomes absorbed within this timeless vacuum, sucking all the life and energy out of everything else that’s happening in the vast beyond, to which one becomes oblivious and indifferent.
Winning or losing has no impact on this dark place.
There’s a reason why convicts shackled up in solitary confinement are given at least an hour of daily sunshine. Twenty-three hours spent locked within an isolation chamber of unbreakable steel walls are at least temporarily forgotten when the warmth of the sun’s rays hit the face and sink into the body. This stimulant along with human contact keeps a prisoner from going mad.
The sun is my salvation.
* * * * *
108 degrees today in Las Vegas. Kick-off in five minutes.
Five months of full-time sports betting has provided me with a modest profit, and much to my surprise, almost narcissistic personal satisfaction. It’s ridiculous, because I could have spent all those hours doing something not just constructive, but likely more financial rewards. But there’s something inherently pleasing, even smug worthy, about doong what few people can and beating something that few people have mastered.
Sure, almost all sports gamblers talk a good game. Ask any sports gambler is he’s a winner and damn near 100 percent will say yes. Indeed, they might look successful. But virtually all heavy sports bettors have reliable sources of outside income that help to cast the illusion of success. Beating the vig in the long run is far more difficult than people realize.
I have no other outside sources of income, and so I was sort of forced into this role. The bills are due. The mortgage needs to be paid. Oh, and one of my cars has 130,000 miles on it and the engine is starting to make funny sounds.
C’mon Los Angeles Rams! Daddy doesn’t need a new pair of shoes! He needs a new timing chain!
My $7,000 wager on this “meaningless” preseason football game promises to set the tone for the entire 2016 NFL season. Worst-case scenario — it’s gonna’ be brutally tough to dig myself out of a $7,000 hole, that is, if I lose this bet. The way things have been going, that’s about two months worth of what I’ve managed to make so far, while doing this full time, and that was mostly on baseball, which will end soon. I’d have to pick fourteen $500 winners per game down the road just to get back to even (actually, more than that, with the vig). To put that into perspective, only 80 or so entrants out of 1,727 — which is less than 5 percent of the field — who entered last year’s NFL Handicapping Contest at the Westgate (what used to be the Las Vegas Hilton Super Contest) finished fourteen games above .500 or greater, for the entire season.
But if I manage to win, that’s a strong head start and a nice financial cushion to invest in the upcoming football season, given my average bet size usually ranges between $300 and $500. The bottom line is — this isn’t merely a $7,000 game for me, which would still be a lot. It’s really a $10,800 game, since that’s the full amounts of the financial swing.
Indeed, this is money that means something. They say you never know the real value of money until you don’t have any. This will sound strange to non-gamblers, but every serious sports bettor will understand it. I’ve wagered $5,000 on ball games dozens of times over the years, even on teams where I couldn’t name a single player. Once, I bet $39,000 on a Super Bowl game [READ THAT STORY HERE]. Still, there’s no correlation between the size of a bet and the pressure to win it. Most of the time when I’ve bet big in the past, I had enough money to cover the loss, and then some. Notice I said, most of the time.
Fact is, this is a bet I really cannot afford to lose. I need the Los Angeles Rams to win the game. That’s it. No point spread. Rams on the money line, laying no points. Just win baby.
This is the first NFL game played in Los Angeles since before the turn of the century. Although it’s just a preseason game, 92,000 fans still pack the L.A. Coliseum to welcome the Rams back to Southern California (just three months later, they’ll be calling for the coach’s head to be fired, and they get their wish). Based on the win-loss records from the previous season, the 7-9 Rams should be able to easily handle the 4-12 Cowboys, especially with the extra motivation of wanting to start off the new era in Los Angeles with a big win for the hometown fans.
Dallas should mail it in. The veteran starter, Tony Romo is out. He’s not even suiting up to play. The second-string quarterback got injured in training camp. Some kid that no one has ever heard of who was drafted in the middle of the fourth round is starting for the Cowboys. His name is Dak Prescott.
The game begins, and meanwhile — I’m outside sunning by the pool doing my best to magically make a fresh bottle of Santa Christina Umbria disappear, preferably before halftime, after which I’ll crack open a bottle of Blac d’ Blanc Champagne from Schramsberg. All this is evidenced by the photo above.
I’m not even going to bother watching this game, I tell myself. Why should I? I refuse to waste a gorgeous Las Vegas afternoon in front of the television. I’ll be doing plenty of that during the rest of the season. My money should win. Let it do the work for me. Let my money make me money. It’s just like stocks, I tell myself. Like a mutual fund. Hmm, should I go cash my ticket that going to be worth $10,800 later tonight, or wait until tomorrow? Such are the difficult decisions of the overconfident.
* * * * *
My laptop is out by the pool. The game kicked off just a few moments ago. I want to make sure I’ve got a good connection, so I hit the refresh button while linked to ESPN. My first look at the scoreboard….
With 14:43 left in the first quarter, it’s Dallas 7, Los Angeles 0.
What the fuck!
How the shit did Dallas score in the first 17 seconds?
Motivated by panic, my curiosity piqued, I slam the refresh button again and see that the Cowboys have run back the opening kickoff 101 yards and scored a touchdown.
I’m about to throw up my last gulp of Santa Christina.
Alright. Calm the fuck down. It’s just one touchdown. Some dude who’s about to be cut from the team blew a tackling assignment. Big deal. It happens. The Rams should still be in control of the game.
Next series, Rams go 4 downs and out. Punt. Dallas ball.
Rookie Dak Prescott takes the field for the first time in a Cowboy uniform. He looks like Roger Staubach winning the Heisman Trophy at Navy and dashes Dallas on a 85-yard drive that looks to be pristine perfection.
Dallas 14, Los Angeles 0.
I’m swimming and cursing at the same time. If the neighbors didn’t already think I’m half crazy, they’ve got plenty of new material to ponder. I refuse to let this gambling abomination ruin my day. No. No. No. No. No. Let the game play out and quit obsessing over every play of every drive, I tell myself.
About 40 more minutes pass. Unable to accept the serenity and remain calm, the laptop opens up again and now it’s Dallas 14, Los Angeles 7.
That’s better. Now, I’ve got a chance. I’m back in the game.
Another 40 minutes or so passes. It must be halftime, by now, I suspect.
ESPN on the screen. Half time score: Dallas 24, Los Angeles 7.
* * * * *
I tend to be pretty good at the things I’m interested in.
If I’m not interested, or worse — bored with it — I’m the laziest motherfucker on the planet. [Consider that one reason it took me a month to get back to writing this story.]
Lots of people don’t know this but my work did have a significant impact on NFL betting about 15 years ago. Allow me to tell you that story. Since it’s halftime, this makes for perfect timing.
Just before I moved to Las Vegas from Washington, DC, I spent that last summer in the nation’s capital outdoors in the sun, reading and calculating and pouring over old box scores of ball games dating back nearly 20 years. Each and every day, my routine was pretty much the same. I went outside, dug into the numbers, made my notes, and eventually came up with gambling fucking gold. It was the equivalent of discovering hidden treasure.
I have to share some of the credit here. A handicapper and researcher named Mike Garbowski (whom I’ve never met) had been the first writer ever to take on the unchartered topic of football halftime betting. Sometime around 1999, he published an obscure data set in a booklet which included all the NFL halftime betting lines and results dating back to the season when they first became available, sometime back in the 1980s. I don’t even think that data is around anymore. If there’s a copy of “NFL Second-Half Betting” around somewhere, I still have not seen it since my old copy became so worn out it is no longer legible. [Note: I think that’s the title of the book. I’m not sure. It’s been many years since I’ve seen a copy.]
Thing was, Garbowski didn’t do much in terms of creating a narrative with all his data. He didn’t market the research, at all. So, I spent the next three months scouring his numbers and then crosschecked them with as many NFL game results as I could find from the Internet. The longer I worked, the more excited I became. After a few weeks of doing this, I couldn’t wait to wake up the next day, go outside, and spend the entire day data mining NFL box scores. I know, that doesn’t sound like much of a life. I guess — it isn’t. But in the faux-laboratory of the mind of an NFL handicapper, this became an obsession.
The work wasn’t easy. For every nugget of gold I found, probably 30 or so theories turned out to be false leads pointing to fool’s gold. That’s the excruciating toil of data mining, the labor that no one sees. It’s spending half a day or longer than that on something that looks very promising dating back a few seasons, and then when you continue to run the numbers with all the crosschecking, eventually the advantages fizzle out and end up at the same random percentages as coin flipping. That’s why it’s called mining. You have to go deep underground, dig through an incalculable amount worthless rock, and if you’re extraordinarily persistent and then lucky, you might just find a few tiny diamonds amidst the coal. Data mining is an exercise in constant frustration and disappointment, not to be attempted by anyone but the most determined and stubborn.
My research finally led to 7 NFL Halftime Betting Angles that were irrefutably successful, and ended up altering the second-half lines of pro football games. Seriously, the actually stared shifting the lines because of this research, I first published my data in 2001 online at MadJack Sports (with proper attribution given to Mr. Garbowski, of course), and afterward everyone pretty much stole our data, re-posted it elsewhere at other sports betting forums, and the gold rush was on like has never been the case in NFL second-half wagering.
Incredibly, those NFL Halftime Betting Angles produced a whopping 65 percent winners during the full 2001 season. My systems produced an average of 3 to 4 plays per week. There was no handicapping involved, whatsoever. You just bet them blind, and won. It was that simple. A monkey could make the plays and win. It was a dream come true.
Making a really long story much shorter than it really deserves to be (note to self — do the detailed write up someone later, especially on the dead-end angles), those angles made me some money, but they didn’t make me rich. I had no full-time job for about a year (similar to my experience now), so I relied on those wagers to keep me going. Thank goodness for offshore sports books, which was my only betting option in those days.
The following season, in 2002, I moved to Las Vegas. The angles performed even better, winning at nearly 67 percent. In 2003, Dave Tuley published my angles in the Daily Racing Form, even though the subject matter of the periodical was horse racing. I published a revised editions of my angles in 2003 in Casino Player magazine. In other words, I updated some angles, and dropped a few based on results. This was before software packages ran the data, and even that wasn’t very good since quarters and halves aren’t usually broken down with numbers and percentages — so all the work had to be done the old fashioned way, by making your eyeballs bleed pouring over the data. By 2005, I was attending sports handicapping seminars in Las Vegas and the “experts” sitting up on the stage were quoting my work (and Garbowski’s work), citing our betting angles, and I pretty much just sat there stewing like a pressure cooker with a thumb up my ass, silent like a bitter victim who watched as everyone else ran away with the prize.
Fuck me. I never should have published those angles. I should have kept them to myself.
I coulda’ been a contender.
Addendum to this story: Two things happened — (1) Lines makers began adjusting lines to the angles, and they became less reliable. (2) The NFL became more of a passing game and rules were changed which helped offenses, negating some of the “under” betting systems I had created. Closing advice — don’t bother with the angles anymore. They’re now totally obsolete.
* * * * *
No, I didn’t tell that last story with any purpose in mind. It just seemed like a good time.
No, I did not make a halftime wager on this game. I’m already down y 17 points. It looks like I’m about to lose more than enough money on this day and the first thing you must when you’re stuck in a hole is to stop digging.
Second half kickoff. Dallas 24, Los Angeles 7.
Under these circumstances, I now have to go back into the house and watch my action.
Fuck the sun.
Fuck the pool.
The champagne is still sitting the fridge.
Marieta senses that something is very wrong.
I’m miserable as all fuck.
The second half of the first preseason opener is usually a romper room of ineptitude. Players who have no shot of ever playing in the NFL are now out on the field, trying desperately to make an impression somewhere on someone just enough to get noticed so he might later get signed to a minimal contract to play on the practice squad. Many preseason second halves are nothing more than scrimmages — training exercises where the coaches just go through the motions, sending in dull plays that would only interest some talent scout from the former XFL.
For this reason, being stuck 17 points in a preseason NFL game is like being down 30 points in a regular season game. It means your double fucked.
My five-figure wager is now riding on the arm of a new quarterback for the Rams named Sean Mannion, who used to play for the Oregon State Beavers. I had to look that up just now, because I could not even remember his name or anything about him. But over the next 90 minutes or so, he’s going to turn into the second coming of Jesus Fucking Christ.
Mannion throws a touchdown pass in the middle of the third quarter, and after three frames, it’s Dallas 24, Los Angeles 14. Still down by 10 points. C’mon, you bastards!
By this time, Dallas has replaced Dak Prescott, who played like an All-Pro in his first-ever NFL start. That stellar display foreshadowed the incredible rookie season he would later enjoy with the Cowboys as he led them to the NFL East title. Done for the day, now a fourth-stringer takes all the snaps, and it’s apparent the Cowboys aren’t really interested much in scoring in more points or risking injuries to anyone who might make the team. They won the half that counted on the scoreboard, from both a coaching and talent perspective.
Fortunately for me, the Rams fourth stringers are treating this game like a Super Bowl. Los Angeles manages to score another touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, and now it’s Dallas 24, Los Angeles 21.
I’m pacing back and forth in front of the television like a wild mare. Rams players who drop passes get called out as cocksuckers. Cowboy receivers who drop passes get called out as heroes.
Down to the two-minute warning. Rams have the ball, and are driving. 92,000 fans are on their feet, and while most of the television viewers watching wouldn’t normally think this is a big dive, for me this might as well be Elway piercing through the Browns defense in the epic ’87 AFC Championship game.
With about 1:30 left on the clock and the Rams with no time outs, it’s 4th down. Crunch time. Rams ball. They’re on about the Dallas 35. I’m mulling over the possibility of kicking a 52-yard field goal, and ponder if that’s what I went to happen. But Rams’ had coach Jeff Fisher isn’t playing for the tie here. He wants to win. I desperately need a first down. Then, I need another 30 yards in the closing minute.
On fourth down, Mannion takes the snap and goes back to pass, then looks to his right, and nothing is there, so then he looks to his left. A pass rush floods into the backfield and just as Mannion is about eat the ball and go down with a sack, meaning “game over,” he sees a running back trekking out towards the sidelines, fires a missile that hits the receiver high in the shoulder pads, and he collapses with the ball out of bounds, but a half yard across the first-down marker.
First down Rams!
A few plays later, the Rams are down on the Dallas 9-yard line. A few seconds remaining. If I lose this game after storming back against the odds, something’s going to get broken. I don’t like breaking furniture. Marieta really hates it when I do that. Please, o’ please let the Rams score.
Mannion goes back to pass……Aaron Green slants off darting towards the left post in the corner of the end zone…..his arm moves forward……ball is in the air…..Green makes the catch…..
With the extra point, Los Angeles 28, Dallas 24. Final score.
Sean Mannion, my hero. Congratulations, Sir! You made the blog!
Time to cash a $10,800 ticket.
Coming Up: I’ll be writing a lot more about “data mining” in my next chapter of “Gambling for a Living.”