LAS VEGAS -- It's 6:30 a.m. at the Mirage casino sports book, and every seat is taken -- if not occupied by the fidgety rear end of a basketball fan, then claimed by a newspaper, a Bloody Mary, a box of Krispy Kremes or a bottle of aspirin. There are 63 seats in all -- ample and plush, the kind you'd want in your living room, with a writing table and two drink-holders attached -- each facing six giant TV screens mounted on the wall.
Out of nowhere Michael Gross, 46, plopped in prime real estate for the 11th consecutive year, blurts out: "I think we oughta do bowling shirts next year with our names on 'em -- like those guys."
Some NCAA officials believe major betting operations are a threat to the integrity of college sports.
(Steve Marcus For The Washington Post)
"What guys?" asks his old roommate from Syracuse.
"The Hat Guys."
As a giant trolley stacked with cases of beer rumbles past, Randy Anderson, 57, whose navy bowling shirt identifies him as "Hat Man," pops his first Tums.
It is the dawn of the greatest four days of the year in the minds of those assembled: opening weekend of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Just like baseball in April, everything is still possible. Sixty-four teams have a shot at winning the national championship. And Gross has placed so many wagers on the outcomes of the games that the Mirage has given him enough drink coupons to slake the Sahara. His buddy, Lou Conte, is no different. "I got bets I don't even remember what they're for!" Conte chortles, waving a fistful of betting receipts.
It's a good thing these seats are comfortable because, for the next four days, Gross and his pals from New Jersey, along with the Hat Guys in the row behind them, will be living in them, sneaking to their rooms upstairs only to sleep in four-hour shifts while friends safeguard their spot.
At 9:10 a.m., the first cigars are lit, and the crowd starts clamoring for the TVs to be switched from ESPN's steroid coverage to CBS, home of March Madness. "CBS! CBS!" they chant. "Let's go!"
The place erupts in cheers as the Eastern Kentucky Colonels trot onto the court, 17-point underdogs to Kentucky. The Hat Man unzips his thick duffle bag and whips out a burgundy Eastern Kentucky hat and a Kentucky blue one, which he hands to his brother, Sheldon, 53, a European history scholar at Miami (Ohio) University whose bowling shirt reads, "The Professor." For nine years they've worn whatever hat their money's on for luck. Opening day, they'll go through 16 hats each.
"When you put money on the game, everything changes," explains Randy Anderson, 57, a television producer from Los Angeles. "For four days out of the year we go crazy. Then we return to our normal lives."
'Canary in a Mineshaft'
The roughly $80 million wagered on the NCAA tournament in Las Vegas represents a minute fraction of the total betting on college basketball's championship, dwarfed by the estimated $2.5 billion staked with neighborhood bookmakers, in office pools and, increasingly, over the Internet with offshore sports books based in the Caribbean and Costa Rica. The betting in Nevada's sports books also is the only legal way to bet on the tournament. And periodically, it's targeted by members of Congress, the NCAA and college basketball's most esteemed coaches, who feel it should be outlawed.
Betting on college sports threatens the integrity of the games, in the view of Bill Saum, the NCAA's director of agent, gambling and amateurism activities. At worst, it exposes college athletes to pressure from criminal elements conspiring to fix the outcome of games. At its most benign, it sends mixed signals about the propriety of gambling, whether on sports, slots, poker or pool.
Others see no foul in adults gambling on college sports and argue that banning it would simply drive the action underground, below the radar of the regulatory bodies that police Nevada's gaming industry. Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the gaming industry's chief lobbyist, likens legal sports wagering to "a canary in a mineshaft" -- sounding the first alarm that something pernicious is in the air.
"Miners in the old days always brought a canary in a cage with them down the shaft, because with the first elements of gas, the canary would die," Fahrenkopf says. "The first warning signal of the last major-college points-shaving case, at Arizona State, was picked up by the legal sports books in Nevada, which noticed irregular wagering going on, reported it to the FBI and pulled the game" off the betting boards.
Gross and his pals have already discussed the doomsday scenario. If betting on the NCAA tournament is outlawed, they'll move their annual weekend to the Bahamas, where the Atlantis has a nice set-up. "What do you think?" Gross squawks. "The illegal books are just going to stop?"
But for now, the college-gambling issue has lost traction in Congress. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a chief proponent of a ban, recently indicated he'll set it aside -- at least until the next point-shaving scandal.
Given the money swirling around college sports and the number of athletes who feel they should get a piece of the pie, that's just a matter of time in the view of Robert Walker, who sets the lines for MGM's five race and sports books, including the Mirage. But he thinks it would be foolish to shoot the messenger.
"The only thing that Las Vegas cares about, contrary to public belief, is the integrity of that game," Walker says. "We want to make sure that no matter what side you bet, you have faith in that game."
A former sportswriter, Walker holds one of the least understood jobs in sports. As an oddsmaker, his challenge isn't picking the better team or predicting the outcome; it's reading human nature. Specifically, he must set a number that neutralizes the optimists and pessimists for every game wagered. That number is deducted from the team that's perceived as better, and the result is the point spread around which bets are made.
It's easy for the Super Bowl, with just two teams and reams of statistics at hand. But it's tricky for the NCAA tournament, particularly the early rounds, which are sprinkled with the Niagaras and Saint Marys of the world -- not to mention the fact that the players are teenagers and the rosters turn over more times these days than pizza dough. So Walker uses the Las Vegas Sports Consultants as a starting point, then tweaks his numbers based on his own research and insight into his two types of clients, known in Vegas-speak as Wiseguys (professional gamblers) and Squares (sports fans).
Sports fans tend to pick favorites, so Walker has to set his lines high to coax roughly equal action on both sides of the bets. Yet he can't set his lines so high that the professional will pounce, recognizing a good value, and clean him out.
"They're a necessary evil, but the emphasis is on 'evil,' " Walker says of the professionals, "because they're trying to take our money."
They're also an evil in the eyes of the NCAA's Saum, who has long worried about professionals pressuring athletes for inside information about their teams -- particularly if the student is mired in gambling debt himself -- or worse, pressuring them to manipulate the score of a game to cover a spread.
Those fears led the NCAA to conduct a sweeping study of gambling among college athletes a few years back. Among its findings, based on a survey of 21,000 athletes: About 20 percent of male athletes had bet on college sports, in violation of NCAA rules, the previous year; and about 2 percent of football and men's basketball players had been asked to affect the outcome of a game.
"We do need to be concerned," Saum says.
Wiseguys and Squares
Each sports book has its own persona and a clientele that reflects it. If Wiseguys are trying to take the books' money, the Squares are out to have a good time. And if they leave with more money than they came with, all the better.
The Stardust Resort is as much a throwback as its headliner, Wayne Newton. Its sports book is famed for its line, set by veteran Bob Scucci, but its ambience is fading. The chairs are better suited to a bus terminal; the food, straight out of a bowling alley. Incessant arcade noises are punctuated by waitresses in support hose, chirping, "Cocktails? Cocktails?"
The Hard Rock caters to the young and hip, with a small, sleek sports book outfitted with leather booths, cherry paneling and edgy photos of cult icons. Twenty-somethings jam shoulder to shoulder to scream at television screens and slurp far too many beers, particularly this St. Patrick's Day, served by waitresses dressed like Motley Crue groupies, clad in black leather boots, fishnet stockings, black leather hot pants and plunging leopard-skin vests that squeeze the bosom out like Cheez Whiz.
Here, there's scant regard for the famed Stardust book. "Don't they pay out in Viagra over there?" cracks one hipster.
The Mirage is a sleek, upscale alternative.
Not a game will be played this weekend that Gross and his pals don't have a bet on -- either to cover the spread, win outright, hit the total score, cover the spread at halftime. Some place multiple bets on the same game, piling on more money if the line moves in a direction they like.
If they're to be believed, no one loses more than he can afford. They bring all the money they'll wager over four days in cash, take one day's allotment to the book each morning, put the rest in the room safe and hope they don't have to go upstairs and "reload" -- or raid their stash -- to get through the day.
Like the Hat Guys, they carry three-ring binders stuffed with every conceivable statistic for the 64-team field: good wins, bad wins, shooting percentage, points allowed, free throw shooting percentage and so forth.
And once they put money on a game, they're transformed. Even if it's $20, they're suddenly a participant rather than mere spectator. It's not Eastern Kentucky vs. Kentucky; it's them against the Mirage odds. Suddenly they're the coach, the shooter or the guy diving for the loose ball. And their hollering gets lost in the yelling around them.
"That's the ugliest jump shot in the country," Gross screams.
"The SEC sucks!"
"Where are our big guys?" shouts Gary Applebaum, his college roommate. An underside guard swishes a three-pointer. "Ahh! This kid should play more! Why doesn't he take more shots?"
And so it goes, a cycle of outrage and euphoria, Tums and pistachio nuts, coffee and cocktails, with breaks only to phone the office or get takeout food.
With no windows or clocks in sight, it's unclear just when daylight gives way to dusk. But the waitresses have changed shifts, and Gross has wadded up far more betting tickets than he has cashed in by the time Illinois and Fairleigh Dickinson tip-off in the last game.
Day One hasn't been kind to Conte, either, whose nose is buried in his three-ring binder preparing for Friday's games. Having given up on his first strategy (smarts), he's going with Plan B: picking games according to which mascot would win a hypothetical battle. Bobcat-vs.-Gator is no easy pick, mind you. Would the Gator drown the Bobcat? Or would the Bobcat slit the Gator's throat first?
Suddenly Conte looks up and beams. "Lock of the day!" he bellows. "Cyclone against a Gopher!"
Applebaum just shakes his head and smiles.
"It all starts again tomorrow," he says. "It's a brand new day."