Super Bowl Sunday: For Vegas gambling 'sharps,' it's the year's busiest workday

Nevada sports books expect to handle around $90 million worth of wagers on Sunday's Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. For 25-year-old Rufus Peabody, it could mean a lot of money.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2011; 12:08 AM

IN LAS VEGAS For Rufus Peabody, the Super Bowl's mundane first touchdown or inconsequential final field goal won't decide whether he wins a $100 squares pool or treats his office mates to pizza Monday afternoon. If the game goes well, Peabody's annual income could spike by tens of thousands of dollars. If things go poorly, his net worth could plummet.

To strangers, the 25-year-old Alexandria native and Yale graduate describes his vocation as "Las Vegas analyst," or some other euphemism. But to his friends, he's more blunt: He bets on sports for a living.

His lifestyle is a strange hybrid of the Vegas high-roller and the American post-college 20-something. His living room set was purchased for $300 from a Craigslist ad; the end table is now adorned with about $600,000 worth of losing sports tickets. Peabody and his girlfriend share a battered Honda Civic with a rubber-banded side-view mirror, regularly climbing inside while holding winning tickets worth five or ten times as much as the car itself. And he grabs his lunch from Subway or Chipotle, even while his partners are placing five-figure bets inside Nevada sports books.

Those books expect to handle around $90 million worth of wagers on Sunday's Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, making it their largest one-day event of the year. Much of that will be generated by tourists and fans, the "squares" whose action is balanced out by the professional "sharps." Square bets are often based on hunches, or rudimentary analysis, or alcohol.

But Peabody and his "sharp" peers - whose ranks are estimated at anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred - don't care about the names on the jerseys, or their gut feelings about which team will win. They're looking for betting value based on odds they believe have been miscast, either by bookmakers or by the public's hunches.

The sharps are often secretive about both their methods and their identities. Peabody's three financial partners declined to be interviewed or identified for this story, and he asked that none of his exact Super Bowl betting positions be revealed.

But by using the sort of statistical and analytical techniques more often associated with Wall Street traders than sports gamblers, Peabody - a lanky, mop-haired former division I sailor who favors ripped jeans and hooded sweatshirts - is earning more money than almost any of his Yale classmates.

"I've been betting sports here in Vegas for 11 years, and nobody impresses me as much as him," said Michael Shackleford, a former government actuary who runs the gambling Web site "The man is just a genius. I think Rufus is perhaps the greatest mind analyzing sports out there."

'Like a fund manager'

As a group, Peabody and his partners - who range in age from 25 to 30 - placed more than $1 million in wagers on last year's Super Bowl, accounting for nearly 2 percent of Nevada's total handle. They returned a bit more than 20 percent on that investment, and will have a similar (though smaller) amount at stake on Sunday.

Sunday's action will represent just a fraction of the group's monthly business. They bet on a host of other sporting events, from NASCAR races to golf tournaments to baseball and basketball games.

"It's like a fund manager - we're not putting all our eggs in one basket," Peabody explained while flipping between the NFC championship game and the Bob Hope Classic on his TV set two weeks ago. "We actually bet very conservatively, based on our bankroll size. We never have a big enough position on one event to handicap us."

The Super Bowl, though, is one of their biggest targets, based on the more than 300 exotic wagers available at some sports books. Many of these are unusual "prop" bets that aren't offered the rest of the season and are thus harder to calculate. How many yards will the Packers' fourth wide receiver gain? Will either team score in the first 6 minutes and 30 seconds of the game?

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