LAS VEGAS -- When a sports bettor in this town has reached the peak of his profession, he may choose to sit by his swimming pool with a cellular phone in hand, gathering information, comparing point spreads, moving money. But most football bettors in this town have to hustle, as the Swami was doing before last weekend's games.
The Swami was wearing running shorts and carrying a briefcase that contained his betting records and his bankroll as he started the trek he may make two or three times a day. "I've clocked myself," he said, "and I can make it to 15 sports books in 48 minutes."
At the Dunes Hotel, the Swami snaked his way past rows of slot machines to the big board showing point spreads for the upcoming games. He pulled an envelope full of bills from the briefcase, went to the windows and rattled off a few bets: "Nebraska minus 28 for $495, East Carolina plus 4 1/2 for $550, North Carolina State plus 3 for $495, the Packers minus 2 1/2 for $550."
The Swami was pleased about that last bet; the Packers were a three-point favorite just about everywhere else in town. "That's a big half-point!" he said. "That's an advantage that really helps." He was now darting through traffic to cross the street to Little Caesars.
"This is an important place because they take bets on the supplementals" -- i.e., minor colleges. The Swami reeled off his wagers on games like Akron vs. Fullerton State and Furman vs. Florida. ("Furman's got a good defense. I love them plus 29.")
Minutes later, he was riding up the escalator to an ersatz Chinese casino called the Imperial Palace. "You can get trapped in here," the Swami said. "You go up the escalator and can't get out. Last week, it was 10 minutes to kickoff in the Houston-Texas Tech game and I was looking for 9 points and I couldn't find my way out." But when the Swami looked at the Imperial Palace board, he knew his trip up the escalator had been worthwhile.
"You never know what you're going to find!" he said. "This is the first 3 1/2 I've seen on Temple." The Swami bet the Owls, and the man behind the counter promptly erased the board and lowered the point spread favoring Wisconsin to 3.
"The power of the Swami!" exclaimed the Swami.
Known to his parents as Randy Sonderman, he has spent a lifetime apprenticing for this challenge. He was raised in Baltimore, where his main gambling passion was playing the horses. Years ago, Sonderman was delivering such verbal abuse to a jockey, Ben Feliciano, that the track's security men ejected him from the premises and told him not to come back.
The next day, however, Sonderman returned to Pimlico -- wearing a full-length coat, sunglasses and a turban. When one of the security men started giving him a suspicious look, a friend tried to intercede and said: "He's all right. He's an Indian swami." The nickname stuck -- and what gambler could ask for a better one?
A few years ago, the Swami became increasingly interested in betting on other sports. If he had been single and footloose, he would not have hesitated to come here, for his record in betting football was good enough to justify the venture. But with a wife and 8-year-old son, he said: "This had to be a family decision. We sat and talked about it, and we decided that I'd try it through Christmas."
The Swami spent August compiling his power ratings on America's college and pro teams, and then came west with a $20,000 bankroll. He worked out a money management system and determined to play a large number of games with moderate investments, an approach somewhat contrary to the norm. When a local pro met the Swami last week and learned what he was doing, he inquired: "How many games are you playing? Two or three?" the Swami said, "I've bet 33 so far and five more are pending."
What the Swami wasn't fully prepared for, though, was the point-spread shopping available in this city. Sports bettors elsewhere typically employ one or two bookies. They learn the point spread and their choice is essentially to take it or leave it. But here there are variations among the lines at bookmaking shops, and constant fluctuations.
The results of enough games fall so close to the point spread that an extra point here or there may make the difference between success and failure. Understanding the trend of the betting market is as important as handicapping the games. So after the Swami spends about 15 hours each week handicapping the card, he may spend 20 hours or more striding back and forth on the Strip, doing his comparison shopping.
The Swami showed a profit during his first three weeks here, but he felt he was just beginning to get the hang of the game. He was learning all the nuances of point-spread shopping. And he was beginning to think the best opportunities existed in the supplemental college games.
On Saturday afternoon, the Swami watched transfixed as the scores started flashing across the ticker of one of the big hotels here. He survived two games he would have lost if he hadn't shopped astutely for point spreads.
He also hit his first six supplemental games, and while everybody around him was transfixed by big schools in big games on television, Swami was watching the ticker intently for news of the North Texas State-Texas A&M game. And when the report came that North Texas State, a 35 1/2-point underdog, had scored an otherwise meaningless touchdown to make the final score 40-8, he had capped a wondrous day.
He had bet 16 winners out of 21 plays on the college card (followed by a break-even day in the pros), giving himself a solid financial cushion for this venture. Cynics here will say that this town has seen millions of gamblers whose pride cometh before a fall, but the Swami feels surer than ever before in his life that he has found his calling. One day he may indeed be shopping for point spreads from poolside by cellular phone.