LAS VEGAS — The guy strolled up to the South Point sportsbook counter and plucked a small wad of $100 bills out of his pocket. He surveyed the unbridled smorgasbord of Super Bowl LIII proposition bets on the dark tote board bearing numbers and letters in tiny white, red, green and yellow bulbs.
Oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo happened to be in the trenches that day, one year ago, as the patron sought wagers with high returns, in an attempt to turn a little into a lot. One caught his attention. He laid down two bills.
Rams to score only three points against the Patriots, at 500-to-1 odds. The game, of course, was an all-time snoozer, won by the Patriots, 13-3.
Three points for the Rams.
“He won $100,000 on that prop!” Magliulo said. Ten stacks of $100 bills, a brown bank wrapper around the middle of each stack, plus the $200 principal were arranged on the counter for the fortunate speculator. “When you think about it . . . the Rams, right?”
Two months earlier, those Rams had scored a season-low six points in a loss to the Bears at Soldier Field. In their five games between then and Super Bowl LIII, however, the Rams had averaged 31.6 points. In the five games before playing the Bears, the Rams had rung up 184 points, an average of nearly 37. Only Kansas City, with 565 points, had scored more during the 2018 regular season than the Rams’ 527.
Yet, that customer had the guile to earmark three points, like the blindfold pinning of a tail on a donkey, on the Rams’ title-game output. Nobody else took that three-point bait. In a jaunt through the city’s rich history of Super Bowl wagering, and its manifold prop options, that one is conspicuous.
Perched in a semicircular blue-vinyl booth on the periphery of his book, Magliulo recalls thinking, in real time, ‘‘Really? What made you think . . . picking that number?
“God bless [the customer]. I think it’s terrific, but here we are talking about it a year later. Pretty . . . I don’t want to call it obscure, but . . . it isn’t one of the more popular plays. Think about it. Right?”
SQUARES AND SHARPS
The kickoff Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, in Super Bowl LIV between the 49ers and Chiefs will signal the end of one feeding frenzy and commence another flurry of betting, all of which has fueled the immense popularity of the game.
The Super Bowl feast feeds a nation’s voracious gambling appetite.
Nevada has been open for sports-wagering business since 1931, with the passage of Assembly Bill No. 98. The Super Bowl is an annual windfall for its casinos, since they have finished in the black in all but two — losing nearly $2.6 million in 2008, when Giants receiver David Tyree made that late acrobatic “helmet catch,” and a tad less than $400,000 in 1995 — of the last 29, since Nevada’s Gaming Control Board has kept such records.
Last year’s dud produced $145.9 million in revenue, called “handle,” which fell $12 million shy of the state record. New handle standards were established in five of the last seven Super Bowls.
Several Las Vegas book directors believe proposition offerings will, for the first time, account for more than half of the handle. If it is an exciting game, which elevates in-game betting, they expect the 2018 record handle of $158,586,934 to get shattered, too.
The “hold” is what the casinos keep, the profit. That peaked six years ago, at $19.67 million in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks’ 43-8 blowout of the Broncos in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
This carnival at the end of every NFL season has surprised Michael “Roxy” Roxborough, a pillar of Las Vegas who has worn every major hat in the industry.
“We didn’t realize there would be more betting on what we used to call ‘throwaway’ bets, or prop bets,” said Roxborough, 68. “There were a lot of reasons we couldn’t foresee it. First, we didn’t take big limits. Second, we didn’t know what the interest would be in all of these bizarre bets.”
Interest often increases after kickoff, when in-game and live options will be plentiful at various shops and mobile apps in Nevada — and the 13 other states that have legalized and implemented sports betting since the May 2018 quashing of a federal law that barred them from doing so — and on certain sites in distant lands.
Even before the Super Bowl matchup was clinched, while the 49ers were finishing off Green Bay, some books were releasing likely Super Bowl lines. Caesars offered Kansas City giving 1½ points, with a combined total of 51 points. Circa, downtown, had it a pick ’em, with a 51½ total. The Westgate SuperBook had it pick ’em, too, with a 52 total.
By late the next morning, 97 percent of the total-points wagers at the SuperBook were on the over, having pushed that number to 54. Nearly 80 percent of the side money had been shoveled onto the Chiefs. Around town, most books had Kansas City minus-1, with a 54 total. Nearly 24 hours after the 49ers-Packers game, South Point book director Chris Andrews had hiked his total to 54½, having not written a single under ticket.
Forty-eight hours into it, the SuperBook had written one under ticket. Jay Kornegay, the Westgate’s vice president of race and sports operations, tweeted, “Might have to run a special promo.” Two days later, only three more under tickets had been written. Kornegay wrote, “Snowballing now.”
To get the best of it, the professionals staked claims over the first 24 to 48 hours. Then they sat back, to watch the public at the trough, preparing to pounce against those adjustments Saturday and in the hours before the game Sunday.
The public, according to professional bettor Ron Boyles, always drives up the total, betting on the over, because it favors scoring and action. That typifies a famous adage — Fans bet teams, seek action, want entertainment; Pros bet points, to secure the best of the sides and totals, to capitalize on potential middling exploits.
“Squares will definitely be all over Kansas City, and the sharps will definitely be on San Francisco. No doubt about that,” said Boyles, 59. In February 1981, he bought a one-way ticket and stepped onto a Greyhound bus in New Castle, Pennsylvania, to stake his claim in Vegas. South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro called him “Skinny” many years ago, for his slim stature, and it has stuck as a moniker.
“The squares are almost always on the [better] offense, or Kansas City. The sharps are on [the better] defense, or San Francisco. I doubt I’ll play either side.”
Two other professionals, who requested anonymity, only would get involved with the game in a nominal way, if at all. Unlike the public, the pros do not bet just to bet. One said, “I have never been able to find statistics, or a system, that works in the Super Bowl on a consistent basis.”
The other expert only plays the underdog if it’s overall defense is better than that of the favorite. In the Super Bowl, the underdog 49ers allow fewer than 279 yards per game, second-best in the league, to the Chiefs’ 352, 17th in the NFL.
A textbook tortoise (San Francisco) versus the hare (Kansas City) tale, said handicapping consultant-bettor Louie Diamond. Usually, he said, the hare wins that one. However, he started talking himself into San Francisco, to the under, because of Kansas City’s 26th-rated rushing defense.
“San Francisco will run [against the Chiefs], like Tennessee tried to, but [the Titans] weren’t able to pull that off. I believe San Francisco will have its way.”
Diamond, 53, has made his living in sports betting since he moved from Buffalo to Las Vegas when he was 19. He started diving into prop options on this game as they became available.
“I’ll look at rushing attempts by San Francisco running backs, and probably pass attempts for Kansas City. I look for teams to do what they normally do, and look for options within those parameters. Most of the time, that’s around minus-150.” That is, pay $150 to win $100.
“That’s kind of overpriced. They’re making you pay. That turns them into sucker bets. But if you are in there for entertainment, it doesn’t matter too much.”
Cross-sport propositions — Athletic Bilbao goals to 49ers’ first-half touchdowns, anyone? — that heighten the entertainment were unleashed at the end of the first week. That’s when Boyles, and fellow veteran bettors from all over the country who flew into the Las Vegas, took strong positions on certain props at the Westgate.
“You’ll see guys with their math models just pick off those props,” Boyles said. “Then the public gets involved . . . the pros swoop [back] in [tonight and tomorrow] morning, see value and get involved big-time.”
A crossover prop involving a brand name, like basketball player LeBron James, will always attract an abundance of attention. So going against that tide in the pre-kickoff hours, said Boyles, is the wise tack.
Roxborough’s research revealed why props are so popular.
“We found out, through the years, if there’s a name attached to a bet it will draw a lot of action. People aren’t that crazy about betting how many field goals there will be in the game. But the player to score the first TD? Put names out on that board, or on that app . . . people like names, either their favorite players or they have them in their fantasy leagues.”
Tom Barton, a 43-year-old handicapper-bettor in upstate New York, agrees with Roxborough. Barton had wagered on several props, via DraftKings, two days after the Chiefs-49ers matchup had been set.
In longest touchdown of the game, at 44 yards, he bet the over, relying on Chiefs deep threats Mecole Hardman and Tyreek Hill, and the overall porousness of the Chiefs’ defense that might enable a 49ers player to spring a long one.
At plus-250 — or wagering $100 to win $250, to return $350 — Barton wagered on 49ers tailback Raheem Mostert scoring at least two touchdowns. “Makes some sense,” Barton, in an email, wrote of that team’s tailback woes. “With [Matt] Breida having fumbling issues and [Tevin] Coleman hurt, this is Mostert’s show — Don’t look now, Bears fans, he was in a Chicago uniform once.”
At minus-125, Barton also is on Mostert to find the end zone at least once.
In addition, Barton favors Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, at only minus-105, to score a touchdown. “Kelce near the goal line will be a matchup problem for this good San Francisco defense.” He tapped Niners’ seventh-year pro Kyle Juszczyk, at plus-900, to get into the end zone, too, but Barton admits that the Harvard graduate is not only the best fullback in the game but also one of his favorite players.
For further entertainment, Barton put money on red, at plus-750, for the potential Gatorade shower. “First of all, we know red is the best-tasting Gatorade, anyway. But we also have two red teams. Since Super Bowl XXXV, we’ve seen orange four times, clear four times, yellow three times, blue twice and purple once. Never red.”
Red, it can be said, is overdue. That, greenhorns, is called research. And that, to Roxborough, exemplifies the supreme entertainment value of betting on this game.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” Roxborough said. “My personal opinion is the NFL is the hardest sport to win at. The lines are very efficient. But that’s no reason not to bet the game. People generally watch it with other people, they drink beer, they gain as much weight as they would on Thanksgiving.
“That’s because it’s supposed to be fun, right? So not to have a bet . . . my wife [Alise] will want to bet on it. It’s the only game she watches, every year. The commercials. She likes them.”
He advises to spread wagers over the course of a game, not limiting them to just “First” options, like First to Score a TD, First Scoring Play, or just first-quarter or first-half bets. That way, if those fail, the second half and ending can still provide a payoff.
“And, of course,” Boyles said, “the public loves betting that a safety or overtime will happen, where [the odds are] usually 7-1 or 8-1. There was one overtime and back-to-back safeties a few years ago that hammered the sharps, even though the true odds are more than 7-1 or 8-1”
Professional bettors, he said, lay big money the other way — $8,000 to win a $1,000, say, or $24,000 to win $3,000 — on those props, including a two-point conversion, not occurring, due to their rarity.
Nine Super Bowl games have had a successful two-point conversion, and nine have included a safety. Three years ago, the Patriots’ thrilling 34-28 triumph against the
Falcons ended in the game’s first overtime, and it included a pair of two-point conversions.
That one fell a safety shy of The Kornegay Trey.
Years ago, the SuperBook’s Jay Kornegay told me something along the lines of a shop or two possibly shuttering if a safety (plus-500 at one book this year), overtime (plus-550) and two-point conversion (plus-200) all were to occur in the same game.
He amended that Monday in a text message. “I think I said if a game went into OT and was decided by a safety, the books would take a hit. A successful two-point conversion [in that game] would also hurt. People like to bet things to happen, especially if they get some odds. Low risk=high reward. Very popular.”
South Point odds on the Chiefs’ last scoring play of the game being a safety are 20-1. On San Francisco’s final score being a safety, it’s 18-1.
“Oh, books will never shut down,” Magliulo said. “You just let people bet more.” Nick Bogdanovich, the director of trading for global behemoth William Hill’s burgeoning U.S. market, said those are the three most popular props. “Yeah, if those three all lined up it wouldn’t be a pretty sight.”
Bogdanovich laughs. “But Jay is a morbid son of a gun.”
PROTECTING THE HOUSE
At the South Point, owned by Vegas pillar Michael Gaughan, Magliulo works beside book director Chris Andrews and fellow odds man Jimmy Vaccaro, a triumvirate with a combined experience of more than a century in the business.
Vaccaro had established the city’s first prop on an NFL season-victory total, at the Mirage, whose book he designed and operated. The woman scanned the tote board for that number, on Dallas, to no avail. She dumped $30,000 out of her purse, thirsty for action. Vaccaro and assistant Russ Culver thought quickly, offering her a 5½ number. She put it all on the over.
That was before the 1989 season, quarterback Troy Aikman’s first. The Cowboys won just a single game, at Washington, that year. Vaccaro is such a well-known character, The Simpsons made him one in its “Springfield’s Most Wanted” episode, setting odds on who shot Mr. Burns.
Michael Gaughan and his late pioneer father, Jackie, once owned nine casinos, a father-son record that many believe will never be broken. The son, though, learned a valuable lesson in 1992, for Super Bowl XXVI, when he dared customers to try to middle his spreads of Washington minus-6½ points and Buffalo plus-7½.
If the Redskins won by exactly seven points, he would have been on the two-way hook for $10 million. The Redskins won, 37-24. Gaughan could pull his head out from under the covers, at home, when the Redskins recovered the Bills’ onside kick with a bit more than four minutes left and ran out the clock.
“I promised God that if I won, I’d never do it again,” Gaughan told the online site Sports Handle. “And I never have, and I never will.”
The Brooklyn-born Magliulo, 62, retains a scar or two from Jan. 21, 1979, a ‘‘Black Sunday’’ scenario for Vegas books 21 months after the release of a movie by that name whose plot involved mayhem at a Super Bowl. In real life, Pittsburgh opened as a 4½-point favorite in Super Bowl XIII, which moved to 3½ at times. The Steelers won 35-31, creating the classic “middling” situation for pros who nabbed the Steelers minus-3½ points and the Cowboys at plus-4½.
“The line [to cash winning tickets] was out the casino, to the street,” said Magliulo, who would treat his entire Caesars staff to lunch to gather ideas on interesting, or exotic, proposition offerings. “Every play impacts a wager. Think about that! A sack. A fumble. How long was that field goal? How long was that reception? A good game is good for business.”
To Chris Andrews, one stands out. Two days before the 49ers played the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX, in 1995, a blizzard had moved into the Lake Tahoe area. Andrews’s staff at the Cal Neva Resort & Casino, the property whose owners once included Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, lamented the likely loss of business.
Andrews did not join that chorus. Like a seasoned professional, he let it play out. The 49ers, 18½-point favorites, smashed the Chargers 49-26. That is one of the two Super Bowl accounting losses, of nearly $400,000, suffered by the Nevada books over the past 29 years. It could have been so much worse. The Cal Neva would have been hit hard, said Andrews, had many people been able to get to the casino to bet on their beloved 49ers.
“That snowstorm kept a lot of people away. A couple of the guys [on staff] said we really got a bad break,” with the probable loss of substantial business. “I said, ‘No, we didn’t! Thank God!’ We would have gotten hammered, just crushed.”
Three days into this Super Bowl smorgasbord, the South Point showed odds on the 49ers scoring exactly three points at 200-1, the same as the Chiefs ending the game with exactly three points. Anyone laying $200 on either, and hitting one, will receive $60,000 less than he would have via a similar wager on the Rams a year ago.
Vegas might not win every battle, but it learns, quickly, how to protect itself. That’s why it wins most every war, why Super Bowls are such a cash cow for the house.
I found Vaccaro slinking through the South Point book’s aisles and rows of seats, picking up trash customers had discarded, replacing pens in their holders. I asked him for one nutshell comment about the betting bacchanal he has witnessed in his lifetime over the final game of the NFL season.
“You haven’t seen nothin’, kid.”
I pressed him. What’s coming?
“That’s what makes it interesting.”