LAS VEGAS – Reason #1000 why it’s great to be a native Canadian (Reason #1050 in U.S. currency): While the rest of the country spends four days on a tryptophan bender, I’m free to leverage the long weekend into a smorgasbord of sports.
With that in mind, I made the pilgrimage to Vegas for the weekend. The mission was simple: Study all the match-ups and implications from the weekend’s major sporting events, find 20 games from the NFL, NBA, NHL, college football and college basketball, then place $20 wagers on each of the 20. And no, ESPN would not be fronting the cash.
This wouldn’t be easy. Predicting an entire season I can manage reasonably well, because the bigger sample size tends to smooth out fluky occurrences. But when it comes to betting on individual games, I’m very much a novice, both because it’s illegal unless you’re in Vegas or a select few other places, and because I never figured I’d have much luck betting on single games.
The first time I ever made more than one sports bet during a Vegas weekend was in July, when I miraculously picked six out of seven baseball games correctly, while betting the underdog six out of seven times. This time, I’d be betting on four sports that I don’t follow as closely, along with college basketball, which often produces skewed results early in the season as teams settle on their rotations and play weird non-conference games. Worst of all, I’d have to battle the gambling gods. A beginner doesn’t stroll into Vegas, bet on a bunch of Hail Marys, then have guys like Jason Simontacchi lead the way to victory.
But never mind all that. The weekend included multiple college football games with major bowl implications, at least five significant college hoops tourneys (including one here in Vegas), plenty of intriguing early-season NBA and NHL tilts, and an NFL slate that included a point spread for the ages. There were football-mad Hawaiians, buzzer-beating heartbreakers, and coaching decisions that had bettors threatening to smash the big screens overhead.
Here’s what transpired.
Friday: Eating Poi, and Crow
It’s late Friday afternoon at the Palms sports book, and the joint is jumping. Because most sane, non-Canucks tend to spend Thanksgiving weekend with loved ones instead of with a buddy in Vegas, the city in general is quieter than I could remember in years. Still, with a loaded sports weekend about to kick into high gear, there’s plenty of action to be found. I’m looking to start slow, betting four or five games the first night. Because the Palms doesn’t take NBA bets (the Maloof brothers own both the Palms casino and the Sacramento Kings), I’ve decided to stick to college hoops and college football for tonight.
The marquee game of the night is definitely Boise State at Hawaii. As crazy as that might sound, the hype was justified: Hawaii was one of only two unbeaten teams heading into the weekend (and as it later turned out, the only one that would make it through unscathed), while once-beaten Boise State has established itself as a mid-major powerhouse and a top 25 program, with gusts up to BCS contention. The spread started as Hawaii giving 3.5 points, then dropped to 2.5. Three factors swayed me toward Hawaii: I liked all-time NCAA TD pass leader Colt Brennan’s throw-at-will style against the more balanced but slightly less explosive Boise State attack; I really liked Hawaii at home, in one of the most underrated hostile environments in sports; and I loved the spirit of the group of Hawaii fans decked out in Warriors gear and tats galore, doing everything short of dancing in grass skirts in preparation for the game. Hawaii -2 ½ it is.
I then picked three college hoops games. First, I liked Virginia Tech getting 9 against Butler in the Great Alaska Shootout. The Bulldogs are a very good team with A.J. Graves and several others backed from the Sweet 16 team that nearly knocked off Florida. But they’re also a team that thrives on offensive efficiency and a measured approach, making it unlikely that they were going to blow out the Hokies. Meanwhile, Va. Tech is a perpetually underrated team that often gives fits to the ACC elite, let alone a solid but not as athletically gifted Butler team. Va. Tech +9.
The other two: San Diego was getting 3 as a de facto home underdog against South Alabama at the Anaheim Classic, just 90 minutes up I-5. The Jaguars have become one of those scary no-name teams under coach Ronnie Arrow that no one wants to face. But I had a good feeling about the Toreros under first-year coach Bill Grier, Mark Few’s long-time assistant at Gonzaga. San Diego +3. My last pick of the night was the Over on the Over/Under line of 123.5 points, for the USC vs. Miami (OH) in Anaheim. Even without Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart, the Trojans can still score. I mean, doesn’t O.J. Mayo get 30 in his sleep all by himself? USC/Miami (OH), Over 123 ½.
The first two picks of the weekend both hit. The casino exploded for both teams, as Hawaii and Boise State traded blows for most of the game. In the end, too much Colt Brennan. 39-27 Hawaii, for the win. Turned out I was wrong about the Butler offense. The Bulldogs scored 68 points by the end of regulation, more than I expected and enough under some circumstances to cover the 9-point spread. Still, the Hokies sent the game to overtime, lost 84-78, but beat the 9 points. Another win. With the spreads, both paid -110, the equivalent of an $11 bet yielding $10 in winnings. Casino owners don’t build multi-billion complexes by being chumps—you need to do a fair bit better than 50-50 to overcome the built-in Vegas juice and come out ahead.
The other two picks…not so much. South Alabama crushed San Diego 77-55. The Toreros looked awful from the opening tip, trailed by 16 at halftime, and shot 36% for the game. In thinking about the prospect of San Diego fans driving up for the game, I somehow forgot to account for the holiday. Instead, the Toreros played like turkeys and the Jaguars look like a potential bracket buster. USC-Miami (OH) also was nowhere close. The Trojans won 57-53, a 110-point total that missed the market by 13.5. Mayo had a modest game by his standards, scoring just 21. Still, USC shot 50% from the field, so you’d think they’d put more points up. Too bad the two teams made just 17 free throws combined, including just six attempts by Miami.
Friday tally: 2-2, -$3.70
Saturday: The Cost of Not Trusting Your Gut
Because I’m more of a sports observer than a prognosticator, I figured I should enlist the help of someone who actually handicaps and picks games every week. That someone was Rotowire’s own Chris Liss. Chris was with me in Vegas for the July baseball windfall, but couldn’t make it out this time. So after ducking out of the sports book to appease the casino’s walkie talkie-toting storm troopers, I called him Saturday morning to go over that day’s sked. Though he spends his time breaking down NFL games, Chris often has good hunches for other sports too. He also believes in gut feelings. We both tend to have contrarian views about games, so those hunches usually involve seeking out the other team when 80% of the betting public leans the other way, and generally preferring to back underdogs.
On Friday, I ignored two gut feelings that cost me what would’ve been a perfect first day of wagers: That South Alabama was a much better team than San Diego, and that I have no business making Over/Under bets. Saturday would prove to be the day I’d kick myself over and over, both for ignoring my own advice, and Chris’s.
First came the Warriors vs. 76ers game. Golden State was giving three points as a road favorite, and I liked Philly to beat the spread, or possibly win outright. The Warriors were the more glamorous pick after last year’s playoff run, and the Sixers have looked terrible in the early going this year—exactly why I wanted to go against the grain. Odds-wise, the smart play was to take the Sixers to win straight up, a bet that paid +150 ($15 for every $10 wagered), instead of the -110 odds I’d get if I took the three points. I also had this strong nagging feeling that the Sixers would lose by a point or two. I took Philly +150 straight up. The game was just as close as I figured. Both teams traded baskets down the stretch, and ended up in overtime. Down one on their final possession, the Warriors kicked the ball around to Kelenna Azubuike, probably their fourth option on the play. Sure enough, he drained a three with 6.1 seconds left to win it. In unrelated news, I'm spending the next week trolling the New Hampshire seacoast area for voodoo dolls that resemble Kelenna Azubuike.
Next, I took the Nuggets +5 at Houston. Chris, who covers the Rockets for Rotowire, hated this pick, and strongly warned me against it. Houston had lost six in a row, while Denver was riding the league’s top offense and presented big match-up problems at point guard and center. But those were exactly the reasons to take Houston, the clear ugly pick in this game despite being the favorite. The game was over by halftime, as the Rockies crushed the Nuggets. I did manage one win among my NBA picks, backing the Hornets -3 at the Clippers. This came down to trusting a good Hornets team and a great point in guard in Chris Paul over a Clippers team that isn’t the same this year without Elton Brand. The Hornets won 98-89, as Paul banked a double-double.
But the bet I regretted most was the one I didn’t make. When I mentioned my Vegas trip to Chris, this was his very first betting tip—without even checking the weekend schedule: “If you see the Bucks as any kind of home underdog, especially against a good team, you have to take them. It always works.” On Saturday the Bucks were at home against Dallas, getting 3 ½. I didn’t take the Bucks, because I figured Dallas was the better team. Bucks 97, Mavs 95. YAAARRRRGH!
It got worse. I went 1-4 combined on college football and college hoops games Saturday. On the football slate, I tried the ultimate ugly pick with Alabama +175 straight up against Auburn. The Tide had lost three in a row, and Nick Saban was challenging Isiah Thomas for sports world whipping boy honors with his 9/11-related motivational rants. Gutsy, but ill-advised, as Auburn won by 7. I backed Connecticut +20 at West Virginia, figured a match-up of Top 25 teams with bowl aspirations would be pretty close. Let’s see: West Virginia ran for 517 yards, Pat White made the Huskies defense look like a JV squad, and the Mountaineers won 66-21. Then using the rivalry game, anything-can-happen theory, I took Florida State +14 at Florida. The Noles kept it fairly close for a while in the first half, but settled for four field goals. Tim Tebow then accounted for his usual five touchdowns. Florida 45, FSU 12. Ouch.
Then in college hoops, the sport for which my junkiedom knows no bounds, I found one of my favorites, Old Dominion, +10 against Louisville in the Las Vegas Invitational. That’s Colonial Athletic Conference power Old Dominion, against a Louisville team missing two of its best big guys in David Padgett and Juan Palacios. The spread had come down from 11, but 10 figured to be plenty. Louisville won by 11. Shoot me now.
A few wins made the day a little more palatable. I backed UCLA +105 straight up against Oregon. Without Dennis Dixon, the Oregon QBs went a combined 11-39 for just 105 yards, and UCLA won 16-0. I also hit two hockey bets: the Devils +120 at the Lightning and the Wild +130 at the Predators. Though I still do my best to follow the sport of my homeland, 10 years living south of the border has eroded my puck knowledge. I took the Devils because Martin Brodeur was one of the three best goalies of all-time, and because I knew the Wild were good. The Devils won 3-2. Meanwhile, the Preds won 4-3 on a game-winner by someone named Branko Radivojevic, prompting an immediate phone call to the wife to ask if we could name our eventual first-born Branko Radivojevic Keri.
Too bad I didn’t go with three other games I liked, all on hunches instead of some intimate hockey knowledge. I wanted the Sabres as a big underdog in Montreal, but decided I couldn’t go against my hometown team, even if it felt right. I also opted against an Over/Under 6 goals bet on Ottawa vs. Philly and Columbus as a big home dog against a Red Wings team I saw getting too much respect. All three would’ve paid off.
With one day to go, it was funny to see how my worst results had come from college basketball, the sport I followed the closest. Meanwhile, despite my waning interest in hockey, I’d gone 2-for-2, and should’ve been 5-for-5. The lesson: Sometimes it’s best to go with what you feel, not what you know.
Saturday tally: 4-6, -$31.85
Sunday: “Holy crap, they might do it!”
When it comes to sports action, if you can’t see a major event live, the next best thing might be to spend an NFL Sunday in a crowded sports book. You’ve got eight or nine games on at once, divided rooting interests, and all the exciting finishes happening at once. Though the schedule didn’t seem to suggest it at first, there were four absolute barnburners Sunday, plus a couple more games that went down to the wire.
The Cardinals-49ers game served as a reminder of the immutable law of football wagering: Never make the Cardinals your Survivor pick. Made a big favorite due to their supposed superiority on offense, the Cards instead let the Niners score at will throughout the game. With the game sent to overtime after a botched Arizona field goal try late, there was no way the Cardinals were going to win—least of all when Kurt Warner stood in the end zone for about 20 minutes with his arm cocked to throw, allowing the San Francisco pass rush to take him down, force a fumble and end the game.
The Bears-Broncos game got a lot more attention, as the feature match-up on the biggest screen. When Devin Hester returned that first kick for a touchdown, you could hear the shouts of “Go! Go!” from halfway around the casino. When he took it to the house a second time, it was madness. When Jay Cutler immediately struck back with a TD bomb to Brandon Marshall, you knew the game had a chance to be epic, both for real-life and gambling purposes. In the end, it didn’t disappoint on either front. Using killer special teams and a highly erratic offense, the Bears found enough to beat the Broncos by a field goal in overtime, providing a swift kick to the groin for Denver backers who were getting 2 ½.
I didn’t touch either game. But I did play six others, including both of the day’s other two thrillers. But first, more losses.
I’m a big fan of what the Browns have done this year, Derek Anderson looks legit, and the team has been almost unbeatable in Cleveland. But the Texans are also one of the most underrated teams in the NFL when Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson are healthy, and I saw the Houston-Cleveland game coming down to one possession. In that scenario, the money line can be a good play—in this case it was the Texans +155 to win straight up. No luck this time, though, thanks to more Browns firepower and a 27-17 win. The Chargers-Ravens game reminded us that Baltimore’s defense is just a shadow of its former self. Credit LT and the rest of the Chargers all you want, but going an entire game without forcing a turnover or even landing a sack is pretty lame for a team that prides itself on defensive ferocity. I liked my Ravens +9 pick in San Diego at first, but the Chargers’ 32-14 blowout win made it look pretty bad.
Again looking for underdogs with a chance to win outright, I tapped the Redskins +155 at the Bucs and the Panthers +120 hosting the Saints. The Carolina pick turned out to be doomed almost from the start. For one thing, the payoff was much lower than the Redskins line, despite both teams being three-point underdogs. More importantly, not long after I picked the Panthers, I learned that Vinny Testaverde would be out, and that the quarterback abomination known as David Carr would get to unleash more awful football on the world. No chance. 31-6 Saints. By contrast, I loved my Redskins pick, right up to the end. The Skins knocked Jeff Garcia out of the game on the first play from scrimmage, bottled up Bruce Gradkowski from there, then proceeded to dominate the game, moving the ball at will against the Tampa defense. But the Skins couldn’t overcome seven turnovers, including one on downs and two interceptions deep in Bucs territory late in the game. If Jason Campbell can iron out those mistakes down the road, he could be really dangerous. For now, he was just good enough to make Washington’s 19-13 loss a painful pill to swallow.
The Raiders-Chiefs game had a happier, and more dramatic ending. For some reason I couldn’t understand, Oakland was nearly 2-to-1 underdogs at Kansas City, which prompted me to jump on the Raiders +195 to win straight up. Sure, Oakland’s track record was ugly, but KC was hardly a lock with rookie starters at quarterback and running back. Turned out the Chiefs offense did its share of damage. But the defense, and especially Herm Edwards’ decision making, did even more damage—and not in a good way. The craziness started when Chiefs kicker Dave Rayner missed a chipshot 33-yard field goal that would’ve given KC a seven-point lead. The Raiders then drove the length of the field in three plays—a 28-yard pass to Zach Miller, a 35-yard completion to Jerry Porter and a 14-yard Justin Fargas TD run—to go back on top 20-17. The game would come down to the Chiefs’ final possession. Faced with 4th and 1 at the Oakland 23, Edwards must’ve been sweating another field goal try by Rayner, or possibly become possessed by some kind of brain-eating virus. Rather than go for the game-tying FG try, Edwards had the Chiefs go for it on 4th and 1, even though a conversion by no means guaranteed a touchdown, or that the Chiefs would get close enough for a significantly easier attempt. In other words, going for it was all risk, very little rewards. The Raiders stuffed the 4th-down try, ran out the clock, and helped salvage what could’ve been an apocalyptically bad day of picks.
Which brings us to the final game of the day, the slugfest between the Pats and the Eagles. When the line for this game first went up at the Hard Rock, it hit 21 points. By game time, it reached 24 ½ points, the highest spread I could find in league history. Two factors shaped the spread—the Pats being an undefeated scoring machine coming off a 46-point crushing of the Bills, and the Eagles losing Donovan McNabb to injury, which tacked on a field goal to the already enormous spread. Despite all that, I was tempted to take the Pats until shortly before game time. Then the following thoughts hit me: Everyone’s been on the Pats all year since they’ve covered every game but one, making this a prime week for Vegas to make some money back; with all the talk of the Pats’ dominance and the monster spread, the Eagles are going to approach this game like it’s the playoffs; and as great as Donovan McNabb can look, he’s also erratic and mistake-prone at times, plus Feeley is a viable NFL QB. Given all that, I flipped on my initial instinct and took the Eagles +24 ½.
By now you’ve probably watched the game or read all about it. But watching the game’s events unfold in the sports book was surreal. Just before game time, I was kibitzing with one guy who was thinking about taking the Eagles to win straight up, because the book was offering 20-to-1 odds(!!!). I told him he had to put down five bucks, just on principle. As the game wore on and it became clear the Eagles weren’t going away, those of us who didn’t have the stomach to make that bet started punching ourselves in the face. Vegas had also set up all kinds of lucrative first-half odds and teasers which would’ve been mortal locks had we known the Eagles would put the fight they did. When the Eagles scored to tae a 28-24 lead late in the 3rd quarter, the betting implications had taken a back seat to the possibility that the Eagles could just win the game, period (hence the cry of “Holy crap, they might do it!” by one guy to my left). Though I ended the weekend with a losing record and was kicking myself for all the would-be hunch bet winners I didn’t take, this game made it all worthwhile. It was as exciting as being at Gillette Stadium, only not cold, sitting with a bipartisan crowd, and with an army of waitresses handing out drinks. When Feeley threw that final interception, those of us not rooting for the Pats were as crushed as any die-hard Eagles fan.
Sunday tally: 2-4, -$22.85
TOTAL tally: 8-12, -$58.40
All in all, it was an awesome weekend. The losses offered valuable lessons, the wins were great, and following five sports with so many other junkies was a memorable experience. My biggest regret: I didn’t get to bet the Grey Cup.
Jonah Keri is a contributor to ESPN.com’s Page 2. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.
Posted by Jonah Keri at 11/26/2007 3:25:00 PM