Tue. Sep 29th, 2020

‘I thought I was Rain Man’

16 min read
'I thought I was Rain Man'

LAS VEGAS — This is not your typical Friday night on the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard.

The Professional Bull Riders World Championships are in town, drawing record crowds. Instead of the classic tones of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, country music blares in front of the New York-New York hotel and casino on The Strip. Vests and button-down, long-sleeve shirts, tucked into tight-fitting jeans with showcase belts, are en vogue. Canned beer and cowboy hats are everywhere, as PBR fans mill around outside T-Mobile Arena ahead of the quarterfinal round.

Little do they know that an imposter is on his way: a 44-year-old professional gambler who is in disguise and on a mission to beat the town’s bookmakers. But the gig is almost up: The longtime wise-guy hustle he’s trying to pull off tonight is on its last leg, and a staple of American sports betting could be on its way out.

Just before 7 p.m., a man pulls up in front of New York-New York in a red Ford with South Dakota plates. It’s his buddy’s car, he says. We’ll call him Cowboy Erik. Tan and stocky with the broad shoulders of a competitive tennis player, he has a short, graying beard and hair to match. He sounds like a vulgar sports-talk radio host from the East Coast. But he isn’t.

His outfit for the night looks familiar: vest, button-down, long-sleeve shirt and jeans, with a cowboy hat in the back seat. He’s hoping to fool the sportsbooks into thinking he’s a naïve, happy-go-lucky tourist in town for a rootin’-tootin’ good time.

However, given his untucked shirt and tennis shoes, it’s kind of a poor disguise. Ten years ago, he went all-out: big belt buckle, cowboy boots and his best Wyoming accent. It’s not worth it anymore.

Indeed, for this pretend cowboy, tonight might be one of his last rides on what for decades has been a moneymaking train: parlay cards.

Long considered a sucker bet — and they are for most of us — professional bettors such as Cowboy Erik have been beating parlay cards for decades. But the edge is diminishing, and the hassle is increasing.

“This may be the last year I do this,” he says to me before he steps on the gas and we speed off into the Vegas night.

Parlay cards — the hard-copy, pencil-and-paper betting sheets — have been commonplace at sportsbooks and, more on the down low, at some local taverns for a century. They gained popularity in early 1900s and were many Americans’ first bet, their foray into sports betting.

Traditionally, at sportsbooks in casinos, parlay cards are long and skinny, about the length of a ruler and width of a cocktail napkin. The week’s games are listed on the cards with the coinciding odds. To win, you have to make multiple picks and get them all right. If you do, you’re treated to payout odds that are normally less than your actual chances of nailing every one of your picks individually.

Here’s how noted gambling expert, author and MIT graduate Ed Miller sums up your odds of hitting a three-leg parlay in his latest book “The Logic of Sports Betting”:

“Assuming you have no ability to pick good bets, and your bets are all independent of one another, your chance of winning each 50-50 bet is about 50%. That gives the chance that you win all three bets as 0.5 x 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.125 or 12.5%.”

Over time, you should hit one out of every eight of your “lock” three-teamers. Unfortunately, the typical payout on a three-teamer is 6-1. That’s not great, but it’s also not unbeatable for the savvy gambler.

Here’s how the pros beat the parlay cards:

• The physical cards are printed early in the week, often on Tuesdays, with the point spreads for the games available at that time. Sportsbooks normally put out the cards on Thursday mornings.

• This is key: The point spreads on the cards don’t change, even if an impactful player (such as a quarterback) is ruled out. For example, in Week 10, the Kansas City Chiefs were 3.5-point favorites over the Tennessee Titans on the parlay card, but the current line on the oddsboard had shifted to Chiefs -6. Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes‘ status for the game had been upgraded late in the week, after the cards were printed, causing the point spread to grow in favor of the Chiefs.

• Professional bettors wait until Friday night or Saturday morning to place their parlay bets. They can bet Tuesday’s lines with Friday’s information and build their parlay cards around the games with stale point spreads. For example, Chiefs -3.5 would be a play.

• Each point the spread on the parlay card differs from the up-to-date line improves the bettors’ odds. Load parlay cards up with enough of these games with stale numbers, and the odds can be flipped in your favor.

Easy enough, right? Not exactly.

Casinos aren’t built on letting advantage players such as Cowboy Erik bludgeon their bottom lines. Bookmakers fight back, sometimes eliminating games with stale numbers from being eligible to bet on the cards, requiring supervised approval for any cards over certain amounts or outright refusing to take the wagers altogether. It is perfectly legal for sportsbooks to refuse service to bettors. It doesn’t stop bettors from trying, though.

Sneaky bettors target the graveyard shift or wait until the Saturday morning rush to see if they can catch a ticket writer in a hurry. They’ll put in parlay cards for varying amounts just to see how much they can bet without having to go through the approval process. They like to hop around from one betting window to the next, testing ticket writers while employing techniques to distract them. Cowboy Erik, for example, has been known to bet a card and give it to the teller as a tip — anything to get on their good side.

It turns into a bookie-vs.-bettor, cat-and-mouse game that some sportsbooks no longer want to play. Ultimately, it might spell the end of the traditional parlay card, leaving wiseguys with one fewer hustle in their repertoire.

Cowboy Erik in action

Cowboy Erik drives quickly and aggressively. He boasts of knowing the quickest routes from one Las Vegas sportsbook to the next and the best parking spots to get in and out of casinos efficiently.

He’s single, and his dog, Wimbledon, normally rides shotgun on his adventures. Tonight, Cowboy Erik is stuck with me.

The first stop is the South Point Casino, an off-the-strip joint with a popular 24-hour sportsbook. Cowboy hat on, Erik strolls past a renowned hot dog cart and moseys over to a side wall next to the betting counter where the parlay cards are. He grabs a dozen cards and heads to the back bar to get to work.

For 15 minutes, he scours the numbers, comparing the point spreads on the cards to the current lines at an influential offshore sportsbook on his phone.


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