Monday, June 03, 2013

[Books] Book Look: The Odds, by Chad Millman

Book Look: The Odds, by Chad Millman: Right up my alley. We follow three threads through a season of sports gambling in Vegas: bookmakers at the old Stardust Casino, a flashy high end pro gambler, and a low end newbie trying get started as a pro gambler.

It's an older book; from around Y2K, so there is a fair amount of history that is of interest. The Stardust Casino at the time had the most renown sports book in Vegas. They always set the line first, which means they would also take a huge hit because if they got something wrong the high-enders were there waiting to play it. (Big gamblers have a line in their head for every game and if the book's line is very far from there they will snap up a lot of action. There are a lot of high rollers and they are very smart, so if you're way off from them you're probably wrong and possibly in trouble if you don't move the line quickly enough. On the other hand, if the book can nail the line they will get all the big action.) At the time, the Vegas casinos were under relentless pressure from the newly founded, zero-overhead Caribbean online casinos which allowed gamblers to bet with a couple of mouse clicks rather than make an appearance in the sports book. And they were in the process of being double whammied by congressional legislation to outlaw gambling on college sports -- a huge blow to their ability to make a profit.

Looking back, it's interesting to see how all this played out. The legislation failed and, in fact, regulators would turn their gaze on the Caribs over the next few years. Sports gambling is no longer a huge profit center for Vegas casinos -- most have farmed out their sportsbook operations to one of three or four big agencies so scouring the books for a better line is often fruitless. Odds and lines get set and they sync up across books very quickly. It's more corporate. More geared towards collecting the vig than outsmarting the gamblers, who have more information and analytical power in their phones than the entire industry had 15 years ago. The Stardust Hotel and Casino itself was blown up long ago.

Yet, folks still come to the sportsbooks. It might be that, apart from a limited and recent legalization in Delaware, Vegas remains only place in the U.S. you can legally bet on sports and you can't legally do it over the phone, so most law abiding citizens have to go to the sportsbook. You have the option of breaking the law and hooking up with a local bookie who may or may not be accessible when you need your money. Or you could click through to one of the Caribs, which is more gray market than black, which may or may not be accessible when you want your money. Or you can contain your risk to the amount of your wager and go visit the sportsbook.

Alan Boston is the profiled high-roller, or "wiseguy", is the sort of professional everyone imagines. A heart-attack waiting to happen, he is the key guy in a high-end sports betting syndicate. He wants to kill himself when things don't go his way and condemns anyone -- a player who hits a three in garbage time, a ref who made a bad call, a bookmaker who won't take his bet, etc. -- who he blames for losses (in abstract) as worthy of death. He's flashy and brash, but also sentimental and generous. Quite a character all-in-all.

The newbie profiled is another telling image. A former Indiana high school jock who cares about virtually nothing except sports gambling decides he's going to take a shot at being a pro gambler. Fair enough, but then he experiences the worst possible fate. He plays his gut and wins. And he manages to do it for a while. He sits around all day reading the sports pages, getting fat, and smoking weed. Naturally, he's flattened by a gravity storm. Unrepentant, he gets a job at a sportsbook so he can keep going.

Both gambler profiles are interesting, although they seem a bit shallow. But then, obsessed gamblers are shallow. The only thing they worry about, the only real passion they have, is the bet. Alan Boston's existential fear is not simply that he will lose money, but that he will lose so much money he can't gamble again next season. The only thing that shakes the newbie out of his pot-stupor is the possibility that he will have to abandon Vegas and get job back in Indiana. They are not obsessed with winning. The are not as concerned about winning as they are continuing.

I have never read a satisfactory description of the attraction of gambling. I have read good descriptions of the experience and of the acts of gamblers (this book for example), but I have never read a good explanation for the irresistible internal desire. I have read discussions of gambling as an addiction in general but I have trouble lumping gambling "addiction" in the same category with substance abuse. In the case of traditional addictions you are putting some chemicals of some sort in your body and altering your physiology to "need" them. Nothing is ingested in a sportsbook except stale nachos and flat beer. Nor is gambling the same as a true obsession. There are, for example, people addicted to washing their hands. Often they will wash them until they are raw and bleeding, but they cannot stop. That sort of thing is like a twitch -- an involuntary little habit that gets set on repeat in your brain. Gambling is an extraordinarily complex behavior. Nobody who is addicted to cocaine or has tourettes syndrome will tell you they are acting rationally. They know what they are doing is nonsensical or self-destructive, but they just can't stop. Any full on gambler can tell you exactly why it makes sense for him to make a bet, and in the case of sports betting, they will often do hours of analysis before betting. This is not a generic addiction or obsession.

My personal experience, and I think this jibes with other descriptions I have read, is that gambling is about the losing. On the surface it seems like everyone is chasing that big win -- the easy money. But wins, while exhilarating, are momentary. In fact, for me, the real thrill of winning is the feeling that you have outsmarted the world. That your analysis and reasoning are beyond the norm. That you see things others don't. Whatever the joys of winning, they are fleeting and not what you remember. I have made some good calls and won a bit of cash, but the things that stick in my mind are the losses. The weekend where I ended down based on a last minute missed field goal. The time I altered a bet at the last minute based on a news story when I should have known better. The weekend where I couldn't win anything. The lying in bed at night, pounding my head over what I should have done. Why would I want to engage in an activity where that is the norm (losing is the norm in gambling) and which brings me only momentary pleasure otherwise? Now I have never bet and lost so much money that it caused me the slightest problem, but I have to imagine other gamblers have similar experiences.

I don't have any answers, and neither does Chad Millman. So to answer the standard question, Should you read The Odds?, I'm going to give it a qualified no. Qualified, because I don't see a lot a attraction here, for someone who isn't interested in gambling on sports. The connection to broader human experience is tenuous. The personal stories are not compelling enough to really draw the interest of someone who has no gambling frame of reference and would just view them dramatically. As dramatic characters they are a problem because there is really no arc to them. They don't go on any journeys. You also will be frustrated if you are looking for insights into the strategies of big time gamblers, none are presented -- although they consider every angle none of them do anything remotely systematic or at least there are no detailed descriptions of any analytics. They live and die on their sense for the effects of the variables being sharper than the general public. (The availability of untold statistics and measurables via the internet was still in it's infancy.) If you're like me, you can appreciate The Odds as a simple document of the rhythms and melodies, the push and pull of sports gambling. You can read an excerpt and think, "Been there," hopefully with a smile. But chances are, you're not like me.