Now it can be told. That trip I made to Las Vegas two weekends ago? It was for a piece with our "Freakonomics" colleagues … behind the science of betting on the Super Bowl.
Some assignments are tougher than others.
Las Vegas, if you’ve never been, balances on the edge between the splendid and the preposterous. The slot machines at the airport … the schoolchildren who think the greatest of the Pyramids is on the Strip. My room at Caesars Palace (no apostrophe in Caesars, by the way) was the size of our house. Your wakeup call in the morning says, "Hail, noble guest!"
But on to business. The sports book section at Caesars is a vast rotunda, with half a dozen giant projection screens showing football, basketball, and any number of horse races. The electronic tote board at center stage displays the odds, or in the case of football, the point spread. The central listing is almost quaint: "2006 National Football League Championship Game." They can’t call it the "Super Bowl" because the name is copyrighted.
The man in charge here is Chuck Esposito. You make friends with him instantly. He’s quick to smile, easy to get along with … and never shows his cards. One exception, though: he’s from Chicago, and his office is busy with mementoes from years of rooting for the Cubs or the Bears. He has a signed picture of Mike Ditka, making an obscene gesture. He has a signed picture of the infamous moment in 2003 when that poor fan grabbed the foul ball at Wrigley Field, destroying the Cubs’ chance to make the World Series.
Chuck is not your average bookie. He has more in common with a stockbroker. All the sentimentality drains away when he sets the spread for a game. He knows which team plays best on grass or turf, which does best at night games, who’s injured and how much it matters. Look at him and you know why they the house always wins.
Only it doesn’t, according to Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner, the authors of Freakonomics, with whom we’re collaborating again. They’ve done as much homework as Chuck Esposito. And they report there is a way to get ahead.
Betting on football is not like playing roulette. Knowledge matters. Levitt, who wrote an academic paper about football betting a few years ago, found that if you bet on underdog teams playing at home, you stand to beat the point spread about 53 percent of the time. Doesn’t sound like a bit difference, but over time it’s enough to make a consistent, dispassionate bettor a nice hunk of money. Bookies let this little loophole stay open because very few bettors know about it.
I’ve written more about it in a separate piece, which you can read HERE.
“When you just look at the general public, they tend to love favorites," says Steve Levitt. "And they also, to a lesser extent, tend to love visiting teams.” Just the reverse of the winning formula he recommends.
If the lords of news allow, this piece will be on "World News Tonight" this evening. I dare not place odds.
By the way, I never bet a dime on our Vegas trip. Too busy working.
And it turns out that I’m far from alone. The majority of visitors to Las Vegas these days … come to shop.