Friday, August 29, 2014

SuperContest Weekend: A seminar with the Vegas sharps

By Mitch Goldich is a freelance sports writer based out of Philadelphia.  Check out his website and follow him on twitter at @mitchgoldich.

Football season is upon us.  For most fans this means prepping for fantasy drafts, but another large subset has other matters on the mind: point spreads, over/unders, futures bets and win totals.
Fortunately, for those looking to improve their traditional gambling ability, some of the sharpest sharps in Vegas gather in one room every August for the SuperContest Weekend.
Last weekend the Superbook, the sportsbook at the Westgate (formerly Las Vegas Hilton, formerly LVH), rounded up 10 panelists, three moderators and one host for an all-star lineup at their third annual handicapping seminar to kick off the football season.
So who do the sharps like, and what do they look for?  These were the questions we all wanted to know.
But first, a note on the nature of gambling.
Panelist Brian Edwards began his breakdown of the Big Ten by listing coaches he felt were on the hot seat, a situation he casually dubbed a “handicap-able event.”
For some reason the mostly harmless comment made think back to another panel discussion I’d attended in May, where NBA player-turned-coach-turned-broadcaster Doug Collins spoke about his career.  The subject turned to this very topic, and Collins said he won’t speculate on coach firings.  He understands that assistants lose jobs, families move, kids switch schools, etc.  
Most people probably side with Edwards.  Just about any fan or reporter would happily discuss the impact a coach’s job security might have on the team.
But the way it rolled out as Edwards’ very first point was a stark reminder of where we were.  Welcome to Las Vegas: Everything is a handicap-able event and the mission is to find an edge in all of them.
Conversations later touched on which NFL teams might be affected by a league-wide increase in defensive holding penalties, and how Kent State might play in Week 1 after a player died.  Those topics seemed covered with the same emotional detachment.  
That objective eye is necessary for the SuperContest, the biggest NFL pool in the world.  John Tournour (better known as the radio host J.T. The Brick) called the former winners the “ultimate fraternity in sports handicapping,” a verbiage parallel to the way many describe the NFL Hall of Fame.
The rules are simple.  Entry costs $1,500, the Superbook puts out lines for every NFL game, bettors choose five games per week and whoever has the most winners against the spread over the course of the season wins.
In 2013, a record 1,034 contestants entered, the top 30 cashed and the overall winner pocketed $557,850.
SuperContest Weekend is a chance to drum up publicity, and offers something to do for the out-of-towners who have to sign up in person and designate their proxies who will place the actual bets throughout the season in Vegas.
The handicapping seminar was on Friday night, followed Saturday by a golf outing and a reception with prizes.
Both the weekend and the pool are growing, as gambling discussion seems to be gaining more footholds in the mainstream media.
Panelists included Todd Fuhrman, a former oddsmaker at Caesars who now writers for FOX Sports, and Marc Lawrence, who announced he’ll have a new weekly gambling column for USA Today.
The weekend attracted several types of people— the pro gamblers (host Brian Blessing mentioned that many people in the audience could have been on the panel themselves), amateur bettors looking to improve their skills, and outright dreamers merely hoping to win a free SuperContest entry in one of the raffles.
For Friday’s seminar, many in the audience took copious notes either on paper or in their heads.  Others chatted by the bar in the back, clutching raffle tickets and waiting for the three hours to pass.
SuperContest Weekend is not designed to be an intro to sports gambling course.  Three separate panels spent about an hour each at the microphones, covering college football, then the NFL’s conferences one at a time.
The panelists skipped any sort of primer and dove right into their thoughts on the upcoming season.  They spent more time giving tips on teams, and less time teaching audience members to think for themselves.
Any philosophical thoughts on general gambling concepts had to be gleaned from moments between the rundown of teams.  But there were a few good ones:
Lawrence talked about how people typically analyze strength of schedule by aggregating every team’s winning percentage from the previous season.  Instead, he compiles averages with each team’s projected win total.  Vegas doesn’t consider the Falcons a 4-12 team or the Panthers a 12-4 team moving forward, yet nearly every SOS graphic on TV or the web still treats them that way.
Dave Cokin looks for teams that totally quit at the end of the season (like Wyoming) as potential rebounds.
Fuhrman said you don’t make money by betting on good teams, you make it by betting on bad ones.
Thoughts like those three are likely more valuable than the general chorus of Bet on the Saints!  Bet against Dallas! though a little harder to pick out.
But some of the info must be taken with a grain of salt.  One panelist said his projections saw a two point swing on Cleveland based on whether Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel starts— which, sorry, sounds a little ridiculous.  
Quarterback changes move betting lines all the time, and I have no doubts that analysts have systems to keep up.  But how can anyone claim to know the difference between Manziel and Hoyer with such confidence?  None of us know how good Manziel will be, or how he compares to Hoyer.  That’s what the Browns spent all preseason figuring out, and what scouts have spent 18 months debating.
Yet my impression was that many of the amateurs took away nuggets as gospel truth, ready to race with them to the betting counters.
The reality is, it’s very unlikely for a total greenhorn to win the SuperContest.  Winning may take some lucky breaks along the way, but it’s still a skill game.  Recent winners, even if not pro gamblers, share stories about their love for statistics and studying of the market.
If a total novice could win the contest with just one night of advice from the sharps, they probably wouldn’t sit up on the podium and give you their tips.
In fact, two-time SuperContest Champ Steve Fezzik gave some of the sagest advice, telling amateurs to stick with their strengths, or maybe zoom in one conference and go with what you know.
“If you have a normal job, don’t handicap 32 teams,” Fezzik advised, although that strategy makes the SuperContest kind of tricky.
“It helps to have no life,” he added.  
This is what made the focus on the raffle so amusing.  For many folks it was the highlight of the weekend— a ticket to join a contest you probably won’t win anyway.
But there’s no harm in dreaming big.  And if you lose the SuperContest, it’s better to throw away a free entry than $1,500 of your own stack.
Throughout the weekend, all the organizers joked about how everyone would leave the moment Friday night’s drawing was over, and repeat the motions after the last of four drawings on Saturday.
Those jokes were prescient, as fans began stampeding out of the room two digits into the six digit winner.
Some gamblers stayed, to catch up with friends, keep talking football or tell war stories about horse races of yesteryear, but most people got out of there in a hurry.
It’s hard to blame them though.  This is Vegas: As soon as you realize you’re holding a losing ticket, it’s time to go look for a winner.

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