Go inside Vegas’ Super Bowl betting business with a pro gambler

Editor’s Note: On the weekend of the NFL playoffs, Paul Solman left his beloved New England for Paris. There was coq au vin and crêpes, but no, he didn’t have to bust out his French.

He’d gone to Paris Las Vegas. Under the half-scale Eiffel Tower, he met Teddy Covers, né Sevranksy, a professional sports gambler, to talk about the business of betting. Nevada handled more than $100 million in Super Bowl bets last year — all in cash — and with the Super Bowl coming up this weekend (and Paul’s team in the mix), he wanted to hear from a pro what goes into high-stakes football gambling. See the full story on Making Sen$e Thursday on the NewsHour. Read more of Paul’s interview with Teddy below.

— Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

Never Stop Betting

PS: So how many casinos are there in this town?

TC: It depends on your definition of casino. There are a lot of smaller, local places that call themselves casinos but that may not fit into the standard definition. But, in terms of major resorts, major hotel casinos, I’d probably put the over-under in the 50-60 range.

PS: The over-under — that’s a real better’s phrasing of the issue. So the gambler’s way of looking at this is that if it’s more than 50 or 60, you win the bet if you take the over. If it’s less than 50, you win the bet if you’ve taken the under. …Do you do this throughout your life?

TC: That’s all I do. I’m making numbers. You know, over-under 22 and a half minutes to get home. Over under $159 dollars at the grocery store. It’s what I do for a hobby, as well as for my work.

The Center of the Global Betting Universe

PS: So Vegas started out as a legitimate money laundering operation for the mob, right? And now 70, 80 years later? It’s this – faux Paris.

TC: Vegas circa the 1960s was still very much a money laundering operation for the mob. And, when you look at where it’s transformed over the last 50 years, to see the corporations that have gotten involved, and the billions of dollars that investors have plugged into this town, you get beautiful properties. The “Paris” is one of dozens of properties that absolutely stand out, that any tourist would be happy to stay at.

PS: And these are all tourists?

TC: Yeah, this is not a casino that particularly caters to the local market. Las Vegas draws a very international audience: Europeans, Latin Americans and, of course, Asians are a very big piece of the equation for the local casinos.

PS: But these aren’t the wise guys — the sharps — they’re not here as sports bettors, are they?

TC: The vast majority of the people that you see here are going to leave this town with less money than they arrived with.

The public, what money they spend, it doesn’t have a big influence on the bottom line for any casino. This is not like a card game, where I’ve got to beat you in order to win the money. This isn’t a poker game. It’s not a zero-sum game where this is the money at the table, and I’ve gotta take it from the sucker. It’s not that way at all. The reality’s that most of what I do, I’m fighting against other sharp bettors, both to get the best of the number and in terms of opinions about games. Because, don’t forget for a minute: Yes, the books set a point spread, but this is absolutely a global betting marketplace. Vegas is just a center for it.

Going Online and Offshore

PS: How much of sports betting is now going online and offshore?

TC: The estimates are that 1 percent of the actual handle occurs legally in the state of Nevada. Which tells you that 99 out of every 100 dollars that are bet in the United States are either going offshore, or going to a local bookie. And many of the local bookies now have a website, have a skin, that they put up. It’s called pay-per-click, where they pay a relatively small sum to have their odds available online for their clients to bet. So, there is a constant and consistent money flow from bettors in the United States, sending their money offshore because they can’t do it legally here in the U.S.

PS: So if sports gambling were legalized, there would be less money leaving the United States?

TC: Yeah. In theory, you’re supposed to report your gambling winnings as income. When that money goes into banks, when that money can be traced and tracked, the IRS has a much better idea of who’s betting and how much and what their income is, or losses, from gambling. When all that money goes offshore, and it never sees a bank, and it never sees a regulator, of course it’s not going to get into the tax base, and of course very few bettors are going to pay taxes on their income that they have received from betting offshore.

Super Bowl Bets

PS: Well, on the Super Bowl — that’s going to be a $5 billion bet or something. That isn’t going to be primarily wise guy money, right?

TC: Well, actually, last year’s Super Bowl handle in Nevada set a record with $119 million bet on the game. And of course, the legal estimates are that the state of Nevada gets 1 percent of what’s being bet illegally in the country.

But, when you talk about the money that’s legally bet in the state of Nevada, of that $120 million dollars, or close to it last year, a higher percentage than you think came from professional bettors. And, not just the action on who’s going to win, and by how much, but also, in the modern era, we’re talking about making bets as the game is progressing, in game wagering. We’re talking about the proposition bets, where there are hundreds and hundreds of bets available for the Super Bowl, about how many rushing yards is so-and-so going to get, how many interceptions is so-and-so going to throw.

On any given NFL Sunday, the books are going to have what we call positions on at least half the games, oftentimes more, where they’re gonna have a vested, rooting interest in one side or the other, based on their own liabilities.

PS: And that was true of you when you started?

TC: No question. When I started as a small-time manager bookie, we were always sided. And, we were always vulnerable, because we couldn’t attract two-way action on a lot of these games.

PS: And did you win, or lose?

TC: We did very well. … I learned a lot of lessons simply by watching bettors bet and the mistakes they were making. Because virtually no one beat us. Very very few bettors came out ahead, over the books, in the long run.

I think in that era, in the early ’90s, the betting public was certainly less sophisticated than they are now. When we talk about the average better, the recreational player, there’s still a sense of, “Oh, this guy can’t win over the long term,” and the reality’s that, in the modern era, a recreational better [can] win on any given Sunday, in any given month, even in any given season. The average Joe has tools that maybe they didn’t have 20 years ago. Certainly when you talk about the access to information that’s available via the Internet — that’s a very new thing that levels the field between the average better and the wise guy, or the sharp, the professional.

Professional players are going to get the best of the number. They’re going to get good point spreads. Recreational players will come in and they’ll bet whatever points they find at the time that they have the money to bet.

Betting on the Pats

PS: I’m gonna place a bet on the Patriots tomorrow. But it’s going to feel like way more than a couple of hundred dollars because my identity in some sense is going to be at stake.

TC: There’s an enormous amount of ego in the sports betting world, absolutely! People bet not just because they enjoy the process of betting on a game, and the excitement or the stress that betting on a game brings. You want to be the guy that brags to your friends, “Hey, I bet on the Patriots, and they won the Superbowl.”

There’s a lot of ego in the wise guy world, as well, where guys want to say, “Oh, I saw this and nobody else saw it. And, I made a bunch of money off it.” That happens all the time.

PS: And, the people who are losing are undoubtedly people like me, who aren’t going to invest the time and effort in backing up our bets; we’re going to bet more merely out of enthusiasm or loyalty or casual scrutiny of the numbers…. I’m not saying you’re sending me to the poor house. I’m just saying, over the long haul, you’re taking a little bit of my money. That’s all.

TC: I’m certainly going to try to. That’s my job! I mean, the recreational player, this isn’t their job. This is something that they’re gonna do to have fun, make a couple of bucks. For me, it’s real simple: If I don’t win more than I lose, I don’t pay my mortgage.