Keeping Score: Action on Showtime

Published: 4/26/2019 6:58:35 PM
Modified: 4/26/2019 6:58:25 PM

Good morning!
When Julius Erving was setting records inside Curry Hicks Cage, a rowdy group of frat brothers bet on the games at Mike’s Westview Cafe in North Amherst. The bar was owned by a kid from Leominster whose family owned a tux store on the main drag.

The pay phone was next to the men’s room, and it rang with regularity. The night that unheralded UMass played No. 20 Syracuse, one of Erving’s teammates heard the point spread and exclaimed, “I gotta bet that!”

UMass crushed Syracuse by 15 points, and Dr. J’s teammate had such a good night he wound up in Gamblers Anonymous.

I was reminded of that while binge-watching Showtime’s four-part documentary about the proliferation of sports gambling in America. Less than a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead for states to legalize sports gambling, and today locals can drive to New Jersey and Rhode Island to bet today’s Red Sox game, or simply wait until Gov. Charlie Baker signs the bill into law in these parts.

“Action” was filmed at casinos in Las Vegas and New Jersey, but primarily at the South Point Casino in Sin City. Its focal point was football, the ideal sport to bet as sportswriter Larry Merchant confirmed in his 1973 book “The National Football Lottery.”

There are the obligatory interviews with psychiatrist Tim Fong, who says that gambling is in our DNA, and killjoy Les Bernal of Stop Predatory Gambling, but the scene stealers are the everyday bettors leaping out of their comfy chairs or curling in agony. Their expressions are unique and often hilarious.

“The casinos are the ones who will make the money,” said David Halpern, a self-described, high-stakes sports gambler. “It’s a zero sum game. Now that it’s more accessible, that’s gonna create huge problems. You might as well legalize cocaine and crystal meth.”

Well-dressed and articulate, Halpern graduated from Wharton Business School and is a retired private equity investor. He says he’s part of the one percent who make a living long term from betting sports. “If you don’t know with absolute certainty that you’re in the one percent, then you’re not in the one percent. I don’t know how to say this immodestly, but I’m told that there’s no one better in the NFL than me, and there isn’t.”

Inside his luxury suite at the Westgate, he prepared himself to be interviewed with three gulps of Grey Goose vodka. “There’s an innate thrill about having a risk-reward situation where you know that that reward is going to fulfill something inside you that’s really indescribable.”

He’s filmed making a $70,000 futures bet on July 8 that will pay $50,000 if the Cleveland Browns win at least six games (they won seven), and $82,000 to win $30,000 that the Raiders wouldn’t make the playoffs (they were eliminated on Dec. 2). “To me, sports betting is much more about math than it is about sports, and I estimated the Raiders chances of making the playoffs at about 11 percent.”

Easy, huh? 

“You may think it’s easy, but c’mon in and try, cause it’s hard,” says Brent Musberger, the former network broadcaster who now oversees the Vegas Stats and Information Network based at the South Point.

On a Mission

Las Vegas will always be the go-to destination to watch the Super Bowl. “We just flew direct from Florida to bet right here today for this game,” said Miles Locke, who was yelling over the din inside the crowded sports book.

Locke and his buddy Jordan Johnson are typical millennials, both well-dressed with short-cropped hair and toting backpacks. They pulled bundles of $20 bills out of a deposit bag and handed them to a mutuels clerk. “We went through a lot of numbers,” said Johnson. “We ’capped for weeks. We bet $55,000 to make $50,000 for the Rams to cover the 2½.”

“There a lot of scientific stuff that goes into it,” added Locke.

When Stephen Gostkowski kicked a field goal to put the Pats up 3-0, the camera showed Locke and Johnson sitting stonefaced at their table. After the Patriots won, 13-3, they quietly trudged out of the casino.

The Prototype

“I think it was Norm Macdonald who said, ‘Gambling’s the only addiction where you can win,’” laughed Todd Wishnev. A betting slip in one hand and a jumbo soft drink in the other, he’s the most likeable of this (mostly) likeable group of characters.  

A Pittsburgh native who moved to Las Vegas, Wishnev is overweight, depressed, needs a shave and has dark circles around his eyes. He readily admitted that the bad days have outweighed the good, but when those good days do pop up, “It’s the funnest thing you can do. There’s nothing more exciting than gambling on sports. I hate to say that, with this amazing world and the cosmos we have, and neuroscience and physics and all kinds of interesting topics, but the National Football League is the best!

When Super Bowl Sunday rolled around and half the crowd cheered when the coin flip came up heads, Wishnev looked over and laughed. “That’s a true degenerate bet,” he said.

The Hustler

The internet has made it easier for con artists to charm money off their marks. “I’m going to promote right now on social media, and I’m gonna show you all the money coming in,” says Dave Oancea, aka Vegas Dave (@itsvegasdave), a self-described sports information consultant. “I have something called Whale Plays, which you can buy for $499 a pop.”   

Oancea peered into his smartphone like Narcissus gazing into the pond. “Good morning guys my game of the year that I’m positive is going to win starts in one hour. Swipe up.”

Immediately the buys started to appear on his computer screen. “Five-hundred bucks. Five-hundred bucks. Five-hundred bucks. Five hundred bucks… I just made $10,000 in one minute… Today’s sales $180,000. Holy s---! That’s a lot!”

Oancea drives a Rolls Royce SUV with VGS DAVE license plates, wears a $50K Rolex and has a villa on the ocean in Cabo San Lucas. He’s loud, cocky, arrogant, and obnoxious, and behind the Wizard of Oz curtain is a friendless soul who watched the games at his parents’ house. “I like them to share my wins,” he said.

“He’s lonesome,” said his mother Gladys. “It’s hard to get rid of him.”

They are humble, quiet people who want no part of their son’s shenanigans. “The less I know the better it is for me,” said his father Dumitru.

“He’s very lucky to have parents like us,” added his mother, “because we went through a lot with him.”

An Attractive Choice 

Kelly Stewart is a native Kansan who left college for Las Vegas and was “popping bottles” at a nightclub in the Bellagio when she hit a three-team parlay at 85-1 odds. She puts the over-sized replica check of her $8,500 winnings in the background of her podcasts.

“When I won,” she smiled, “everyone went absolutely bonkers. Everybody wanted to know, ‘Did your boyfriend tell you to bet this?’ ‘Did your dad tell you to bet this?’ I was totally discredited, so I created the Twitter handle @kellyinvegas and started talking sports.”

Stewart nailed how it feels to be a first-timer inside a sports book. “You look over to the right and there’s this board with all these numbers, and you look to the left and somebody just scored a touchdown. You walk up to the teller after you’ve been standing in line for 10 minutes, and you have no idea what to do.”

She provided a quick lesson how to bet the money line, the point spread, the point total and make a parlay, which she said are the four basics of football betting. “And so the last step,” she said, “is to sit back, relax, sweat your a-- off, enjoy the game, hopefully you get to cash a ticket and if you don’t you’re just going to join the rest of the losers in the sports book, hahahaha!”   

The End

During the NFL playoffs, Vegas Dave picked the Chargers to beat the Patriots, and then the Chiefs to beat the Patriots, and then he was crushed on social media. “I don’t know how anybody can say I’m a fraud,” he whined. “I’m riding in a half-million vehicle paid in cash.”

Proving P.T. Barnum’s saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Oancea still garnered $500,000 from bettors who paid for his Super Bowl prediction. “If this game does not win,” he promised, “you will receive the whole 2019 season for free.”

“It shows my character,” he said, which was laugh-out-loud funny.

He picked the Rams.

“Very sad, sad day today for football fans,” said Wishnev. “They have to wait another seven months for football to appear again.”

Vegas Dave’s followers took solace knowing that when September rolls around they’ll have his free picks. Free, that is, provided they don’t bet.

 

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached by email at sports@recorder.com.




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