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Gambling on the spread

Special to The Times

The first thing you need to know about betting at a sports book in Las Vegas is that it isn't about team loyalty and insider knowledge of the sport. Like everything else in this city, it's about exploiting vulnerability and teasing out advantage.

Or at least that's what Stanford Wong told me the day we walked into the sports book at the crackling-cool Palms casino. Wong should know. He's a legendary gambling strategist, a PhD in finance from Stanford, a 64-year-old who is known outside Vegas as John Ferguson (Wong is his nom de plume), and he was trying to teach me the strategy of the book-making market.

There's no better time than now. Football is upon us, and the NFL season is the most cash-rich prime time for the sports books.

It's also important to note that upon entering the room, Wong paid no attention to the glamour and glitz, to the 15 razor-sharp monitors and the glaring green and red LED odds tote boards sparkling around us. Instead, he began with the basics by focusing on one of the most anticipated games of the football season, next week's match between the San Diego Chargers and the Chicago Bears.

"Everyone thinks the Chargers are the best team in football, and everyone knows the Bears lost the Super Bowl last year," Wong said. "So if I bet that game, I'm going with the Bears." Not that Wong, the author of several bestselling gambling handbooks, including "Sharp Sports Betting," is some sort of masochist or a nostalgic fan of Mike Ditka.

Nope. He's a coldly calculating math wizard. And he explained that so much cash will be placed on the Chargers that the casinos will have no choice but to slightly skew the payoff odds, making a win for San Diego pay a little less than it should and, logically and conversely, a little more for a Chicago win. Make enough of these sorts of bets consistently, and you eventually come out ahead, Wong noted.

It was a lesson worth heeding, especially for me, someone who has always thought of himself as pretty much a lost cause when it comes to winning on NFL bets. I'm so out of it, I told him, that I wouldn't be surprised if he'd told me the Colts still played in Baltimore.

"So what?" he answered, as he began to review the latest Palms odds sheets. "Betting football isn't about football. . . . You look for teams that are undervalued in the market and you consistently bet them."

It was the same advice I'd gotten in another lesson earlier in the week from King Yao, 36, a former Wall Street options trader turned pro gambler and now author of the just-published "Weighing the Odds in Sports Betting."

"Betting games is like trading options," Yao said. "You don't have to know as much about the individual stock as you do about the market. Your research should focus on which teams, just like which stocks, were being overvalued."

Now, the only thing I understand less than football is the stock market, yet my mentors were patient with me. Wong, knowing a certain passion I harbor for card playing, came up with another reason to give football a try.

"It's probably the cheapest form of gambling on a dollar-per-hour basis," he said, as we settled into a couple of the soft chairs in the Palms. "In blackjack, it's only seconds between bets. In sports betting, it can be a whole week. You get a lot for your money. Nobody has as much fun in a casino than a recreational sports bettor. You can come alone and instantly be part of a party."

I had to admit it was fun, and for a moment, Wong seemed to get into the spirit of the place. That is, until he took a look at the current odds offered by the house.

"I can't believe I did this," he said, snapping the casino flier listing the current odds on the Chargers winning the next Super Bowl at 6 to 1. Earlier in the day, Wong had placed a $20 bet on the Chargers winning the championship, but he had gotten only 5 to 1 right across the street at the Golden Spike book. "I got less possible return," he said indignantly, "because the Spike offered a free hot dog with the bet. I can't believe I did that."

Wong has made millions on his wagers, and the thought of making $20 less on his Super Bowl bet had him really riled.

And with that, he confessed that he had broken two of the golden rules of sports-book gambling. One, avoid betting one-sided futures bets. And two, whatever you bet, shop around the various books and compare odds before you lay down your money.

Eager to vindicate himself, Wong set about finding us some sort of crafty bet to make. He looked up and down the schedule, and his eyes rested on Week 15, the Dec. 16 game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears.

The Palms was offering the Vikings with a three-point spread; in other words, the Bears would have to win by four to come out on top. Wong ran the numbers in his head and firmly ruled that taking the Vikings were the way to go.

"It doesn't matter that they're weak," he said. "What we're really doing is betting against the Bears. I think their 14-2 record was a fluke. And all the Vikings have to do is lose by less than three for us to win."

A moment later, I was at the betting counter, plunking down $22 on the Vikings. And it was a great bet, just as Wong predicted. For a double sawbuck, I get to think about it and run it through my head for 15 weeks. That's a pretty good deal, compared with a blackjack table where $20 gets you about five seconds of anxiety before you make or break your double-down on a 9-2.

Go, Vikings!

Marc Cooper is an LA Weekly columnist and teaches journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.

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