Wise Guys: They’re Betting on Cincinnati
Amidst the prevailing euphoria over the Redskins, diehard fans may think that the team can lick most armies of the world; even dispassionate observers, writing for The Washington Post, have compared their dominance to the 1927 Yankees. Surely such a juggernaut ought to be able to annihilate the winless Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.
But readers who look at the fine print in the sports section will find a seemingly different appraisal of the Redskins -- in the listing of point spreads for the weekend’s pro games. Washington is a mere 3 1/2-point favorite.
Three and one-half points? Is that a typographical error that should be 13 or 35? Shouldn’t even prudent citizens be prepared to bet the rent money or their children’s education fund that the Redskins will win by more than 3 1/2?
When wiseguy gamblers hear such sentiments, they smile contemptuously. And the Las Vegas oddsmaker responsible for the point spread said that betting on this game would fall into a predictable pattern: professional gamblers would back Cincinnati and amateurs would bet Washington. “This is the type of game that bookmakers love,” said the oddsmaker, Roxy Roxborough.
One difference between professional handicappers and casual fans is that the pros are less willing to be swayed by one or two games -- even when they are complete routs -- when they evaluate a team.
Three games into the season, the pros are not convinced that the Redskins are as good as they have looked or that the Bengals are as bad as they have looked. Roxborough employs a mathematical system of compiling a numerical rating for each team that helps him set the spread, and his system reflects the pros’ way of thinking.
A single game -- no matter how good or how terrible -- cannot change a team’s rating by more than 2.3 points. If the Redskins and Bengals were roughly even at the start of a season, the Redskins may now be rated about seven points superior. Giving the Bengals credit for home-field advantage Sunday, they should be only a four-or five-point underdog.
Roxborough said: “If the game were in Washington, the Redskins would be favored by eight, but when the public sees the spread under a touchdown, they think it’s cheap. They underestimate the home-field advantage. Only the very best teams would be favored by more than a touchdown on the road. The San Francisco-Minnesota game last week was comparable to this one; everybody bet San Francisco as a three-point favorite.” That spread, like the Redskins spread, looked “cheap” -- but wasn’t. The Vikings won, 17-14.
Roxborough’s firm, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, released the Redskins as a five-point favorite last Sunday night, when virtually the only people betting were the sharpies in Nevada. What happened at Leroy’s Race and Sports Book was typical of what happened all over town. “We decided to open it at 4 1/2,” said owner Vic Salerno, “and the wise guys took Cincinnati right away. So then we dropped it to 4, and now the wise guys are just going to wait until the public pushes it higher. And the average guy is going to want to take the Redskins.”
When that public does starts betting, it will put its money on the obvious team, the Redskins, and may quickly move the point spread to 6. “When it gets to six,” Roxborough predicted, “I’d expect the wise guys to step in and take Cincinnati.”
This is the type of bet that the sharpies in Vegas like to make when nobody else does. They are -- to use a stock-market term -- contrarians, who habitually look to take position against the general public. Roxborough said, “Everybody I know who does well in the NFL bets the trash,” and by trash, he means games like this one, where an 0-3 team seems at first glance to have no chance.
Of course, even the wise guys lose plenty of the time. “This is not an exact science,” Roxborough said. “The Redskins could win 40-0, and everybody who wins the bet is going to be saying what an easy game this is. Well, if that happens, tell all those people to move out to Las Vegas and get some more of this easy money.” He knows that during the course of a football season, the greatest pitfalls are the bets that look too obvious.