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2/3/06 3:18 PM
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Edited: 03-Feb-06
Member Since: 06/08/2002
Posts: 4928
'Freakonomics' Authors' Tips on Super Bowl Bets

Sports Gambling More Like the Stock Market Than Like Blackjack, Economist Says

Feb. 3, 2006 -- - "You can't beat the house. ... You can't beat the house."

Even on Super Bowl Sunday, everyone in this glittering town knows Las Vegas' oldest rule. The odds are against you.

But people come, and they place their bets: Pittsburgh Steelers by 4.

"We're here to have fun, and if we win a little bit of money, that's great. If we don't, we're having fun," said Jim Barron, a visitor in a Steelers jersey. He and his wife, Starr, were visiting from Phoenix, but they bet on the Steelers because they grew up near Pittsburgh.

"We bet on our favorite -- he never tells me how much," said Starr Barron, standing next to her husband. "It makes me too nervous."

In Las Vegas, where sports betting is legal and high rollers reign, more money will be bet on the Super Bowl than any 60 regular games combined. More money will be wagered nationwide than on any other day.

And nobody's more thrilled about that than Chuck Esposito. He's in charge of the Sports Book at Caesars Palace, and he sets the spread for all the casinos owned by Harrah's Entertainment, the parent company of Caesars.

"The big game's a tremendous day for us," said Esposito, with a broad smile. "The volume, the atmosphere, the excitement. But I still hope that we're on the right side at the end of the day."

He probably will be. Esposito is cheerful, open, and described by everyone who meets him as very, very smart. Consulting with staff and consultants, he sets the point spread for the Super Bowl, the rest of the NFL season, and myriad other sports. When he posts a spread -- say, favoring the Steelers over the Seahawks by 3½ points -- other bookmakers watch with care.

Home Underdogs
So do Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the co-authors of the best-selling "Freakonomics." They report that in football, at least, you actually can beat the house.

"There aren't many people who succeed in doing it, but at least it's possible," Levitt said. When he and Dubner are not writing, he is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. Together, they also consult for ABC News.

"Betting on sports is actually a lot more like playing the stock market than it is the other games at the casino," Levitt said. "Because in the end, what dictates whether you win at sports is skill."

Levitt studied a year's worth of football-betting data from a gamblers' Web site and found several distinct patterns. Among them:

• Bet on the underdog.
• Bet on the team with the home advantage.
If you consistently did that, Levitt calculated that you would win slightly more than 53 percent of your bets.

Making the 'Heart Bet'
Esposito knows that. But most of the people who bet on football don't. They bet on a team because it's from back home, or because its coach is better-known, or even, sometimes, because they prefer the color of its uniforms. They bet from the heart. And overwhelmingly -- Levitt and Dubner say they're not sure why -- they bet on favorites.

That's why the house wins.

Remember, if Esposito says Pittsburgh's favored to win by 3½ points and you bet on Seattle, you're not betting on them to win -- just to lose by less than the spread. He did not pick that number as a prediction of how the game would come out; it's just there, he told us, "to generate a lot of two-way action."

"The point spread," Esposito said, "becomes the equalizer that makes each game challenging to the betting public."

Unless, of course, you're a vacationer like Starr Barron, visiting Las Vegas for fun.

"Heart bet! Heart bet!" she said, when we asked her about her strategy. "Pittsburgh Steelers all the way."

Not necessarily, Levitt says.

"My best advice to a bettor is start loving underdogs. That's the best thing you can do as a bettor, is to love underdogs, and love picking the underdogs."

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