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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

When You Wager, He Wins

Fezzik makes his living as a sports gambler in Las Vegas. He relies on the passions and naivete of casual bettors, who tilt the odds in his favor.

April 01, 2006|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Shortly after 9 a.m. last Saturday, amid the madness of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, a man dressed entirely in black studied the electronic board flashing point spreads at the Palms Casino Resort.

He had already wagered more than $7,000 that morning, placing half a dozen bets on the Internet and in casinos on sporting events large and small, from arena football to college ice hockey to women's college basketball.

By Fezzik's high-rolling standards -- he averages about $60,000 in daily sports wagers -- the day was off to a slumbering start. He was anxious to pick up the pace.

"If you see a guy kicking back, drinking a beer and watching the game after he makes his bet, that guy ... is never going to make serious money. He is a loser," Fezzik said, walking out of the Palms so briskly he was nearly running. "I've been known to sprint to the next betting window."

Fezzik, or Steve Fezzik, as he has called himself in interviews, is not his real name. It is a pseudonym he says he uses for safety's sake. Fezzik is a minor celebrity in the demimonde of serious Las Vegas gamblers. Six years ago, he was an insurance executive who drove the crowded freeways to downtown Los Angeles every morning. Now he is a "wiseguy," the Las Vegas moniker for someone who makes a living trying to outsmart sports books -- the betting parlors inside casinos that take wagers on sporting events.

If the life of Fezzik is any indication, betting on sports professionally is a mentally draining pursuit that has much in common with managing a hedge fund, including a potentially big payoff.

Fezzik, who wagers a large amount of his own money every day along with cash pooled from a small crew of betting partners, boasts that he earns a six-figure salary, largely by predicting the prejudices of "squares," or casual sports gamblers, and betting big the opposite way before other "sharps" such as he capitalize on the public's naivete.

Feats of athleticism are irrelevant to serious bettors; theirs is a game of cold, hard numbers, where actual winners and losers often do not matter.

Fezzik does not spend much time scouting the strengths and weaknesses of teams. Instead, he uses his knowledge of statistics to ferret out betting lines that appear askew. Often, those propositions do not center on the outcome of a game, but on how many points a team will score during the second half or whether both teams will amass a certain combined score.

During playoffs, Fezzik said, Las Vegas turns into a candy land for sophisticated gamblers because sports books expand offerings to include oddball bets. Fezzik said one of his favorite wagers was betting big that casino oddsmakers were wrong when they predicted that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would punt more than the Oakland Raiders in the 2003 Super Bowl. Each team punted five times.

Betting lines do not represent oddsmakers' opinions of how many points a favored team will win by or what the final combined score of a game will be. Rather, the line is the numerical sweet spot where the casino believes it can entice equal bets on each side of the proposition. By attracting about the same amount of money on each side, the house is guaranteed to win. It charges a fee to place every bet and returns the fee only to winning bettors, so it collects more than enough from one side to pay the other.

Serious bettors, unlike the majority of casual gamblers, understand the difference between reality and a point spread, and seek to exploit it.

Last Saturday, as frat boys and other tourists in Connecticut jerseys crammed casinos to root on their favorite team, Fezzik and other professional bettors were backing the George Mason University Patriots, an underdog in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Because of all the casual bettor money coming in for the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies, they became an eight-point favorite -- a huge margin in basketball. George Mason not only beat the spread but won in overtime.

Betting on Connecticut, Fezzik explained, was a "classic donkey play," a gambler's way of describing a wager only a rube would make.

"All of these people, they're going to lose," Fezzik said loudly in a casino coffee shop full of tourists, drawing amused stares. "I would agree that 99% of sports bettors eventually lose. But the guys I know, the math geeks like me who take this seriously, they don't lose. They may only win 54% of the time, but that adds up."

Like many big-time bettors, Fezzik -- the name of the strongman played by the late wrestler Andre the Giant in the movie "The Princess Bride" -- strives to stay incognito. He says that one casino has banned him for winning too often, and that he would be an easy mark for thieves if his identity were widely known because he sometimes carries tens of thousands in cash.

Fezzik agreed to discuss how he makes a living only on the condition that his actual name not be revealed, but he provided it to The Times so his life's story could be confirmed.

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