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Communing with the wagerers of Sin City

Our intrepid correspondent, in Las Vegas for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, puts his money where his mouth is.

March 22, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM LAS VEGAS — ESPN brackets, shmackets -- let's see how good the President is against the spread.

Here's the scene -- it starts Thursday morning here, a bigger crowd in the Mandalay Bay Sports Book than in some of the arenas hosting first-round NCAA tournament games. Maybe it's time Staples Center considered putting in a few slot machines to encourage better attendance at Clippers games.

Every chair is taken by men -- with the exception of the one woman sitting in the back row. As Scott Ghertner, the director of something or other at Mandalay, and a.k.a. The Sandman, puts it, "You don't bring sand to the beach." Ghertner is still single -- and obviously for the rest of his life.

LSU hits a three to start the tournament scoring and Page 2 is already down, 3-2. I have Butler plus two.

It's LSU, 5-2, 7-2 and 9-2, and I'm thinking what a great place this is -- Las Vegas giving me two points for a $10 bet, or I might be losing 9-0. How generous they are.

Page 2's bracket has LSU winning the game, but I'm on Butler and taking the points. The President takes Butler in his bracket and gets no points. I wonder if he'll have someone from the IRS call on Butler's coach at halftime.

LSU wins by four, and the first day remains flat -- whether it's boring games, the economy or a President everyone is trusting to save the country picking so many losers.

The guy working behind the counter tries his best, taking the microphone and shouting, "This is a basketball tournament, not a funeral." Obviously he didn't have Butler getting two and losing by four.

Jerry Tarkanian, meanwhile, is over at the Palazzo, playing host to 224 of the casino's biggest gamblers. He says he's going to tell the high rollers some stories, beginning with John Wooden, doing everything he could to always sit next to the guy.

"We're at a luncheon together, both coming off a pair of road wins and not playing for a whole week," Tark says. "So I ask Coach Wooden what he's going to do with his team. He says they're not going to practice and he's going to read them a few Bible verses.

"I don't know how to do that," he says, which explains why he never had a prayer against Wooden -- going 0-3.

Tark never read a book about anything other than sports until well into his 70s. He went through life with blinders on, which explains why he says he's never heard of Salma Hayek.

But what do you want to know about Cleveland State?

"I once stared at Raquel Welch in a restaurant," he says, the same guy telling me an hour earlier, "I like to go to Fresno; I have fun there."

He says he's never bet on a sports event in his life but will do so today. Imagine the odds that I'd be here for such a thing.

He takes a call from "someone who knows this stuff." His name is Frank, an upset already, thinking it would probably be something like Augie. Frank/Augie tells him to go with Villanova.

A nun walking down the street could tell him the same thing, but if Frank/Augie says it, it's gospel.

He also says, "Purdue is my sleeper," and for a while it appears the Boilermakers are doing just that.

I'd hate to find out Arnold Schwarzenegger is the one calling the President after knowing the President has both UCLA and USC losing their first games.

Everything is different Friday, the energy higher, although for some reason only the teams I wager on miss their layups and free throws. If I were Tark, I'd blame the NCAA.

Down the Strip, meanwhile, a bigwig at Mandalay says everything is down in this town, the number of visitors and what folks are spending on gaming, entertainment, food and rooms. He went to school at UCLA, so he's down too.

"Usually our [12 MGM Mirage] properties are sold out for this months ahead of time," says Alan Feldman, senior VP for public affairs. "But we were still selling rooms on Wednesday and Thursday."

For those who made it here there's a chance to bet on which team will score 20 points first in a game, who is winning at halftime, whether a 16th-seeded team is leading at the half, how many Pac-10, Mountain West and SEC teams will advance to the Sweet 16, Notre Dame in the NIT, and at one point I'm holding a ticket where I have the Flames beating the Blues.

Did you know the Flames are from Calgary and play hockey? I worry about what I'm becoming. I bet the puck line.

I have $25. The wife is so free with her money; her idea of a stimulus plan -- $40 a day for bets in Vegas. I go with a 10-team teaser, undeterred when the guy at the counter snickers.

I have witnesses. I hit the first nine. I collect $750 if Florida State beats Wisconsin. I really like the Seminoles. Never seen them play but really like them. The President has picked Florida State too. He also picked this yo-yo, Timothy Geithner, as Treasury secretary.

The Sandman says the best thing to do is hedge the bet, and wager on Wisconsin so either way I collect something. There was a time when you came to Vegas to wing it, but right now taking a guaranteed $250 doubles my remaining 401(k).

Florida State is winning big at the half, but the game goes into overtime, and FSU eventually loses. "Everyone was on Florida State; we needed that," says Jay Rood, bookmaker for all the MGM Mirage properties, and just for the sake of argument -- who needed it more? The columnist working for a bankrupt newspaper or the casino?

"We treaded water on the first day, did well Friday, but we need Gonzaga to beat Western Kentucky by 11 or more [on Saturday], or it's going to be a pretty big loss for us now," Rood says.

Gonzaga wins a thriller by two, the bettors erupt with glee, and the casino takes a bath. But somehow they find the wherewithal to keep the place open.

Had I taken the Blues on the puck line instead, who knows, that might've closed the place down.


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