- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 10, 2006

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Anybody who has played the office football pool knows how easy it is to fancy yourself an expert handicapper, and just how hard it is to outsmart the Las Vegas line. The matchups sit there like ripe fruit to be plucked. How can the unbeaten Bears be mere 10-point favorites against the lowly Dolphins? Then Rex Grossman throws three interceptions, the Bears lose three fumbles, and the Dolphins win easily.

Add in the bookies’ 10-percent commission — which means you have to be right more than half the time just to break even — and you get an idea why casinos are so profitable.

Michael Konik knows these gut-wrenching ups and downs all too well. The magazine writer spent four football seasons as part of a gambling syndicate, an experience that taught him two lessons: Yes, you can outsmart the bookies. And no, it’s not worth it.

Not unless you possess ironclad nerves and a bottomless well of patience. You had also better know a programmer who can whip up an algorithm to pick the winners, because opinions and hunches make for sucker bets.

Konik’s introduction to this clandestine world came in 1997, when he met Rick “Big Daddy” Matthews. The legendary sports gambler recruited the scribe to work as one of the dupes who placed bets on behalf of Matthews’ Brain Trust.

Matthews needed the help because every bookie in Las Vegas had refused his business. So Konik showed up at Caesar’s Palace and concocted a story painting him as a high roller who had recently cashed a big advance for a screenplay. In fact, he was simply moving Matthews’ money.

But there was no such person as Rick “Big Daddy” Matthews, no such syndicate as the Brain Trust; both are names Konik made up. The New York Times and Las Vegas Review-Journal have reported Konik’s boss actually was Las Vegas developer and gambler Billy Walters, and the syndicate was known as the Computer Group.

But even as he plays fast and loose with these facts, most of Konik’s fascinating memoir rings true.

Konik floats through the first-season honeymoon in which he is entrusted with briefcases full of cash, gets a front-row seat on the action and enjoys the high-roller treatment at Vegas’ poshest casinos.

The money isn’t bad, either. As one of Big Daddy’s operatives, Konik keeps 10 percent of the winnings but risks none of the losses.

But the grind eventually weighs on Konik. He operates under a constant cloud of suspicion: The bookies suspect that he works for Matthews, and any time he launches a winning streak, they limit his bets or close his account altogether. And Konik’s girlfriend, tired of his gambling obsession, moves out.

By 1999, with offshore casinos booking millions through the Internet, Konik moves his money online.

But he finds that the bookies in Costa Rica and Antigua are even slipperier than his pals in Vegas. They cancel some bets and refuse to pay others.

Konik finally gets close enough to Big Daddy to learn that sophisticated computer modeling is the secret of his success, a business model Konik tries to emulate by hiring a buddy at MIT to crunch numbers.

Konik deftly builds suspense throughout his fast-paced account, and it’s not giving away too much to say that he finally decides that he’s just not cut out to be another Big Daddy.

“All the time and psychic energy I devote to wagering on sports surely could be better spent on something else,” he writes in an uncharacteristic bout of introspection. “Anything else.”

• “The Smart Money: How the World’s Best Sports Bettors Beat the Bookies out of Millions,” by Michael Konik. Simon & Schuster; 360 pages; $26.

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