- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

LAS VEGAS — Never bet against your boys.

After a lifetime of avoiding Vegas like a spread of sidewalk sushi, your brother-in-law’s bachelor party finally has landed you in Sin City with a modest stake in pocket and a solid strategy in mind.

You’re not a gaming table guy, at least you weren’t until you caught a nasty case of the craps — different story, same ugly ending. But you’ve always heard the siren’s song of the sports book.

For four months every fall, your life always has revolved around college football. It’s the game that drove you to sports journalism, a marriage of passion and profession. In five years of handicapping games for the paper, you’ve always finished comfortably above .500. Sure, you’ve started slow this season. But this is your chance to prove yourself, to turn your powers of prognostication into a casino-mocking profit.

Thursday, Sept. 18, 10:40 p.m.

Internally, you cue the James Gang’s “Funk No. 49” and saunter up to the betting window at the Flamingo, a bad man strutting into town to steal some easy money. Surely, you can trump the average sports-book schmo and put a bank-account beating on the bookies. Sure, rookie, have another cocktail.

Rule No. 1: Never drink and draft

Obviously, casinos don’t supply patrons with free drinks out of sheer benevolence. Alcohol clouds the conscience and inspires the idiot within. Two of your final three wagers (on Arizona State and Missouri), both on games you had crossed out earlier during sober scrutiny, are teased out with the help of several miserably mixed, if effective, Manhattans.

Rule No. 2: Never rage at the cage

While studying the tote board at the Flamingo, you are riled by the fact that the casino is not offering a line or accepting bets on the Ohio State-Bowling Green game. Given that you considered this game a gimme (Bowling Green to beat the spread), you want an explanation.

“What’s the deal?” you bellow at the unsuspecting teller.

Several minutes and one summoned manager later, you are informed that because the starting status of injured Ohio State quarterback Craig Krenzel is unknown, the casino has exercised its right not to take any action on the game.

Treating the manager just like the traffic cop who already has decided to write you a ticket, you decide to exercise your right to browbeat:

“Look, pal, you and I both know that with or without Krenzel, Ohio State couldn’t cover against 11 mathletes from MIT. Let’s face it, the folks at the Pink Bird just don’t have the guts [you might have used a different noun] to put a number on this game. That’s spineless and disgraceful, admit it.”

“Sir,” says the manager in a perfectly flat tone. “The one thing I can assure you is that this spineless establishment does have the guts to remove you from the premises if you don’t cease and desist.”

Rule No. 3: Never bet against your boys

Having thoroughly ignored lessons one and two, you then proceed to make your biggest faux pas of the evening, placing your 12th and final $20 wager on Florida (-3) to beat Tennessee at the Swamp. Now, while this bet makes perfect sense intellectually (the Vols have won just once in Gainesville since 1961), it’s a complete mojo-mangler in the kismet department.

Why? Because you have now violated bookmaking’s third crucial tenet. Sure, all sportswriters are supposed to be completely objective. Right, now let’s talk about human nature and reality instead of theory.

Every sportswriter has a certain affection for one team that no amount of exposure to the money-grubbing, interview-butchering, student-athlete facade-pandering underbelly of big time sports can shake. Being from Tennessee, a state thats only other legitimate claims to national fame are relics like the Alamo and Andrew Jackson or embarrassments like Graceland, the Grand Ole Opry and Andrew Jackson, you had virtually no chance to escape the Big Orange bug.

From a professional standpoint, this affinity is far more likely to result in a slight spike in sensationalism than truly biased coverage. When that team plays well, it is usually treated to a few more florid adjectives. When it plays poorly, it is given an equally passionate pounding. All told, it’s a net-zero deal.

From a wagering standpoint, however, involving one’s personal favorite is a karma-killer. It’s bad enough to bet on your favorite team — just ask Pete Rose. But to bet against your team is nothing short of emotional blasphemy and certain gaming suicide.

Saturday, Sept. 20, 12:45 p.m.

Having already seen the Gators sink in the Swamp from the comfort of your condo, you retire to the sports book at Caesar’s Palace to watch the rest of the college football day unfold, and the rest of your plans unravel. Once seated, you realize with Y-chromosome glee that this might be the only place on earth where one can watch 12 games at once from the comfort of a recliner while ingesting a 36-ounce prime rib and ogling near-naked waitresses with impunity.

You are seated next to Mike from Reno, a beefy fellow who is spastically making like a man with Tourette’s at a tennis match. Mike’s blur of a head informs you he drives to Vegas every-other weekend. He’s wearing a black T-shirt proclaiming “Viva Las Vegas” and constantly consulting both a tiny notebook and the action overhead while making R.J. Reynolds a big winner, indeed.

Most amazingly, Mike is mumbling incessantly under his breath, cursing everything from MAC football to UCLA’s punt coverage to the shoddy service at Caesar’s to the enthusiasm in the room. When Michigan cuts Oregon’s lead to four points with only two minutes to play, causing an enclave of maize-and-blue backers to erupt, Mike focuses the full force of his venom on the disruption:

“Shut up, morons. Silly monkeys. You’re giving seven, giving seven. You can’t cover, can’t cover. It’s over, over, over.”

You stare in awe at this autistic troglodyte, realizing for the first time that people-watching is easily the best show in Vegas. You consider your modest losses and take some small amount of comfort from the notion that you are not the biggest loser (literally or figuratively) in Vegas, conveniently forgetting Thursday night’s run-in with Rule No. 2.

With a surge of self-satisfaction, you can’t believe any fool would do this every-other week. You look at Mike and think patronizingly, “There but for the grace of God.” Then you realize, “There but for the grace of God and driving distance.”

Fact is, Vegas makes the biggest losers of those convinced otherwise.

After years of listening to readers and editors demand that he put his money where his mouth is, college football writer Barker Davis of The Washington Times lugged his wallet to Las Vegas and took the expected beating from the big boys. Here is a brief rundown of the carnage (his picks are listed first):

Florida -3 at Tennessee

Rationale: Vols always gag against Gators

Result: Tennessee 24, Florida 10 — Karma crippling error; never bet against your boys

Marshall +19 at Kansas State

Rationale: Marshall QB Stan Hill out; KSU has covered against nine of last 10 non-league patsies

Result: Marshall 27, Kansas State 20 — Another Manhattan project blows up

Northern Illinois +131/2 at Alabama

Rationale: You don’t want any of the Huskies, just ask Maryland

Result: NIU 19, Alabama 16

Middle Tennessee +201/2 at Missouri

Rationale: MTSU plays third straight week on road vs. major-conference stud

Result: Missouri 41, MTSU 40 (OT) — Tigers should fire defensive coordinator

Texas Tech +61/2 at N.C. State

Rationale: Does Vegas think Kliff Kingsbury is still slinging in Lubbock?

Result: N.C. State 49, Texas Tech 21

Texas -30 at Rice

Rationale: Mack’s men sure to roll up on Rice after Arkansas says, ‘Horns play like steers

Result: Texas 48, Rice 7

Pittsburgh -10 at Toledo

Rationale: Rod Rutherford to Larry Fitzgerald surely worth a dozen at home

Result: Toledo 35, Pittsburgh 31 — MAC Daddy Saturday strikes again

Arizona State +2 at Iowa

Rationale: ASU quarterback Andrew Walter is the Sun Devil

Result: Iowa 21, Arizona State 2 — Walter is a tutu-wearing, wallet-whipping dog

Colorado +20 at Florida State

Rationale: FSU scored only 14 the week before vs. Georgia Tech

Result: FSU 47, Colorado 7 — Nobody rolls over like Barnett’s Buffs

Miami -13 at Boston College

Rationale: ‘Canes’ last four victories at Chestnut Hill by average of only four points

Result: Miami 33, Boston College 14 — Catholicism currently very bad mojo

Central Florida +5 at Syracuse

Rationale: Orangemen rebound after being embarrassed at home by Louisville

Result: Syracuse 38, C. Florida 14

UCLA +18 at Oklahoma

Rationale: Powder blues only score six points vs. Illinois; Sooner shutout inevitable

Result: Oklahoma 59, UCLA 24 — Thank you, Antonio Perkins

Overall vs. spread: 5-7

Total wager: $240 (12 x $20)

Net loss: $47.50

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