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Original Issue

Testing Limits Sports books, always averse to risk, might be driving high rollers to the Internet

My money was good anywhere, just not at Caesars Palace. Or not all
of it, anyway. Having already placed bets there on two college
games--$8,000 on Penn State (+5 1/2) and another $8,000 on
Illinois (+4)--I ambled up to the counter and tried to bet the
limit on Kentucky (+19 1/2). This game was not on anybody's
radar, the feature proposition that Saturday being Ohio
State-Michigan. At 8 a.m. the sports book in the corner of the
Caesars casino, with its huge screens and blinking tote boards,
was crowded with fans, a lot of them wearing telltale school
colors and drinking tailgate-appropriate beverages and betting
maybe $100 here and there. But when I asked to bet $10,000 on
Kentucky, the posted limit at the posted line on a nothing game
in a place that is dedicated to just this sort of proposition,
things got sticky. (This, by the way, was not all my money, not
by a long shot; the lion's share of my various sports bets was
provided, quite legally, by a serious gambler willing to
illustrate how some casinos behave these days.)

Professional sports gamblers in Nevada, the only state in the
country where such an occupation is legal, have been complaining
that certain casinos recently have been showing a decided
preference for dumb money, the kind that comes in small
increments from yahoos wearing scarlet and gray and tipping Coors
for breakfast, not in bundles of cash from the pros, who batter
the line with their computer printouts. Actually, when a bettor
must lay 11 to win 10, anybody's money ought to be good. Not many
computer programs can overcome that edge over the course of a
season. And besides, shouldn't the smart money set the line,
anyway, its educated action providing the balance for us yahoos?

The gamblers say that certain sports books have become so
paranoid about smart money that it has become impossible to bet
the limit. Moreover, says one bettor, at a certain few casinos
they will be told in the middle of placing a bet that the line
has moved, that bets at other properties have just come in,
making it necessary to adjust the spread. In some industries,
gamblers point out, this would be called bait and switch.

If this is true, the end result would be to push even more money
into offshore Internet sports books, they say, which produces no
cut for local gaming, or taxes for state and federal governments.
Sports books may not be a huge profit center for Las Vegas
casinos, but try to imagine this city during Super Bowl week or
the Final Four (high holy days in Las Vegas) if gamblers were
sufficiently discouraged by queasy sports books. Believe me,
those guys from the Comdex trade show are not the ones keeping
the lights on.

The real hoot, anyway, is that it's extremely hard to tell dumb
money from smart money. I was not draped in an Ohio State banner
and was not holding a longneck, but what really pegged me as
undesirable was that I wanted to bet the limit. Instead of
thanking their stars that such a lunkhead existed, the sports
book went wild with worry.

A fellow in a suit was suddenly called to the window. While he
did not try to move the line, he halved the limit on the spot.
All the while he kept looking behind him, where more people in
suits sat, agitated by the action. Suddenly one of the managers
flew up and said, "No bet." When I asked him to step forward and
explain, he said I couldn't keep coming to the window to bet
piecemeal. They'd take all the action I had, 20 bets even, but
only at one time. He said that for now I'd shot my wad; they'd
take no more bets from me.

The clerk appeared flabbergasted and rolled his eyes when I asked
him if this was normal. By now it was 8:50 a.m., and Ohio
State-Michigan was coming on. I had no particular interest in
that game (Kentucky, now there was a game), but I sat back to
watch a bit. I noticed that the cocktail waitress, bless her
heart, accepted my tip after she fetched my beer.

Oh. Kentucky lost by 20. --Richard Hoffer

COLOR PHOTO: JEFF KLEIN/AP SCREENING ROOM At the Stardust sports book (here on Super BowlSunday, 2001), gamblers watch their money in action.