One of the more charming aspects of Las Vegas is that visitors can be anyone they choose to be within the confines of the four-mile maze of hotels, casinos, bright lights and bad decisions that dominate the strip.

Vegas isn’t shy about branding itself as an escape from reality and its tourism board has dedicated commercial time to the idea on more than one occasion over the years.

If Phil from Fargo wants to drop his accent, wear a nice suit and shiny cufflinks and say he’s a hedge fund manager from Manhattan for a couple days, that’s totally cool. If Karen from Cleveland wants to tell people she won big on the craps table last night when she really drank cheap free vodka and lost 50 bucks on penny slots, that’s her prerogative, and no one will question it.

And perhaps nowhere on the strip will you find more people pretending to be something or someone they’re not than in the sports and race books, where everyone fancies themselves an expert, games are won using systems and know-how more often than chance and no one ever wants to cop to even modest victory, much less wallet-thinning defeat.

I visited the Las Vegas Hotel Race and Sports Superbook on a Saturday in mid-November, and while I was there, I met Shea, who wouldn’t divulge his last name but did say he had “flown up from New Mexico” that morning to place a few bets and would be heading home that evening, with the cost of his jaunt more than covered.

Based on appearances alone, Shea, in his plain white undershirt, well-worn jeans tattered by use, not design, and off-brand black sneakers, looked more the part of a dishwasher or barback at a local pub than a freewheeling big spender who popped into town to gamble on some college football. But I took him at his word at first as he started to detail the wagers he’d placed that day.

There are some, however, who are emboldened by the belief that you believe them, and as Shea and I continued to converse in the back row of black leather chairs in the LVH’s overwhelming 30,000-square-foot sports hall — and as he continued to imbibe free Coors Lights from a unionized cocktail server who looked well past her expiration date — his tales of success became more grand and less believable.

Eventually, Shea’s crescendo reached a peak when he revealed that he had just won a $4,000 bet on the SMU-Connecticut game, thanks to a backdoor cover by the Mustangs on a pick-six late in the fourth quarter.

Indeed, SMU had covered the 14.5-point spread on the play, but my instincts told me that he hadn’t bet it — or hadn’t bet as much as he claimed, anyway — it part because he wasn’t acting like a guy who just won $4,000. It also seemed like a strange game on which to place such a hefty bet, even if UConn was 0-8 at the time, and Shea didn’t seem to be in any rush to cash in the golden ticket purportedly in his possession.

So like any good skeptic, I called him on it, figuring he could procure his winning ticket from the depths of his pockets and remove all doubt.

Instead, he assured me that he had won, quickly abandoned that conversation and delved into a yarn about how this made up for the $1,500 he’d lost on a backdoor cover earlier in the week (during what I had to assume was another “day trip” to the casino). When I asked which game it was, Shea told me he couldn’t remember.

(Three days earlier Northern Illinois scored 21 points in the last six minutes of its game against Ball State to turn a tie into a runaway and cover the 8.5-point spread, but you can bet that if that late rally cost me $1,500, I’d at least remember Jordan Lynch’s name through the weekend.)

At that point, I no longer believed a word Shea was saying, but I continued to talk with him about the games that were wrapping up, and before I got up to find something for lunch, he revisited the $4,000 he was said to have won on the SMU game. He said he was thinking of trying to double up on another game and asked if I had one I felt good about.

I told him I liked Texas Tech getting 28 from Baylor. Four touchdowns seemed like way too much to be giving in a neutral site game against a reeling team that, three weeks prior, had been ranked in the top 10. He said he agreed and was going to go to the window and bet it, then finished his Coors Light, stood up from his chair and walked away.

I never saw Shea again that day, and I sure hope he was the liar I pegged him to be, because Baylor went on to erase a 14-point first-quarter deficit and win by 29.

 

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In nearly a decade running the race and sports book at the LVH and more than 25 years total in the gaming industry, Jay Kornegay has seen customers from all walks of life, with exaggerators like my new acquaintance Shea being par for the course.

But he says real sharps — gaming industry slang for professional gamblers — are much tougher to come by.

“I’ve seen people who say, ‘I bet for a living,’ but sometimes you have to define ‘a living,’” Kornegay told me from his office in the bowels of the LVH, where he monitors more than a dozen games on small TVs along his office wall, while the Don Best software on his computer chirps halftime and final scores from games across the country.

Las Vegas Race & Sports Superbook

Las Vegas Race & Sports Superbook

“You know, ‘Are you taking the bus? You’ve had that same shirt on for three days in a row.’ I wouldn’t say that to a guest, but you can’t help but think it. There are only a few (who can actually do it).”

Part of the reason for the general dearth of high-rolling sports bettors is the tendency for gamblers to pick with their hearts or guts. When you can remove emotion from the equation, making picks becomes much easier.

Professional gambler Steve Fezzik won LVH’s annual NFL SuperContest in 2008 and 2009, making him the only person to win in back-to-back years. Most recently, David Frohardt-Lane pocketed $557,850 in December when he won in his third year in the competition.

Frohardt-Lane isn’t a professional gambler, and he doesn’t live in Vegas — he is a trader and statistician from Chicago — but he does use his own computer model to generate lines for each game each week, then he bets the five games that deviate the most from the spreads at the LVH.

“I watch football every Sunday, usually multiple different games, and I still think of it as a fan,” Frohardt-Lane said. “But when it comes to making predictions, I try to be as objective as I possibly can. There are plenty of times when I’ll disagree with my own numbers, but that’s most notably if there’s an injury or something.”

Added Kornegay: “Most good handicappers don’t even know the names of the teams. For them, Team A is this, Team B is this, and so the line should be 4. If they look up at the board and see that it’s 7, they’ll take the 7.”

Another factor is the fact that some of the best oddsmakers in the business are already working for Kornegay, behind the counter. Oddsmakers only make up about 10 percent of Kornegay’s 50-person staff — and they can’t bet at the LVH, but are welcome to do so elsewhere — but after stints at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, Bally’s, and Imperial Palace before the LVH, Kornegay knows potential when he sees it.

“You can just talk to a guy and get a feel if he knows what he’s talking about; I can tell in 15 seconds the difference between a guy who’s going to be a good handicapper and a guy who has just watched SportsCenter,” Kornegay said.

“If someone comes in and tells me that the right tackle for Denver, Orlando Franklin, is still hobbling on that sprained ankle and the right guard, (Louis) Vasquez, hasn’t fully recovered, I’m going to respect that a lot more than someone who tells me that Demaryius Thomas is the man and that no one can stop him.”

The LVH offers the largest betting menu in the state of Nevada — the intimidating board inside the colossal room truly is a sight to behold — but with only four or five oddsmakers to rely on, there simply isn’t time to create each and every line on site. So for most sports, including college football, the LVH relies on online books, adjusting individual lines as it sees fit.

“We put our numbers up on Monday afternoon and we can look at the market and say, ‘All right, Ohio State is 34-½, 34, 35, 34-½, 34, let’s just put up 34 — next,’” Kornegay said. “We just kind of go through it and that’s how we do that.

“It’s not going to kill us if Kentucky is 19 all across the land against Vanderbilt, and one of our guys thinks it should be 18.5,” he added, nodding to one of his TVs (Vanderbilt was actually giving 11.5 and won by 16). “OK, that’s fine, I’ll go with it, but tell me why.”

For the NFL, however, the process is different, as Kornegay and his team of oddsmakers meet to have an iron-clad discussion about each week’s games — reporters have never been allowed inside the LVH’s “war room,” as Kornegay calls it — before finally settling on a line without looking at anyone else’s numbers.

“We can do that in our sleep,” Kornegay said. “It’s really not that difficult.

“We just sit there and go around the room and say, ‘What did you make it? Four. Four and a half. Five. Six. Six? Get that out of here.’ So maybe we’ll come up with 4.5, but there might be someone who voices up and brings up some good angles or thoughts that make us go 4, even though he’s the lowest one. He might get his way if he can talk us into it.”

A season of NFL action culminates in the Super Bowl, which, along with the first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, is one of the busiest seasons in the sports gaming industry. In 2012, Vegas took in an estimated $3.45 billion on sports bets, with $98,936,798 coming in wagers on that one game. On Super Bowl Sunday alone, casinos turned a collective profit of $7,206,460, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission.

At the LVH, moreso than some other books, much of the action is placed on proposition bets, for which Kornegay has become somewhat famous.

Kornegay didn’t invent the prop bet, of course — the first Super Bowl prop came in 1986 at Super Bowl XX, when Caesars Palace set odds that William “The Refrigerator” Perry would score a touchdown. But when Kornegay left Bally’s in 1989 to become a supervisor at the newly formed Imperial Palace sports book, he popularized the prop bet by taking personal back-room wagers among the staff and opening them to the public.

“We used to bet amongst ourselves a lot back in the day, like when the Lakers and Pistons were in the NBA Finals, we’d bet how many points Isiah Thomas would have, and some of our customers wanted to bet it,” Kornegay said. “So we threw it up, and it was kind of like, ‘We should start doing this, it’s a different market and it seems like a lot of people want to do this.’”

These days, you can bet on just about anything that happens during the Super Bowl, from individual player stats to who scores first to which coach makes the first challenge. The possibilities are seemingly endless, especially when you consider that even cross-sport bets are fair game.

Las Vegas Race & Sports Superbook

Las Vegas Race & Sports Superbook

Last year, for example, the LVH posted one bet on whether Bubba Watson’s fourth-round score at the Waste Management Phoenix Open would be 19.5 strokes higher than Colin Kaepernick’s rushing yard total against the Ravens. (For the record, Watson shot 64 and Kaepernick ran for 62 yards.)

When other books might post 20 props in the 1990s, Kornegay’s Imperial Palace book would post 50, and the goal of such bets, initially, was to keep people interested in lopsided games that marked the era.

“It really took off in 1995 when the 49ers played the Chargers in the Super Bowl and it was like a 19.5-point spread and there was no doubt who would win,” Kornegay said. “That year we took it to a different level and instead of having 40 or 50, we had 150. We had who’s going to score more points that day, Michael Jordan or the 49ers, and that was the first year that we crossed over to other sports. It was a huge hit and everyone wanted to talk about it.”

Alas, prop bets can be as tough to anticipate for the books as they are for the customers, and the books often pay the price. The LVH finished last year’s Super Bowl in the red for the second time in three years in large part because of prop bets — specifically “over” wagers on Kaepernick’s stats and a popular parlay combo of the money line on the underdog Ravens and the over for the total score.

But turning a profit on a given day isn’t the point, says Kornegay, even when that day is Super Bowl Sunday. That’s because he knows, over the long run, the house will always win.

“The gambling is going to take care of itself,” Kornegay said. “I’m not like, ‘How much money am I going to make off these people today?’ That’s not a thought process.

“I want to make sure everything runs smooth and everyone leaves with a good impression of our book, that they were serviced well and had a good experience. Do I have certain interests in games? Yeah. But it’s not like I’m looking at the crowd and thinking, ‘I’ve got to beat these guys to win.’”

 

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The interesting thing about the business of sports gambling is that, as popular as it is in Vegas, it remains one of the rest of the country’s dirty little secrets.

In 1992, Congress adopted the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which banned the practice in all but four states. In recent years, however, some have made a push for more widespread legalization, with New Jersey taking the lead most recently, when residents voted nearly 2-to-1 in favor of legalization in 2011.

That bill was signed into law, but a 2012 lawsuit filed by the NCAA, the NFL, MLB, the NBA and the NHL put New Jersey’s plans on hold, and after the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia denied the Governor Chris Christie’s request to rehear the case, only the Supreme Court can step in and address the issue — something it is in no way obligated to do.

Kornegay says that such intolerance unfairly paints the sports gambling industry as corrupt and puts the United States behind the eight-ball.

“The rest of the world has pretty much accepted sports gambling in full form, and for some reason, this country has not accepted it yet and there always seems to be this brown cloud over it,” Kornegay said, arguing that what goes on in Vegas isn’t your grandfather’s fedora-wearing, cigar-gnawing, mob-backed operation.

“Ninety-nine percent of it is illegal in this country, but I think the states have that right, and they’re going to have to lawyer up and prove it. Back in 1992, the PASPA Act, states are going to have to prove that unconstitutional. You can’t just have a couple states have it. All of the states should be able to decide if they want it or not.”

It certainly seems like an uphill battle, but as hard as it is to believe, Kornegay actually sees himself on the same side of the sports wagering argument as the leagues that are suing to block it.

“We basically sell integrity,” Kornegay said. “We have to have integrity of these games, because if we lose that, we don’t have a product to sell. …I’m not saying we’re best friends because we certainly have our differences, but we are on the same side. They want to protect their product and we want to protect their product. We want to make sure that these games are fair and true. If there’s any kind of tampering, we want to report it just as much as they want to.”

There’s a thought that widespread sports gambling legalization could do harm to business in Vegas, but Kornegay seems unconcerned with his own margins as they relate to the larger issue at hand.

“It would certainly hurt the state of Nevada if other states, especially California, were able to legalize gambling,” Kornegay said. “But (George W.) Bush’s gambling commission that he put together after 9/11 proved that … we only represent 1 percent of the entire betting handle in this country. So most of it is already taking place anyway, and I don’t think that’s going to change at all.”

I suggested to Kornegay that there seem to be parallels between the arguments in favor of sports betting and those supporting marijuana legalization — which has already taken effect in Colorado and Washington — and though he didn’t seem to especially appreciate the comparison, he didn’t dismiss it, either.

Las Vegas Race & Sports Superbook

Las Vegas Race & Sports Superbook

“There are similarities between the two, sure, but (with gambling) the rest of the world has already legalized it and there’s proof that people already want it,” Kornegay said. “In my eyes, it’s a safer way to handle sports gambling, because you can’t do it on credit. If you bet through a bookmaker on credit, that’s how you get in trouble. If it was legalized, I think it would be a safer way to at least reduce those chances of people getting themselves in a bind.”

Others who argue against sports betting contend that it’ll have a negative impact on teams’ fanbases and threaten the integrity of games, as supporters may become more concerned with their bets than their own favorite teams. But Kornegay — a Colorado State grad who pulls for all teams Denver when he’s not rooting on UNLV — assures me that isn’t an issue in Vegas and wouldn’t be in other cities, either.

“European books, Australian books, Asian books have proven that people are still fans, they love their teams, they’re going to root for their teams,” Kornegay said. “Out here, we’ve been taking wagers on UNLV games and I’m a big Rebel fan, and I can tell you, it’s not because I’ve got a wager on them. You’re still rooting for your team. I’ve never seen people leave the Thomas & Mack with their heads down because the Rebels didn’t cover the spread.”

But the biggest hurdle, perhaps, is overturning the misconception that sports wagering — like other forms of gambling — encourages participants to try to play their way out of holes rather than cut themselves off. Kornegay says books try to control the issue of problem gambling as much as they possibly can, but even they can only do so much.

“I don’t know what they have,” Kornegay said of his guests’ bank accounts. “If that is his last dollar or his rent money, I wish I would know that so I wouldn’t take his bet. I don’t want that. That’s not what we’re here for. We want people to have a pleasurable experience and if they win money, they win money and if they lose money, they lose money. But I certainly don’t want them to get kicked out of their house because they bet it all on a game.

“It would be nice to know that, but you basically have to go by their word. I don’t think I’d be doing them a service if I cut them off just because they’re having a bad day, because you never know if or when it might turn around.”

 

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Toward the end of my one-day stay at the LVH, I witnessed firsthand just how quickly fortunes in a sports book truly can change — and felt the electricity that wordlessly explains why sports gambling is the growing monster that it is.

I had settled back into one of those leather chairs, this time next to a distracted local in an Oakland Raiders cap mulling over an NFL parlay card for the following day, and most of the attention had turned to an Auburn-Georgia game that, based on the hum in the room, had significant money riding on it.

Auburn was giving 3.5 points to the Bulldogs, who were on the road at Jordan-Hare, and though I was a subjective bystander without a dog in the fight, it seemed like a majority of the action was on the home team to cover.

“You can usually tell who we need just by hanging out in the room,” Kornegay had told me earlier. “If I can hear all these cheers (from my office), it’s probably not good for the book.”

The Tigers sure looked like a safe bet when they took a 17-point lead into the half, then pushed it to 20 on a field goal with 12:39 to play. But as quickly as a camo-clad man in the front of the room was removed from the premises for loudly and drunkenly calling those with Auburn tickets “f---ing pigs” early in the fourth, the tide shifted, and Georgia rallied to take a one-point advantage with 1:49 to play.

You could feel the air get sucked out of the room when Aaron Murray gave Georgia the lead on fourth-and-goal from the 5. My chest felt tight for the losing bettors, seemingly screwed by a backdoor cover no one saw coming, and the book had fallen virtually silent by the time Nick Marshall and Auburn faced a 4th-and-18 from its own 27 with 36 seconds left to play.

Many of the dumbfounded Auburn supporters who remained in the room seemed to still be there, not so much by choice, but on account of paralysis over what had just happened, while others found it in them to swear the Tigers before storming off. For Georgia supporters, the final few ticks had become little more than a formality, until…

When people talk about a chill going down their spine and the hair on the back of their neck standing up, this is what they mean. Auburn not only won, but they covered in the most improbable way possible. The room erupted — certainly loud enough for Kornegay to hear — and unprintable words of astonishment flew from one side of the room to the other.

It was one of the most exciting scenes I’ve ever witnessed firsthand — the NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals included — and in that moment I got it. I understood the appeal of the sports gaming industry and felt for those who have never had the chance to go to Vegas to live it first hand.

Of course, my experience alone won’t bring sports gaming any closer to legalization, and the arguments against wagering on games certainly have their merits and shouldn’t be blindly discarded. It’s very possible that sports betting will never expand beyond Nevada, and if that’s the case, that’s fine.

But after one day at the LVH, I do know this: There’s a reason interest in sports gaming is at an all-time high, and if I’m going to pretend to be someone I’m not and lose my hard-earned money in Vegas — as most of us, even Shea, inevitably do — a sports book is the place I want to do it.

“It’s a very popular way to gamble, and I think that’s going to increase for years to come because the entertainment value on sports betting is just tremendous,” Kornegay said. “You can bet 10 bucks and get three hours out of it. That’s pretty good unless your team gets blown out, but when was the last time you got that at the blackjack table, or playing roulette?”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.