Give me a few minutes and I can recall at least 20 movies about gambling. The themes tend to be of a piece. All gamblers die broke and alone; their bodies are generally found in a studio flat above a drugstore. Sometimes they mess with the mob and are tortured, their bodies left to rot in the desert. Sometimes there’s a big score at the racetrack, which is what appeals to me, because I would rather lose at the track than win at a card table.
But there’s one line from all those movies that I find most memorable. It’s what George Segal says to Elliot Gould at the end of “California Split.” This was 45 years ago, but I’m reminded of it all the time. After they make the score of a lifetime in a Vegas casino, Segal is stunned to find that he left his emotions back at the card table. “There was no special feeling,” he says to Gould.
It’s just as well, because when that special feeling finally comes around, it might be despair, or shame, or hunger. And that happens especially to gamblers who are chasing adrenaline. The huge score is a rare thing, which is why it’s called a huge score. Well-adjusted sports bettors — not that I claim to be one of them — find as much satisfaction from the handicapping process as the action itself.
This week, I’m hoping that’s true of Kevin Cusick, my friend and fellow podcaster and a top-level St. Paul Pioneer Press editor. I’m guessing Cusick must have had some special feelings after going 2-12 vs. the spread last week in his picks column last week. In theory, this is hard to do when you have a 50 percent chance of getting any single game right. In fact, I’ve done it many times over the course of three decades, so it can’t be that rare. In fact, I’ve done worse and the losing didn’t bother me half as much as the fact that I wasn’t sure how.
One reason I play the horses is that after almost every race, I know without much doubt why I lost. That knowledge doesn’t stop my feelings of inadequacy, but at some level I at least feel well-informed.
It’s not that way on the gridiron. Read five different accounts of any Vikings game and then, if you have the stomach for it, listen to five more talk shows or podcasts. What you’ll hear is 10 different reasons why the Vikings did or didn’t cover. In other words, no one really knows. And if no one knows, how were you supposed to cover the number?
Which is not to say that every win is luck and every loss is bad luck. I’m just saying that the line is sharper than any of us and while very few gamblers die broke, most don’t end up in the black after paying the vig.
With that in mind, the most important element of a wagering lifestyle is money management. Which generally is an elegant way of saying that the most important discipline required is to bet fewer games. (Kusick has no choice; I do.)
With that in mind, I offer 10 important suggestions for NFL bettors right now.
First, for the majority of you who are not ahead this year:
1. I’ve watched many of my friends heading to the plasma center on Tuesday morning because of their emotional attachment to the home team. I’ve already tipped my hand regarding how I feel about emotions and gambling, but here’s how to avoid betting your heart instead of your head: just keep a file with links to every story about one of your home team’s heroes who gets busted for high crimes or misdemeanors.
They don’t have to be felonies, although it helps. Driving 100 mph on a local highway works well, and you won’t have to wait long for that one. And, sadly, DUIs seem almost as common as holding penalties. Anyway, harsh reality should dull your emotions better than anything this side of lithium.
2. If you find yourself unable to stop betting on the home team, the opposite will work almost as well. Just bet a small amount on them every time they play. Ten bucks a game will, on average, will cost you eight dollars for the entire season. Who wouldn’t settle for that?
3. There is no single category of games that will, on average, allow you to beat the juice. Some folks think that betting all the dogs is the way to go, but if that actually worked, all those Vegas skyscrapers would be reduced to the kind of squalid office pods in which journalists now toil. So sad. But if you really like the dogs, or the favorites, or the home teams, or the visitors, then what the hell. Just look for the ones you like and forget the other categories. For example, if you had bet all the home teams on Sunday, you would have covered all 11 games. It’s just that easy, except when it isn’t, which is just about all the time. And, as my old bookie Bones once told me, for every 11-0, there’s an 0-11.
4. Look for Negative Indicators. Bones told me this, too. You’ll have a hard time finding anyone who can consistently win, say, 58 percent of his wagers, but you might find a public handicapper who can lose at that rate. Money in the bank. But in the words of another betting giant, my old boss The Texas Tornado, the sun don’t shine on the same dog’s ass every day. Even the Neggies will have winning years.
5. Don’t get consumed by all the horrible things that might have cost you a loss: the clueless refs, the coach who lied about the health of his All-Pro quarterback, the blizzard that cost you the “over,” despite the partly cloudy forecast (it’s proven scientifically that those forecasts get worst by the month), and the website that cheated you out of $50 for picks that he or she claimed were winning at a 72 percent click (that was a lie).
Now, for the winners:
1. I would tell you not to follow my advice, but it’s pretty clear you already knew that.
2. You are not playing with house money. You are playing with what is now your money. If you give it back, you can’t say it’s no big deal. Because, like most of us, you are now what is known as a loser.
3. Don’t hang out at a sports bar and yell “I’m king of the world!” as you win a big bet. As I always told my Little Leaguers, act like you’ve been there before. In fact, emulate the bookies and when your peers ask you if you’re winning, just shake your head and effect a pose of sorrow. Your buddies will like you more and you won’t have to buy wings for the house.
4. Don’t bet significantly more on each game just because you’re winning. Beating the spread is basically a coin toss. The fact that you’re up today doesn’t change that. And, sorry to say, if there actually is a special feeling, you really need to dial back. As some of my least favorite politicians like to say, it’s all about the process, not the outcome. Today’s euphoria is tomorrow’s dystopia.
5. Finally, win or lose, remember what many a temperate racetrack gambler has told me: you can have just as much fun betting five dollars as 50 dollars. Come to think of it, they were trying to convince themselves, not me. But it’s true. At least it is when you lose.
I went 2-1 last week to bring the bankroll up to $945. Which means (a) that I am basically down because of the juice and (b) I am not king of the world.
Baltimore at Cincinnati
It’s the biggest mismatch of the week, if not the year. So, at first glance, it would be logical to conclude that the line would be grossly inflated. But then there’s the matter of laying 10 on the road when just one month ago the Ravens couldn’t cover at home vs. the Bengals in a 23-17 victory. However…the Bengals scored a touchdown by returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown and then they stabbed the chalk bettors with a backdoor td with 90 seconds left. What I like best is this: the Ravens nearly doubled the Bengals in total yards from scrimmage in that game, 497-250.
The pick: Ravens 31, Bengals 13 — Ravens minus 10 for $70
Minnesota at Dallas
I could throw a stat salad at you, but what really swayed me is the fact that the Vikings are on a negative run of 3-12 against the spread vs. teams with a winning record.
The pick: Cowboys 27, Vikings 20 — Dallas minus 3 for $70