Tales from Behind the Bankroll

Twists and turns in the life of a professional betting man

Ted Sevransky

Professional handicapper since 1998; SportsMemo.com

What was your biggest football wager, and how did it turn out?

My third year out here in Vegas, 1999, it was a Monday-night game, Atlanta at Pittsburgh. The Falcons were 1-5 going into the game—they were awful—and the line got bet up: 4½, 5, 5½, 6, 6½. And I’m like, “This is the frickin’ game. Atlanta plus the points is the play. And so help me, I’m going to step up!” I bet every penny I had, but I split it: I put two-thirds on the Falcons, one-third on the money line. They’re down 13-0 early, and I’m like, “Ah, what am I going to do? Am I going to be driving a taxi tomorrow?” But they scored nine points in the fourth quarter to make it 13-9 and had first-and-goal late for the win. All of a sudden I’m looking at a big payday. And of course they couldn’t punch it in, and they lost the game, but covered the number. That’s the only time I remember being all-in on a game—but I was all-in! Had they lost, I don’t know that I would be here today. I did not have a backup plan.

What was your worst beat?

It was probably one that I actually ended up winning—the Chargers-Steelers game in Pittsburgh in 2008. I had a big play on San Diego plus-4½, and they were the wrong side, but they barely—barely—hung on the whole game. They’re up 10-8 late, then on Pittsburgh’s final drive, they score a touchdown on first down—a touchdown beats me. But it gets called back on a penalty. Score a touchdown on second down; called back on a penalty. Finally the Steelers had to settle for the field goal for an 11-10 lead. Last play, all Pittsburgh has to do is kick off and the game’s over. They kick it off, San Diego does the old hot potato, and Troy Polamalu picks the ball out of the air, runs it into the end zone, touchdown Steelers, game over. And I flipped out—for the Chargers to hang on the whole game and blow it like that? I was furious! I grabbed a baseball bat, and I was smashing shit out in the backyard. Then I go back inside and find out the touchdown I thought was a touchdown got reversed. Final score: Steelers win by two, Chargers cover and everyone’s happy—except for the millions of bettors who had Pittsburgh.

What’s your Super Bowl prediction?

Denver Broncos over San Francisco 49ers.

RJ Bell

Professional handicapper since 1997; Pregame.com

What was your biggest football wager, and how did it turn out?

During the 2011 NFL season, I bet $9,500 to win $380 that the Detroit Lions would not go undefeated [the Lions started out 5-0]. Yes, I laid 25-to-1 odds, but since I calculated the true odds at 1,438-to-1, I considered it the best bet I ever made. Fortunately, the Lions lost a few days after I made the bet—so I never even had to sweat!

What was your worst beat?

I was part of a team in the Las Vegas Hilton’s Supercontest in 2004, and entering the final week of the season, we were in the hunt for first place. It all came down to [the last game of the season], a Sunday-night game. We had the Cowboys plus-3 over the Giants, and a win would mean the outright Hilton championship. The Cowboys were down five late in the fourth quarter. But then they scored a touchdown. Transcendent thrill! The Giants quarterback was a rookie—some guy named Eli Manning—who had an 0-6 career record at the time. You know how this ends: With 16 seconds left, the Giants score, the extra-point is good—New York wins 28-24, sending our Cowboys plus-3 pick down in flames. Instead of winning more than $300,000, we tied for first and took home $130,000. Gamblers are never satisfied.

What was your luckiest win?

During the 2005 college football season, a friend in Vegas started giving me picks on Toledo games, explaining they were “rock solid.” I “took off the rubber band,” as the old-timers say, bet big and won literally every bet. Years later the news broke that Toledo player “Scooter” McDougle was allegedly fixing those games. I felt very lucky.

Super Bowl prediction?

Green Bay Packers over Houston Texans.

Dave Cokin

Professional handicapper since 1981; ESPN1100.com; DaveCokin.com

What was your biggest football wager, and how did it turn out?

Relative to my bankroll, it was a long time ago, when I still lived in Rhode Island. It was the Atlanta Falcons against the Chicago Bears in 1974. I had Atlanta, the game was a pick-’em, and on the last play, Nick Mike-Mayer kicked a 31-yard field goal—on a very windy day—to give the Falcons a 13-10 win.

What was your worst beat?

It might very well be last year’s Toledo-Syracuse game. Syracuse missed an extra-point with two minutes left, but it was ruled good. How do you miss that [call]? They even went to replay. It helped Syracuse cover a 2½-point spread in overtime. I still don’t understand how I lost that bet.

What was your luckiest win?

That’s easy. It was an overtime game between USC and Arizona State, before they changed the [overtime] rules. I had Arizona State minus-7 or minus-7.5, and they scored a touchdown on the first possession, then got an interception return for a touchdown, and won by 13. Today, the play would be ruled dead at the moment of the turnover.

Super Bowl prediction?

Houston Texans over Chicago Bears.

7 Handicapping Tips from the pros

Forget about the past and look to the future.

“The biggest mistake novice bettors make is the same mistake most veteran bettors make: They only remember the last thing they saw and also can’t get past what’s obvious,” Cokin says. “You’ve got to learn to think outside the box.”

… Just not too far into the future.

“There’s a reason why, in every single sportsbook in Las Vegas—year-round!—you can bet on who’s going to win the Super Bowl or the World Series or the NBA championship,” Sevransky says. “The house take on those wagers tends to be very, very large. Just looking at the NFL, 31 teams are not going to win the Super Bowl, so you have a 1-in-32 chance of being right. So why would you make such a wager in April? Not to say there isn’t a place for these futures bets, particularly late in the season. But the odds have to be 30-to-1 or greater, and the teams have to be ‘live’.”

Learn to recognize and anticipate point-spread moves.

“In general—and especially in college—the money’s going to come in on whoever looked good last week. And the money’s going to go against whoever looked bad last week,” Sevransky says. “When a team starts getting some real momentum and they’re winning two or three weeks in a row and covering by margin, you can anticipate which way a number will go.”

Shop till you drop.

You’ll drive an extra couple of blocks to save 5 cents on a gallon of gas, right? So why wouldn’t you shop around for the best available point spread before placing a bet? “The line variance in town isn’t what it was 20 years ago,” Sevransky says. “But if you’re looking for an extra half-point, you can usually find it.”

Don’t be a sucker.

The biggest sucker bets are also the most popular: parlays. “You go 3-1, and you lose money. You go 5-1, and you lose money. You go 9-1, and you lose money,” Sevransky says. “Parlays can be a piece of your overall betting equation. But they should not be the centerpiece. It’s a lottery mentality—people want to risk a little to win a lot.” If and when you do make a parlay bet, stay away from those fill-in-the-bubble cards. “The payout odds are significantly better when betting parlays off the live-odds board as opposed to using a parlay card,” Bell says.

Be on the lookout for barking dogs.

Every year, many college football powerhouses fatten up on cupcakes during non-conference play. Then the conference season begins, and these teams are installed as heavy favorites against opponents that perhaps played a tougher non-conference schedule and didn’t look so good. “If you’re looking to make a score,” Sevransky says, “put together some underdog money-line parlays in the last week of September and into early October. These aren’t big bets—I wouldn’t bet more than $100—but if you hit a four-teamer, it could pay 100-to-1.”

Remember these secrets from the pros:

Cokin: “Follow as many teams as you can through their local beat writers. Whether by searching online for stories or being on Twitter, that’s where you get good information. I’ll guarantee you most people don’t do it, mostly because it takes effort.”

Bell: “Sportsbooks that take the biggest bets—implying high confidence in their opinion—communicate that opinion through their lines. For instance, if a high-limit sportsbook has the favorite at minus-3.5, while the other books have minus-4, you are being told by the sharp sportsbook that they like the underdog. So should you.”

Sevransky: “The most important element to sports betting is simple: picking winners! People say, ‘How do I maximize my bankroll?’ Maximize your bankroll by picking more winners.”