“Let’s move to a 5 vs. 12 matchup: UNLV against California.”
It’s late afternoon on St. Patrick’s Day, the field for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament has just been unveiled, and Ken White—for years the man to set the opening betting lines in town—is back in his element. Sitting at a large dining table in a suite high atop the South Point, White is debating point spreads for every opening-round game with three other veterans of Las Vegas’ sports-betting industry. Known collectively as the Linemakers, the quartet boasts more than 100 combined years of experience on both sides of the counter, and today White is the team’s point guard.
“They’re playing in San Jose, Richie,” White continues. “So maybe a little bit of Golden Bear bias?”
Richie Baccellieri, who has taken bets at such properties as Caesars Palace, MGM Grand and the Palms, glances down at his notes, which he can somehow read despite having sucked down a few beers, a couple of whiskey shots and enough cigarettes to leave a constant cloud of smoke surrounding him. “The location of the game is going to certainly add a couple of points to the number,” he says in his thick New York accent. “If they played this game in Alaska, I’d probably make UNLV [favored by] 1½. But since they’re playing in San Jose, I can see California about half-a-point or a one-point favorite.”
Rick Herron, once responsible for making the opening lines and assuming the risk at such iconic Las Vegas books as the Sands and Hilton, shares Baccellieri’s affinity for Marlboros and whiskey. He also shares Baccellieri’s opinion on the March 21 UNLV-California matchup. “I made the game a pick-em, guys. It’s almost a home game for Cal.” However, Micah Roberts, a UNLV alum and former sportsbook director for Station Casinos, sees the matchup a bit differently. “I’ve seen this Rebel team over and over again—one of the worst [spread-covering] teams in the country. But Cal’s no bargain. … I think the Rebels get there. I think you can make them [minus]-2.”
On this game, White gets the final word. “I made UNLV [minus]-1½. I don’t like the one-on-one basketball they play; if they played a little bit more team basketball, they’d be a much better squad. But we’ll [settle] with the Rebels minus-1 over Cal in San Jose.”
By the time the sun sets, the official point spread is out: UNLV minus-2½. Less than 24 hours later, action on Cal pushes the consensus number to UNLV minus-2—right where Roberts said it should be. Not that he’s necessarily putting his own cash on his alma mater. There are more than 30 early-round NCAA tournament games available for wagering, and almost all of them offer more point-spread value than UNLV vs. Cal.
And therein lies the reminder to the thousands of locals and tourists alike who will line up at wagering windows throughout the NCAA tournament: If the goal is to actually win more money than you lose, it’s paramount to identify the value in point spreads established by the likes of the Linemakers.
The beauty of it all? You don’t have to be an expert like Ken White to get the better of an expert like Ken White. For proof, just walk into any sportsbook over the next three weeks and survey the reaction as a “meaningless” last-second shot drops through the basket. Half the crowd will erupt in jubiliation. The other half will collapse to their knees in despair.