Louisville basketball and betting the Final Four

The University of Louisville has hired Chris Mack as head men’s basketball coach. News reports describe the contract as seven years at four million per. I haven’t seen any numbers on how much he’s getting from Adidas.

Some people would say the Rick Pitino era ended when he was fired last fall after a succession of scandals. I don’t think it ended until the University announced that interim coach David Padgett would not be retained a few weeks ago.

As I’ve written before, I’m a 1980 alum of U of L and I was a serious fan of the program before the University hired Pitino. I won’t belabor all of the cogent, tightly-wound, and correctly-spelled arguments for that. If you’re interested, you can see them here: https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2017/09/29/we-have-met-the-enemy-and-it-is-us/

So what about Chris Mack? Is this really a house-cleaning, high-integrity hire?

Mack came from Xavier, which consistently posts excellent Academic Progress Rate (APR) numbers. He’s almost a Louisville guy, having married a Louisville native and residing in Northern Kentucky while he coached at Xavier. It appears he has no ties at all to Ricky (The Prince of Darkness) Pitino, and he apparently ran a clean program in Cincinnati.


One minor concern is a reference to one of Mack’s players in the burgeoning shoe money scandal that forced U of L to finally cut ties with Pitino. The player reportedly received $7,000 from an agent while playing at Xavier. But that’s a far cry from systematic corruption or the repeated scandals that Louisville is trying to escape. And it’s at least plausible that Mack had no knowledge of the payment.

He can certainly recruit Indiana players. Over the past few years, two of the best in the state (Trevon Bluiett and Paul Scruggs) have played for him at Xavier. Scruggs concerns me a little. While writing Thirty-Two Minutes in March I learned that Scruggs was in the Crispus Attucks program in Indianapolis before suddenly appearing at Southport High School for his freshman year. With Indiana’s open enrollment law, there’s nothing improper about that. But then for his senior season he left Southport and enrolled at Pro Prep in California, which isn’t even a school. It’s a basketball program that arranges for classes elsewhere.

Again, nothing improper about this. Necessarily. But it smells like everything that’s wrong with college basketball.

Then again, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not 1954. The high school and college athletics landscape isn’t what it used to be. What is?

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as much a fan of UL basketball as I once was. I’ve sent three of my kids to Indiana University and spent more on their education in one semester than I did in four years at Louisville. But I won’t actively root against the Cardinals at this point. If Mack proves to be the stand-up guy he appears to be, and the University shows that they’re committed to running a clean program, I can support them.


We made our annual March Madness trip to Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The basketball betting was up and down, but we went 3-2 on our sweet sixteen wagers we made before heading to the airport. We cashed on Villanova -5.5 vs. West Virginia, the Loyola moneyline at plus-120 against Nevada and Syracuse plus 11.5 versus Puke. Our losses were a moneyline bet on Clemson against Kansas and Purdue minus 1.5 versus Texas Tech.    

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

In the Final Four this weekend, Loyola is getting five and a half against Michigan, and Villanova is a five-point favorite over Kansas. I could present a detailed statistical analysis for picks here, but that kind of thinking put me into a -1200 unit hole during our NCAA pool. I only started to recover when I picked games based on gut instinct. So that’s what I’m doing here.

Loyola’s a great story, but I think Michigan is the kind of team that would give them trouble, so I’d lay the points before I’d take them. Nova looks unstoppable to me, but I don’t think they’re five points better than Kansas. Which sets up a Michigan-Villanova final. I’d like to pick a Big Ten team here, but I think Nova is just too good. A final of 80-72 sounds about right.   


Basketball handicapping 101

Over the past two years I’ve run a college basketball pool for some of the poker/fantasy football group. We each post an entry fee and then pick five college basketball games each week against the spread. The winner and runner-up split the pot.

In a desperate effort to avoid repeating my futile and embarrassing performance, I started developing my strategy early this year. Like, a week ago. After re-reading a book on sports betting, I calculated my own power rating for each of the 351 NCAA teams in order to cipher point spreads for each game.

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

There was an interesting blog entry on Kenpom.com recently about the differences in home court advantage between teams. At the end of the day, Pomeroy said you can’t calculate this with much certainty, then he proceeded to list his HCA for each team. Which feels like a tease. But, like any degen gambler, I’m going to ignore his warnings and use it as an adjustment anyway. At least for a few weeks to see how it goes.

I also decided to concentrate on four conferences. Big Ten, since I watch a lot of those games anyway. And then three mid-major leagues in the Missouri Valley, Mid-American, and Ohio Valley. I’m hoping that the point spreads won’t be as accurate for the smaller schools. I don’t plan on betting any games where the sportsbooks’ spread is close to mine; I’m looking for games where there’s a disparity.

So I plan to post some of my spreads for games in these pages. If I start winning, maybe I’ll finally get my dream job: hanging around Churchill Downs and giving my selections to other people to bet on.

For Friday, November 10, here are the spreads I’ve calculated:

Indiana minus 16 vs. Indiana State

Southern Illinois plus 5.5 at Winthrop

Ball State even at Dayton

Miami (Ohio) plus 4 at Fordham

Bowling Green plus 9 at Drexel

Missouri State minus 2 at Western Kentucky 


With the opening of basketball season, it’s time for me to start showing up at book fairs and basketball tournaments to try to sell some books while avoiding eye contact with strangers. First up is the Christmas Hobby and Gift Show November 8-12 at the Indiana Fairgrounds.

Other writers have told me that this is a great venue for local authors, and especially books about sports. The attendance skews heavily female, and one guy told me that they frequently want to buy books for husbands/fathers/sons so they’ll read more. Because men are dumb and have short attention spans. So I’m hoping I can get rid of the last copies I have to sell. I’ve been thinking more lately about another book, and selling out* would get me to the break-even point financially.

I think I’ve learned a lot about the publishing process, but I’m still not willing to write on topics just because a book might be a money-maker. Writing fiction would be convenient, because I could do it all from home. But even though I don’t need book sales to make a living, I would like for at least a few people besides my family to buy copies. I’ve also been reading a lot of Richard Russo lately (“Nobody’s Fool”, “Everybody’s Fool”, “Bridge of Sighs”, etc.) who sets the bar impossibly high for fiction. That guy is just so good, I feel like anything I could write would be embarrassingly bad by comparison.

My sports-themed book idea would require a lot of travel. Fun, but expensive. My other non-fiction idea is completely removed from sports, so maybe I’ll go that way.    


*Selling out of books, yo. I’ll never sell out on certain strongly-held positions. Like opposition to the designated hitter rule, or the superiority of rye bread over white.



Betting on baseball. And, sometimes, on me.

My current score in MLB’s “Beat the Streak” is zero. I did get as high as eleven (“you see, most blokes will be playing at ten”), but the last week or so has been brutal. Jose Ramirez hits over .400 for thirty days, then goes 0-3 against a starter with an ERA of 9.35. Marcell Ozuna hits .366 at home, but is hitless in four at-bats against the Mets’ Robert Gsellman (ERA of almost 8 on the road, backed by one of the worst bullpens in baseball).

Andrew_McCutchen_on_June_18,_2010 (1)

For July, I’m revising my strategy. I realize I’m working with a small sample size, but so far it looks like bullpen batting average isn’t as relevant as I thought. I also added “batting average over last seven days” as a metric and discarded home/away batting average.

For today (July 1) I’m going with Ramirez (hitting .367 over the last 30 days) and one of my favorite players in MLB (Andrew McCutchen), hitting .533 over the past week. Gan is going with two players from the same team (Cano and Gamel of Seattle), while John is sticking to NL players with Votto (Reds) and Turner (Dodgers). If my fortunes don’t turn around soon, I’m just going to make selections based on my Bob Uecker Magic 8-Ball.


It’s been a long time since I cashed in our monthly poker tournaments. (In April I played a tournament at the Moose Club on a whim and got second place for a couple hundred bucks. But I laid a brutally bad beat on a guy to make the final table. I had something like ace-jack offsuit against his ace-king suited and made a straight on the river to bust him out.) Some time ago, we started a regularly scheduled tournament where part of the money goes into a fund that accumulates for a year before going to the “season champion”. Players get points inversely proportionate to their finish in each tournament. So if fifteen players show up for a game, the winner gets fifteen points, and the first player eliminated gets one. After the tournament, most people stick around to play a cash game.

In the second or third season, I decided to focus less on drinking beer and more on the actual poker. I ended up winning the league, and assumed I had pretty much figured the game out. Since then, I’ve won only one or two tournaments, and usually bust out well before the money bubble. (We usually pay the top two or three.) I can say that I’ve taken a few bad beats, but so can everybody else. There’s obviously something I’m not doing as well. Either that, or I ran sick good when I was winning.  

If you play with the same guys all the time, attentive (or at least sober) players will recognize your tendencies and adjust their strategy to take advantage of that knowledge. I think by now everybody realizes that when my stack gets below a certain point, I’m playing almost any two cards in position. They also know that early in the tournament, I play pretty tightly and will lay decent hands down to a big bet.

The problem for me is that I really believe that, in general, that’s the right way to play hold ‘em. That stack size and position dictate your play to a greater extent than your actual cards. One guy (who may or may not read this blog) plays very conservatively, and has been having results similar to mine. Another guy (who also plays tight) has been crushing the game over the past year. So I know I have to make some changes, but I’m not sure which way to go. It’s always tempting to start playing more hands, get involved with more pots and increase bluffing. But I think that’s a long term losing strategy. And, as the wise old players say….it’s not a bunch of poker sessions; it’s all one long session.    

A friend of mine passed away suddenly a few years ago, but before that he gave me a copy of 100 pages or so of his poker wisdom. He included his own observations and reminders, along with quotes from famous players and writers. The content isn’t all that innovative or ground-breaking, but looking it over usually helps me re-focus on the important stuff.


I can’t make the July game, but I’ll be there in August. Poker night guys….if you’re reading this, ignore everything I said. Just know that I’ll play big pots with gutter ball straight draws every time.

Streaking toward immortality…or a $25 gift card

Over the past few weeks I’ve been competing in Major League Baseball’s “Beat the Streak” contest. It’s based on Joe Dimaggio’s record of 56 consecutive games with a hit back in 1941. The goal is to pick one MLB player per day to get at least one base hit. If you “double up”, you can pick two players and extend your streak by two games as long as they both get a knock. But if either fails, you start over at zero. If you get to 57 straight hits, it means 5.7 million dollars.


That doesn’t sound so hard, right? Fact is, MLB has been running this contest for 13 years and nobody’s made it to 57. Last week one guy was at 51 before losing. (He doubled up, taking Pillar and Carrera from the Jays versus Atlanta’s Bartolo Colon, who is approximately 60 years old. It didn’t make sense to me that he took batters hitting back to back in the lineup, but, hey….my longest streak so far is ten, so what do I know.)  

A couple of friends (John and Gan) participating in the contest makes it more fun. And there are interim prizes along the way, like gift cards to MLB.com, subscriptions to MLB TV, etc. If you establish the longest streak of the season without getting to 57, you win a hundred large.

John is a pretty sharp fantasy player, but Gan seems to favor his favorite team’s players. To be completely candid, I avoid guys playing against Pittsburgh or Arizona, but I intentionally discount the offensive prowess of D-backs or Pirates to manage my biases. This is bidness, yo.

Winning obviously requires a lot of luck, but I think the exercise has helped my regular baseball handicapping. I was up thirteen units after the first two weeks. But, as usual, my results fell off after that, and started the slow inexorable slide to mediocrity. This seems to happen every year. I think it’s easier to win before the books and sharps have much data. But I’ve tightened up my picks since starting BTS, and I’m starting to win again.

At first, I doubled up on BTS picks every time, thinking I’d get to double digits and then be more conservative and make just one pick each day. But after I got my streak to ten (and my hubris to eleven), I went several days without a win, usually getting a hit from one guy but not two, setting me back to zero. Eventually it dawned on me that there aren’t necessarily two good picks each day. It’s better to make the best pick, then just wait until tomorrow.

I’ve also started to look deeper into my potential picks for anomalies. For instance, I usually start my search with hitters batting opposite-handed against struggling pitchers. On average, left-handers hit right-handers better and vice versa. But this isn’t always the case. For example, the Dodgers right-handed Justin Turner is hitting sixty points higher against righties this season.

I also started to pick Bryce Harper today. Harper is 4th in MLB in batting average with an OPS of 1.202. In layman’s terms, he’s killing it. And today he was going against Tyler Glasnow with an ERA over seven. But I noticed that Harper is hitting only .226 in day games. For his career he’s hit almost a hundred points lower in the sunshine. So. Great player, can really mash….but no reason to take him today.     

For tonight’s games, I settled on either Seattle’s Jean Segura or Justin Turner. Gan took Cesar Hernandez and Ichiro, while John’s betting on Segura and Daniel Murphy. Turner is going against a right-handed starter (Edinson Volquez) with an ERA over four only one game removed from a finger blister issue.  Miami also has a mediocre bullpen, has lost three straight and is traveling across the country.

Segura is a good choice, but it makes me nervous that he has a fifteen game hitting streak. Like the Indians fan says in “Major League”……“It’s too high”. So I’m going with Turner. So much for incisive, objective analysis…..  

Vegas Update

For the twelfth year in a row, the Fear and Loathing A.C. Fantasy Football League traveled to Vegas on the first weekend of March Madness for spring practice.

Most of the itinerary is repeated from year to year, but since Vegas is always changing –  casinos close and new ones open –  it’s never exactly the same. And we always wander off the beaten path a time or two, especially when Purdue, Notre Dame, or Indiana games require our attention.  

As usual, we made time for breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go at the Linq casino. The Linq has been there for a long time but suffered two name changes since we’ve been going there. First it was Imperial Palace (Chinese theme), then for a year or two “The Quad” (frat house chic?), and finally “The Linq”. It’s Gan’s favorite casino, and he gets us a good rate there for at least a few weeknights.

Hash House is a chain based in California, but apparently the owners are Hoosiers. There are a lot of Indiana farm references in the menu, and they serve huge portions for breakfast. Waffles the size of platters, Bloody Marys in 24 oz, glasses. But it’s all high quality and very tasty.


This year (well, maybe every year) we were making a lot of noise at our table, insulting each other, arguing about basketball bets and generally enjoying our first morning in Vegas. A middle-aged woman sitting at the next table over asked if she could take our picture because she’d never seen a bunch of grown men having so much fun. (She’s apparently never seen Dads escorting an eighth grade class to laser tag.) It was a little awkward, but we agreed and she texted us a copy.

She then pointed out her son who was cringing at their table. She explained that she brought him to Vegas for his 21st birthday. We all told him happy birthday while pondering what a mixed blessing this would be. BEING IN VEGAS FOR YOUR 21ST BIRTHDAY…..uh…….with your Mom. Gan wondered if she would at some point send him out with a hundred dollar bill to “become a man” while she played nickel slots.

There have been a couple of big changes since we last visited. Binion’s poker room has closed, though they still have two tables open at the end of the table games pit. Binions is where the World Series of Poker started, and until a few years ago the room was always busy.

In one of our earliest trips, the casino had a huge room devoted to a sports book on the first floor. After the casino was sold by the Binion family, the new owner converted the book to a bar/entertainment area with a mechanical bull. Shortly after that, they renovated and created a beautiful enclosed poker room in the space, with portraits of Poker Hall of Fame members on the wall.

But every time I walked past it, the room was either completely empty or had only a single table open. Tournaments were still held off the casino floor, but cash games have been dead at Binion’s since the renovation. Keeping just a couple of tables shoved into a corner of the pit does not bode well for poker at the old casino. After they close that, the only downtown poker room will be at the Golden Nugget.

Meanwhile, The Lucky Dragon casino opened a block off the strip in early March. On a Sunday afternoon we walked in to check the place out and use some introductory free play.

The casino is geared toward Chinese visitors, with all of the signage in Chinese over English subtitles. They have a lot of baccarat tables with no craps, sports book, or poker and only a couple of blackjack stations. It’s an elegant, quiet casino, and I saw one player being served a pot of tea while playing mini-baccarat. In other words, we won’t be spending a lot of time there.

Gan is part Chinese and pretended to be able to read all of the signs. He lost some credibility when he ordered Jameson and 7 in his “impeccable” Mandarin, and the waiter brought him a dozen egg rolls.    

A lot of the strip casinos have imposed a new system for complimentary drinks at the bar for video poker players. As I’ve written before, when the sports books are crowded we often sit at the bar, slowly playing video poker and soaking up free cocktails while we watch the games on TV. The bigger strip conglomerates now meter video poker play at the bar and only comp your drink if you’ve played enough money through. We didn’t play much at strip casino bars, but there was no noticeable delay in getting cocktails wherever we were. In a couple of instances at the Cromwell, the server was offering drinks before we were done with the prior one.


Sometimes we get hungry between buffets

As usual, at the end of the trip I tallied up my gambling wins and losses. I surprisingly  found a small profit, mostly on the strength of video poker and three card poker at the Cromwell. We played a lot more limit poker than usual, and that helped as well. Having been home for a few weeks now, we’re starting to look for ways to justify an autumn trip. I’m still working on a plausible argument to convince Theresa that I can make it as a professional sports bettor. Unfortunately, she’s good at math.     

Getting almost as much for a lot less in Vegas

Just a couple weeks from today, the NCAA tournament selection show will air, and two days later I’ll board a plane with a few friends headed west to Las Vegas.

Thirteen years ago, the Fear and Loathing Athletic Club Fantasy Football League began a tradition of spring practice in Vegas for March Madness. We were all working men with kids in high school and college back then, so frugality was a major concern. We never slept more than two to a room, but we refused to pay retail for anything. We’d typically arrive on Wednesday morning and then leave on Saturday to avoid the most expensive hotel night.


One year we all got free airfare through a promotion by Wendy’s. All you had to do was collect 75 stickers from Wendy’s soft drink cups and mail them in for free roundtrip airfare from the now-defunct Independence Air. Most of us weren’t willing to rummage around in trash cans for cups (looking at you, Charlie), but at about $1 per drink we still got the tickets for less than $100 (not including the cost to our bladders).

Kids graduating college and moving out of the house have eased some of the financial pressure, but we still use coupons and exploit special deals that we find online. We don’t gamble enough to score free rooms, but we still get discounts and book early to minimize the cost. Now, obviously, we don’t stay in the trendy, night-clubby hotels on the strip. (Though last year I did get 1.5 free nights at the Mirage through a Facebook promotion.) But when you spend 80% of your time outside the room, it’s a waste to pay more for an upgraded hotel.

Like everything else, the cost of going to Vegas has risen over the years. A lot of the casinos have even tightened up on free cocktails, which disrupts one of our favorite approaches to watching basketball. In days past, when the sports books were packed we’d make our bets and then adjourn to the casino bar to play video poker –  very slowly – as we watched TV and soaked up free drinks.


Photo by Joe Gauder

But there are still ways to save money on a trip. We always buy the two main coupon books (Las Vegas Advisor and American Casino Guide), which quickly pay for themselves with half-price meals, gambling match plays, slot free-play, and free drinks. We still share rooms, and book our flights as early as possible. There’s a page for March Madness in Las Vegas on Facebook that gives details on free watch parties that include match play coupons, T-shirts, etc.

To maximize efficiency in using coupons, I draft an itinerary for each day. Though we always go off script a few times to watch our favorite teams, it’s a good tool to avoid having six guys standing around deferring to each other on where to go next. For example, here’s the plan for Wednesday on this year’s trip. (No basketball games on that day.)

Wednesday, March 15

9:00 AM……………………..Breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go (CET comps)

10:00 AM…………………….Poker tournament at Harrah’s OR Flamingo

1:00 PM……………………..Gold Coast/Palms/Rio (GC Senior Wednesday drawing at 4:30)

6:00 PM……………………..Dinner at Hard Rock ($7.77 Gamblers Special)

7:00 PM……………………..Double Down Saloon

8:00 PM.…………………….Ellis Island match plays

Since breakfast and dinner are often buffets, we only plan two meals a day. Hash House A-Go-Go is not a buffet, but serves huge portions (think platter-sized waffles and 36-oz. Bloody Marys). Though there are no coupons available, we use the minimal comp dollars we generate gambling to cut the cost. We usually hit the Gold Coast at some point anyway, so we might as well go when there’s a cash drawing for seniors. The gambler’s special at the Hard Rock is a decent steak and shrimp dinner for less than $8. Then we wind up at Ellis island to exploit a number of match play coupons from our books ($10 free slot play, $10 table game match play, and $25 free bet).  


If you know where to look (and we do), there are free shuttle buses to get between the strip and off-strip casinos. If you don’t want to wait around for the shuttle, Lyft is a cheap alternative to taxis.

So if you put in a little effort and it doesn’t embarrass you to use coupons, you can still have a fun, reasonably-priced trip to Vegas. As long as you don’t drink alcohol while playing No-Limit Texas Hold’ Em. Trust me on this.   




Gambling for writers and writing for gamblers

I was talking to a couple of Muslim friends the other day about Islamic restrictions on food and behavior. First, I asked one to explain what makes meat halal (permitted) for Muslims. He made sure I understood that pork was never allowed, and that there were no restrictions on seafood. Since his English is still rudimentary, he struggled to explain what made beef and lamb halal, then finally resorted to making a slashing motion across his throat and making a “ckkkkkk” sound. Which was clear enough, though it occurred to me that this explanation would result in a 15-yard penalty in the NFL.

Then we talked about Islamic prohibitions against gambling. (For some reason many of my conversations end up as gambling discussions. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence. (Nothing to see here….move off the corner, Johnny.) They told me that gambling is haram (forbidden) because the winner “doesn’t deserve” the money, having acquired it without working.

Some of my non-Catholic friends belong to Christian traditions that also frown on gambling. They’ve explained to me that they consider it a waste of God-given resources, or that they consider a gambler to have the same motivation as a thief; that is. to get money by way of deceit.

I’m not arguing against anybody’s religious beliefs here, just trying to understand the rationale. For me, gambling has always been more about the competition than the money. Which is why slot machines don’t interest me. In poker and sportsbetting, you’re usually rewarded for making good decisions. I love the feeling of having figured out a team’s value or what cards an opponent’s holding. It’s not unlike solving a crossword puzzle. Sometimes luck enters into it, but that’s true with all games and sports.


I can’t say winning money isn’t a part of the thrill; otherwise, I wouldn’t like craps so much. And I confess that playing online poker with free chips generally bores me. (Though the lack of value to focus my mind is only part of the problem there. It also causes people to play recklessly, like they don’t care about the outcome. Which reduces any enjoyment of the competitiveness aspect.)

I’m well aware of the social cost of compulsive gambling. I know it’s destroyed families and ruined lives. But one could point to a lot of innocuous activities that have done the same thing when there is a lack of moderation and balance.


It’s been a long time since I wrote any fiction (insert cynical journalism joke here), but my publisher is having a 24-hour short story contest this weekend. They announce the theme at noon on Saturday and the story is due by the same time on Sunday. I’m used to cobbling together short narratives under pressure. When I was covering minor league baseball, I had to have the story mostly written by the end of the game since my deadline was usually 30 minutes after the last pitch.

If I was lucky, there was no late-inning rally that would force a re-write. After the final out, I’d hustle down to the clubhouse and stand outside the door, waiting for expiration of the league-mandated ten minute “cooling off” period. (Sometimes I cheated when the game ran long. It wasn’t usually a big deal if I was interviewing players on the winning team; if not, I had to step a bit more lightly.) Then I’d enter the clubhouse and try to quickly find a player who’d affected the outcome.


Unless he’d had a good game, the player would invariably hide in the training room, off-limits to the press. Nervously checking the time, I’d then try to develop alternate questions for another player, and then go try to get the manager to say something interesting. Something other than a) “we just got/didn’t get timely hits”, b) “our pitchers were locating/not locating the fastball”, or c) “I was pleased with the effort”.

I’d then run up to the press box, taking stairs two at a time (the elevator was too slow), type in the quotes, scan the story quickly for obvious errors, and send it. One time on my drive home from the ballpark, I suddenly realized that the whole point of my lead – that a left-handed pitcher had dominated a right-handed lineup – was wrong. Because the pitcher was right-handed. Luckily, that was a day game, so I had time to call the editor, kill the story and re-write it.

So I’m used to writing with strict time limits, but, being fiction, this will be different. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and if I think my story is any good (or if I run out of blog ideas) I’ll post it here. If you’re a writer (or, I guess, even if you’re not) and want to submit an entry, you can enter at http://24hourshortstorycontest.com/ for $5. There are cash prizes for the winners, so it’ll be easier to focus. Just like if you were gambling.  


Marketing 101 and Gambling 43.7

Last week I drove over to New Castle, Indiana to sell books at the City Securities Hall of Fame Classic. The four-team tournament is held in New Castle’s Chrysler Arena every year, hosted by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame. The HOF is selling copies of Thirty-Two Minutes in March at their gift shop, and I asked if I could sell copies during the game.

As I’ve written before, Chrysler Arena is the largest high school gym in the U.S. Maybe in the world. It’s a classic fieldhouse structure, with one large seating area arranged in a bowl around the playing surface. The floor is below ground level, and the place seems dark as you enter and descend the stairs to your seat. The parquet floor trimmed in green reminds me of Boston Garden. When I entered the gym at about thirty minutes before tipoff of the the first game, about half the 9,000 seats were already occupied.



The tournament featured the New Albany Bulldogs against the Warsaw Tigers, and the Lawrence North Wildcats against the Logansport Berries in the morning session. (Berries. Get it? Like, Loganberries? Maybe it’s an Indiana thing.) The consolation and championship games were scheduled to follow that evening. I’d guess that about half the people in attendance were New Albany supporters, with a significant number of non-partisan fans mostly there to watch the Bulldogs’ Romeo Langford.

I liked hearing the Southern Indiana accent that reminded me of my hometown just across the river, and several Bulldog fans came up to thumb through the book and talk about basketball. I sold several copies, but not everybody was in a spending mood. One guy came up and talked for a while, showing me pictures of all the Indiana basketball memorabilia and baseball artifacts in his “museum”. After a few minutes, he offered me an opportunity to donate a copy of my book, promising me that he’d also give out my business card to anybody who visited. I asked him if his museum was open to the public, and he shook his head, saying he only lets people in that he trusts. Which makes it sound less like a museum and more like a private collection. But, being in sales mode, I kept this observation to myself.

Another man came up with his adult son, and we talked high school hoops, New Albany basketball, and the Louisville Cardinals. He told me that Langford wasn’t even among the best five players to come out of New Albany. I can’t think of five better players to come out of New Albany. I’d be open to his argument, but I didn’t want to come across as challenging his opinion, so I didn’t ask him to name those players. Again, sales mode. Always be closing.  

Then there were the people who just walked up, said “How much for the book?”, and handed over a twenty without even browsing the cover. Which startled me. It’s not that I need the interaction; hell, I’m borderline sociophobic. I guess it’s just so different from how I’d purchase a book that it surprised me.

In the morning session Logansport and New Albany both advanced, with New Albany claiming the trophy by a score of 58-33. Langford was named tournament MVP, of course. But by then I was almost back home, driving west past frosted Indiana cornfields.


I’m making a comeback in the NCAA handicapping contest. As I’ve mentioned, nine of us created a pool to pick five NCAA games per week against the spread for fun and prizes. After a dismal start, I began this week at 2-0 after Canisius won by three and Evansville easily covered a two point spread against Northern Iowa.

I stumbled a bit last night, taking Western MIchigan plus 10.5 against Ohio. (I think Western lost by around 160 points), but my handicapping was solid. (“Solid handicapping” being the last refuge of a losing bettor.)

In general, I’m focusing on mid-major conferences, in the hope that the point spreads will be softer than for games that people actually watch. Since they’re not generally on TV, I often can’t even see the teams I’m betting on. Which may end up being a good thing. I tend to imagine I’m gaining a special insight when I watch teams carefully, and that conceit has cost me dearly in the past.

So, if you’re scoring at home, I’m 2-1 so far this week. Tonight (Wednesday) I’m on Southern Illinois minus one against Indiana State. The Sycamores can’t shoot a lick (why am I suddenly channeling Slick Leonard?), and I thought it would be a good bet even laying four points, so I jumped on the number as soon as it came out.

I’m not as confident in my other wager, taking the Missouri State Bears plus 9 points on the road at Illinois State. In this game, I’m really betting more on the expected pace of play rather than the teams’ relative quality. The Bears rank 248th in possessions per forty minutes, and the Redbirds are 256th. Illinois State also shoots a horrendous 67% at the free throw line (247th in NCAA Division I), so I think it’ll be hard for them to cover a large spread.

I’d rather be getting ten or eleven points, but, hey….it’s gambling.



Pro football: Not doomed, but has a bad cold


A few years ago Dallas Mavericks owner and IU alum Mark Cuban made some waves with comments about the NFL. In an interview on ESPN and a detailed Facebook post, he said the NFL is “doomed” in the long run (which he implied was about ten years). He said that the problems were oversaturation, declining youth football participation rates, player behavior, changes to broadcast TV, and fantasy football.

A lot has happened in the intervening three years. I agree that the first four are a problem, but I do think he misunderstands the appeal of fantasy football. He seems (or seemed at the time) to think that FF is entirely technology-dependent, and people will move on to other pastimes. As I’ve written in this blog before, that certainly hasn’t always been the case. And rotisserie baseball leagues are still going strong, and pre-date fantasy football.

If I were making Cuban’s argument, I’d add that the NFL product these days is virtually unwatchable. Three plays. Punt. Commercials. Two minute drive ends at fourth and long. Commercials. Field goal. Commercials. Replay challenge. Commercials. Kickoff. Commercials. Etc, etc. etc…..

It’s telling that the NFL season package includes an option to watch any game shortened to 45 minutes. 45 minutes of action from three and a half hours of TV time. And some people think baseball is boring?

I like sports. I like watching baseball, basketball, soccer, horse racing, college football, and even hockey on occasion. And I do watch the Indianapolis Colts, if only to keep up with my friends’ conversations. But if I’m watching NFL football, odds are I’m also doing something else, like reading or keeping up with my fantasy players. There are just too many stoppages of action and players standing around to hold my full attention.

But I don’t think the NFL is going away anytime soon. Not because the games are so compelling, or people are so loyal to their teams. It’s because NFL football is an especially good vehicle for gambling.

Compared to the other mainstream sports, the NFL plays relatively infrequently. With only 16 regular season games, bettors have plenty of time to think about the bet, absorb new information, and chase down rumors. If a star player takes a fastball off his wrist in tonight’s baseball game, you have a only a brief window to find out if it’s something serious. In the NFL, they have daily practice reports leading up to the next game six or seven days later.

Since the NFL has the least effective union in pro sports, players in their prime almost never change teams, so season-long totals bets (i.e., wagering on the total number of wins) are less dicey. And the bettor doesn’t have to factor in the value of a player changing teams for a single-game wager in mid-season.  

Key numbers (most notably three and seven) are much more important when betting football than other sports. Between 2003 and 2013, over a third of all NFL games were decided by exactly three, seven, or ten points. Which is why you see a lot of point spreads hovering within half a point of those spreads. In contrast, the top three key numbers for NBA betting are 7, 5, and 6. Only about 18% of all games end on one of those. Reliable key numbers tease the bettor into thinking that half-point on one side of the line means a payday.

The NFL has also escaped any major point-shaving scandals. Players shooting it out in strip club parking lots? Sure. DUIs, domestic violence, and drug use? Obviously. But nobody fixing games. At least none that have come to light. The worst gambling scandal to touch the NFL was Paul Hornung and Alex Karras betting NFL games back in the early 1960s. (Naturally, Hornung was a Louisville kid. Man, I love my hometown.)

So bettors may have a little more confidence that the games are played on the up-and-up. (There is, of course, the opposite view.  If it was announced a particular horse race was fixed, you’d set records for the amount of money wagered, with every horseplayer in the country figuring he or she could dope out who was most likely to throw the race. But horseplayers are a different breed, anyway. Most accept corruption as an essential part of the experience, and only get frustrated at how much the state or city takes off the top in taxes.)

The American Gaming Association estimates that 90 billion dollars will be wagered on college and pro football this year, with only 2 billion of that bet legally at Nevada casinos. The rest will go to offshore sports books, pools organized at fraternal/social organizations, or Slick Sid down at the neighborhood tavern. And that total doesn’t even include the explosion in daily fantasy sports, which were in their infancy when Cuban made his case.  

So I think Cuban’s estimate of the NFL lifespan is wrong, because he either doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to acknowledge the importance of wagering to the experience. Daily fantasy sports might die out, because all the suckers will get tired of losing money to the consortiums (consortia?) who use private servers and compete as a full time gig. But I don’t see straight wagering going anywhere. NFL football dominates television on Sundays, and betting is the only thing that makes it bearable.


Another signing event. In addition to the book release party on November 9 from 7 PM – 9 PM at Fountain Square Brewery (1301 Barth Ave., Indianapolis), I’ll be signing at Indy Reads Bookstore on Sunday, November 13 from 2 PM – 4 PM. The bookstore is a non-profit (as am I, though not intentionally) and a portion of all sales there will go to Indianapolis literacy programs. So your choice: a free pint at the party, or a worthwhile charitable organization at Indy Reads (911 Massachusetts Ave, Indianapolis). Or both! I won’t judge.



Photo by Conman33

Judging Pete Rose

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky in the 60s and 70s, almost everybody I knew gambled. Whether it was trips to Churchill Downs, penny-ante poker with the family, or betting football parlay cards, wagering was part of everyday life. I think our civic attachment to gambling is somehow tied up with being a river town. My friends tell me that Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are the same way.

The only person I knew growing up who seemed to have no interest in games of chance was my brother. When my Dad died, John and I were standing around at the funeral home when an elderly man walked up, smiled, shook our hands and expressed his condolences. As he shuffled away, my brother asked “Who was that?”

“Charlie. Charlie Donnelly*.”

“Who’s he?”

I looked at my brother. “Charlie. You know, from the factory. ‘Hots’.”

My brother stared at me in disbelief. “Dad knew a guy named ‘Hots’?”

“Yeah. Hots. You know. Dad’s bookie.”

“Dad had a bookie?”

When my wife and I moved to Indiana, what I found most surprising was the general attitude toward gambling. (Well, that and the complete absence of anyplace serving a decent breaded fish sandwich. But, I digress.) Most of our new friends had never bet on a horse race or a ball game. I started an irregular poker night, and, to this day, sometimes have to verbally repeat the rank of poker hands in the middle of a game.

So I think I understand why some baseball fans think Pete Rose shouldn’t be banned from baseball. When you consider what some Hall of Famers have gotten away with (looking at you, Ty Cobb), merely betting on his team to win as a manager doesn’t seem so bad. Here’s why I disagree.

In a game with tons of unwritten rules, this one is written down everywhere…. I’ve never graced a major league clubhouse, but I’ve been in several triple-A versions. And my understanding is that in every single clubhouse in organized baseball, there is a sign that warns players, managers, and coaches of the severe penalty for betting on baseball. Until just a few years ago, there weren’t any such signs warning about performance-enhancing drugs. So the people who justify Rose by saying “at least he didn’t do steroids” have it exactly backwards. He didn’t get daily warnings about PEDs; but he did about gambling.

I was a part-time usher in a minor league ballpark for one summer, and they told us that we’d be fired for betting on baseball. That’s right….ushers.

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Concrete evidence of my lack of wagering acumen. A bet that the Dbacks would win more than 84 games this year. Yikes.

Rose’s claims about only betting his team to win, and only when he was a manager are unconvincing……Rose contends he only bet the Reds to win, and that he never bet baseball while he was playing. I’ve never seen hard evidence that either of these claims is untrue, but I don’t believe them. As much as I love gambling, I know the difference between a recreational gambler and a degenerate. And somebody who is already comfortable risking a lifetime ban is unlikely to set moral standards like only betting his team to win.

And are we really expected to believe that he only started exploiting the edge he had by betting on baseball – a sport in which he was the ultimate insider – after he was done playing? Why would he think it was wrong to bet as a player but not as a manager, especially when it’s thoroughly documented that he was betting on other sports?

Even if he only bet his team to win as a manager, it’s still intolerable…..a manager makes decisions every day that affect the next day’s game. Leave the starter in or bring in a reliever? Is the bullpen shot? Are any left-handers available to face a predominantly left-handed hitting team tomorrow? Do I need to bring up a reliever from the minors and sacrifice a position player spot? What if I’ve bet today’s game at plus-240 and I know we’re probably minus-120 tomorrow?

It diminishes the Hall of Fame when the all-time hits leader and one of the greatest players of the 20th century isn’t included…. OK, this one has some merit, but here’s a solution: lift the ban posthumously. That allows Rose’s singular achievements to be recognized while a) preventing Rose from benefiting financially and b) ensuring that current players don’t assume that they can take a chance (so to speak) and bet on baseball with the hope of getting a subsequent ban lifted.

If Major League Baseball lifts the ban on Pete Rose, the Hall might as well get started on that long-anticipated “Great Players of the Steroids Era” exhibit in Cooperstown.

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