It's just past 10 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday as a green Cadillac Escalade pulls up to the main entrance of the Golden Gate Casino in downtown Las Vegas. At the wheel is a man wearing a black Kangol cap and a charcoal button-up rolled to the elbows, smartphone in hand and a laptop riding shotgun. The Super Bowl is just another day-at-the-office grind for Bill Krackomberger, one of the town's most prominent professional bettors.
His gaze fixed on the screen of the phone, Krack lets out a derisive grunt.
"Look at this — look at them all," he says with a Jersey accent while scrolling through a sea of texts.
Who do you like? Whattya think? You gonna fire?
"Ten, eleven, twelve I didn't answer. They think it's so easy and a license to fucking steal. Get a fucking job."
He's been through this before: acquaintances and nominal friends coming out before the big game to needle him for a tip. He understands it comes with the territory in a business that weds two of the most cherished interests of the typical American: money and sports. And while many of those texts will go unanswered, on the occasion that he does throw a bone to someone, it doesn't come with a price tag attached. Within the community of pro bettors — many of whom are part of large organized groups ("syndicates"), and most of whom sell their "plays" to the public on a subscription basis — this makes Krackomberger relatively unique. In a city of angles, he's out transparently for his own personal enrichment, and in this business that gives him an odd sort of purity.
And while he's for the most part a solo operator, he's still throwing a lot of money around. Krackomberger came to Vegas via North Jersey seven years ago because he wanted to bet on sports for a living. In that time, he's done more than OK for himself, notably winning nearly $500,000 in a 2010 football contest. In an era when advanced methods of predicting game outcomes — and opportunities to risk money on said outcomes — are more available than ever online, almost anyone can pretend to be a pro gambler. Krackomberger is actually living that dream.
Well, sort of. "I mostly hate Las Vegas; everything is wrong here," he says. "They promote all the wrong values. But hey, I have to make a living, and the only place I can make a living legally is here."
He allows himself a split second to ponder that reality before throwing the car into gear and pointing it toward the Las Vegas Expressway.
Krack's Escalade isn't just his mode of transportation up, down, and around the Strip, it also serves as a mobile command hub to monitor all of the sports books in town. When oddsmakers post point spreads on games, they do so with the expectation that a given line will attract a similar amount of action on both teams (it's often said the point spread is "the great equalizer"). In that scenario, sports books will make their money on the "vigorish" or "vig" (the commission they collect on wagers) and not rely on the precarious and unpredictable balance of gamblers' wins and losses. However, it seldom plays out that way, meaning sports books are forced to adjust lines when one side starts to receive a greater chunk of the money being bet.
Super Bowl XLVIII between the Broncos and Seahawks has turned into a bonanza from a numbers perspective. Denver initially opened as 1-point underdogs after the conference championship games but were then bet hard and fast by recreational gamblers (commonly known as "squares") and pros ("sharps") alike, which resulted in a 3.5-point line swing, to Denver -2.5, as the books attempted to even out the betting. Most books had settled on that number by Monday of Super Bowl week, and there it remained through gameday morning.
Parked outside Caesars Palace, Krack is analyzing a laptop that is relaying odds from every significant sports book in Vegas. One of the numbers on the screen starts blinking.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" he blurts out, his finger wagging in front of the computer like a parent scolding a child. "South Point just went to three! Oh, I would have loved to get more of that."
His phone starts buzzing, and he's screaming into it almost before accepting the call.
"Damn, damn, yeah you see that? South Point went to three!"
Three is the most important number to both pro bettors and oddsmakers, as more NFL games — 15% of them from 2003–13 — are decided by exactly three points than any other margin. Oddsmakers are especially hesitant to move a line onto 3. Three-point spreads mean a lot of "pushes," and sports books don't collect commission on pushes. It's even worse for the books if they've already offered a different line earlier in the week. Let's say a bettor who'd locked in a Denver -1 bet was later able to take Seattle +3. If Denver had proceeded to win the Super Bowl by a field goal, our hypothetical bettor would have won her wager on Denver -1 and pushed Seattle +3, winning money from the casino without having to give any back.
Although Krack has seen the coveted Seattle +3 pop up at South Point, all he can do is watch helplessly and wait for the inevitable to occur. Sure enough, in less time than it would take to get to the betting window of the current sports book — much less one on the other side of town — the line is back to 2.5.
"You've got whales [high-stakes gamblers] with seven- and eight-figure credit lines laying six figs on Denver. So the book has no choice but to push the line to three," he says. "Then like jackals circling around a piece of meat, the sharp guys jump on the +3. And poof, it disappears."
Walking into Caesars to bet a card of propositions — "props," or wagers on specific plays and circumstances in a game, account for the majority of Krack's action on the Super Bowl — he snickers.
"This will be fun to watch, getting thrown outta here," he says, explaining that a lot of times his bets will be rejected by sports books simply because they don't want to get beat by him. "What they do is absolutely illegal. They let you bet bad numbers but won't let you bet good ones."
The book is buzzing with the energy of giddy frat boys and opportunistic tourists as he heads to the counter containing all the day's betting sheets and parlay cards. The parlay he's making contains three "legs," all of which will have to hit if he's to win the wager.
"We're going 'over' total fumbles lost, at one. No score in the first 5:30 of the game, and 'under' total touchdowns at six," he says, while simultaneously producing from his left pocket a roll of hundred-dollar bills. "It's all about attacking stale numbers on these cards; the lines you get on them were frozen a few days ago when they went to print, whereas the ones being shopped on the board have been adjusted by the books."
He counts out seven Benjamins, returns the stack to his pocket and takes his place in line. A few minutes later, he gets to the window and presents the card to the ticket writer, who barely misses a beat before yelling, "Approval!" A supervisor emerges a split second later, gives the card a quick once-over — and hands it back to the ticket writer without uttering a word. The card is scanned, money is exchanged, and a betting ticket pops out.
"With the amount of volume on the Super Bowl, that play gets through," Krack speculates over long strides through the casino in the direction of the parking lot. "On a regular-season game, it probably wouldn't. I was thrown out for 100 bucks last month!"
Krack says he never lays down huge money at one of the prominent properties. "I just bet 700 bucks. But in reality I'm betting eight, 10,000, you know what I mean? Three hundred here, 500 there, 300 there. It's work! A lot of labor.
"Half the fun is winning, half is beating the number," he says. "You know what I love? Beads of sweat running down bookmakers' faces."
Professional bettors view themselves as traders of sports commodities and frequently liken their industry to Wall Street. Similar to the types of shops on Wall Street, there are betting firms of all sizes, with the major syndicates representing the JP Morgans and Goldman Sachs of the world. Krackomberger may be the closest thing to a lone wolf among these syndicates, but his boutique firm nonetheless features a small circle of trusted associates and confidantes, none more integral to his success than a quantitative analyst named Warren Sharp, who he meets up with in the VIP section of the Hard Rock sports book.
Sharp is an engineer by day who started moonlighting as a handicapping number-cruncher over a decade ago. Posting on message boards gave way to a blog and eventually grew into sharpfootballanalysis.com, a pay site that drew the attention of Krack, who, despite his old-school appearance and aversion to touts, believes in Sharp's numbers.
"After significant time posting to message boards, I eventually wanted more control of the information I shared and started my own website, which began to take up far more time than I anticipated," Sharp says by way of justifying his pick-selling. "To offset that time commitment, I started a subscription process. Although I find myself in the same 'field' as the blowhard, ultra-hype touts that Krack dislikes, I work for a number of professional bettors and groups, and my work also has the respect of very sharp linemakers in the industry."
Says Krack: "I noticed Warren was moving some lines around on Wednesdays after he put his stuff up on his site, and he was winning. Instantly, when Warren gives out his play, the books move toward his line. Very rarely will you get a better number than his."
Sharp says his models have been particularly effective at predicting the total points scored in NFL games, an assertion that two former casino linemakers backed up. (Former Caesars, MGM Grand, and Palms book director Richie Baccellieri said that in his experience Sharp won often enough to make a "hefty profit.") With the Super Bowl "over/under" total initially around 47 and Sharp's model pointing toward 50, Krack has already made a sizable wager on the "over." (In a game that ultimately settles on 51 — albeit with an unforeseen 43-8 split in Seattle's favor — Sharp's model proved prescient.) "He's a consistent winner," Krack will say later.
The VIP section of the Hard Rock is a glass-enclosed room on the left side of the sports book with a row of five desks facing the main floor of the book and a couch running along the back wall. All of the desks are fitted with mobile gaming terminals. A steady stream of high rollers flows in and out of the lounge as Krack works the phones with another partner across town, directing him on further props he wants to bet.
"If anything, I'd go 'under' first half. That's a play … Broncos' first score of the game will be a touchdown … Wilson over 6.5 rushing attempts. This could be a shady one, you have the bookmaker deciding if he wants to rob you or not."
Putting down the phone, Krack grins. "I just bet Denver to score no touchdowns; $200 to win $20,000. Take a shot, I find that fun." (The Broncos would try their hardest to make the long shot a winner, not reaching the end zone until the final tick of the third quarter.)
As Krack takes a moment to discuss some bets with Sharp, a thirtysomething guy waltzes in, attractive lady in tow, and asks everyone who they like while dialing up an account on one of the terminals. "I like Seattle," he lets the room know before betting $45,000 on the Seahawks to win. "Boom, there it is." The two are then gone as quickly and casually as they came.
Informed of the $45,000 exchange, Krack fingers the guy as a likely runner for one of the major syndicates and wonders aloud if that bet will have any impact on the line. The answer, provided by one of the casino representatives who happens to be in the lounge, is what he figures: On a typical Sunday, sure. On Super Bowl Sunday, no chance. "The Cantor books are being flooded with tons of sharp money on Seattle," Krack says, "yet the line isn't budging. They are just begging for Denver money."
Cantor Gaming, part of the Cantor Fitzgerald financial services firm, establishes the wagering odds and serves as the risk manager for a host of Las Vegas properties, including the Hard Rock. Many may not be directly familiar with Cantor, but its sports books are notorious for lifting the betting limits to cater to the highest-stakes gamblers, notably champion boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. It was rumored (dubiously) that Mayweather had made a $10 million Super Bowl bet.
Krack has a theory as to what's contributing to Cantor holding the line steady at Denver -2.5 despite the cascade of money on the Seahawks: "Floyd probably came in last night and bet Denver. No way he'd bet Seattle, he's a square. A square whale, but a square," he says. "The $10 million thing is absolutely false, though."
He then starts reminiscing about the days when Mayweather was a regular in his place of business. "It used to be, Floyd would come running in, laying $500K on a game. He's an OK guy, always respectful. My girlfriend wanted to take a picture with him once. He actually came over and asked me if that was OK.
"He gets a bad rap, but whatever, it's not like I have to kiss his ass."
"Got another list of props for you," says Krack, back on the phone with the partner across town. "Whatever the max bet they can take. Dime is fine." By the time he's done laying out the extensive array of bets, opera singer Renee Fleming is singing the national anthem. That brings many bettors to their feet, as the length of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is a perennial favorite among prop bets. Krack becomes noticeably pained.
"I was betting Christina Aguilera 'under' on the national anthem in the Packers-Steelers Super Bowl three years ago. I did all the research on YouTube — from when she was a little kid, singing at 8 years old right up to the night before the Super Bowl, when she sang the national anthem at a hockey game — knowing we had a good edge on 'under' two minutes and 33 seconds, or whatever it was. And it was. She finished at something like 2:17, and we win. Except the books say, 'Oh you know what? She missed one of the words. No action.' I'll never bet that again."
More often than not, pro bettors will find it much easier to recall the circumstances of some of their worst defeats than details of their triumphs. As the Seahawks begin lining up to officially kick off Super Bowl XLVIII, Krack, having clearly tumbled down his own personal rabbit hole of bad beats, is barely acknowledging the peaking frenzy of 80,000 people in high definition at MetLife Stadium and a few thousand more around him.
"I had the scoop on the color of the Gatorade that would be dumped on Tom Coughlin in the second Giants-Patriots Super Bowl," he begins as Steven Hauschka sends the opening kickoff to Denver's Trindon Holliday. "Got down at 7-to-1 for a few dimes spread around. I had 'clear,' but when they dumped it on him it went by so fast, the blue of the Giants pullover he was wearing made it look blue.
"On the replay, there was a little area where you could see when it was dumped out of the bucket, you could see it was clear. So we had to freeze-frame that, blow it up, and get a high-resolution snapshot of the Gatorade. I had to fight with every fuckin' bookmaker to get paid. Funny stuff, right? As opposed to the Aguilera prop, I got paid at most of the spots, though two didn't pay."
Just as he concludes the story, Peyton Manning is lining up to receive the game's first snap from the Denver 14-yard line. The ball arrives early and off-line, sailing over Manning's right shoulder and into the end zone. Running back Knowshon Moreno dives on it before being swarmed by Seahawks. Safety. Everyone in the sports book goes nuts. "First scoring play — safety" is another prop bet favored by the public, as it can pay up to 60-to-1. For Krack, the play has the effect of watching one's bishop get wiped off the board early on in a chess match.
"That screws me good," he says matter-of-factly. "That killed all of the parlay cards; they had 'no score in the first 5:30.' Safety three straight years. Fucking brutal."
"Brutal" is a fitting description of the game that transpires, as the Seahawks' pounding of the Broncos registers as one of the worst Super Bowls in recent memory. As for Krackomberger, despite the rough start, he emails a few days later to say he came out ahead. "Won a dismal $18k to the game," he writes. "A good payday but not what I expect from such a big opportunity." He says he's never had a losing Super Bowl but wouldn't sweat it even if he did.
"I don't give a fuck," he says. "I'm still going out for a steak dinner no matter what."