The Asian Sportsbook

Finally got the chance to hear about the peculiarities of Asian sportsbooks in an old podcast by betting hand Matthew Trenhaile. Of course it comes a year after I wrote an Asian megabook as if it was a western-facing post-up (you deposit money in the book instead of operating on credit) one in The Sure Bet King. Anyway, the entire segment is great and I recommend you listen to it.

Asian sportsbooks have had (note the past tense) a reputation for being “sharp”, ie taking bets unquestioned with huge limits. But as the podcast notes, it’s wrong to compare them to the western-facing “sharp books” (Circa Sports / Pinnacle /BetCRIS). The short version for their “balancing act” is simple:

  • A complex “agent system” that evolved from technological constraints and also legal ones.
  • More importantly,a gargantuan pool of recreational money (at least in soccer) and the ability to, for lack of a better word, “dilute” the sharp money across it.

The podcast, recorded in 2018, mentioned this system declining already. Limits were being noticeably reduced, especially for lower-tier leagues. The wider adoption of the internet makes the tangled agent pyramid less and less necessary. Since then, everything I’ve seen has indicated this trend becoming more pronounced.

It’s a fascinating look at an extremely important but murky even by sports betting standards component.

Review: Gaming The Game

Gaming The Game

Sean Patrick Griffin’s Gaming the Game is about the gambling scandal centered around NBA referee Tim Donaghy. Its main “character” is now former pro gambler Jimmy Battista, who handled the actual betting side of things (oversimplified of course). I generally don’t like true crime books, but heard good things about this and the subject matter of sports betting was a naturally interesting one to me.

This is one of the best true crime books I’ve read.

The narrative (most of which centers around Battista, not Donaghy), is well-written and soundly researched at the same time. It really helped fill a gap in a part of the sports betting world I hadn’t really had to look up before-genuine sharps. (Touts are mentioned once dismissively, as they should be). You get to read about a lot of people, some of whom I could guess who their true identities were (Griffin rightfully uses pseudonyms).

The icing on the cake is an appendix where Griffin delves into line movements to see what effect the Donaghy actions -regardless of the man’s claims- had on the games he reffed and bet on. By giving it its own section, he can be extremely detailed and technical while not interfering with the flow of the rest of the book. The analysis could easily be a book unto itself.

If you have the slightest interest in sports betting or sleaze, get this book.

Prop Betting

One of the most revolutionary changes in sports betting in recent years has been the rise of player props (ie, will this player score? How much of Stat X will this player accomplish in the game? Will the final score be odd or even?) Veteran gambling reporter David Purdum talks about this paradigm shift in an ESPN column. Props began in popular culture as those goofy things they did in the Super Bowl, but have now risen up massively, displacing the old spreads, totals, and moneylines.

Although Purdum’s column talks about the NFL, props are something that can (and have) been done in any sport with a relevant stat. Looking at the upcoming English Premier League matches, I’m seeing between 400 and 550 props on each game. (There are already over 200 props at some books for NFL Week 1 games a month off from the writing of this post). I saw an array of props for an upcoming cricket match. During the dark sports days of Spring 2020, I was both bemused and a little impressed by seeing giant prop menus for Belarusian soccer matches.

Of course props have a downside too from a business perspective, and that’s that they amplify the sharp-soft clash greatly. Traditionally, the few sharp books have had fewer and tamer prop markets than the much larger number of soft ones. It’ll be interesting to see to what extent the player/team prop markets can be “sharpened” the way the main lines have been.

But as of now, it’s a very reasonable question to ask “how can you ensure a house edge on hundreds and hundreds of different markets [things to bet on]?” And the answer is often “you really can’t.” The approaches are frequently blunt: Low limits, high house shares compared to lines, and restricting/limiting people who consistently win.

Still, for better or worse, giant prop bet menus are here to stay and dominate.

The Business Gurus

The Sure Bet King featured sports betting touts, or pick-sellers, as its subject. Now I feel it right to turn to a very similar (to the point where there has to be substantial overlap) type of charlatan who has followed a similar path of thriving first on late night infomercials and then excelling on the internet.

I speak of course of the business guru, often called “fake gurus” by their critics (with good reason). First I feel obligated to note that unlike sports betting touts, their actual business model can be applied well. It consists of providing and selling teaching courses on starting and running businesses. These can and have been done legitimately, so there’s a substantial grey zone…

…in theory. In practice, the business gurus come in a type of scheme that makes them no better than Dr. Goldrush’s 1000 Star Guaranteed Lock Of The Century! The biggest part of this scheme is that the investment courses are sold as a get-rich-quick miracle, something that leads you to relax and leave that horrible job you have (of course, running a business as opposed to being an employee almost always means more work, but the gurus won’t tell you that). Just learn about real estate flipping/dropshipping/whatever, and you can be as rich as them.

The second-biggest part is that the gurus almost always make more money by selling these courses than they did by doing the business practices they supposedly teach. Which is understandable, as you rarely see real successful entrepreneurs running around hawking seminars.

Finally, the people who have braved the courses will often mention how shallow and insignificant the actual content within is. After all, once you’ve paid for the course, the actual content doesn’t matter to the gurus.

The Big Sports Betting Weird Thing

When I wrote The Sure Bet King, I patterned its climax in large part on the Mayweather-McGregor boxing match, especially in how the mixed martial artist who never had a professional boxing match somehow got a gargantuan pile of money wagered on him over the undefeated all-time-great boxer. I thought “that must be the craziest gambling moment, or at least one of them”. Up there with suspicious table tennis matches attracting a bizarrely large amount of handle.

Then this scam involving con artists and farmers in India happened. Locals were hired to put on appropriate kits and pretend to be participants in the Indian Premier League, the world’s most prominent and lucrative cricket competition. Their marks were Russians who apparently knew almost nothing about cricket. If they did, they would have noticed that the real IPL had long since concluded its season.

Somehow the “tournament” got all the way to the “quarterfinals” before it was noticed and shut down. And when I read it, I was like “wow. Truth really can be stranger than fiction.” It was something. And a reminder that while fiction has to make sense, reality does not.

The Poker Boom

As someone very young during the online poker boom of the mid-2000s, I knew it existed but wasn’t anywhere near aware of how insane it got. Looking back and doing research, I can say that for about three years, robbery became legal, as long as you were a good poker player. The excesses of it were sometimes just big, like how pros “multi-table” at several sessions at once, playing thousands upon thousands of hands a day, all while staring at the computer for many hours.

But the most interesting part is the zero-sum nature of poker and how that doomed the bubble to pop as much as anything the government did (after all, laws and court cases didn’t stop offshore sports betting at all). The boom featured sharp sharks dropping the equivalent of nuclear depth charges on poor square fish who’d seen Rounders and Chris Moneymaker living up to his namesake and thought “why not me?”

The problem came when liquidity dried up. Without a stream of new fish to get skewered, many former pros learned that they became the lower ones on the food chain. Many moved on to the similarly zero-sum daily fantasy sports, which popped just in time for sports betting to get legalized and crypto speculation to take off. And if the people complaining about restrictions because they tried to arbitrage off of William Hill got their wish and forced the sportsbooks to sharpen, the same feeding frenzy/market bubble that benefited only a few ultra-sharps would happen. In fact, I’m half-convinced it’s happening already, sportsbook restrictions or not.

The reason being that neither sports betting nor poker are actually that profitable for the house, especially after promotions, but that’s another story for another time. As is the story of poker-the book takes place roughly at the same time as the historical poker boom and one of my Sure Bet King ideas envisioned main character Eddie Ross being a moderately skilled poker who crushed weaker ones during the boom (with obvious effects on his ego), but a combination of the path the novel took and me thinking I didn’t know enough about poker nixed it.

While I don’t regret it, I think the right terms to use is that there was an opportunity that I did not follow. After all, the climax of The Sure Bet King is of a-based-on-a-true-story boxing event where sharps took advantage of squares in massive force. The poker boom was like that, only for years instead of one day.

A Thousand Words: Money Plane

Money Plane

Adam “Edge” Copeland and Kelsey Grammer’s Money Plane is the story of an attempt to rob a flying super-casino. It fails. Not the heist, the movie. This is an extremely stupid movie. And it’s not even that stupid in a fun way. It’s just inept. Even if one follows the reasonable assumption that action movies do not have to make sense, it’s a failure. Its suspension of disbelief refuses to be followed.

For instance, in-universe, a “master thief” doesn’t seem to know how many people crew the average commercial cockpit. Out of universe, a professional wrestler is squandered by having him spend the bulk of the movie sitting at the controls and talking. In-universe, there are no staff on this supervillain plane and no one goes to check on the cockpit even after the plane shakes and diverts from its original course. Oh, and almost all the resistance comes not from the plane runners but from other gamblers.

The film is very short but still feels overstuffed, not knowing if it wants to be a serious heist movie or a silly heist movie. None of the protagonists are very developed or charming, and even Grammer’s performance is a little too forced. The people behind the titular super-plane are squandered: The actors who play the “concierge” and “bookkeeper” on the plane actually do their supervillain roles well, but the movie bizarrely shifts away from them and towards unfunny “wacky” guests like a cowboy who ends up shooting himself in the head (it’s a long story). I wanted to like this movie, but it really doesn’t work, even as a dumb action movie.

Wither The Sharp

In The Sure Bet King, one of the few areas of sports betting that I didn’t cover was genuine sharps, or profitable bettors. Part of it was me not really knowing the most about they operated at the time (after all, those with a sincere edge aren’t keen on advertising it…). Another part was that they wouldn’t really fit the theme of the book. After all, this was far more about the system beating people than it was about people beating the system. The only “sharps” are the people who applied not-so-common sense to the boxing match at the climax of the novel.

In any case, like with almost everything else involved with sports betting, the more I learn of sharps, the less respect I have for most of them. First, there’s the very small number of very secretive modelers who actually can beat the sharpest sources (exchanges and “sharp books” like Pinnacle and Circa Sports) at their own game, costing them a little to shape a better line. These might as well be memetic Area 51 as far as secrecy’s concerned. These sharps are called “originators”, because the proper lines originate with them.

More common are what I like to call the “line vultures”. These don’t model or handicap, they just hit off, slow, or mismatched lines.

This video is one of the best examples of showing how a line vulture works.

I call them “line vultures” because they’re reactive and not proactive. Does it take effort and skill and talent? Yes. Is it exactly “sports betting” and does it involve the modeling acumen people think? Not in my opinion. Are sportsbooks justified in going after the line vultures? Yes. Are more innocent bettors frequently collateral damage in this banning? You bet they are.

Then there are the ones I have (even) less respect for. First are the outright manipulators, the people who don’t just pounce on line moves but (for example) cause them by betting at a sharp “market maker” knowing it’ll move and everyone else will follow. This sort of thing would probably be illegal in financial markets, and is definitely shady. Second are the bonus abusers, the people who take advantage of generous sportsbook promotions for financial gain.

Now that I know more about sharps and “sharps” and have already covered more of the gambling business, I might just include one in my giant brainstorms…