A peek inside the world’s largest sportsbook
On a typically busy Saturday morning in late February, the three oddsmakers on duty at the Westgate Superbook sat side by side, eyes alternating between their computer screens and the video monitors that filled one wall of the control room at Las Vegas’ largest sportsbook.
One focused on NASCAR practice sessions, preparing to tweak odds for the next day’s race. Another had an eye on golf, while also handling responsibility for monitoring early bets coming in on the night’s NBA and NHL games. A third oversaw a full college basketball schedule.
With the tap of a key or toggle of a mouse, each could bring up an eye-stinging array of data streams.
One screen tracked point spreads and odds from a customized menu of casinos and websites across the world, allowing them to tweak odds and point spreads to keep in stride with their competitors, the digits turning colors to help them notice any recent change. Another showed bets in each sport as they came in, sorted to distinguish between those placed at the casino and ones that came in online. One oddsmaker kept open an expertly curated Twitter feed, the better to monitor news, as well as tips from popular touts who might influence bettors.
When a customer asked to place a bet larger than the pre-set maximum on a college basketball game — typically $1,000 for a standard wager on whether a team would cover the point spread — a pop-up window opened on the oddsmaker’s screen, displaying the amount, along with the name of the person trying to place it. Another click revealed the player’s betting history, which could be sliced and diced to reveal proclivities, including how well he’d fared on each sport.
Based on that information, and other factors, the sportsbook could determine whether to take the over-the-limit bet, decline it, or negotiate it down to a smaller amount.
“If there’s a guy out there who wants to bet [a large sum on] Dayton, my first question is going to be, ‘Who is it?’” said Jay Kornegay, who has built a 27-year career managing sportsbooks, the last 14 of them at Westgate. “Sometimes I know exactly who it is and sometimes I may have to look it up. But our guys in the back will know who is betting what, always. They monitor it. You have to.”
It’s a lot easier to get an advantage through information than it is to set up a game. That’s why we’re concerned about who this guy is when he walks in to place that bet.
It is that sort of attention to both movement in the global market and the betting patterns of individual customers that casino operators point to when they argue that legal, regulated sports betting, as conducted in Nevada, is the best way to combat point shaving and the sale of inside information.
When games are manipulated or inside information is traded, casinos typically are the losers. They also stand to lose business from bettors if their trust in a sport erodes.
That was the message that Kornegay tried to deliver about a dozen years ago when he and a colleague were invited to Indianapolis for a sit-down that included representatives from the NCAA, the major pro leagues and the FBI, all of whom wanted to know how the casinos monitored betting to sniff out corruption, as they had in several cases.
“We told them everything,” Kornegay said. “I think that may have been the first time that they heard that we were on the same side; that integrity is our product as well. And that we want to protect the integrity of the game just like they do, because we don’t want to be accepting bets on something that may be pre-determined. We’re the ones that get hurt on that. So we do our best to protect it, just like [the sports properties].”
On that particular Saturday morning in late February, there was big news regarding the FBI’s investigation of college basketball. On ESPN’s “GameDay” pregame show, analysts discussed whether the stories might lead several schools to sit their star players.
When the conversation in Westgate’s control room turned to the matter, the oddsmakers discussed the impact that uncertainty had on the betting line of one game in particular — Arizona vs. Oregon. Arizona had announced that Sean Miller would not coach the game, but there was debate over whether the school would allow Pac-12 Player of the Year Deandre Ayton to play.
Like most books, Westgate took Arizona-Oregon down from its board when the news hit, unwilling to take bets on that game and several others until it had a better idea of how they might be affected. When it allowed wagering to resume, bettors generally stayed away from Arizona, even as the books offered an increasingly generous line.
If, during that period of uncertainty, an insider was sure that Ayton was going to play, he could have used that information to place a bet that would pay off if underdog Arizona lost by fewer than eight points. When it became clear later in the day that Ayton would play, that number dropped to four.
This is one aspect of betting that long has concerned those in both pro and college sports — that privileged information held by those inside the game could be used to give bettors an edge.
A trainer. An equipment manager. A league employee who has seen an umpire assignment before it has been made public. A player’s family member or friend. All of them possess information that could be used to the advantage of bettors.
Leagues and players associations say they increasingly have made educating players and employees on that dynamic a priority as sports gambling has become more prevalent.
“That’s more of a concern for us than fixing the game,” Kornegay said. “It’s a lot easier to get an advantage through information than it is to set up a game. That’s why we’re concerned about who this guy is when he walks in to place that bet.
“He just might be a really good handicapper or he might have the latest algorithm that’s come up and it’s doing very well. But maybe he knows something about that Toledo team tonight and we don’t.”
The leagues argue that that’s why it’s critical they have access to anonymized data, which can be reviewed bet by bet.
“Identifying a problem with insider information is usually going to come down to the monitoring of betting lines,” said Bryan Seeley, senior vice president of investigations and deputy general counsel at MLB. “You’re going to see a spike at a certain time period and then the first thing you do is look for a plausible explanation. Was that the moment the umpires were announced for this game or we determined who the umpires were going to be? Or was there another explanation? And if not, then you’ve got to look at whether there was information that wasn’t public that would have affected betting lines in this kind of way, and who knew that information.
“If you can’t identify it on the player side or on the umpire side, that’s when it’s important to be able to find out who placed those bets.”