Bright light city gonna set your wallet on fire
By Randy Horick
MARCH 29, 1999: "Aw, c'mon. He mugged him! Call the foul!" Matt Treasure, tightening the grip on his almost empty Corona, is livid that the officials are about to cost him the game. So are plenty of others among the packed house, though their intensity is matched by an equal number of cheering onlookers.
From all the shouting, you'd never guess that Connecticut is leading Iowa by 10, with only seconds remaining to play. But for Treasure and the other rooters, the game is literally on the line.
"Cwall da foul!" demands Treasure, in his Nooyawk accent. But from where he sits, in the sports book at the Mirage, in Las Vegas, the officials can't hear him. Even as Iowa's players frantically hack at the ball, the refs muffle their whistles, and the horn sounds.
The Hawkeyes lose, but their rooters in the Mirage roar. Their team covered the spread. Treasure, who bet on the winning Huskies, is a $50 loser.
Still muttering, he rips his losing ticket, squeezes a slice of lime down the neck of a fresh Corona, and ambles off toward the poker room.
To witness the NCAA Tournament from Las Vegas, as Matt and his brother Tim regularly do, is to uphold the late 20th-century American philosophy: Nothing exceeds like excess. "We're putting that on the family crest," Tim declares.
In Vegas, you can bet almost everything for any game. You can bet for or against the spread--for the whole game, each half, or all three.
You can bet on a team to win, straight up. You can take the over or the under, based on whether you believe the total score will be more or less than the oddsmakers project. You can take odds on a given team to win it all. For a greater potential payoff, you can combine several bets into a parlay.
Almost no one here roots for a particular team, only for particular bets.
During the games, the wagering reshuffles cheers into the most unlikely spots. A 30-point blowout can produce riotous shouts if the loser happens to be a 35-point underdog.
Depending on how they bet, fans may cheer a team one half, then boo it the next. Others may yell excitedly while the action stops, if a quick calculation has just told them that their bet on the "under" looks good at that point. It all makes for a strange NCAA experience--and, somehow, one of the most exhilarating.
"This is the ONLY place to see the tournament," exults Tim, whose money had been on Connecticut. "You can see every game, and you can bet every game," he says, pointing toward the high bank of TV screens that carry not only the men's and women's NCAA contests but horse racing and baseball spring training games as well.
The next day, by the time he meets a friend at the airport, Treasure's big beige Cadillac sports a dent and a wide swath of yellow paint, freshly removed from an inconveniently positioned pillar in a parking garage. "It's a rental," shrugs Matt.
"Trez can't afford to slow down when he's in Viva," explains Tim from the backseat.
Friday's NCAA games will start soon, and there are wagers to place. Like a possessed bee intent on pollenating the entire garden, the Treasures rush over to the sprawling, South Sea-themed Mandalay Bay on the Strip. After poring over the lines posted on the big board, they put down a $30 parlay that requires them to pick three "winners": Southwest Missouri State to cover the 27-point spread against Duke; Oklahoma to cover against Michigan State; and Kentucky to beat the spread against Miami of Ohio.
Half an hour later, after a tall, strong cup of Starbucks to help them adjust from Eastern time to what Tim calls "Viva time," they're down the street at the Bellagio. Ignoring the Picasso exhibit, they stride straight for the sports book for several more wagers, including one parlay on women's tournament games--a sure, if perhaps unintended, indicator that Title IX is succeeding.
Then it's over to the Mirage for two more bets: the "under" (131.5) on the Miami-Kentucky game and on Miami to cover the first-half spread of 5 1/2.
Finally, Matt screeches the Caddy's tires into the valet lot at the Golden Nugget, one of the old, slightly decrepit downtown casinos frequented largely by the locals.
Hunkered over a table at the sports book inside (finding a free one was an odds-beating stroke in itself), the Treasures spread out their wad of betting tickets as they settle in to watch the games. "Geez, I gotta see who I took in what," says Matt, reviewing his wagers.
"This one's a lock," he says, admiring his own five-team parlay: Southwest Missouri getting 31 points; Oklahoma getting 12; Kentucky giving six; the under (158) on the Duke game; and the over (123) on the Michigan State game.
An older man seated nearby strikes up a conversation, comparing wagers. He knows all the players, all the teams and their tendencies, like a scout. "I like St. John's and Connecticut," he says. "But you can't get enough bets in here. They're tryin' to drive the big money out. My wife likes to come here and gamble. But I'm goin' across the street soon as I can drag her fat butt out."
Near the end of the Michigan State-Oklahoma game, a roar erupts from the crowd--not because the Spartans are winning but because the Sooners, trailing by eight, have elected not to foul. Two more free throws, and the Spartans would have covered. But the game's total points--100--are 24 fewer than Matt needs for the over, rendering his lock of a parlay worthless.
Later, Purdue, another Treasure pick, is blown out by Temple, adding to the pile of ripped tickets. Then, at the buzzer, Kentucky's Saul Smith heaves in an improbable three-pointer, meaning the Wildcats cover the first-half spread against Miami. Another defeat snatched from victory.
By Saturday afternoon, the Treasures' sports bets are mostly scraps of paper on the floor. Matt has lost $50 in a poker tournament and an undetermined amount at craps. The Cadillac sports another dent and a footprint, courtesy of an irate pedestrian.
Over at the Orleans, another local hangout well off the Strip, Matt begins muttering curses at UConn, which is beating Gonzaga but losing in Vegas. "[Bleep]in' [bleep]ers," he says. "If they can't cover, I want them to go down."
For the second game, the Treasure brothers change strategies. As inveterate Ohio State fans, and against their better judgment, they take the Buckeyes straight up to win.
They scream with every basket as Ohio State races to a surprising lead over St. John's--prompting some good-natured verbal sparring with a man at the next table, who bet on the Red Storm. They buy him a beer as compensation for the noise.
By the time the Buckeyes finally prevail, Matt and Tim have become slightly hoarse from cheering. They've also become friends with their table neighbor, Mark Martinez, a police sergeant from Omaha, who has decided to forget about his wager and share in the Treasures' exuberance.
For another hour they talk, buy each other beers, swap addresses, and leave with a promise to let Mark host them during the College World Series in Omaha.
Somehow, they've affirmed another American truth. Even in Viva, money isn't everything.
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