What's My Line? To the men in Las Vegas who set point spreads, the true sport is the eternal quest for the perfect number

Dec. 08, 2003
Dec. 08, 2003

Table of Contents
Dec. 8, 2003

What's My Line? To the men in Las Vegas who set point spreads, the true sport is the eternal quest for the perfect number

Forty-eight college football games on the board next week, and
somewhere inside each is a number. In an uncertain world Cesar
Robaina is certain of that much, at least. The lead oddsmaker for
Las Vegas Sports Consultants (LVSC) flips through a sheaf of
computer printouts in his office on this Sunday morning in
September. His skill at unearthing point spreads from masses of
data has carried him to the top of his profession. The stack of
paper before him is Carrara marble to his sculptor's hand: He'll
chisel away at the information, sweeping aside irrelevancies,
looking for the truth beneath. When the right number shows
itself, Robaina knows.

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2003 issue Original Layout

You haven't heard of Robaina, have never seen his fleshy face and
thicket of curly hair on your television screen. Yet few men in
sports wield more power than he does. Robaina is responsible for
betting lines used by four dozen casinos, two legal lotteries and
hundreds of newspapers around the country. Those were his five
points that Oakland was giving in last January's Super Bowl;
those were his 17 1/2 and 23 and 37 in the first round of March
Madness. For each game he calculates his number, then compares it
with what the LVSC staffers assigned to handicap the sport have
come up with. What might seem like a duplication of effort is a
means to incorporate a range of thinking, for no two oddsmakers
approach the task in quite the same fashion. "If we were looking
at the same things and coming up with the same numbers, they'd
have no reason to be here," Robaina says.

That's the theory, at least. Sometimes Robaina reconciles the
numbers, his and theirs, but often he will stare at their numbers
with incomprehension. "If Cesar has a game at 10 and everyone
else has it at seven, and Cesar believes in his 10, that game is
staying at 10," a former LVSC oddsmaker says. "Or 9 1/2 at the
lowest." Experience counts more than enthusiasm here, and
Robaina's judgment most of all. He is a likable man with a ready
smile, but when it comes to his numbers, he has the
confidence--no, the arrogance--of Roger Clemens shaking off his
catcher with the game on the line. Just let him throw his pitch,
and he'll get the out.

Still, there's a process. So Robaina and three other men sit at
their desks on this Sunday morning, numbers in hand. Robaina has
already gotten the input of a fifth party: the newest handicapper
in the office, the low man in the pecking order. Scott Ramsey is
so low, he works nights and isn't even there for the Sunday
meeting. He phones in his college football point spreads from

Now Robaina sees what Ramsey has constructed for Notre
Dame-Purdue the following Saturday, and he is certain that Ramsey
is wrong. "Purdue by 13!" Robaina says, barely able to contain
his disdain. It takes a physical effort to get such a blatantly
incorrect conclusion out of his mouth. It would be like hearing
Paperback Writer on the radio and forcing yourself to shout,
"Rolling Stones!" On his own sheet Robaina has marked the spread
as seven. He has power ratings for each college team, which he
updates each Saturday night. He has charts on how schools have
fared against each other in the past, home and away. He even
factors in public perception, such as the betting support that
Notre Dame gets just because it's Notre Dame.

Robaina isn't as certain about this seven on Notre Dame-Purdue as
he is when a number "just jumps out at me--what it should be, has
to be," he says. But 14 years of experience as an oddsmaker and
more than 20 as a sports bettor are telling him that this game is
not a 13, can never be a 13, shouldn't be mentioned in the same
breath with 13. And when two of the other oddsmakers also have
Purdue giving seven, Robaina's confidence in his handicapping is

It isn't Ramsey's fault, Robaina thinks. He's a nice young man
who is learning the trade while doing the office's grunt work.
LVSC is in the information business, and clients call needing the
weekend weather in Green Bay or the starting time for
Missouri-Texas Tech. Someone has to answer the phones, send the
faxes, stay into the Sinatra hours of a Saturday morning. Ramsey
was hired for that. To get experience, he makes lines on several
sports, including college football, for there is no way to learn
this job other than by doing it.

One day, perhaps, Ramsey will propose a counterintuitive number,
then defend it articulately at a meeting such as this one. His
logic and insight will persuade the others that he has seen
something they haven't. That day hasn't come yet. For now, when
one of the other oddsmakers finds himself at the far end of the
range of numbers, he is said to be "out there with Ramsey," and
it is not a good place to be at all.

For Notre Dame-Purdue, Ramsey is alone at 13, but there is one
man still to be heard from. Tony Sinisi is the oddsmaker Robaina
respects most, the artistic yin to his scientific yang, the fox
to his hedgehog. Robaina, whose big belly makes him look like a
linebacker gone to seed, might be characterized as a strict
constructionist, a man who looks to the data for everything.
Sinisi, trim and fashionable, takes a more narrative approach. To
him, oddsmaking is about nuance. He runs his statistical analysis
but also incorporates into his thinking what a coach told a
reporter about the game plan or what a player said in a radio
interview that Sinisi came across on the Internet. "There's so
much feel involved," Sinisi says. "You do it through an
accumulation of experience. You think, I've seen this before. You
start to have a sense of what the right number might be. You're
looking at a game, you're looking, you're looking. Finally you
say, 'Aha!'"

Sinisi isn't searching for the number, as Robaina is, but for
something more nebulous. He doesn't so much reach the right
answer as intuit a possible answer. "His number is a
philosophical statement," Robaina says. And for this game, Notre
Dame at Purdue next Saturday afternoon, Sept. 27, Sinisi's
philosophical statement is, "Purdue by 14."

When he says it, the room goes silent. Sinisi is no Ramsey; his
thoughts must be taken seriously. The clear waters of consensus
have been muddied, and everyone looks at Robaina. If this had
been a decade ago, LVSC's founder, Michael Roxborough, would have
let the pencil he held against his forehead clatter to the desk
and said, "Let's discuss this." A debate would have ensued, not
only about the game at hand but also about sport itself and
perhaps the meaning of life. Somewhere along the way, a number
that made sense to everyone--a usable number, a number the sports
books could hang, in the parlance of the industry--would have

But Robaina keeps his own counsel. Later that afternoon, poring
over the games, pencil in hand, he'll come across the trio of
sevens and Sinisi's 14, and he'll conclude that his own number
might--just possibly--have been low. "Ten and a half," he'll say
to himself, and that will be that. Within a half hour, nearly
every casino in Las Vegas will have that number on its board:
Robaina's work displayed in lights.

As recently as 1995, about the time a burned-out Michael
Roxborough announced his intention to visit every horse track in
North America, then sold LVSC for $6 million plus stock to Data
Broadcasting Corp. (which, in turn, flipped it to CBS SportsLine
for $12 million), LVSC had no competitors worth mentioning. If
you put money on a sports event in North America, the odds you
were quoted almost certainly originated on the second floor of a
nondescript building that sits so close to McCarran airport that
the row of TVs along one wall quivers with each landing.

In those days working for LVSC was the most prestigious job in
oddsmaking. But now, because of the proliferation of offshore
gambling sites, the industry is in flux. Rogue handicappers,
banned from the Strip for various offenses, have found moorings
in Antigua and Costa Rica. The sports books at the casinos,
LVSC's best customers, are taking a hard look at the Internet
numbers, wondering if they might get for almost nothing services
for which they each currently pay LVSC as much as $1,000 a week.

LVSC is in flux too. Because SportsLine has contracted to produce
an NCAA website, it must divest itself of this gambling entity.
In a couple of months LVSC will be sold to a group of
Nevada-based investors. That explains the sense of uneasiness in
the office: Veteran oddsmakers such as John Harper, a curmudgeon
with a stack of handwritten notebooks, wonder if the next
paycheck will be their last. "There will always be an LVSC in
some form," says Pete Korner, who recently left after more than a
decade to start a consultant's service. "But what form it will
take is anyone's guess."

Meanwhile, with a schedule and a pile of research at hand,
Robaina and his staff concentrate on doing what they do better
than anyone else in town. Whether it's Notre Dame-Purdue or a
game only a gambler or a booster could care about--say, Brown and
Dartmouth playing basketball on a snowy New Hampshire night--the
relationship between two teams can always be expressed with a
number. Finding that number, Roxborough used to say, "isn't
voodoo, and it isn't rocket science. It's a combination of both."

It was mostly guesswork before Roxy, as he was known to the
world. The stakes were lower, and the information available was
salted with gossip and innuendo. Then Roxy, a college dropout
with a mathematician's mind, arrived in Las Vegas from Vancouver
in 1975, looking like nobody's image of a gambler. With his neat
blond hair, button-down shirts and wire-rimmed glasses he was the
opposite of Jimmy the Greek, who seemed to stink of cigar smoke
right through the television. Roxy was respectable enough for the
sports book at the Stardust--which was the first to post each
week's football odds--to offer him $500 a week to make the
opening line on all sports events.

Did he want to make odds or bet? He didn't see how he'd ever get
rich earning $500 a week from a hotel. But he was tired of
winning vast sums one month and giving them back the next. And
Roxy was an oddsmaker by predilection. "There are people who can
look at 40 taps of draft beer and say, 'I'll have what he's
having,'" he says, "but I've got to handicap those 40 taps. I'm
still looking for the perfect beer, just like I'll always be
looking for the perfect number."

He accepted the Stardust's offer in 1983. Not long after, an
excise tax on sports betting that had been as high as 10% was
trimmed to 0.25%. Then the Las Vegas Hilton spent $16 million on
the plushest sports book anyone had seen. One by one, the other
hotels on the Strip followed suit, installing multiple video
screens and huge electronic tote boards and selling an increasing
array of propositions. And, one by one, beginning with the
Hilton, they subscribed to Roxy's service, by now called LVSC.

They couldn't afford not to. Just as important as posting the
right lines is posting the same lines as everyone else. If
another hotel is giving three points and you're giving five, the
wise guys--which is what oddsmakers call professional gamblers
(as opposed to squares, which is what they call the rest of
us)--will know it in a half hour. They'll put a bundle on the
favorite at the other book and on the underdog at yours, creating
what they call a tweener, then pray for the four-point result
that will win both bets for them.

As each sports book opened, the last thing it wanted to do was
post numbers that were out of step with everyone else on the
street. Accordingly, LVSC became a multimillion-dollar business.
Roxy was a decent handicapper but a terrific salesman, and by the
end of the 1980s he was too valuable to stay inside, trying to
predict the point total for a Nets-Clippers game. As LVSC grew,
so did Roxy's need for other oddsmakers to carry the load.

Back then LVSC had just a handful of employees, at least one of
whom routinely slept in the office. The hours were long, the pay
unconscionably low. (Even today LVSC's 13 staff members make
between $30,000 and $80,000, which isn't much for someone at the
top of a profession.) Roxy found Robaina answering phones for a
tout service off the Strip. Born in Havana in 1964, Cesar had
immigrated with his family to Las Vegas, where a grandfather
lived, in '71. His father went to work sweeping casino floors,
and seven-year-old Cesar set out to become American. He fell in
love with dependable Midwestern sports franchises like the
Cincinnati Reds and the Minnesota Vikings, which seemed to
represent an entire star-spangled way of life. Later he went to
trade school to become a draftsman, bet sports for pocket money
and came to understand the fundamental advantage of working for
the house.

In 1990, the year after Robaina was hired at LVSC, one of his
colleagues phoned Tony Sinisi, a boyhood friend, back in Altoona,
Pa., and urged him to come west. Sinisi had grown up idolizing
his own father, a bookie who for decades ran a pool hall and
betting parlor "in the most honorable fashion," as Sinisi puts
it. The son thrilled to his father's stories, such as the one
about a fixed boxing match at Madison Square Garden and another
about the long shot at Hialeah that faltered in the homestretch.

Sinisi went off to Penn State and returned to Altoona in 1977
with a business degree. He managed a bar, sold cable television,
wondered what the future would bring. Then came the call
describing this room full of oddsmakers in LVSC's previous
location, a suite atop the Bank of America building with a view
of the Stardust and the Riviera. Sinisi's wife, Penny, had no
interest in moving to Nevada, didn't even like sports. Sinisi had
never been much of a salesman, but he made the pitch of his life.
"It'll be an adventure," he told her. When they arrived in Vegas,
he went straight to Roxy's office, took one look and knew he was

He remembers a college football game his first year in the
business. Everyone had the line at seven, but he had it at five.
He made an impassioned speech, and Roxy was impressed. "We'll use
six, but it's on your shoulders," the boss told his new
oddsmaker. Sinisi walked into the sports book at the Riviera
later that day, looked up and saw a six on the big board and
thought, I'm Tony Sinisi, from Altoona, Pa., and that's my number
up there.

Thanks to today's technology, Sinisi ranges farther afield for
his information than Roxy ever did. For the Notre Dame-Purdue
game he drew on reports in the South Bend Tribune, which implied
that the Irish were even less talented than their early results
might indicate.

The more Robaina thought about the game, the more he realized
that absolute truth must lie somewhere between him and Tony. And
as the week unfolded, the line held steady at 10 1/2. It seemed
as though Robaina's compromise between all those sevens and
Sinisi's 14 had been an act of genius. Sinisi's philosophical
statement had pushed the number upward; Robaina had moved it just
the right amount.

With numbers, though, you can't always tell. When a line holds
steady, it usually means that the money being bet on the two
sides is equal. When that happens, a casino is guaranteed a
commission of 4 1/2% no matter what the outcome. But a steady
line can also indicate a lack of action on both sides of the bet.
Sometimes the number posted is so accurate--so "sharp," as they
say in the business--that it discourages betting by all but the
squarest of squares, those determined to put money on their
favorite team at any price. Occasionally sports books will start
a line half a point or even a point off the sharp number in order
to jump-start interest, then move it a click or two after money
starts coming in.

What the sports books hate most is a line that continues to draw
action on only one side, even as the number is adjusted.
Situations like that lead troubled sports-book managers to call
LVSC and unload their anxiety on whoever answers the phone. "How
could you give a number like that?" they wail. It doesn't matter
that the game might end up with exactly the spread that the
opening line predicted. That line led to undue exposure for the
sports books, and sports books hate exposure.

It is a slippery animal, the number, and a moving target. Every
point spread has to provide some accurate measure of how the
teams stand relative to each other, yet it must also reflect
public opinion at the moment it is hung. Most important, it has
to limit the casinos' exposure to losses, or be easily moved to a
number that will. "The whole idea in booking," Roxy liked to say,
"is to stay out of disasters."

And even a perfect number, a number beyond reproach, may not be
good enough. One midweek injury, one feature story in a national
magazine that raises the public's awareness of a significant
player, one sighting of a quarterback carousing, throws a wrench
into all those careful calculations. Yet even those imponderables
won't reduce the oddsmaker's responsibility. The line the casino
bean counters care about most is the bottom one.

Such is the pressure on Robaina day after day. No wonder he has
come to trust computer models and statistics. No wonder Roxy is
in Thailand right now, sitting on some beach, dabbling in
Internet wagering on cricket and counting his money. Robaina
thinks about this. He'd cash out too, if he had the chance.

Inside his house in a gated Las Vegas subdivision, Sinisi keeps a
photo of his father on his desk. Tony Sinisi Sr., a moon-faced
man with a beaming smile, looks natty in a Miami restaurant
alongside men called Fat Mikey, Chew and Billy Bell. For his son,
the photo encapsulates the old man's life.

After Little Tony moved west and became an oddsmaker--turned the
family business legitimate, in a sense--he went back to Altoona
for visits. In the years before Big Tony died, he would greet his
son with a hug. "Picking any winners?" the old man would say, and
his eyes would twinkle. Looking back, Little Tony remembers those
moments as the happiest of his life.

These days Sinisi is the only guy at LVSC for whom oddsmaking is
a romantic profession. On a hot Saturday morning, cars roll
toward Lake Mead as if in a caravan, but Sinisi doesn't mind
going to work. His stepkids are grown, his wife is a mortgage
loan officer. If he were home, he'd probably be watching the
games anyway.

He walks into the building, past a display of random sports
artifacts in the lobby. There's a genuine Mickey Mantle hat but
also an autographed picture of former Los Angeles Lakers coach
Randy Pfund. A publicity photo of the 1977 Marquette men's
basketball team, dolled up in tuxedos and positioned around an
antique roadster, is hung next to David Humm's old Oakland
Raiders jersey. It's as if someone wanted to send the message
that, though the handicapper and the fan watch the same sports,
they see the world through different eyes. If Mantle's hat is the
World Series, the fading glossy of Pfund is that Brown-Dartmouth
game. To an oddsmaker they deserve equal billing. Every game is a
challenge to find the right number, nothing more.

Inside the LVSC offices, pennants of various college and
professional teams are arranged along one wall in a halfhearted
attempt at decorating. If not for the 11 televisions on the far
wall, this could be the sports department of a medium-size daily
newspaper. Four oddsmakers are here on this Saturday morning,
ostensibly working at their computers but really watching games.
The men who handicap college football are trying to spot
something that might help predict next week's results. They're
also rooting for themselves. Though they know that the purpose of
a betting line is not merely to predict the outcome of a game,
they have no other way to judge their work.

Sinisi, who takes special note when his number differs markedly
from those of the other oddsmakers, will watch Notre Dame-Purdue
this afternoon, but not really because he wants to prove himself
right. He's just curious, is all. He feels sure Purdue will win
by more than 10 points. He feels it in his bones, as his father
would have said.

Purdue takes a 10-0 lead over Notre Dame, which then kicks a
field goal to pull within a touchdown, Robaina's original spread.
Robaina is too busy to acknowledge this; it's just one game out
of many. But when Ramsey, scheduled to work the late shift, walks
through the door more than an hour early, his eyes turn
immediately to the television. He'd been watching the game at his
house, which is just a couch and a couple of beds away from being
unfurnished, and he came in to see the second half. "There's
obviously a little bit of ego involved in this," he says. He
pauses to watch Purdue's quarterback throw toward an open
receiver, then grimaces when the pass goes awry. "Actually, a
tremendous amount of ego."

Ramsey wants nothing more than to succeed at his chosen
profession. He wants it more than he wants a girlfriend or a new
car, and consciously or not, he is modeling himself after the
most successful oddsmaker he knows. He has grown a goatee like
Robaina's, has taken to eating lunch at the Mexican restaurant
Robaina eats at. What Robaina does is deceptively simple, like
Hemingway's writing. It takes hard work and years of experience,
but there is nothing mystical about it.

Sinisi's more intuitive approach is far harder to replicate.
Either you're born able to do what he does, Ramsey thinks, or you

Ramsey approaches his own situation with equanimity. "I don't
really expect these guys to shade their numbers for me, not yet,"
he says. "It's satisfying enough for me that I can do this
competently, that I'm making a living making odds." The fact that
he's actually making a living answering phones and sending faxes
is immaterial to him. In his mind he's on the verge of showing
Robaina what he can do. "I really don't feel that I'm that far
behind," Ramsey says. "Once in a while I'll be off, maybe a
couple of games a weekend. But most of the time I'm right there."

Perhaps Notre Dame-Purdue will be the game that opens Robaina's
eyes, but for every game Ramsey pegs, Robaina can point to five
numbers Ramsey proposed that would have cost a sports book
thousands of dollars--if he were inclined to think of Ramsey at
all. While Robaina works on the following week's college games,
he monitors the screens with an eye to the second-half lines he
has to set as each first half ends. He reviews numbers for the
last weekend of the baseball season, and by Sunday afternoon he
must finish his NFL picks for the following week. Worrying about
the oddsmaking progress of his phone clerk is a luxury he doesn't

Ramsey's the last man on the bench, getting in shape for the
coming season, though there's no evidence he'll play in a single
game. He set out to be an oddsmaker a few years ago because he
often traveled down to Tijuana from his San Diego home and won
money betting on pro sports. "I'm already getting prepared for
pro basketball," he says, still looking at the television screen.
"Last week I bought a preseason annual."

by some alignment of cosmic factors that make punt returns go a
certain way and defenders miss tackles and perfectly diagrammed
plays end imperfectly, Purdue defeats Notre Dame by 23-10, or
precisely the 13 points Ramsey predicted.

If nothing else, it indicates that Ramsey understood the
relationship between the two teams, at least on a single
afternoon in West Lafayette, Ind. He knows it means plenty, but
also nothing at all. "I judge myself on line movement," he says,
and his line of 13 would have moved down to 10 1/2 by midweek. In
that sense, it would have been wrong. Yet once the line started
moving, all those bets on Notre Dame that kept it moving would
have been winners for the casino.

Sinisi, one desk away, has a less complicated reaction. His 14
nudged the line LVSC sent out to 10 1/2, which was a better
number to hang--by any reckoning--than Robaina's seven. Sinisi
leaves the office feeling satisfied with his day's work. He's
approaching 50, and he's not sure how much longer he wants to, as
he puts it, "sit in the same room thinking up the same numbers,
day after day." Then he recalls how proud his father was that
he'd taken the family business into a second generation. At those
moments he can't imagine doing anything else.

For Robaina, Notre Dame-Purdue has long since left the radar
screen. Where Ramsey was looking for validation and Sinisi for
the ending to an intriguing short story, Robaina saw just another
number. He's at home now with his wife and daughter, but he
barely notices them. He's making the halftime lines on the late
college games. Then he has to decide on his final numbers for the
Sunday-morning meeting. After that he'll turn his attention to
the NFL. It is an endless carousel of kickoffs, tip-offs and
first pitches, one game blurring into the next.

As the skies darken over the desert, Robaina takes the sheaf of
papers from his briefcase and lays it out on a table. Fifty-two
college games to consider next week. He starts his session with
his mind blank, knowing little other than that each one has a
number hidden somewhere inside, waiting to be found.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY ANITA KUNZCOLOR PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON When it comes to his numbers, Robaina has the ARROGANCE OF ROGERCLEMENS shaking off his catcher with the game on the line.COLOR PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON To Sinisi, oddsmaking is about nuance. He doesn't so much reachthe right answer as INTUIT A POSSIBLE ANSWER.COLOR PHOTO: LENNOX MCLENDON/AP Roxy looked like nobody's image of a gambler. With hisbutton-down shirts, he was the OPPOSITE OF JIMMY THE GREEK.COLOR PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON Ramsey's the last man on the bench, getting in shape for thecoming season, though there's NO EVIDENCE HE'LL PLAY in a singlegame.