By Brian Tuohy
LAS VEGAS -- Some would say you have to see a game played at Green Bay's Lambeau Field once in your lifetime. Others would claim the ultimate football experience is to witness the Super Bowl in person. For the football gambler, there is no better place to be on an NFL Sunday than at the SuperBook at the Las Vegas Hotel in Nevada.
"This," as first-time SuperBook patron Steve Douglas said, "is truly football heaven."
The SuperBook touts itself as the world's largest race and sports book. It is 30,000 square feet of sports gambling paradise, featuring 19 betting windows, 28 large-screen TVs and seating for more than 400. But come Sunday, the LVH opens up its 1,500-seat theater (once home to none other than Elvis Presley) for what's known as Football Central. There, football fans can catch all the day's action on 11 giant HD screens with the featured game shown on an 18-by-22-foot HDTV while rubbing elbows with recreational and professional sports gamblers alike.
"What I love about this place," said bettor Ben Dvorchak, "is that the guy sitting next to you may have $20 on the game or $100,000 down. I've sat next to both, and they're rooting for their bet all the same. There's a sense of comradery here, even if you're on opposite sides."
Jay Kornegay, the vice president of race and sports book operations at the LVH, oversees it all. Kornegay, 50, graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. "The one thing I knew when I graduated," he relates with a chuckle, "was that I was not going into the restaurant business."
Instead, he came to Las Vegas and began working his way up the ranks in the sports books. Soon, Kornegay took charge as the director of the sports book at the Imperial Palace (now the Quad). There, he was allowed room to innovate. The Imperial Palace became the first sports book to have a TV at every seat. Then it opened the first drive-thru sports book, all while offering some of the most entertaining prop bets on the Strip. About 10 years ago, he was offered the position he currently holds at the LVH, which he's thankful for, as the number of sports book director jobs vanish with more corporate control in the industry.
"The biggest misconception about my job is people think I know who'll win," Kornegay said. "I'm not a handicapper; I'm a bookmaker. I'm an administrator. I'm a director."
Indeed, he wears many hats. His favorite part of the job, though, is making odds and setting the lines. This is also the most secretive aspect of what occurs at the LVH, and Kornegay has been hesitant to allow any outsiders in the room when he and his staff set their lines. He and four or five of his crew determine the numbers, often just hashing it out over a conversation. Each of the assistant managers specializes in a particular sport, and the LVH offers odds on virtually every sport from the Big Four (NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL), to college, to NASCAR, to golf and soccer, where they book bets on 13 different international soccer leagues.
While off-shore sports books may beat them to the punch when offering odds on daily sports like the NBA or MLB -- and that is only because the off-shore books open earlier in the day -- the LVH is the first in the nation to set the point spreads on NFL games. Their numbers come out two weeks ahead of time. When I visited Kornegay the Tuesday after Week 10, Week 12's numbers had already been released earlier that day. Week 11's adjusted numbers were posted on Sunday afternoon at 4:30. Usually a line forms to bet into both.
Football is the king when it comes to sports betting in the United States. At the LVH, Kornegay estimates 45 percent of the money wagered is on college football and the NFL. "We're writing more college than pro these days," he reports, "but that is mainly due to the diversity of the college schedule." For example, one of the games Kornegay followed on the 14 television screens in his office was the Tuesday night MAC clash between the Toledo Rockets and Buffalo Bulls. "This game would be widely ignored if it was played on the Saturday schedule. But tonight it's getting probably 30 percent more action than it would have because it's on TV. The television coverage makes a difference."
But the LVH doesn't set up Football Central for college football, just the NFL. It makes for an extraordinary day for Kornegay. He'll arrive at the SuperBook when it opens at 7 a.m., passing the line of customers already there waiting for a full day of NFL action. Once inside, "I'm checking to see who's here in terms of guests and if I need to greet anyone." His job involves a lot of glad-handing, awarding (and sometimes denying) "comps" to his best customers. This is the true nature of his job: customer service. Kornegay speaks that way as well. Bettors are referred to as guests or customers, not gamblers. His job is to make sure all have an enjoyable experience at the SuperBook.
"Sports books are no longer just amenities for a casino," Kornegay explains. "It's a revenue producing machine. As the public becomes more educated about gambling, they know and are discovering the true value, the entertainment value, of sports betting. For $20, you can sweat it out for three hours. How about that?" he adds with a grin.
He appears on a local ESPN radio show every Sunday at 8:25 a.m., which is remotely broadcast from the inside the SuperBook, for 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes he'll squeeze in a few cell phone interviews for a variety of people who want the latest update from Vegas while he walks around the book. He has to check and make sure everyone is in place -- the audio guy, the projector guy, the betting stations, security -- for when Football Central's theater opens at 9 a.m., an hour before kick-off.
He'll then check on the lines, seeing where the book stands on each game in case he's not comfortable on a position. Kornegay has the final say when it comes to a number, but it is a democracy, a group effort. "I value my assistants' opinions, and in some cases, I'll be like, 'OK.' But they're going to hear about it if they're wrong," he laughs. "Life's too short for me to get excited about one game. Sometimes we're going to be wrong. Sometimes I make bad lines -- and they'll give me a hard time about that, too. That's what makes it fun."
"But if I feel like we need to change some lines, we'll do it," he adds. "I'll say, 'let's move that because it's getting kind of high, and maybe we can get some of it back.' Sometimes we can, and sometimes we can't."
Why are the lines moving? Many times, it is an attempt to get even action on a game. This is often a bookmaker's unstated goal. He wants to limit his liability by having the losers pay off the winners while collecting the book's take on winning bets. But as Kornegay points out, "It's almost like 19 out of 20 games aren't balanced. We always have a decision. We try to be in the best possible position to win."
What does that mean? "Well, most likely you have a pretty good opinion of what the line should be and what they are betting," he explains. "If they are betting the Packers -10 all night long and you know the line should be at 7 or 8, you know they aren't getting a very good number. I don't need to move it. I'll let them bet it because I know that they are not getting away with anything. It's a little cat-and-mouse-game we play every single day in here. It's doesn't matter if it's basketball, baseball, hockey, football; it's always a little battle to position ourselves where we want to be on that particular game. We're going to go ahead and let them play, even through we're accumulating liability. I don't need to move the line because it's the type of money we're comfortable with. Now other money may come in on the other side, and I may move the line then, but I might not. But that depends on who it is betting."
Those plays strong enough to cause Kornegay & Co. to move a line often come from the small percentage of true, full-time pros who venture to the SuperBook to bet. They are not as numerous as one would suppose. "Most use gambling to supplement their income while working another job," Kornegay reports. "It keeps a lot of them out of trouble." He's also quick to warn, "You have to be really disciplined if you want to try to do this for a living, and as I always say, define 'a living.'"
When Sunday's games kick off, Kornegay wants to make sure everyone's doing their job. Sometimes they are missing a game on a screen, or the wrong audio signal is broadcast in the theater. But all of these minor corrections are made through texting. When halftime arrives, they have to check the second half lines as well as the giveaways and promotions the SuperBook may have running.
As the first round of games near their finale, the energy in the theater ramps up significantly. The SuperBook crew has to coordinate which games they want customers to see and hear, and there is always a difference of opinion on which is the most important. With everyone's money is on the line, many fans turn into Ramsey from the Bud Light commercial, yelling at the action on the big screens. It is then Kornegay will check with security and make sure they are in place because, as he points out, "People can get a little ... hot at the end of the games." Though trouble is rare.
Only once the afternoon games have started does Kornegay and his 50+ person staff finally get a breather. After those games end, they re-release the lines that were originally posted on Tuesday for the upcoming week, adjusted based on what occurred that afternoon.
Then comes what Kornegay labels "one of the biggest decisions of the week": the Sunday night game. Monday Night Football is still an attraction, no doubt, but due to its "flex" schedule, the Sunday night game often features a premier match-up which creates a lot of betting action. "Hopefully we had a good day so we don't have all of this liability going into the Sunday night game, but most of the time we do, so it's always a stressful game." He continues, "Usually everything is on the line with the Sunday night game because of all the residual parlays that can carry over, especially if it's looking like a one-sided game, like, say, the Panthers playing the Packers. That's all we need because eight out of 10 tickets are on the Packers." Once the Sunday night game kicks off, Kornegay heads home.
But the day's not done. He's still checking in, watching the halftime lines and monitoring where the money is. "Sometimes you get into situations where you have a pretty big, ugly number staring at you in the face," Kornegay laments. "If the Packers cover tonight, it's going to be a really bad day. I feel pressure there because I want to do well. I want to win."
The nearly 24/7 grind of sports can wear even on a bookmaker. He's lucky to have a wife who's not just understanding of this lifestyle, but an avid sports fan herself. She'll watch any game with him. "Like we could watch this game," he says pointing to Buffalo vs. Toledo, "and she'd ask, 'Who do we need?' And I'd say, 'We need Buffalo plus 4.' She'd say, 'OK, which team is that?' I'd respond, 'That's the blue team.' 'OK. Go Buffalo.' But she knows her stuff. She knows all about baseball, she knows all about football. She's a die-hard Bronocs fan, and loves the Rockies so much so that they'll be down 9-1 in the ninth and she won't let me change the channel."
"Even though I'm not here every day, with today's technology, I'm always answering a call, text or email." The emails are not about this game or that. These are mostly administrative in nature, ranging in details from special events to maintenance to the development of renovations within the SuperBook to 401K plans to ordering TV packages and promotional T-shirts. "I don't just watch TV. I don't just make odds. It's like running your own little company. We work a lot on marketing. We just finished up our New Years' specials, and are going to start on the Super Bowl. I don't just sit and think, 'How many points is LeBron going to score tonight? Oh... 23½.'"
One of Kornegay's main focuses these days has become development of the LVH's SuperContest. Begun in the late 1980s, the SuperContest pits some of best football handicappers in the country against each other in a NFL season-long football pool. The entry fee is $1,500 with the top 30 finishers collecting prize money. Last year, the SuperContest had a record 745 entries with the grand prize winner taking home $447,000.
What's great about it is the fact that anyone can enter. All a player needs is $1,500 and the ability to be in Las Vegas during the sign-up period. You do not need to reside in Nevada to participate. In order to submit your five picks against the spread each week, however, one would require a local proxy (you cannot phone in your picks). Such a person seems easy to find, especially when most are willing to assist for a cut of the potential profits.
"This year we hosted a SuperContest weekend at the end of August to kick off the football season," Kornegay enthuses. "We held a seminar where we had some of the top handicappers come in from around the country to discuss the trade, and we held a golfing event with a reception afterwards." Social media has helped the SuperContest grow in recognition and stature as well as in prize money with this year's winner set to collect more than $540,000. Because of this, as the SuperContest grows -- and it's up to 1,034 entries this season -- Kornegay envisions a day when it could become as popular as the World Series of Poker.
Such attention would only continue to build the SuperBook's reputation. Though the LVH isn't situated on the Strip like the MGM or Caesars Palace, it's become a destination for sports gamblers of all stripes. As Kornegay said, "Try and experience Vegas during the football season. Until you do, you just won't understand it. Coming into Football Central is such a unique experience that once you do it, you won't forget it. I love standing by the entrance and hearing first timers step inside and say, 'Holy s---!' He smiles, "It's totally cool."
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Brian Tuohy has been called America's leading sports conspiracy theorist, but really he's just highly skeptical when it comes to what the sports leagues tell their fans. He's also one of the few writers brave enough to tackle the topic of game fixing in sports, detailing evidence of it in his books Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and the FBI and The Fix Is In: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR. He also runs the semi-popular website thefixisin.net.