Thursday, January 15, 2009 Updated: January 16, 3:50 PM ET
Behind the Bets
Alan Boston will be following Blake Griffin in a classic trap game for the Sooners—at Texas A&M—on Saturday.
Alan Boston's day starts at 5:30. At this early hour, he scans the local papers for stories about all the college hoops teams that have a game that night and makes notes in his bloated three-ring binder. Every season gets a binder; every team has a page. Everything he reads and hears is filed away.
Earlier this week, before playing Missouri, Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said his four-guard starting lineup was going to treat the Tigers the way Mizzou treated the Huskers last season. Boston de-coded the statement: "Last year Nebraska had a great big guy and ran the offense through him. Teams would really grind it out against them. Now, the coach said, 'I'm going to do to them what they did to me.' With a small lineup, you'd think he'd want to get up and down. But instead, against Missouri he ground it out and made it uncomfortable for the Tigers. Nebraska won, 56-51. I won two bets, the under and Nebraska as a three-point dog."
The NFL has been fun folks, make sure to tip your bookmaker, but now is when the squares step aside and let the pros regain control of the betting boards. Because no sport provides wiseguys with an advantage like college hoops. This is their money season.
I know there are three pro football games left, including the biggest gambling day of the year. But to wiseguys, that's amateur hour. In fact, while you're elbow deep in French onion dip watching the conference title games, real handicappers are breaking down whether or not the coach at Central Florida can keep his talented young cagers motivated. (There's a reason they call the pros "wiseguys." They're supposed to know everything.)
Look at the situation from their perspective:
• In the NFL there are, at most, 16 games to choose from every week. College basketball can give you 200. There are more opportunities to attack mistakes in the line.
• In the NFL, John Clayton gives a SportsCenter update if the backup guard for the Bills is nursing an injured ego. Everyone listens to Johnny's reports, and it levels the playing field. But the only people paying attention to the health of Drexel's point guard are wiseguys and, if they've got the time, bookmakers.
• Which brings up my final point: Bookmakers track 300 DI hoops teams and post 20 lines every night. They've also got to simultaneously think about the NBA, NFL and hockey. Wiseguys can zero in one sport.
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Once hoops season gets rolling, I like to check in with Boston, as sharp a handicapper as I've met. But I'm biased. During the 1999-2000 season, while writing The Odds, I spent more time with him than I did my wife. I showed up at his house in Vegas before sunrise nearly every winter Saturday. He'd be at his desk working on his computer, listening to jazz, thinking about the day's games. We'd sit in his living room for the next 12 hours as we watched his bets—sometimes for as much as $20K—play out. The guy rarely got emotional. I think he snapped a pencil once. He was more upset when Freaks and Geeks was cancelled than when he lost a five-figure play.
Boston's got his issues with excess. He plays a lot of poker and spends too much money. Back in the day he loved cocaine. Then he sobered up, turning himself into a ripped, five-days-a-week workout nut. (He once got mad at me when I described him as a former cokehead turned vegan. He didn't think he deserved to be called a vegan yet.)
But the 50-year-old wiseguy, a Penn grad who fell in love with Big Five Philly hoops, doesn't just bet on baskets to feed his habit. Boston could spend his bankroll playing the ponies or tennis or golf. The college game, with so many teams getting so little attention, requires more nuance and expertise than any other sport.
"It's like a logic problem, figuring out when a team is preparing for its home run game," says Boston. "When is William and Mary going to be super motivated? Will it be for VCU or Old Dominion?"
That's their edge. We think about Wake and Duke; the wiseguys pull up stats from the Colonial. This is why Boston has his notebook.
There are easier ways for him to make his power ratings—software, algorithms—but Boston is old school. During the technological dark ages in the 1980s, he'd sit in a sports book and stare at a scoring scroll, which gave game-by-game updates every five minutes. It taught him about ebb and flow and that how a team holds a lead or closes out a loss can be as important as the final score. "With programmers, once you have that formula etched in stone, you are going to come out with a number that has no bias," says Boston. "But I like having a bias. Because when I'm good, I'm good. Of course when I'm bad, I'm really bad. I guess that's the problem with being a human being."
This season, we'll all get to decide if Boston's way works. For the rest of the college hoops schedule, I'll check in with him once a week and he'll lay down some logic about an upcoming game. We'll post Boston's Breakdowns every Thursday in the Behind The Bets column. And if you pony up as an Insider, you'll get access to Boston's Thursday Night Special pick.
Hey, it's not just the money season for handicappers.
Got a betting story for Chad? Email him.Read more Behind the Bets.Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.