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Thursday, June 4, 2009
Behind the Bets

This team cost one bettor $66,000. Yeah, that's a meltdown.

Summer's close, temperatures are rising, pretty soon every highway in the country will be a parking lot. Which means people are going to be melting down. And that gave me an idea (well, actually, it gave my editor an idea): What are the greatest meltdown scenes in sports betting history?

Granted, I haven't been in every stadium, sports book, basement, warehouse, speakeasy or living room since the Romans first wagered on the Christians and the lions. But I called around and got a sampling of some stories from guys who have seen or been a part of the worst of it over the past 30 years.

Here are some doozies:

SB XIII, Steelers vs. Cowboys When I first visited New York with my family years ago we went to the Museum of Broadcasting. I could have watched every television show ever made in the United States. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan. The last MASH. The first Leave it to Beaver. I chose this Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowl. It was their second showdown in the 1970s. The Steelers won the first (after the 1975 season), but heading into this game the Cowboys were the defending champs. It would go down as the greatest Super Bowl of the game's first two decades. With more than a dozen hall of fame players, including Dallas-bred Steeler star Joe Greene and Pittsburgh-raised Cowboys star Tony Dorsett, it's worthy of a book (in fact, I'm writing one about this game that's due out in fall of 2010.) But I didn't pull this memory out to make a shameless plug. Jimmy Vaccaro mentioned it to me as soon as I asked him for his favorite meltdown story.

Bookmakers landed upside down as well.

"The game opened with the Steelers favored by one-and-a-half in a lot of places," Jimmy remembers. "But as the week went on it got as high as Steelers minus-5, before ultimately settling on Pittsburgh minus-4. It was a disaster. Forget about the public, the game wasn't as big as it is now. The wise guy money from all over the country was huge. Bettors were getting the Steelers at minus-2, minus-3 and then betting the Cowboys at plus-4 and plus-5. The game ended 35-31. All the books got middled. What's worse, it didn't have to be that way. The Steelers were up by more than two touchdowns late, but gave up 14 garbage points. It hurt to watch. I was lucky, the little book I was running lost only $200,000. The guys at the Stardust, they lost $1.8 million. We call that day Black Sunday in Vegas. We learned a valuable lesson that year and that's when a lot of the props started happening, to ease the pain of that day. No one was prepared to see how bad that could be."

Santa Clara 89-Penn 76, Dec. 30, 1997 Naturally, when I called Alan Boston he had a college hoops meltdown ready. It was the Cable Car Classic in Santa Clara. The Santa Clara Broncos were a 12-point fave against Penn, Boston's alma mater. He was in the midst of one of his best season's ever and, although all the smart money that night was going to Santa Clara, Boston's power rating had Penn easily covering the game. He bet his max at the time, about $27,000. "It was one of the ugliest games I ever had," he says. Penn was up most of the night, leading by double digits, in fact. But they dribbled it away late and Santa Clara sent the game into OT. Even then, Boston's bet seemed safe. With four seconds left the Quakers were up by three when -- Doh! -- a Santa Clara soph named Brian Jones hit a desperation three. Tie game. In double OT, Penn fell apart, and lost the game by 13, leaving Boston one-point out of the money. "I was at dinner at a Chinese restaurant in the Chinatown mall in Vegas," says Boston. "I had the old beeper ticker. I think I laughed. No, I think I put my fist into the wall. Then I laughed and said, 'Oh well.'""It didn't pay off. He hadn't showered all weekend. He was in the same clothes. He had been chasing his bets non-stop. But that Sunday he was the loudest guy in the place rooting for the Ravens. That night, we had to get special authorization from our bosses to give him money so he could pay for a flight home."

Super Bowl XXXV, Ravens vs. Giants Technically, it was the weekend of the Super Bowl, because the bettor never actually gambled on the game. Scooch told me about this one. A guy showed up at The Stardust with $100K on that Friday. He planned to put it all on the Giants. But then he started betting on college and pro hoops, just to have a little fun. He lost, $1,000, then $2,000. Then $20,000. By Saturday night, he had blown through half his bankroll. By Sunday morning, he had $50 left. "He bet it on a seven-team college basketball parlay," says Scucci. "It didn't pay off. He hadn't showered all weekend. He was in the same clothes. He had been chasing his bets non-stop. But that Sunday he was the loudest guy in the place rooting for the Ravens. That night, we had to get special authorization from our bosses to give him money so he could pay for a flight home."

Fresno State-Arizona State, June 7, 2008. Almost no one bets on the College World Series. But last year, one gambler decided to take a shot. ASU was favored on the money line at minus-660 (meaning the gambler has to bet $660 to win $100, ie, he ends up with $760 total) So what does he do? This high roller bet $66,000 to win $10,000. This is crazy on a couple levels: 1. How is this a good investment? 2. How does a guy making this kind of investment have so much money? Naturally, he got a VIP room at the sports book (the bookmaker who told me this story didn't want himself or the book he was talking about to be id'd).

This game was the rubber match in a three-game series of the Super regionals. ASU was ranked third in the country, while Fresno was the lowest-ranked seed to ever to advance this far in the CWS. All looked good early, when ASU jumped out to a 2-0 lead. But then Fresno picked up three in the second. The two teams traded runs in the third, ASU tied it in the fourth and then went up by one in the fifth. But Fresno tied in the sixth and then…well, the Bulldogs blew up for six runs in the seventh. Then they added one more in the ninth. Half an inning left, the Sun Devils at bat, down 12-5. And slowly they surged. One run crossed the plate, two runs crossed the plate, three runs. The score is 12-8. The high roller was alone, in his VIP suite, standing up every pitch, then sitting down. Someone walked in to check on him and he was muttering about how much he would have to bet to get back to even, if he could. Another run, it's 12-9. And then it was over.

The Bulldogs had eaten this guy's $66K for lunch. "The sportsbook made more than $100k on a random Tuesday in June," my completely anonymous source told me. "Their bosses came down later that day and, instead of celebrating, asked, 'Can we lose that much on a random Tuesday also?'"

The answer is yes. It can happen to anyone.

If you've got an unbelievable meltdown story, Email the author.

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.