This year’s big finale has drawn more than 7,000 entrants, at $10,000 a pop, with more than $8 million going to the eventual winner. It’s the capper to a month-and-a-half string of tournaments that draw players from all over the world.
Those card sharks also very often engage in another wildly popular pastime: sports betting. Which comes as no surprise to longtime professional poker player Neil Channing.
“Poker, it’s like sex and driving. Everybody thinks they’re good at it. And sports betting probably, too,” Channing tells Covers while hunching over a plate of ham, eggs and hash browns at the Peppermill on the Vegas Strip.
Washing breakfast down with a Stella Artois, he quickly follows with another valid point.
“I don’t think there’s a casino in Vegas where the poker room is not next to the sportsbook.”
The British poker standout is enjoying a day off from the grind of the main event, joined by his good friend Jesse May, a former poker player turned poker commentator who now works in the sports betting industry in Europe.
And both of them easily recall several sports betting anecdotes from years past. Following are a couple of their best stories, along with recollections from poker standouts Maria Ho and Jeff Lisandro.
RIDING THE RAMS
Perhaps surprisingly for an Englishman, Channing has a very keen eye for the American sports scene. Early in the 1999-2000 NFL season, one team caught that keen eye: the St. Louis Rams.
“I was thinking that to beat them, you’re gonna need to score a lot of points,” he says. That was after the Rams, behind the previously unheralded Kurt Warner, beat Baltimore 27-10 and Atlanta 35-7.
“They were still like 150/1, maybe 100/1 to win the Super Bowl,” Channing says. “So I put like $50 bucks on it. Then they won the next game by like 30 points (38-10 over Cincinnati) and were 75/1, so I made a $200 bet. And I just kept doing that every week – at 40/1, 30/1, 20/1.”
St. Louis won its first six games, all by at least 17 points, then stubbed its toe in back-to-back road losses against Tennessee and Detroit. But the Rams followed by ringing up seven consecutive victories, with nary a close game in the entire lot. The tightest finish was a 34-21 win at Carolina as the team dubbed “The Greatest Show on Turf” tore through one opponent after another.
The Rams lost their regular-season finale at Philadelphia, then opened the playoffs by winning a shootout with Minnesota 49-37 at home in the divisional round. St. Louis then slogged to an 11-6 home victory over Tampa Bay in the NFC title game, and it was on to the Super Bowl as 7-point chalk against Tennessee.
“The week of the game, there was an offshore book that had the Rams at -300. But there was a book in England that had them at -200, which was a bit out of line. So I had some more. I couldn’t resist it,” Channing says.
St. Louis ultimately held on for a riveting 23-16 win, after stopping a desperately stretching Titans wideout Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line on the game’s final play.
“I’m usually quite relaxed about my bets,” Channing says. “I’ve watched that play a shitload of times, and never thought he was going to reach the goal line. But I was still pretty nervy.”
And the payout?
“I won like $100 grand on it. That was quite a big win for me at the time,” he recalls. “It was fun. I felt like I’d seen something early in the season that others hadn’t. I didn’t have any information. I just saw Kurt Warner and thought, ‘Yeah, this guy’s good.’”
Neil Channing (left) and Jesse May (right) share their favorite sports betting tales over breakfast at the famed Peppermill on the Las Vegas Strip.
WHEN TAILS FAILS
May was born and raised in New Jersey, so his affinity for the NFL makes a little more sense, even though he’s lived in Denmark since 2000. His days playing poker for a living are long behind him. “I was a professional poker player at a time when it basically meant finding drunks at 3 a.m.”
He’s since gone on to acclaim as the top poker commentator in Britain during a stretch from 1999-2011, and he’s now head of strategy at Matchbook, a sports betting exchange in Europe. But he still spends plenty of time in the poker world, including as part of a gathering of players for Super Bowl XL between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks.
“I went to school at the University of Chicago,” May recounts over a big salad at the Peppermill. “We started going out to Vegas for the Super Bowl, and it became a thing with a group of guys. I’ve been to Vegas for the Super Bowl 19 of the last 24 years. I’ve really never been that clever a sports bettor, but I ended up knowing some sharp guys.
“The thing about that Super Bowl were the prop bets,” he continues, noting an interesting proposition not in Vegas, but from an offshore shop. “Pinnacle opened a line on the coin toss, not whether it would be heads or tails, but what the player would actually call.”
May says his sharp buddies did some extensive research on it and determined the childhood saying, “Tails never fails,” actually holds up and that tails should have been a -400 favorite. But Pinnacle had a standard line of -110 on each side. So off he and his group went, on a wagering binge.
“In those days, there were lower limits, but then you can bet again,” he says. “We had 20 guys, one of them bet really heavy, and we were all pretty spread out. Between all of us, we moved the line from -120 to -280, then it came back to -160, and we pushed it out again. One guy had mid-six figures in bets, and I had basically all I could put on it, thousands of dollars. All of us had a lot.”
Then it was on to Vegas, to party during the game at Green Valley Ranch Resort.
“The game hasn’t even started yet, we’re in a suite and we have all this food and everything. I remember one buddy of mine walking around in a bathrobe,” May says, noting that all the friends he was with were poker players. “Usually, a quarterback or someone like that makes the call on the coin toss. But this time, the left tackle (Walter Jones) makes the call for the Seahawks. Now, the left tackle is often known as the smartest guy on the team, and sure enough, the guy calls heads.”
It was almost as if all the food immediately spoiled and the beer went stale, as the man in the robe and everyone with him took a proverbial bath.
“Everybody was broke before the game even started. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were lost in that room.”
THREE-PEAT, DRINK, REPEAT
As names, talent and personalities go in poker, Maria Ho is certainly among the best. She was the last woman standing in the 2007 and 2014 main events at the World Series of Poker, finishing 38th and 77th respectively, and she posted six individual tournament cashes during the 2012 World Series.
Ho’s love of competition extends well beyond the felt tables, too, as she participated in “The Amazing Race” in 2009. And she’ll even dabble in sports betting a bit – if the stars line up.
“I don’t really sports bet, but when I do, it has got to be because I genuinely root for the team involved,” Ho says. “That team is the Lakers.”
Which should come as no surprise, since Ho – born in Taiwan – has lived in the Los Angeles area since she was four years old.
“When I was younger and the team was good, it was easier to be a fan,” the 34-year-old Ho laments amid the constant clicking of poker chips in one of the two main event rooms at the Rio. She then relays her sports betting story from the last time the Lakers won the title, in the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics.
Poker pro Maria Ho (right) sits courtside to watch her favorite team, the Los Angeles Lakers - one of the few teams she will bet on.
“A bunch of poker players went to Lagasse’s Stadium (for Game 7)”, Ho recalls. “We decided to all put bets on the Lakers, from $500 to $5,000 and upwards. Nineteen out of the 20 of us wanted the Lakers to win, and we talked that one person into betting the Lakers too, for some team morale building.”
It was a low-scoring, back-and-forth game at Staples Center. With the Lakers going for a second straight championship, Ho’s group decided to make things a bit more entertaining in the second half, figuring at some point, the TV announcers might start looking ahead to the next season.
“Anytime they said ‘three-peat’ on the broadcast, you had to take a shot,” Ho says. “So needless to say, we had to take like 15 shots.”
Midway through the fourth quarter, the Lakers took the lead and never gave it back, holding on for an 83-79 victory. Los Angeles was a 7-point favorite, but Ho recalls winning her $2,500 bet – she smartly made a moneyline wager on her favorite team.
“I was drunk, happy and won some money!”
Renowned comedian George Carlin often referred to tennis as ping-pong played while standing on the table. But it’s certainly a legitimate sport worldwide, as betting numbers show, and it’s very popular in Australia, a nation with a rich tennis history.
Perhaps that’s why Aussie poker pro Jeff Lisandro is drawn to wager on tennis, among other sports betting pursuits. One player in particular has done a great deal to enhance Lisandro’s bank account over the past decade. And it’s not one of the usual suspects of, say, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.
“It’s Gilles Muller,” Lisandro says.
Muller has put together a respectable career, to be sure, but his deepest run in a Grand Slam tournament is to two quarterfinals trips – at Wimbledon earlier this month and in the 2008 U.S. Open – and he owns just two career titles. But in tennis betting, it’s not all about titles.
“About nine years ago, I started watching him playing,” Lisandro recollects in a hallway outside the main event, during a short break from the action. “I said, ‘He’s got the most incredible left-handed serve I’ve ever seen. So I looked into him and where he was ranked, and he was ranked maybe around 50th in the world, at 24-25 years old. A few months later, a few people started asking me, ‘Who do you like in tennis?’ And I told them that I’d been following this guy from Luxembourg.”
More than just following, Lisandro was making plays on the number of games Muller’s matches would go – always betting the Over.
“I looked at the rest of his game, beyond serving, and he had nothing,” Lisandro says. “But he’s always playing long matches. When he loses a set, it’s like 7-6. One year later, I’d won so much money on him, and I noticed he started improving in other areas. So I was betting him to win matches, at high prices. And finally, in 2012, I declared this guy a world beater. Everyone said, ‘You’re mad,’ but they never looked at the results.”