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.’”
However, Muller suffered an elbow injury in 2013 and missed the second half of the season, plummeting to No. 368 in the rankings. It took all of 2014 to regain ground, but he did, finishing at No. 47 in the world rankings. He continued to move up in 2015, with Lisandro back along for the ride, again cashing in by playing the Over on Muller’s matches.
This year, though, was when Lisandro finally swayed others with his Muller mania. Now 34 years old, Muller earned his first two ATP titles this season, then made the career-best-tying run at Wimbledon, beating Nadal in a marathon five-set match to reach the quarterfinals.
“I’ve won over $200,000 on him, picking the right matches,” Lisandro proclaims. “For years, when I was mentioning his name, people would look at me like, ‘What the f--- are you telling me?’ Now, they’re finally recognizing me. He beat Nadal at Wimbledon, and I bet the Over and bet him to win the match. It’s the pinnacle of my sports betting career. I follow Muller his whole career, and he finally got there.”
BET ON YOURSELF
While poker may be considered more a game than a sport, that doesn’t stop folks from betting on it, especially in those betting-mad English and Irish markets. Such a wagering cross-over comes naturally to the 49-year-old Channing, a London resident for 30 years now.
“I was into sports betting and poker simultaneously, from a very young age,” he says. “I played poker first when I was 12 and made my first sports bet at 13. The legal age to bet is 18, and I was going into bookie shops at 15.”
Much as his success in that aforementioned Rams-Titans Super Bowl was a highlight, Channing rates another wagering victory higher still.
“My craziest bet was a poker bet,” he says. “I played a poker tournament, the Irish Open, nine years ago. There were 667 players, it cost $5,000 to enter, and first prize was $1.2 million. The sportsbook put a line on every player, and they made me 200/1, which I thought was about right. After Day 1, there were 221 players left, and I had 1.5 times the average chips.
“I was in the Top 20, and they made me 100/1, a shade higher.”
Channing couldn’t let that stand.
“So I said, ‘Let me have 500 pounds,’” which worked out to about a $750 wager. “And I won the tournament, and got an extra $75,000!”
A few days after Lisandro delivers his story on Gilles Muller, he sends a text that reads: “Got Serbian gangster story when I gave him a tip on a Russian soccer game. It’s hilarious.”
That’s too juicy to turn down, and Lisandro is quite eager to tell it, so here we go…
Twenty years ago, Lisandro was living in Russia, and he knew a lot of guys who were pretty good at betting sports.
“So, one Serbian guy reaches out to me and he said, ‘Jeff, do you have any tips on soccer?’ I told him there was one game coming up in Russia, when it was gonna be on, and the team that everybody thought should win,” Lisandro says, adding that the game was still a week away. “The game is played, and in the 88th minute, the score is 1-1. And I’d forgotten I’d given the Serbian guy the tip, but I’m watching the game live on TV.
“He rings me up and starts screaming at me. He says, ‘Jeff, I had a 15-team parlay, and this is the last one. They have to win or I lose my money.’ He starts swearing at me and saying I cost him so much money.”
But, as Lisandro knows, the Serbian isn’t actually watching the game, rather following it on a scoreline that only updates every few minutes. And what happens as he’s ranting at Lisandro?
“The team we need to win scores in the 89th minute to go up 2-1. But he didn’t know, because he’s not paying attention,” Lisandro says. “So I said, ‘What do you want? Do you want me to call up and tell them to score one more time?’ And he said yes.”
After hanging up, the Serbian bettor gets the update and is surely thrilled, but moments later, the opponent scores to tie it at 2-2.
“He calls me back and starts screaming again,” Lisandro says.
And yet again, during three minutes of injury time, the good guys score to go up 3-2. But again, the Serbian bettor isn’t watching the game, instead continuing to lash out at Lisandro.
“He says, ‘You destroyed me. We need another goal.’ I told him, ‘I’ll call them one more time and ask for one goal, and then I never want to talk to you again.’ And then I hung up on him, because I knew the score was 3-2. One minute later, he calls me up, this time cheering. ‘Jeffrey, I won so much money. Thanks for the tip.’”
HOLE IN ONE GANG
Golf and betting go together like hot dogs and beer, or across the pond, like scones and tea. Back in the early 1990s, still well before the Internet crashed the sports betting party, a group in Britain made out quite well, thanks to some solid research and smooth talking. It’s a tale that’s made the rounds on the betting web in different forms, but May and Channing both feel pretty good about their recollection.
Holes in one are obviously not terribly common, but neither are they completely unlikely, particularly among professional players. But at that time, some British bookmakers weren’t always pricing such a feat appropriately, offering far-too-generous odds.
In looking over four specific tournaments that year – the Masters, the British Open and a couple of smaller events -- a couple of sharp Brits had figured out that over the course of a four-day tournament, the true odds for a hole in one should be around even money. As May and Channing relay, with that information in hand, these wiseguys had a plan to do better, many times over.
“So they turned to a friend of ours who had been in the gambling world forever, was a poker player, and he was a great storyteller. We’ll call him Marty,” May says. “They decided he’d have the job of getting as much money down as possible, in Ireland and the U.K.”
The plan required scouring the Yellow Pages – remember, this is the early 1990s – to dredge up the addresses of bookmakers, primarily independent shops or very small chains, which were less likely to catch on and could be persuaded into better odds. Then “Marty” would swing into action with a heart-wrenching tale of potential financial calamity.
As May recalls it, “He would go to these bookmakers and say, ‘I’ve got a real big problem and I need some help. I was playing pool, I got drunk, and I was having a conversation with someone about the price of a hole in one in the British Open. I’m saying 100/1. And the guy says he’ll bet me 50 pounds, and I took the bet. I’m gonna lose 5,000 pounds if I lose this bet. I can’t tell my wife I’ve lost 5,000 pounds.’”
Then Marty would plead – or perhaps more accurately, coyly negotiate – with the bookmaker, hoping to generate the necessary sympathy. It worked, many times over.
“Marty would ask the bookmaker, ‘What price would you say it really is?’ They’d come back and say 40/1, 50/1, 20/1 or whatever. And he’d ask, ‘How much do I have to bet to take my risk away, to not have to pay that $5,000?’”
The bookmaker would deduce that sum, Marty would make the bet, and it was on down the road to the next small shop, to do it all over again. And the liability for those books mounted in a hurry, thanks in part to what’s normally the bookmaker’s best friend: the parlay.
“They parlayed them up, or sometimes just did a straight bet on one tournament, depending on what they felt they could get away with,” Channing says. “Obviously parlaying such massively favorable odds increases variance, but it’s the best way to play it. Three of the four events they used had a hole in one. If all four had, they would have won millions.”
Still, “Marty” and his crew did quite well, tallying in the neighborhood of $300,000, along with another interesting acquisition, according to Channing.
“One bookie just said, ‘Now, you’re gonna own my shop.’ And he just threw him the keys and walked away.”
In poker parlance, that’s a bookie who knows when to hold ‘em, and knows when to fold ‘em.
Patrick Everson is a Las Vegas-based senior writer for Covers. Follow him on Twitter: @Covers_Vegas.