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October 18, 2018

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A bettor’s guide to sports books

The considerations: Odds, amenities, creativity and you, the earnest gambler


Steve Marcus

Bettors enjoy the action at the Las Vegas Hilton Superbook. Las Vegas sports book are in for a big weekend with the kickoff of college football.

One of the Best

The Las Vegas Sun named the Las Vegas Hilton Sports Book one of the best sports books in the area.

It might be fun to speculate about sports betting’s “wise guys,” about what they’re up to on any given football Sunday, about which teams they think will cover the spread, about how many piles of money they’re betting and where they’re betting them.

The truth is, though, I don’t particularly care about “wise guys” — a term that in this context means sophisticated professional sports gamblers rather than Harry the Hunchback & Co.

I certainly don’t care about their travails in getting money down in Las Vegas sports books.

If they’re wise guys, I figure they can fend for themselves.

I’m more concerned about sports betting’s little guys, whose average wager is in the two figures, the three figures or the low four figures. In gambling lingo, the latter two are known as “nickel” ($500) and “dime” ($1,000) bettors.

As long as we’re going to have legalized, state-regulated sports betting in Nevada, those bettors, the lifeblood of the business, deserve fair treatment in the sports books and an opportunity to make their wagers without being hassled by paranoid or inept casino personnel.

That’s why the treatment of customers, attractive betting lines and the ability to make a decent-size bet were three of the most significant factors in rating every sports book operation in Las Vegas on a scale of zero to three stars.

The depth of the betting menu and the variety of creative wagering propositions were also considered, with extra weight given to imaginative oddsmaking that rises above the quotidian.

Factors such as atmosphere, aesthetics, comfort, convenience, nearby amenities and intangibles also came into play.

The ratings, which roughly coincide with the start of the 2008 football season, are based on groups of sports books, not individual properties. (For example, the Bellagio and New York-New York are not rated separately, but are considered under the single entry “MGM Mirage.”)

Ratings are largely subjective, and your list will likely differ from mine.

3 stars (highest rating)

Las Vegas Hilton: The Hilton reigns as the pound-for-pound champ of sports books thanks in part to a top-notch team of oddsmakers behind the scenes and a professional, courteous staff working the betting windows. Attractions include the city’s best selection of Super Bowl betting propositions, early-bird NFL lines posted nearly two weeks before kickoff rather than the week of the game, and some of the most competitive future-book odds anywhere. A diversified betting menu features a tremendous selection of golf odds as well as lines on tennis, soccer and esoteric European sports. If you’re looking for it, it’s probably here. If every sports book were run like this, the phrase “Las Vegas: Gambling Capital of the World” would be more than an outdated banality.

Lucky’s sports book at the Plaza: The Plaza sports book would have received a top rating even if it had not recently been taken over by Lucky’s, a new operation that promises an aggressive approach to sports betting. Even before the change in management, bettors at the Plaza could find gambler-friendly odds, fair parlay cards, props on major horse races, and odds on obscure boxing matches.

The laid-back, retro appeal of the property’s upstairs sports lounge was enhanced by the presence of a small satellite betting window during football season.

Just a couple of weeks after the opening this summer, Lucky’s oddsmakers had already put up lines on every regular-season NFL game along with a lot of intriguing props related to the imminent football season — I do mean a lot. And as Isaac Davis said in “Manhattan,” a lot is my favorite number.

The Palms: A single-property, independent sports book operation like the Hilton, the Palms offers a rich variety of betting options and tight, bettor-friendly lines in every sport but pro basketball. It’s a required stop for future-book bettors, prop players and those looking for creative sports wagering opportunities. The resort’s great amenities don’t hurt, with superb restaurants and strong casino gambling steps away.

The possibilities are limited only by the silly prohibition on NBA and WNBA betting, a result of the Maloof family’s ownership of the Sacramento Kings and Monarchs as well as the Palms.

Note to league and state gaming officials: That’s me calling it silly (because it is), not the owners of the casino. They, wisely, have no desire to rock the boat.

South Point: Knowledgeable sports bettors are made to feel welcome here, rather than merely tolerated. The book offers all the little extras that appeal to avid sports bettors including plenty of overnight lines, a full menu of over/under bets including many that aren’t widely offered in Las Vegas, and generous betting limits. The sports book at the South Point is linked with the book at the El Cortez.

2 stars (good to very good)

Hard Rock: This is a physically small book hampered by 20-cent baseball lines, but it’s in a casino with a fantastic high-energy ambience — and they’ll take a bet. Not once has one of my wagers prompted a mini-conference among a bevy of empty suits, complete with the requisite dirty looks and muttering. I wish I could say the same about some of the lower-rated sports books. In fact, the Hard Rock earns high marks for epitomizing the ideal Las Vegas gambling experience: Sometimes, before completing the wagering transaction, the clerks will ask, “Don’t you want (to bet) any more?”

MGM Mirage (Bellagio, et al.): Yeah, yeah, their future-book odds, consistently among the worst in the city, are in desperate need of improvement. And I know, I know ... those 20-cent baseball lines. But these joints do, invariably, accept a wager without demanding my Social Security number and mother’s maiden name. (Again, the books further down on the list could take a lesson.) Like the other solid sports books in town, they’re well-versed in the art of taking a whack at the window first, adjusting the point spread second. And the amenities can’t be beat. Somehow it becomes easy to forget about 20-cent baseball lines when you order a complimentary glass of vodka from the cocktail server in the Bellagio’s sports book and she has two questions for you: Would Grey Goose be OK, sir? And, would you care for a double? Plus, I’ve been a sucker for those Ralph Lauren outfits since Day 1.

Station Casinos (Red Rock Resort, et al.): The locals-oriented chain offers several “destination books” for Las Vegas-area residents, including gems at Green Valley Ranch Station and Red Rock Resort. Besides covering the basics, they have emerged as the go-to book for motor sports wagering, a small but important part of the sports betting scene.

Stations also stands out by embracing ancillary events such as a popular football handicapping seminar. (Coincidentally, this year’s free two-day symposium starts today at Red Rock.)

Unlike less distinguished books, they take my bets without blinking. In fact, on more than a few occasions I’ve been walking out after placing a wager only to hear an announcement that the game I just bet has moved a half-point or a point. In other words, they practice a revolutionary concept called “good bookmaking.”

To become more of a one-stop shop — that is, to discourage me from leaving the friendly confines of Red Rock or GVR to head “into town” — I’d like to see a deeper wagering selection in some areas. For example, let’s have more college basketball totals on the board.

Venetian: This Strip joint consistently offers bettors an excellent value in its future books and goes beyond the ordinary with individual NFL player props and more mixed martial arts odds than just about anybody. It’s a well-appointed book and an enjoyable place to sweat your action. But please don’t hassle bettors to show room-key cards. That’s tacky and off-putting, like something you would expect to encounter at the Wynn sports book.

1 star (unexceptional)

Boyd/Coast (Gold Coast, et al.): Most of the sports and betting options are available, but like Major Major Major Major, they’re so mediocre that they stand out from the crowd.

They take action — eventually — but too often the scene plays out like this: After I verbally declare my wager, the clerk exhales loudly and disappears. He re-emerges from a back office with a person dressed in professional business attire. Not a word to me. The person dressed in professional business attire picks up a phone and talks to someone (not me) while occasionally glaring at me. After a while, I’m awarded my betting slip. Unfortunately, this kind of garbage exemplifies the reality, rather than the ideal, of the modern-day Las Vegas experience.

If an experience like that leaves you feeling dirty, you might want to stroll over to the blackjack tables to blow off a little steam. Forget about it. These sweat joints are the quickest in town to throw out gamblers who dare to display any brain-wave activity. Yes, there is some entertainment value in watching the pit bosses at these properties sprint across the floor to shove your chips out of the betting circle before the cards can be dealt ... although I’m pretty sure that’s an unintentional part of the entertainment lineup — a bonus, if you will. But when security follows you right off the property? Not so entertaining.

Cal Neva (multiple locations): At least at the Las Vegas locations, these books are frequently out to lunch — literally. They routinely close down for employee meal breaks, leaving would-be bettors and ticket-cashers stranded, in middle of the day, even when there’s a full slate of games on tap. This sort of behavior might have been acceptable in Las Vegas ... in about 1979. It still might fly at Cal Neva’s locations in the Northern Nevada dust bowls. Today in Las Vegas, which is ostensibly a real city, it indicates an operation that’s closer to bush league than big league.

Golden Nugget: In his book “Double or Nothing,” released this year, Tom Breitling revealed that when he and partner Tim Poster ran the Nugget they increased revenue in the sports book by 1,300 percent by opening up the betting limits. That brief shining moment is long gone.

Under their regime, I never encountered the maximum betting limit. I shouldn’t. I’m a small bettor, not even in the same universe as a wiseguy.

Yet under the current ownership, I constantly run into betting limits here. Not only do they fail to ask if I want more (a la the Hard Rock), but they usually inform me that they will, in fact, only accept less — whether I like it or not. It’s a sad state of affairs for anyone who cares about Las Vegas sports betting.

Leroy’s (multiple locations): Give Leroy’s credit for trying novel ventures such as the high-stakes “Money Talks” football handicapping invitational contest. Give them credit for appealing to sports gamblers by sponsoring a seven-nights-a-week sports betting radio show.

But can you think of anything more insulting to patrons than toke-hustling? Memo to clerks at Leroy’s downtown locations: If I wanted to be hustled for tips by sneering gaming-industry employees, I’d go play blackjack at Palace Station or Binion’s.

Planet Hollywood: The joint affectionately known as the Ho has a friendly, competent staff and some decent props. It’s an aesthetically attractive book and a fun place to watch games. It seems perfectly fine for tourists on the middle to south Strip, but it suffers in our ratings for one key reason: It’s so darn difficult to reach for Las Vegas locals, thanks to the least pleasant parking garage this side of Atlantic City. After parking, you have to walk about eight miles through a shopping mall — yes, a (shudder!) shopping mall — to reach the casino and sports book.

Rampart/Cannery: These two linked sports books at separate casinos offer a comfortable atmosphere while catering to local suburbanites in Summerlin and North Las Vegas.

Wynn Las Vegas: This book does some things well, but all too often after placing a wager I have left feeling like a lapsed Catholic who just barely managed to survive the Spanish Inquisition. After verbally stating my wager, I’ve been grilled at the betting counter about where I’m staying, whether I can present a room key, who exactly I think I am, etc.

Benefits include great horse racing propositions and easy access via the Strip’s best parking garage. A good poker room and one of the best buffets in the city are steps away.

The bottom line, though, is when you’re walking out of a sports book you should be thinking about the bets you just made, or how that evening’s games might turn out, or something along those lines. Not, “Geez, Torquemada had nothing on these guys.”

Zero stars (not recommended)

Harrah’s Entertainment (Harrah’s, et al.): This sports book voided bets even after the tickets had been printed and payment accepted because the supervisor said he “didn’t like the lines.” That’s a dishonest, unsavory business practice that has no place in Nevada (Sun, April 14, April 23). The phone number for complaints to the state Gaming Control Board is 486-2000. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

Jerry’s Nugget: I’ve known some bettors who have sought this place out for favorable odds on teasers, but I’ll never forget the day they restricted me to $100 maximum bets.

Poker Palace: An extremely low-limit locals joint. We do mean locals. If you’re a tourist and you end up here, you’re probably very, very lost. And we do mean low. I was once limited to a maximum of $80 on a bet. (Don’t ask — at least not if you’re looking for a logically coherent answer.) I shrugged and made it anyway. I lost.

Terrible’s: Oddly, this grind joint advertises in print and on TV as if it were a legitimate casino. I haven’t been able to take it remotely seriously, however, since the time they restricted me to maximum wagers of $200. Since then, I’ve considered it essentially a pretend sports book that deals only in chump change. Or only to chumps.

Penalty box (incomplete)

Stratosphere/Arizona Charlie’s: Typically, any half-decent sports book will pay out on a winning betting ticket that has passed its expiration date, except under extraordinary circumstances. In a May 16 column we detailed a shameful episode in which the Stratosphere declined to honor a recently expired ticket and instead tried to stiff the customer. The sports book eventually did the right thing and paid off in full (good) ... but only after our article appeared (bad). Take a seat next to Dave “the Hammer” Schultz until next year.

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