All booked up in Vegas

The Baltimore Sun

Las Vegas -- Wearing a Ravens baseball cap and an old No. 31 jersey, Charlie Carnaggio was a beacon of Baltimore pride sitting among several hundred fellow gamblers packed into the Las Vegas Hilton's cavernous sports and race book last Sunday. There were Romos and Bradys and Mannings all over the place, but Carnaggio was the only one sporting purple and black.

"My father goes back to the 1958 Colts championship game and used to work the gate at Memorial Stadium," Carnaggio said. "Me, I go back to Bert Jones. I went to nearly every game in the 1970s and '80s."

And in January 2001, he was in Tampa, Fla., for the Ravens' Super Bowl.

The former Parkville resident now calls Southern California home and works in the movie business as a prop master. But six times or so every fall, he makes the pilgrimage to Vegas, where he'll spend most of a weekend betting on football.

And Carnaggio has plenty of company among football gamblers. For the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, casinos in Nevada - the only state with widespread legal sports gambling - had revenues of $101.7 million on football betting alone. And that represents only a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly billions, wagered on the Internet or with illegal bookies or in friendly office pools.

Undoubtedly, having a little something on a game is as much a part of America's infatuation with football as come-from-behind touchdown drives.

Carnaggio began making his football trips to Vegas 20 years ago, when an $11 bet (to win $10) could make him break out in a sweat. He has grown quite a bit since then. Last Sunday, his mid-range wagers were $100 to $200. Games he liked a lot warranted $300 to $400. He never goes against the Ravens, but if he's unsure of them, he keeps his bets to a modest $50.

However, against the Cincinnati Bengals, when the Ravens were actually about a three-point favorite, Carnaggio's hometown pride did him in. He wagered $200 on Baltimore, ultimately a 21-7 loser.

The years of watching his bankroll ebb and flow with the fortunes of whatever team he has adopted at the moment have made Carnaggio stoic. He sat Zen-like at a long banquet table, eyes fixed on the wall of massive television screens that showed every NFL game, and didn't wince once as Ravens quarterback Steve McNair coughed up the ball early and often.

"First of all, I just like watching football, even when I don't have anything on the games," Carnaggio said. "That's what I do every Sunday.

"And when I'm here in Vegas, for the 10 or 12 hours I'm here in the sports book doing this, it takes my mind off everything else in my life. It's an escape. And when the trip is over, I go home and I'm done with [gambling]."

Grayson Meese of Las Vegas is never done with sports gambling. It's his life. He has been a full-time "handicapper" since 1994, spending his days online researching football, baseball, basketball and especially NASCAR, and then trying to parlay that information into a livelihood at Vegas casinos.

Meese was dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, with gray hair reaching the small of his back. He made bets ranging from the low hundreds to "a dime" ($1,000), he said. But what's impressive is the number of wagers he'll make; he'll be invested in 20 to 25 college games on a Saturday.

"I need two things: an edge and volume," Meese said.

He said he believes his knowledge of the games is solid enough that if he makes enough wagers, in the long run, he'll overcome the vagaries of luck and even the casino's built-in advantage, its commission, also called vigorish or juice.

"Some guys like to find a huge edge on one game and bet big on that one game, but that kind of opportunity comes around so infrequently because the numbers are so sharp," he said.

The numbers Meese referred to are the point spread, the oddsmaker's way of leveling the field between two opponents to make them equally attractive betting propositions.

Meese said he makes most of his money on auto racing. He contends a bettor can still out-research the oddsmakers in that sport, presumably because they're concentrating on the big-revenue games in football and basketball.

"It's a war, and they want to grind you into the ground," Meese said of the casinos.

Once, he said with pride, he had the perfect bet. He was able to get money down on an exhibition baseball game that had already been played. The starting time had been changed, but because it was during March Madness, the sports book didn't notice while preoccupied with the college basketball tournament. He had no compunction about collecting.

"These guys will take every nickel you have if they can," he said.

If sports gambling is "war" for Meese, it's an excuse for a yearly getaway for Gary Whitfield of San Diego and Peter Danpf of Los Angeles, a couple of Connecticut expatriates. Whitfield and Danpf, their brothers and some buddies meet in Vegas once a year to bet football, knock back some beers and stay up late (although they acknowledge not as late as when they started doing this 22 years ago).

Whitfield, who works in marketing, said he's a $20 bettor, maybe a little more if he really likes a team, and he'll plunge for 20, 25 bets, including parlays and teasers, which are wagers typically involving more than one game. Last year, Whitfield eked out a $4 profit, which he considered a triumph.

"Ordinarily, I could care less about any of these teams," he said as he watched Wisconsin beat Michigan (he had bet on the Wolverines because his father went there and some guys at work suggested it). "But because I have this $20 bet, I'm cheering my brains out for them.

"I look at it this way - for 20 bucks, I get three hours of entertainment. At a blackjack table, you could lose $20 in five seconds."

Carnaggio, the Ravens fan, is an old hand at the Vegas sports betting game. He's a big enough bettor - several thousand dollars a weekend - to get free hotel rooms, and he knows to arrive early at the sports book on game days. To get a good seat last Sunday, he got to the Hilton's sprawling sports and race room, with its bar, deli and jumbo TV screens, at 8:30 a.m.

Over a tall coffee, he pored over a newspaper tip sheet crammed with stats and scouting reports, and he didn't plan on leaving until 8 or 9 that night. He keeps the action going by betting three of four early NFL games, a couple of late-afternoon games, and then the Sunday night game.

"And before I go back to L.A., I'll bet the Monday game, too," he said of the Seattle Seahawks-San Francisco 49ers game the next night. "So tomorrow, I can watch it at home with the [betting] ticket in my hand."

He paused for a moment, then leaned close with a betting sheet of point spreads. "So, who do you like, the Seahawks or the 49ers?"


Football inspires passion in this country, the kind of passion that is difficult to find outside the realms of politics or religion. Today and every Sunday until the end of the year, The Sun presents a series dedicated to America's game.


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