The Quest for the Perfect Point Spread

By DJ Byrnes on October 1, 2013 at 11:25a

From SI:

Forty-eight college football games on the board next week, and somewhere inside each is a number. In an uncertain world Cesar Robaina is certain of that much, at least. The lead odds-maker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants (LVSC) flips through a sheaf of computer printouts in his office on this Sunday morning in September. His skill at unearthing point spreads from masses of data has carried him to the top of his profession. The stack of paper before him is Carrara marble to his sculptor's hand: He'll chisel away at the information, sweeping aside irrelevancies, looking for the truth beneath. When the right number shows itself, Robaina knows.

You haven't heard of Robaina, have never seen his fleshy face and thicket of curly hair on your television screen. Yet few men in sports wield more power than he does. Robaina is responsible for betting lines used by four dozen casinos, two legal lotteries and hundreds of newspapers around the country. Those were his five points that Oakland was giving in last January's Super Bowl; those were his 17 and 23 and 37 in the first round of March Madness. For each game he calculates his number, then compares it with what the LVSC staffers assigned to handicap the sport have come up with. What might seem like a duplication of effort is a means to incorporate a range of thinking, for no two oddsmakers approach the task in quite the same fashion. "If we were looking at the same things and coming up with the same numbers, they'd have no reason to be here," Robaina says.

That's the theory, at least. Sometimes Robaina reconciles the numbers, his and theirs, but often he will stare at their numbers with incomprehension. "If Cesar has a game at 10 and everyone else has it at seven, and Cesar believes in his 10, that game is staying at 10," a former LVSC oddsmaker says. "Or 9 at the lowest." Experience counts more than enthusiasm here, and Robaina's judgment most of all. He is a likable man with a ready smile, but when it comes to his numbers, he has the confidence—no, the arrogance—of Roger Clemens shaking off his catcher with the game on the line. Just let him throw his pitch, and he'll get the out.

*looks at Ohio State -7.5 vs. Wisconsin ticket.* *Angrily shakes fist at Cesar Robaina*


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Riggins's picture

What the sports books hate most is a line that continues to draw action on only one side, even as the number is adjusted. Situations like that lead troubled sports-book managers to call LVSC and unload their anxiety on whoever answers the phone. "How could you give a number like that?" they wail. It doesn't matter that the game might end up with exactiy the spread that the opening line predicted. That line led to undue exposure for the sports books, and sports books hate exposure.

That's the key to line setting.  Casinos aren't trying to predict the final point spread. They're trying to get even action on both sides.  Take last year's championship game.  I can't remember what the line was, but I think it was around Alabama (-10).  The guys setting the line probably to a man thought Alabama was going to roll, but they knew Notre Dame would be a huge public favorite as an underdog.  So to keep action even on both sides, they set the spread low (lower than what they thought the actual margin of victory would be).

Run_Fido_Run's picture

That might be true for a holiday-style "big event" game like the NCG, when a very large number of casual bettors will make a play.
For most run-of-the-mill games, though, the bookmakers are much more likely to take heavy one-sided exposure from a "whale" or a syndicate of serious bettors that pool their money and bet $200,000 on a single point spread, which they've identified as a "soft" spread.
For that reason, linemakers like Cesar are charged with coming up with the right spread, more than a popular one, per se, because the goal is to approximate equal totals on each side of the line, not an equal number of bets for each side. 

theOSUdug's picture

I never bet the Buckeyes, but I took the over against Wisky....I mean....why would we ever SLOW DOWN THE OFFENSE AND STOP SCORING, and because I despise Wisky.   When they kicked that field goal in the fourth and cut it to 7..... I was out $350....damn you sports number genius!!


I watched the OSU-Miami OH season opener last year from the Mandalay Bay sports book and there were Penn State fans sitting near us who were having a meltdown when OU started hammering them. I think I overheard them say they put down a ton of money of Penn State to roll by 21. That was almost as fun to watch as the game itself.
Oh yeah, later that day I saw Pete Rose lay down $5Gs on a horse race in Saratoga. Talk about your irony.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I can't believe these guys don't make more money.  Seriously....

Read my entire screen name....

osupolo's picture

I bet they make more than you think.