By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
This Sunday there will be an estimated $75 million wagered on the Super Bowl via legal sports books in Nevada. Millions more will be bet with illegal bookies across the United States. Even more will be funneled into online betting sites throughout the Caribbean. Bob Scucci, sports-book manager at the Stardust in Las Vegas, estimates that, all told, “There will be well over $1 billion bet on the Super Bowl.” Literally hundreds of millions will be riding on each half-point adjustment that gets made to the betting line. But hours before that critical spread gets set, and a single dollar is laid down, a half-dozen guys working out of a nondescript suite of offices in a bland building on the Sunset Strip near Hamburger Hamlet will exert an extraordinary amount of influence over which way the money goes.
These guys publish a weekly newsletter called The Gold Sheet, and for 47 years it’s been interpreting stats, telling gamblers where to bet and shedding light on which injuries are meaningful. While the Internet is filled with charlatans who promise to pick games and make you rich, The Gold Sheetis a sensible bible for handicappers working with hairline margins and happily paying for tiny advantages (in the case of The Sheet, $7 per pocket-size issue). Artful as a bus schedule — The Sheet is filled with minuscule type, written in a telegraphic style, printed on a broadsheet of semiglossed gold-colored paper — it contains indispensable information that’s used by bettors as well as bookies. It’s also an awesome responsibility for Gary Olshan, the 50-year-old son of The Gold Sheet’s founder, Mort Olshan. This past September, just as the NFL season began, 77-year-old Mort died of lung cancer. The Gold Sheetwas his middle-aged orphan.
Now Gary, dutiful son and crack handicapper (he learned from his dad), is charged with not screwing things up. It helps explain why the vibe is particularly tense in the Gold Sheetoffice on a late-season Saturday morning with a full roster of NFL matchups to nail down for some 40,000 readers, a small percentage of whom pay as much as $1,600 per year for the privilege of calling in and receiving picks prior to game times. Give the wrong predictions, and it’ll translate into blown bets and a lost business. Considering that The Gold Sheetguarantees refunds should a client cancel the service, that risk is a real one. Or, as the perpetually rumpled Gary likes to put it, “We’ve got more riding on these games than most gamblers do.”
Maybe that explains why he looks up from the pile of yellowing sports sections that box him in at his desk and listens carefully when a guy from Florida calls who has ties to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs will be playing the Houston Texans tomorrow, and this guy has inside info for the Gold Sheet boys.
Olshan — a fleshy-faced, salt-and-pepper-haired guy who dresses in baggy jeans and faded sweaters — flips on the speakerphone. Chuck Sippl, a bookish and bearded handicapper in the next cubicle (and one of five Gold Sheet partners), stops tapping at his computer keypad and perks up. “Let me begin with an update,” says Mr. Sunshine State. “Sapp hasn’t practiced for the last three days. He has an inflammation of the arch of the foot. Very painful. It can’t be injected, no way to make it numb, so he will have a hard time. They’re going to put Darby in. He played in all the playoff games and is pretty good. Walker will be out at right tackle. The Bucs don’t know if David Carr is going to start or not, so they are playing a couple of different defensive schemes. There is also a little bit of tension down here with the general manager. He’s been talking to Atlanta. And that’s a distraction.”
“Okay,” says Gary in a flat voice. “What’s the game plan against Houston?”
“They’re going to go for ball control and grind it away. If I was betting this game, I’d look for an under [for the combined score to be below a certain total].”
“Thanks very much,” says Olshan. “Have a good weekend.”
Olshan and Sippl immediately begin scribbling and recalculating, merging his details with their own. Watching them operate in silence, I can’t help but wonder what’s in it for the snitch.
“We give him our selections, we send him the publications, and we let him use our telephone service [which provides last-minute picks]; in all, it’s worth about $1,600,” says Olshan. “He doesn’t have time to follow up on all the teams. So it’s worth it for him and worth it for us. Besides, he’s already made his bets, so giving us the information doesn’t hurt him.”
Olshan and Sippl each review their data a last time. Three minutes later, they both get up from behind their desks and sit at a round Formica table that overflows with annual guides to teams and partially clipped newspapers. They discuss nine different games about which they each have strong opinions, informed by a week of sifting through publicly available information, fielding calls from scouts like Mr. Sunshine, and analyzing proprietary statistics. These will inform The Gold Sheet’s picks that hit the stands on Monday. The guys need to make it snappy so that Gary can solidify four picks that will be provided to The Gold Sheet’s elite phone clients, who will be calling in about an hour.