By Joseph Tsidulko
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To understand the difficulty of consistently picking winners, you have to realize that even the most successful sports bettors don’t expect to win a whole lot more than they lose. Or, as Chuck Sippl puts it: “You need to concentrate on the games with a 60, 62, 66 percent chance of winning, because, even if you’re a genius, you will not win more than two out of three bets.”
Vegas-based Billy Walters, who is considered the most successful sports bettor in America, tells me that he’s perfectly pleased to finish a season in which 57 percent of his wagers pay off. Factoring in the vigorish, that is, the bookie’s commission, break-even is 52.37 percent. This football season, The Gold Sheet’s overall record, as of mid-December, is pretty close to the magic number: 81 wins, 75 losses and 13 ties. The problem, though, is that the company’s phone service, which draws the highest-paying customers, is a rotten 34 wins and 37 losses. Insisting that its handicapping formulas are just fine, Gary writes off the phone-service performance to bad luck (always a factor in any kind of gambling).
For Mort, the pressure to perform was so great that by the 1980s he suffered what’s generally described in the office as a breakdown. “Mort collapsed at a gamblers’ seminar in Vegas; it was from going 24 hours a day for several weeks in a row,” remembers Carl Giordano, son of founding partner Philip, and now a partner himself in the company. “In the mid-’80s, he had something close to a nervous breakdown. He became less tolerant of mistakes. There’d be stormy meetings over games. Handicappers were in and out of this office after having big blowups with Mort.”
The guy who was so astute at predicting outcomes of sporting events also showed a knack for divining his business’s future. In the 1970s, Mort began top-loading The Gold Sheet with the guys who’d go on to run it. Chuck Sippl was hired away from news radio station KFWB. Carl Giordano joined the firm right out of Cal State Northridge. Gary signed on after graduating from UC Berkeley. “We believe that Mort has left a legacy,” says Sippl, running a yellow highlighter through faxed injury reports. “He inspired a lot of clones [competing tout services that tend to be dishonest and rarely reveal how a year’s worth of picks have panned out] and educated the public. It’s a given that this is a big responsibility, and we’re all committed to Mort’s principles.” Then Sippl looks up from the reports and adds, “Right now, though, the pressure is on to win.”
Sunday, December 14, is a weird one. It’s 9 a.m., just hours after it’s been announced that Saddam Hussein has been captured. The Gold Sheet offices are already a hive of activity. Three TVs play pre-game shows. One is tuned to Fox News and endless coverage of Operation Red Dawn. But it’s as if the capture of Saddam is happening in an alternate universe. In the office shared by Sippl, Giordano and Olshan, the talk is all about point spreads and injuries as the three guys feverishly type away. They are working on the coming week’s Gold Sheet, which ships at 11 p.m. and will be on L.A. newsstands first thing Monday morning.
Sippl has his Web browser set to NFL.com. It not only provides him with important statistics for tomorrow’s edition of The Gold Sheet, but it also allows him to track the games that he can’t watch on TV (the building won’t allow a satellite dish on the roof, so the guys are stuck with cable). “Everybody here has a different handicapping style,” says Sippl. “I tend to focus on favorites at superior prices. I like cheap, motivated favorites.”
Olshan looks up from his cube and pipes in, “I’m a combination of everything, with power ratings and point-spread value thrown in.”
Sippl gets up, stretches, paces a bit. “If we lose three out of four today and have a bad week next week, we’re in trouble,” he says. “This season is fair, but the last two seasons have been better.”
The games that will be watched with Mort-style obsession today are the telephone picks: the Cincinnati Bengals laying (favored by) 3 against the San Francisco 49ers, the Kansas City Chiefs laying 14 against the Detroit Lions, the Dallas Cowboys laying 3 against the Washington Redskins, and Oakland vs. Baltimore with an under bet at 39. A computer at the far end of the room keeps the guys abreast of all scores. Hanging from his belt Olshan has a high-tech gadget that provides real-time NFL stats. When Sippl looks up from NFL.com to announce that Kansas City is ahead, Olshan rises to his feet and issues four staccato claps. “This is as excited as we get,” he says, before resuming his seat and returning to a stack of typed documents.
Kansas City goes ahead 28-3, but it’s still hard for Olshan to feel positive. “We have to cover a big number,” he says. “I’ve seen too many games go like this for three and a half quarters and then our team gets blown out in the final three minutes.” Nevertheless, when he hears that in another important game, Cincinnati is ahead 20-14 at the half, he allows himself a moment of relief: “The bleeding has stopped after two unanswered touchdowns for San Fran.”