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 Sheet is 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 Sheet was 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 Sheet office 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 Sheet guarantees 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.
“St. Louis is 7 over Cincy,” Olshan says in a laconic voice. “St. Louis is a go-with team at home.”
“Cincy caught injuries last week,” replies Sippl. “Secondary sucks.”
The unspoken resolution: Bet St. Louis.
“Carolina is 8 at home over the Lions,” says Olshan, looking at the next game. “The Lions are on the road again. Go against.”
“Trying to go three straight years without a win,” Sippl says with a snort.
Then Olshan and Sippl finalize their phone picks for tomorrow’s games, just minutes before multiple lines start ringing in the next room.
Originally, Mort Olshan had no intention of being a handicapper. He knew nothing about gambling and wanted to be a sportscaster. Born in 1926 and raised in Buffalo, New York, he was a sports freak who compulsively clipped articles from local newspapers. He taped the clips into scrapbooks and was so detail-oriented that he became instinctively gifted at picking winners. Catholic in his taste, Mort loved all sports but particularly focused on Buffalo’s big three: football, basketball and boxing.
It was a kind of passion that led Mort — handsome, wavy-haired and able to execute a spot-on imitation of the Duke — to Athletic Publications in Minneapolis, Minnesota, owned by Leo “Wizard of Odds” Hirschfield. Hirschfield invented the point spread, made a fortune selling his lines to bookmakers across the United States and produced magazines that analyzed teams.
In November 1948, freshly discharged from the Marines, Mort, who had read about Hirschfield in Colliers, met the Wizard. “Leo interviewed me, and I think I impressed him with my sports knowledge,” Olshan writes in his unpublished autobiography. “He hired me to be the record keeper, a contributor to his weekly, The Green Sheet, and the person who transmitted lines and odds to bookmakers. I read the sports sections from 40 local papers each day. I look back on that period as a good time in my life.”
Within six years, he had quit Hirschfield, married his wife, Sylvia, had an unsuccessful flirtation with broadcasting, and relocated to Los Angeles, eventually settling in Ladera Heights. Mort worked as a floorman at May Co., made another busted run at broadcasting and tried the fight-management game (it ended after a guy who’d been suspended for taking too many beatings licked his palooka). He wrote a column for a sports rag sponsored by Seven-Up and penned scripts for a post-game show that aired on local television. “Then,” says Sylvia, “he decided to publish a version of what he had been doing with Hirschfield.”
A major difference between Mort’s freshly christened Gold Sheet and Hirschfield’s venerable Green Sheet, however, is that Mort’s mag aimed at bettors rather than bookies. The idea was to take all of the information and stats and interpretations that gamblers either can’t get or can’t grasp and make it available and accessible. It seemed like a perfect formula for success. Partnered with fellow sports fanatic Phil Giordano (the two happened to meet in L.A.), Mort rented an office on La Brea and published the first issue of The Gold Sheet at the start of the 1956 football season.
The first couple of years were a struggle, hindered by the Kefauver-era FBI. “People thought Morty was a bookie,” remembers Sylvia. The FBI tapped his phones, and on the eve of a late-’50s Rosh Hashanah, “investigators came in and accused him of aiding and abetting.” He was ultimately found innocent and permitted to continue publishing.
As the years passed, police pressure lapsed — at least partly because Mort himself stayed away from gambling for fear that it would taint his handicapping skills. He also forbade employees from wagering via office phone lines. But other pressures came to bear. The Gold Sheet’s circulation jumped to 20,000 by the late 1960s, and Mort’s responsibilities multiplied. A terrible delegator, he was the oddsmaker, the writer, the salesman and the CEO of his operation. The fruits of his labor are still visible at Gold Sheet headquarters: black binders, dating back to 1956 and bulging with brittle clippings. “I don’t know how Mort set the type, but I do know that he sweated all the games,” says Chuck Sippl.
Sitting on the edge of his bed in Ladera Heights or in the study of the home he eventually bought in Beverly Hills, Mort spent Sundays living and dying with every play, channel surfing during commercials and huddles. “The games had a profound effect on him,” says Gary Olshan, now sitting at his dad’s big old wooden desk in his cluttered Gold Sheet office, which has been intentionally left unchanged since Mort’s death. “When my dad’s teams did well, he took me to White Front in Ladera Heights and let me buy 10 records at a time — Beatles, Monkees, the Stones. That was a treat.”
On bad days, though, it was a whole other story. “One bowl season,” Gary continues, “he lost a lot of games. We were on vacation, in Hawaii, and I remember him not talking. He dealt with losses by becoming introverted. For the entire vacation, literally, he hardly uttered a word. He was really tied into the success of the business.”
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.”
In the end, though, with the spread the game ends up a push (a tie, factoring in the spread). But, on an adjacent screen, the Chiefs manage to win handily. After the fact, I remember what Olshan told me before the game started, when I asked how he justified giving up 14 points in order to take Kansas City. “I think K.C. will be in an angry mood,” he says, revealing the way a handicapper’s mind works. “They were embarrassed last week in Denver after giving up a lot of points and yards. This team has the best record in the NFL and one of the best coaches. Detroit has not won a road game in 21 tries. My belief is that if Detroit falls behind, it will get ugly” — and it did. “On top of all that, Detroit has no running attack, but K.C.’s weakness is the running attack.”
Though the Gold Sheeters are ahead by a game, they are far from ready to call it a successful afternoon. They still need to win the last two games if they want to have a better than decent day for their phone clients. While the games go on, desk slapping and the occasional high-five punctuate plays. Olshan actually leaves the room a couple of times, insisting that he can’t bear to watch critical downs. Through it all, he and Sippl and Giordano type like a trio of Johnny Deadlines as production people filter through with tomorrow’s layouts.
Late in the afternoon, after Dallas goes ahead 17-0 at the start of the fourth quarter, Olshan is still bellyaching about a sloppy fumble in the first half. He and Sippl huddle so close to the monitors that you can barely see the screens between them. “We lost a similar game to Washington when the QB ran in a touchdown on the last play,” Olshan remembers, looking away. “That made for a total of 14 points scored in the last minute.”
In the end, the Cowboys cover their spread, and the Oakland vs. Baltimore score is 20-12 (Oakland wins, but the Gold Sheeters can’t care less, as long as the total is below 39). The moment seems loaded more with relief than joy, as Olshan carefully announces, “We’re happy, but we’re not going to break out the champagne.”
Besides, the sweetness of success fades fast when it’s 5 p.m. and you have only five hours until your deadline for the coming week’s issue. The guys turn away from the TV screens, squint at their monitors, and focus on sussing the picks that will keep their gamblers coming back next week, next season and, if Mort’s will be done, next decade.