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Superbook Sunday: Behind the counter at the world's largest sports book on an NFL game day
21st November, 14:48Miranda Alam / Special to the Sun
From left, Jay Kornegay, Ed Salmons and Jeff Sherman at the SuperBook at the Westgate in Las Vegas.
By Case Keefer (contact)
Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Ten minutes before betting windows open at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook on Sunday, November 10, a middle-aged man in a T-shirt, sweatpants and flip-flops lumbers into the sports book and begins filling out a parlay card. Hunched over the betting-sheet counter, he pays no mind to the nearby 220-by-18-foot 4K video wall predominantly featuring pregame coverage of the NFL's impending Week 10 slate of games.
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A "breaking news alert" ends that indifference, as he picks up his parlay pencil and diverts his attention to an NFL Network anchor at the center of the screen. An ensuing report confirms that Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford won't play against the Chicago Bears later that morning because of a back injury.
The bettor scurries to the just-forming line at the front of the SuperBook behind two other early-risers waiting for the 7 a.m. start to wagering, presumably thinking he can pick off a good price on the Bears. But it's already far too late.
About five yards away from the waiting patrons, behind a row of betting stations and a thick, black-glass divider, SuperBook Vice President of Risk Management & Oddsmaking Jeff Sherman has already moved the line. The Bears are now 6.5-point favorites, 3.5 points higher than they were for most of the week.
"We saw the reports that he may not play yesterday and took it down, and I just reposted it," Sherman explains a few minutes later. "We just try to stay proactive with this stuff."
Sherman arrived at 4 a.m. for the big day -- every NFL Sunday in local sports books is an event -- and has been updating lines constantly across the eight sports on the SuperBook's board ever since. No one calls bookmaking a sport, but Sherman is positioned in a near-athletic posture on the edge of his rolling black desk chair.
He acts with reflexes and vision not unlike a running back hitting an open hole as his eyes dart across four monitors at his station. The first screen on his left includes a live queue of every bet coming in at the SuperBook -- labeled black if it's over the counter or blue if it's through the phone app -- along with the book's current odds on all sports. The next two screens display, respectively, live odds of about 20 other sports books around the world and the SuperBook's current liability on every game. The far-right monitor is an ordinary web browser, usually resting on one of the foremost online sports books.
Sherman pecks away on the number pad, with his right hand updating the Westgate's prices on everything from the NFL to NASCAR to reflect the current global market. In his left hand, he often holds his cellphone, either scrolling Twitter to take in even more information or texting Westgate colleagues Jay Kornegay (Executive Vice President of Operations) and Ed Salmons (another Vice President of Risk Management & Oddsmaking) with updates on the action he's booking.
"The markets are really unsettled in the morning -- you can see them bouncing around," Sherman says. "Our system isn't automated, so we have to have someone here doing this at all times."
Bets trickle in at a relatively slow pace for the first hour -- six or seven per minute, most parlays at no more than $100. Only a handful of the approximately 400 seats in the 30,000 square-foot sports book, the largest in the world, are claimed.
At least momentarily, it's hard to believe this will be the center of the local sports betting scene in a couple of hours.
* * *
Gambling picks up right as Sherman's reinforcements arrive. Around 8 a.m., the rest of the SuperBook's executive team begins filtering in -- Kornegay, Salmons and
SuperBook Executive Director John Murray, along with Race & Sports Manager Derek Wilkinson.
Miranda Alam / Special to the Sun
Employees work in the trading room at the SuperBook at the Westgate on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019.
Salmons, Sherman and Wilkinson stay on the frontlines of the bookmaking all day -- their desks all adjoined below a row of six TV screens that can split into four channels apiece to show up to 24 sporting events at a time. Kornegay and Murray handle most of the media obligations and focus on the guest experience at the SuperBook and the International Theater -- the 1,600-seat venue headlined by Barry Manilow during the week, which airs all the NFL games on Sundays.
All five of them come together sporadically throughout the day to assess the book's current odds and financial standing. In their first impromptu meeting, Kornegay hones in on the adjustment made after the Stafford injury.
"Doesn't the Chicago line [minus-6.5] look a little rich?" Kornegay asks. Several other sports books on Sherman's screen have the Bears as a 6-point favorite.
"No, I think it's a little short," Salmons responds. "I don't see how [Detroit is] going to be able to score. Chicago should win 20-3."
The rest of the SuperBook team typically heeds Salmons' advice on the NFL. He takes over for Sherman as the primary NFL bookmaker the moment he arrives.
Salmons nearly nails the exact score of the Bears' game, as only a late Lions touchdown makes the final 20-13 in favor of Chicago.
"He really is the best, an NFL expert. Such a great mind." Murray repeats some form of that praise throughout the day, partially because it's true and partially to razz Salmons, who always fights off the compliment.
Salmons exudes old-school bookmaker swagger; he's quick-witted and free-flowing as he sits more casually than Sherman, working on the lines with the sleeves on his dress shirt rolled up just above his wrists.
Salmons also shows a fearlessness when it comes to decisions. For nearly three hours since the book opened, almost every bettor has backed the Kansas City Chiefs at the Tennessee Titans -- as 6-point favorites or minus-270 (risking $2.70 to win $1) to win outright on the money line.
But 15 minutes before kickoff, the line is crashing, to as low as Kansas City minus-5 at prominent offshore books that take the largest wagers in the world. Unfazed by mounting liability on the Chiefs, Salmons moves with the market and shifts Kansas City down to a 5.5-point favorite to deter Titans plus-6 wagers of $10,000 -- the SuperBook's posted single-bet NFL limit -- he expects might be coming.
"I don't want to sell off 10 dimes [$10,000] on Tennessee," Salmons says. "If you give these guys 10 dimes on Tennessee, that can really bite into our decision. We've shaped this line right where we want to be."
That goes against the longstanding myth that bookmakers attempt to draw balanced action on every game simply to extract the standard vig -- the 10 cents books keep out of every dollar bet on point spreads and totals -- and illustrates their true decision-making process.
"The 50/50 thing is theoretical, like if you're reading a textbook," Sherman says. "It's not practical. It's not reality. We're booking the games the best we can book them, and where this stuff falls, it falls."
Salmons yells "Close!" for each of the seven games kicking off at 10:05 a.m. to let the rest of the team know betting has ceased, but two big parlays get through in the final seconds. One's a five-teamer for $7,000, and the other's a $5,000 four-teamer -- both including the Chiefs to win outright.
"If Tennessee wins, we could lose every other decision this morning and still break even," Sherman announces as he glances at the liability numbers.
At kickoff, the SuperBook has taken 1,079 bets on the Chiefs compared to just 166 on the Titans.
* * *
The Chiefs game might be the biggest decision for the house among the early slate, but it's far from the only significant one. The New Orleans Saints hosting the Atlanta Falcons as 14-point favorites and the Baltimore Ravens traveling to the Cincinnati Bengals as 10-point favorites are also popular plays. Much of the parlay liability is tied to the Chiefs, Saints and Ravens all winning.
Bettors have been so confident in those three teams, Salmons says this will be one of the season's best weeks in terms of betting volume -- despite six teams being on their bye.
"It's all because these are games the public likes and are willing to bet on the money line," he says. "We just need one of these dogs to win outright."
Early on, it's not looking like it's going to be the Titans. The Chiefs march up and down the field behind returning quarterback and reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, going up 10-0 in the first quarter and sending the SuperBook's now-overflowing crowd into a frenzy.
Sherman says watching games at the SuperBook is like going to Disneyland for some football fans, but the atmosphere seems more like a drunken day at Coachella. After the Chiefs' first touchdown, a stocky man in the second row of seats stands up and begins banging both hands loudly on the chair in front of him.
Almost simultaneously, Kornegay is holding a conversation breaking down his golf game and revealing composure as his greatest strength. The same could be said for the collective attitude in the SuperBook's risk room.
The chaos in front of the betting counter contrasts with the calm behind it, even when things aren't going the casino's way. Kornegay, Salmons and Sherman have been together through somewhere around 500 NFL Sundays, so they know not to get emotionally invested, certainly not early in games.
Kornegay rose to prominence in the betting industry when he opened the Imperial Palace sports book in 1989. He hired Salmons as a supervisor in 1992, then brought on Sherman to work the now-legendary drive-thru betting window in 1993.
"Back then, we would have to call a 1-800 number to get scores," Kornegay laughs. "As soon as you get you score, you're like, "Yes!" or something happens and you miss it, so you have to hang up and try again. It took some time. [The 800 line operator] wasn't the fastest guy reading it. He wasn't slow, but it was just so monotone, you could miss your score."
Of course, everything's much more instant now. Bettors can wager on select games, including the Chiefs vs. Titans, while it's happening through the SuperBook's phone app.
Wilkinson's job during the games is to update and monitor in-game betting, and he reports most of the money is still predictably coming in on the Chiefs -- especially when the Titans briefly take the lead in the second quarter.
The Chiefs add a field goal before halftime to make the score 13-13, and Salmons posts them as a 3.5-point favorite in the second half. That draws more Chiefs action, but the biggest halftime wager is a $6,000 bet on the Titans from a respected player. "If this wins, we've had a great day," Sherman says.
The wager, and the SuperBook's bottom line, appears to be in grave danger with 1:27 left in the game and the Chiefs lining up for a 43-yard field goal to go up by eight points. But pressure off the edge from the Titans -- later revealed to be the product of an uncalled offsides infraction -- stops the Chiefs from getting off an attempt.
To make matters worse for the betting public, Kansas City gets penalized 10 yards for intentional grounding when holder/punter Dustin Colquitt throws the ball away. TVs in the risk room are a couple seconds ahead of the feed in the sports book, so Salmons can't help but forecast the imminent roar from the crowd. "They're going to go bananas," Salmons says. "Just watch."
Just as he finishes the thought, someone bellows, "Idiot!" at Colquitt as a gasp reverberates throughout the casino. The Titans waste no time taking advantage of their unlikely second life -- the Chiefs' win probability was more than 99 percent on the drive that ended in the failed field goal attempt -- and go 61 yards on four plays in less than a minute to score the go-ahead touchdown.
Even the machinelike Sherman jumps out of his seat, leaving behind the odds he's been working on for next week's PGA Tournament, to watch the final 30 seconds. The Titans seal a 35-32 victory by blocking a 52-yard Chiefs field goal attempt at the end of the game, and a silence falls over the SuperBook crowd.
The house has virtually clinched a winning day because of outright wins by the Titans and Falcons, who beat the Saints 26-9. The Ravens' easy 49-13 win over the Bengals was a losing result for the SuperBook from a straight-bet perspective, but it hardly matters with all the busted parlays.
* * *
Still, two of the three games kicking off within the 1 p.m. hour can significantly carve into the SuperBook's vast profit margin. Behind the Chiefs, the day's second most popular bet is the Rams laying 4.5 points on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. And one of the few money line parlays to survive the morning schedule was a five-teamer that would pay $40,000 if the Colts, favored by 10 points, beat the Dolphins.
The bookmakers hardly have to sweat the result of either contest. The Dolphins trail the Colts for only six minutes in the entire game en route to a 16-12 victory, and the Steelers similarly control the action in a 17-12 win over the Rams.
Salmons is particularly enamored with the Steelers vs. Rams matchup. Always keeping the risk-room environment light, Salmons often acts as an ornery oracle when it comes to questionable coaching decisions, anemic offensive performances and overbearing referee influence.
The Steelers' win features all of the above, supplying Salmons with constant fodder. "You see the second-half score?" Salmons asks at the end of the game. "Rams win 5-3 and don't cover the 3.5 [second-half line]. That's just football. One offensive touchdown in the game. Is that not fantastic?"
Aside from Salmons' one-liners, the bookmakers' primary focus often veers elsewhere as the games wind down. Everyone convenes to set the opening numbers for Week 11, and there's little disagreement.
The SuperBook crew posts the lines at 4 p.m. with a limit of $2,000, and within minutes, someone has taken the maximum on the Los Angeles Chargers getting 4.5 points against the Chiefs in a game scheduled for Mexico City.
"That's what I like most about doing this," Sherman says. "Every day, it's something fresh and new. You have to keep moving forward. I like the challenge of that."
After a nonstop 13-hour shift, Sherman departs shortly before the Sunday Night Football game between the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. He walks past a glum betting floor, where gamblers in line to wager plot how they can get even for the day. It's not exactly celebratory on the other side of the counter, despite Kornegay describing it as the winningest Sunday of the year so far -- and it's been a strong year for the book.
Salmons says the SuperBook has suffered only one losing week this season, back in September when the Rams held on to beat the Cleveland Browns 20-13 as 4-point favorites on Sunday Night Football. The final game can sometimes determine the outcome of the whole day for the house, but that's not the case in Week 10.
The Cowboys and Vikings are both above-average teams, and therefore, splitting the action somewhat equally. Minnesota represents a slightly better result for the SuperBook as a 3-point underdog, and sure enough, wins 28-24.
It's rare that this many results go the book's way, which Salmons tries to keep in perspective. In bookmaking, as in sports, the process should outweigh the results.
"Let's say the Saints blew out the Falcons, and the Chiefs make that field goal to win by eight, and we lost big," Salmons says. "Next week? We would do the same thing. We just want to be consistent with all that we're doing."
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.