Tales from the first two days of March Madness in Las Vegas

It's always quite a scene the first weekend of March Madness in Las Vegas. istockphoto.com

LAS VEGAS -- A man named Las Vegas Cris rolls up under the Tropicana Casino promenade in a slick, black Thunderbird convertible. I hop in.

In a short-sleeve Hawaiian shirt, army green cargo shorts, shades and sneakers, Las Vegas Cris takes off down the Strip. We are absolutely the first bald sports writer and gambler to cruise down Las Vegas Boulevard together in a convertible. Cris hails from Detroit, but became Las Vegas Cris about eight years ago, after relocating to Nevada. He recently turned 50 and is part Anthony Bourdain, part fun-loving Simpsons character. He bets on sports for a living, but that's a simplistic description of his business. He's walked in and out of so many sportsbooks that he's actually developed a painful bone spur in his foot -- but it doesn't stop him.

It's a spectacular Wednesday evening in March, just hours before one of the busiest betting days of the year: The first Thursday of the NCAA tournament.

Tonight, though, we're headed to the Italian American Social Club, an old-school joint, a few blocks off of the Strip on Sahara Boulevard. Marble statues flank the entrance into the restaurant, while black-and-white photos of Frank Sinatra and others of Vegas lore adorn the walls on the inside. The place oozes "Sopranos," but isn't obnoxious about it.

Our dinner companions are: Frank the dry cleaner, Marco the handicapper and Rock, a bundle of chuckles in a bowling shirt. Rock's occupation is never quite clarified.

We all check our phones for the Holy Cross-Southern score. I'm sweating a $22 bet on Holy Cross +2.5. The others have more riding on the under, but don't seem overly worried about it. They debate the right side of a first-round game between Connecticut and Colorado and the spiciness of the sausage-stuffed banana peppers. Rock is just back from Costa Rica and judging by the photos on his phone, he thoroughly enjoyed himself.

"You can't send me those kinds of pictures, while I'm at home with my wife," Frank tells Rock.

Gambling stories flow, along with the Malbec. It's an awesome table. There are tales of run-ins with legendary Las Vegas bookmaker Lefty Rosenthal and the habits of a Detroit Pistons timekeeper of years past.

The conversation rotates from person-to-person, before starting to wind down. Frank orders two cannolis to-go. "They're the buy-in to get back into his house after having been out to dinner with this crew," he says.

The check comes, and I'm the only one to pull out a card. There are no wallets with this group, only rolls of cash. (That really is how they carry their money).

"You know what makes these such good stories?" Rock asks. "Because they're all true."

Everyone nods and laughs.

IT'S 5:30 A.M. ON THURSDAY IN VEGAS, the first full day of the madness. Outside of the roped-off sportsbook at the Mirage, there is a line of 30 or so people. They stand against the wall that separates the California Pizza Kitchen from the book. Within hours, the entire area will be a jam-packed, raucous madhouse of gamblers yelling "Shoot! Foul!" randomly at the giant flat-screens that stretch across the entire place.

More money is bet on the first four days of the NCAA tournament than is bet on the Super Bowl, hundreds of millions of dollars. And people can't wait to get started.

Sportsbook employees mill about behind the counter, but in sight of those patiently waiting. A few minutes later, an anxious bettor, coffee in hand, mentions out loud that he was told the book opened at 5:30 a.m. Shortly after, security arrives, pulls back the ropes and shouts, "no running," as everyone bolts to the few non-reversed seats available. Never has a banquet chair backed up against a rock wall been so coveted.

Among the first to arrive is Julie Morgan from Cincinnati. She's a veteran and is sporting a black T-shirt that says on the back, "Good coaches win. Great coaches cover." For nearly 30 years, she has been coming to the Mirage and became friends with a group of 20 or so from dozens of states. Most of them met at the Mirage and became March regulars together. The group has produced a cancer conqueror in Morgan, a marriage, lifelong friendships and plenty of exciting wins -- they money-lined Arkansas-Little Rock over Purdue in the first round -- and some much more personal losses.

When asked how a bunch of strangers became so close for so long, to a person they respond -- "Animal."

The last time Aaron Horvath sat and talked in person with his older brother Brian "Animal" Horvath was during a 2 a.m. seat-saving shift on the first Thursday of the 2009 NCAA tournament. They were saving seats for the group in the Mirage sportsbook. At one point in their seat-saving careers, they wore adult diapers to avoid losing their seats while heading to the bathroom.

"It wasn't my cup of tea," Aaron said of the diapers, "but it was a good strategy."

The 2 a.m. talks with his brother were a mixed bag. One year, they thoroughly handicapped every game, breaking down statistics and players, before writing down their picks. When it was time to bet, they went up to the window and took the exact opposite of their picks.

"I think that was one of our best years," Aaron said with a chuckle.

The two brothers had been coming out to Vegas for the NCAA tournament since 1989. Animal's outgoing, funny personality, which some compared to John Belushi, attracted more and more folks each year. "He was the kind of guy who made an effort to make sure everyone was having fun," Aaron said.

The 2009 pre-tournament 2 a.m. talk included a discussion on Animal's health. Aaron remembers several members of the group approaching him with their concerns about his brother.

"Everyone loved him," Aaron said. "It's like a big family."

Brian passed away from congestive heart failure in May after the 2009 NCAA tournament, but he's still honored regularly by the Mirage gang. In fact, rumor has it that some of his ashes might have found their way into the sportsbook.

IT'S 8 A.M. AT THE FLAMINGO, and the line to bet at the sportsbook is hundreds deep. It stretches outside of the book, to the right, around in front of Carlos 'N Charlie's and doubles back in front of the book. Some bettors have waited 45 minutes or more to place their bets. The first tip of the day, UNC-Wilmington versus Duke, is an hour away.

Back in the sportsbook office behind the half dozen betting windows, Bill Sattler, director of specialty games for Caesars Entertainment, assesses the situation and calls in backup from the poker room. Sportsbook managers Jay Petrick and Phil Martino take turns putting out fires at the counter, in between confirming hockey goalies for the night's slate.

The first two bettors at the window placed their bets, but didn't have enough money to cover them, Petrick says. During the morning rush, someone tries to cash a $90 ticket on the New England Patriots from the 2015 AFC Championship Game. Another bettor cashes a Super Bowl ticket on the Denver Broncos and a bet on the Kansas Jayhawks from the Maui Invitational in November.

The back office is cramped, especially around the old desktop computer monitor in the corner that has the goods. You can see how much is bet on each team or on the over/under as well as potential parlay liability. In the hour leading up to the Duke tip, there was approximately $80,000 more on the Blue Devils than underdog UNC-Wilmington.

Sattler, a nearly 30-year industry veteran in a glasses and a suit, is constantly on the move, popping in and out of the Flamingo office. During a three-hour stretch, he's down the street at Planet Hollywood, behind the scenes of popular high-roller beach club, Drai's, through the LINQ hotel and casino and all the way to Harrah's. He's greeted by "Hey, Bill" everywhere.

At one point during the morning, he pops back in at the Flamingo office with the biggest bet of the morning --a $16,000 moneyline bet on Indiana beating Chattanooga at -800 odds. Earlier, there was a $3,000 bet on Providence on the money line and a $6,000 four-team round-robin on Wichita State, USC, Butler and Gonzaga. The vast majority of the bets, however, are much, much smaller.

The betting acumen in Vegas bottoms out on the first two days of March Madness, especially when combined with spring break and, this year, St. Patrick's Day. Five- and 10-dollar parlays from unlucky leprechauns are the most common thing on the computer screen.

The day before at the sportsbook at the Paris casino, a female bettor had hit two $5, nine-team parlays on spring training baseball and won close to $6,000. A bettor strolls up to window and asks why there isn't a money line on a certain game. The teller politely informs him, "The line on that game is pick-em, sir."

Everyone nods and laughs.

IT'S 6 A.M. ON FRIDAY, the second day of the madness. The text from Las Vegas Cris says he's running late and will pick me up at 6:30 instead of 6:15; either way, it feels like 3 a.m.

Las Vegas Cris is parked under the Tropicana promenade, sporting another Hawaiian shirt-and-shorts ensemble. I hop in the black convertible again. This time, we're a bald writer and a gambler headed together to the sportsbooks that cater to the locals.

At 6:42, we arrive at the book at the Gold Coast casino. There are three people at the betting window and a handful of guys sitting in the book. Las Vegas Cris sets up on a counter just outside of the book. He has a tablet, two phones and a headset for each one. At one point, he asks, "Can you believe I do all this and I'm still a Blackberry guy?" The tablet displays an odds screen that shows the lines from sportsbooks in Nevada and offshore. A red box appears, highlighting any point spread that wiggles.

We're there for 10 minutes, before he heads up to the betting window, pulling a stack of cash out his pocket. By the time, he approaches the window there a line of less than 10 people.

Ten minutes later, we're out the door, back in the Thunderbird. Las Vegas Cris is aggravated, which means speed bumps and parking lot stop signs are optional as we exit. We're in a hurry, heading to Jerry's Nugget, another local establishment. "I can't stand in line and wait for those idiots to bet their parlays," he gripes.

Las Vegas Cris is part of a sports betting team that includes at least one partner and his wife, who is navigating her way through the crowds at the Strip books. "She's this little Thai woman," he says adoringly of his wife. "Everyone loves her."

We don't talk about how much he just bet or even which teams or totals he backed. It doesn't really matter, he says.

"We're playing so many middles and [arbitrages], sometimes I don't even know who we need," Las Vegas Cris says as we head to our next spot. "Don't really want to."

During a busy football weekend, the team may push seven figures through the window, but because they're often playing both sides of games at different lines and totals, looking for middles, their risk is much less. Their action during the NCAA tournament is much lighter, he says, as we pull into Jerry's Nugget. It's a stand-alone casino with no hotel, located on the very north end of Las Vegas Boulevard. Skid Row's "I Remember You" serenades us from the overhead speakers. Las Vegas Cris lights up a fat cigar, and we order breakfast. He gets the revered Jerry's Nugget prime rib.

Mark Dufty, the race and sportsbook director at Jerry's Nugget for nine years, is behind the counter. It's around 8 a.m., an hour or so before Syracuse and Dayton tips off the day. Dufty says his shop is rooting for Dayton.

There is a bank of smaller TVs to the left of the odds board and another row of bigger 40- to 50-inch flat-screens hanging on the wall to the right of the odds. The rows of seats in the book are starting to fill with a mix of gamblers, but no one is waiting long to bet.

As an independent, off-the-Strip book, Dufty has a different approach to bookmaking. His shop isn't going to take the kind of limits some of the bigger books like do, but he is going to offer enough unique lines to attract some professionals. For that reason, he's on a first-name basis with Las Vegas Cris.

"I have to," Dufty says, "to get guys like Cris out here."

The majority of the action at Jerry's Nugget, though, comes from guys like 70-year-old Gordon Burton. A veteran of the army and a former host at a casino in Korea, Burton has been gambling for more than 40 years. He was a known poker pro in the 1980s and high-stakes dealer. He's been part of a team that played slots. With gray tufts of hair sticking out from underneath his military-themed baseball hat, he tells tales of squaring off with legendary poker champion Johnny Chan and winning $165,000 in a hand in Korea. Now, he lives down the street from Jerry's and walks up to the casino regularly. He's on the under in the first half of the Syracuse game.

"I only bet sports now," Gordon says, looking up at the TVs. "I can be just as happy betting $20 as I am $2,000." Las Vegas Cris needs to jet while I'm talking to Gordon, but is back within 10 minutes, after learning of a line on move while he was in the parking lot. I bum one more ride from him.

This time we head into downtown Las Vegas, past several poverty-stricken blocks with homeless people lining the sidewalks. It's a stark reminder and I wonder how many of them ended up here because of gambling.

"It's pretty sad," Las Vegas Cris says. "I talk to so many people out here who say that gambling, at one point, caused them problems. Some are able to get past them; others aren't as lucky."

IT'S 3:30 A.M., SATURDAY. The alarm goes off and sends me scrambling to pack for the airport. My two days of March Madness have come to a close. The woman crammed into the airplane seat next to me looks over and says, "it smells like booze in here."

We just nod and laugh.