February 2010

Book Cover

“The Smart Money” is a fascinating voyage through the world of big time sports betting. This is not the average fan betting $10 or even a $100 or a $1000 dollars on a football game, but a little-known subculture where $10,000, $20,000 and even $100,000 is wagered on the outcome of a sporting event and where gains and losses of half a million dollars over a weekend is commonplace. The author was drawn in to an exclusive club, the “Brain Trust”, who used inside knowledge of the teams, highly paid handicappers, and computers to determine what contests to bet on and how to beat the bookies at their own game.

Though it does not go into too much technical detail of the wagering process (i.e. the actual algorithms that the Brain Trust used to beat the system), this is a well written account of the author’s years working as an agent for a large betting cabal. His main responsibility was to find a way to place enough bets of high enough value to make it worthwhile which involved weekly trips to Las Vegas, hidden identities, and large bags containing bricks of cash. Once someone starts winning in Las Vegas, however, the casinos are no longer interested in taking your business. Yet, the Brain Trust was not to be denied, moving their action to offshore organizations where the seediness factor increases significantly.

Truly an inside look at a level of sports betting that the average fan never sees, “The Smart Money” weaves its way through the largely hidden labyrinth of how point spreads for football games are set and, more importantly, the mysterious forces that change these critical values during the week before the game and sometimes only minutes before kickoff.

After reading the first third of this book, which covered his first foray to Vegas to make bets, I doubted that the author could fill the rest of book with similar stories and keep the reader riveted. While the following seasons of betting and the move to using offshore accounts pretty much mirrors the action early in the book, it is told in such a style that it kept my interest right to the end. The author manages to realistically convey the tension and anxiety of large sums of money riding on a meaningless touchdown by a team that is hopelessly behind or the shock of watching an interception being returned for a score knowing that $50,000 was lost in that instant. I highly recommend this book to those who are interested in learning more about how sports betting actually works.

Click on the cover to go to Amazon.ca.

Having followed the NBA fairly closely and having read many sports books, I found “Seven Seconds or Less” to one of the best sports books I have ever read. A true insider’s view of the Phoenix Suns 2005-2006 season that covers the entire campaign but focuses on their playoff run to the Western Conference Finals. This book contains so many candid stories and analysis, I am surprised it was written in this day and age of sensitive superstars and cautious-to-a-fault coaches and management. Entertainingly penned and a thoroughly engaging read, McCallum shows he can do a long form book as well as he can handle articles for Sports Illustrated.

As a Laker fan, it was fascinating to read the inside story of the Suns comeback from being down 3-1 in their first round playoff series against Los Angeles. Many of my opinions regarding NBA players (Shawn Marion, especially) were confirmed. Even if you are not a fan of the Suns, if you enjoy the NBA, you must read this book.

In this autobiography, Dan Rooney, the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers (and son of the founder), reflects on his 75 years in the National Football League. A lot of ground is covered and the stories about the “olden” days, the days of Earl “Greasy” Neal, Walt Kiesling, and Johnny “Blood” McNally are particularly vivid. There is a detailed passage dealing with the high school, college, and early pro career of Johnny Unitas, who was spurned by the Steelers in training camp but went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game.

Perhaps due to the scope, however, there is not a lot of detail about any particular era after this. Even the Superbowl teams of the seventies get a bit of a short shrift (less than a third of the book is devoted to this great team). Most of the stories, though, are less about the history of the team and more about personal anecdotes dealing with particular players and coaches. While this is mainly what I am interested in as a reader, I found that Mr. Rooney was fairly reluctant to say anything negative or controversial about his dear acquaintances. The book might have been better if there had been some more frank discussion about, say, the contentious relationship between Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw, for instance.

The book ends with several bland interviews with people associated with the Steelers and then a brief analysis of each NFL franchise by Rooney, punctuated by his (once again non-controversial) opinion of the current owner.

Nonetheless, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read, written in an engaging style with a good natural flow. The account provides a certain unique insight into the early days of the NFL. If you are a hard core Steeler or NFL fan, you will enjoy this retrospective.

Click on the book cover to see the book at Amazon.ca. Click on the drawing for a larger version.

In a game far more exciting than the final score would indicate, the New Orleans Saints defeated the mighty Indianapolis Colts 31-17 to claim Superbowl XLIV.

The underdog Saints looked the part in the first quarter as the Colts marched up and down the field to take a 10-0 lead. However, Saints QB Drew Brees found his rhythm in the second quarter and incredibly ended up completing 29 of his next 32 throws (he finished 32 of 39 for the game). The Saints held the ball for all but 6 plays in the second quarter and scored 2 field goals to make the halftime score 10-6.

Coming out of the half, Saints’ coach Sean Payton made possibly the gutsiest call in Superbowl history as he went for the onsides kick. After careening off Hank Baskett, the ball nestled into the hands of a Saints player and Brees led them to a touchdown (on a weaving catch and run by Pierre Thomas) and a 13-10 lead. The Colts responded with a 76 yard touchdown drive of their own to retake the lead 17-13. Brees led another drive and the Saints kicked a field goal to draw within 17-16 at the end of the third quarter.

Manning led a drive that ended in a missed 51-yard field goal and the Saints responded with a short 59 yard drive for the go ahead TD (on a pass to former Miami Hurricane Jeremy Shockey) followed by a two-pointer conversion to lead 24-17. And this is where it got interesting. With 5:42 left in the game, Manning had the ball and a chance to tie. He negotiated the ball down to the New Orleans 31 and it looked like the first overtime in Superbowl history was imminent. For Manning and Colts, it was not to be as his next pass was intercepted by Tracy Porter of the Saints and returned 74 yards for the insurance TD that put Superbowl XLIV in the history books.

After this win and his spectacular performance, Superbowl MVP Drew Brees must now be mentioned with the “elite” quarterbacks in the NFL. As for Manning, how does this devastating loss affect his legacy? He is certainly one of the great quarterbacks to ever play the game, but he has only a single title to show for it (of course, Dan Marino and Dan Fouts have zero). To some extent he should probably be considered a modern day parallel to John Elway. Elway led what were clearly subpar teams to the Superbowl largely on the basis of his tremendous talent alone. The Broncos of the 80’s had an slightly above average defense, but no running game or spectacular receivers. The latter Colts fall into this category (especially as Reggie Wayne’s skills diminish). What would the Colts’ record be if Manning were not under center? Would they have even made the playoffs, let alone appeared in the Superbowl? Are players like Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Dallas Clark, and Austin Collie great players or does Manning make them look great? Look how easily they plugged Garcon and Collie in this year and how productive they were. The Colts finished last in the NFL in rushing. As always, given two weeks to prepare, an NFL coaching staff will find a way to take a one dimensional team and neutralize that dimension (see Marino, Dan, Superbowl XIX and Brady, Tom, Superbowl XLI). After getting a taste of the Colts’ offense in the first quarter, the Saints’ defense allowed only 7 more points the rest of the way.

So the New Orleans Saints are the NFL champions for 2009. Hopefully, they will have recovered from what is sure to be an epic celebration in time for the start of the 2010 season.

Click on the image for a larger version. Pencil on Strathmore sketch paper.

Superbowl XLIV is almost upon us. The Indianapolis Colts and the New Orleans Saints are nearly ready to do battle on the grass turf of what is now called Sun Life Stadium in South Florida, just outside of Miami. Both teams got out to great starts this year, 14-0 for the Colts and 13-0 for the Saints. Both teams, surprisingly, failed to win another regular season game having clinched home field advantage in the playoffs.

A multitude of factors play into this contest.

  • the Colts won every game they tried to win this year
  • the Saints had the best offense in the NFL — the Colts didn’t face an offense this potent during the season and certainly not in the playoffs
  • Colts QB Peyton Manning is at the top of his game and looks unstoppable
  • Saints QB Drew Brees played very poorly in the second half of the NFC Championship against the Vikings
  • Colts DE Dwight Freeney has torn ligaments in his ankle and will not be 100%, depleting the Colts’ pass rush
  • the Saints needed 5 turnovers and overtime to barely beat the Vikings in the NFC Championship
  • the Colts finished last in the NFL in rushing
  • the Saints defence depends on generating turnovers to be successful
  • the Colts have Superbowl experience
  • the Saints are playing the “Team of Destiny” card
  • the Colts needed fourth quarter comebacks 7 times this season to win
  • the Saints lost against the Dallas Cowboys in a game they tried to win

    I found it interesting that the Colts opened as 5 point favorites, with the line quickly moving to 5 and a half. Today, the line moved back to 5 as betting action on the Saints has come in.

    The Saints are going to need to generate turnovers, get a lead, and hope they can outscore the Colts the rest of the way. If it comes down to Manning having the ball and enough time on the clock to drive for the winning score, I think the Saints will have to drown their sorrows on Bourbon Street.

    I think the Saints can run and pass on the Colts. Equally, I think the Colts can move the ball on the Saints defense. The key will be which team is able to generate turnovers.

    The Saints also possess an X-Factor in Reggie Bush. He has shown flashes of brilliance in the playoffs and a long play on a punt return, reception or rush attempt could tilt the game in New Orleans’ favor.

    Considering the matchups, I think this game is likely to be pretty high scoring, say, 31-27. Who will win? Barring early turnovers by the Saints, I think it is a toss-up. Let’s go with the New Orleans Saints to outscore the Indianapolis Colts and take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

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