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How a Starbucks barista and a farmer won $1.2 million

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest drew a record number of entries this year. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- The World Series of Poker had its Moneymaker Effect; now the Westgate SuperContest might have its Coffeemaker effect.

The poker boom happened last decade after accountant Chris Moneymaker won the Main Event as an amateur. Now, recreational sports bettor Damon Graham, a single 32-year-old barista here in Las Vegas, has won more than $900,000 in the world's most prestigious football handicapping contest this NFL season.

Yes, he works at Starbucks, but he's a regular Joe.

The SuperContest, which costs $1,500 to enter, has already increased from 345 entries in 2010 to a record 1,854 this season, but an "everyman" winning might spur it to even bigger growth. And Graham isn't alone, as the second-place finisher was Mark Jorstad, a 61-year-old farmer from Morris, Illinois, who won $358,193 even though he hardly watched any games until late November after harvesting his corn and soybean crops.

SuperContestants pick five games a week against the Westgate's contest spread and earn one point per victory and half a point per push. Graham won the contest using the alias "pops2008." In my original story, he didn't want me to spill the beans on his full name but has relented now that The Associated Press printed it.

The winning entry went 5-0 in Week 17 to finish with an overall record of 54-28-3 (65.8 percent). First place was worth $895,482 and Graham added $10,000 for sharing a mini-contest title by going 13-2 ATS (86.7 percent) over the final three weeks of the season. He actually had two entries in this year's SuperContest with the other one -- actually his "main" entry -- named pops3284.

Graham said he got the nickname Pops from his resemblance to a character by that name on the late-'90s show "The Wayans Bros." The name stuck, and the 3284 stands for his birthday (March 2, 1984). The number on the winning entry, pops2008, came from the year he moved to Las Vegas from Maryland. The pops3284 entry finished tied for 40th, worth an additional $2,217.38 for a grand total of $907,699.38 in earnings from his $3,000 investment.

"I decided last year, after just having one entry, that I wanted to give two a try," he said. "I just saved my money by cutting expenses and making sacrifices in my social life. I worked and just got ready for the football season."

Graham enjoys sports betting but doesn't claim to be a big bettor. He concedes he's been a grinder in and says he had entered the SuperContest the past three years with one entry and was only above or right around .500 each year.

"I look at a lot of stats and I also have to NFL Game Pass to go back and watch some games that I miss," Graham said of his handicapping methods. "I think just like anyone else, I just try to gather as much info I could before making my decisions; I would also study the injury reports, especially on the offensive and defensive lines. I would normally narrow down to seven or eight games I liked, then decide which ones to play on both tickets -- usually two of three -- and then split up the other plays."

This year, he decided to go with the maximum two entries but was in the middle of the huge pack for a good portion of the season before finally breaking into the top 50 (that's how many places earn cash) after Week 12. Even then, he was 3.5 games out of the lead with his main entry and 5.5 games back with the eventual winning entry.

His big move came in Week 15 when he went 5-0 with the pops2008 entry and 4-0-1 with the pops3284 entry to move both into a tie for eighth place.

The craziest part of Graham's victory (as if all of the above wasn't enough) was that both of his entries were tied for fourth place entering Week 17. He decided to go with opposite sides on each of his five picks.

"I had seen how the Janknation and Mark Davis entries [another SuperContestant with two entries, who was among the leaders most of the season] had continued to play the same exact games on both of his tickets and how he dropped from second place to out of the money," he said, "so that had a big-time influence on how I played the final week."

He put his five best bets -- Houston +3 at Tennessee, Buffalo -3.5 at New York, Baltimore +2 at Cincinnati, Dallas +4 at Philadelphia and Miami +9.5 at New England -- on the pops3284 entry and the opposite plays on his pops2008 card. When his top plays went 0-5, the pops2008 entry ended up 5-0 and took over the lead.

"I wanted to protect my entries as much as possible to maximize my profits," Graham said. "I knew the worst I could do was 2-2-1 on both tickets and would probably go 3-2 and 2-3, but I knew I had a chance to get lucky if one of them went 5-0. I just thought it would be the other entry.

"I've never been happier to be wrong about anything in my whole life."

After watching those games end -- though he says he intentionally slept in and watched only the fourth quarters -- he had to go to work. He sweated out his nearest competitors' plays on a nearby TV.

Meanwhile, Jorstad was doing to the same thing back with his family back in Illinois. His alias was "Orange Crush" -- the name of the University of Illinois' student cheering section -- and had a 1.5-point lead heading into the final weekend. He started 0-1 with a loss on Indianapolis -4.5 against Jacksonville and knew he had to run the table to pass pops2008. After going 1-3 in the afternoon games (clinching the title for Graham), Jorstad's sons figured out he would finish alone in second if Green Bay -3.5 covered in the Sunday night game and out of the top 10 if Detroit covered.

"It was a difference of couple hundred thousand dollars, so that was a stressful game to watch," said Jorstad, who was relieved as the Packers won 31-24. "I'm happy with second. The winner deserved it by going 13-2 the last three weeks."

Jorstad is every bit the amateur as Graham but did have previous experience of being in contention in the SuperContest, as he finished tied for 13th in 2012, the first year he entered, though that was worth a comparatively small $11,175.

"My son Chip and some friends had been playing the contest and we were at a U of I tailgate party the previous year, and I decided I wanted to get involved," Jorstad said. He's looking forward to taking Chip and his other son Keith out to Vegas to collect his winnings and says their family trips have always revolved around sports.

One of their most common trips has been coming to Vegas for the opening weekend of March Madness, but Jorstad said except for betting on those games and maybe some futures, he's never been much of a sports bettor. However, he's followed all sports through the years and applied that knowledge to picking the games.

"I have some guys I listen to on the radio and also watch some fantasy shows, but I tend to bet on quarterbacks," he said. "I learned the first year not to play Bears games because I couldn't be objective. I do ride teams that are hot, so I was on the Patriots, Cowboys and Chiefs a lot this year. Otherwise I go with my gut."

After a pause, Jorstad added: "I know that's not much of a system, and the wiseguys would probably kick me out of the room. They probably can't believe that a barista and a farmer finished 1-2, but it worked for me and maybe this will help bring more recreational bettors into the SuperContest."

Graham feels the same away. In fact, in sort of a coincidence, he was studying food marketing at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia when Moneymaker won his WSOP title in 2003. That eventually inspired him to move to Las Vegas in 2008 to try his hand at being a professional poker player. He said it was too hard to make a living at poker -- especially swimming among all the other sharks. Graham tried to put his degree to use in some casinos before he ended up at Starbucks.

"I tried getting work in some casinos' food management departments before getting the job at Starbucks," Graham said. "That would be great if my win can have the same impact as Moneymaker's."


News and notes

Amateurs and first-time cashers dominate this year's top 50, with one very notable exception.

Last year's champion, James Salinas of Colorado, who won under the alias "rounding again" in his first SuperContest as another non-professional, finished tied for third with the alias Anton Chigurh and earned $116,199.45. That's the best finish for a defending champ since the one-name handicapper known as Fezzik won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 and is arguably a greater feat as those fields were 350 and 328, respectively, compared to 1,727 last year and 1,854 this season.

"Last year, everything went my way," Salinas said. "I took the lead in Week 6 and it was a grind to hold on, very exhausting, but I had it pretty much wrapped up going into Week 17. I knew it would be harder to defend my title and felt it I made the top 50 that it would be a great accomplishment. I was only 21-19 after eight weeks, but I learned last year that it's not a sprint but a marathon. I just kept plugging away with a bunch of 3-2s and 4-1s and then went 5-0 in Week 16 to jump from 33rd to fourth and realized I actually had a shot to do it. Salinas come up short of the ultimate feat, but his winnings made him the first SuperContest millionaire, as his career earnings are $1,030,374.45 in just two years.

It continues to show that, just like the World Series of Poker, the SuperContest allows everyone a chance to compete with the pros, and it doesn't even matter if you're a real fish. Larry the Gambling Goldfish of Barstool Sports finished 55th, just out of the money, so we'll see how many get in the pool next year and in years to come.

As the SuperContest has grown in recent years, the biggest complaint has been that it's gotten too big. Having to hit 70 percent winners to have a chance at the title is considered unreasonable. However, the $20,000 aggregate bonus that is shared by everyone that exceeds 67 percent went unclaimed this season for the first time since Richard Stand's 2010 title when the field was 345. And it took 50.5 points to finish in the money, below the 60 percent mark of 51 points.