Behind the success of CH Ballers

A syndicate of four friends clinched the SuperContest win before Week 17 kicked off. Here's how. AP Photo/Las Vegas Review-Journal/John Locher

LAS VEGAS -- The SuperContest is always won by a handicapper or team that hits somewhere from 61 percent to 69 percent against the spread, except for 2011 when the team that went by the alias Sans Souci hit a record 72.5 percent.

The SuperContest always comes down to the final week of the NFL season.

The SuperContest always has close runners-up that are left bemoaning the one or two bad beats that kept them from winning the title.

Always, that is, until this year, when CH Ballers blew away a record field of 1,403 at the contest hosted by the Westgate Las Vegas Hotel-Casino (formerly known as the Hilton SuperContest and the LVH SuperContest) and made a mockery of all those preconceived notions -- and all the other records too -- in winning the $736,575 first-place prize with its record of 64-20-1 ATS (76.19 percent).

SuperContestants, who pay $1,500 per entry and often play under an alias, make five NFL plays a week against the contest spread, with one point for each win and half a point for each push. CH Ballers held a 3.5-point lead over General TSO and 4.5 points over Degenchat with five plays to go. When the Week 17 selections were posted shortly after Saturday's 11 a.m. PT deadline, CH Ballers had two common plays with each of those rivals, so instead of sweating out the games the way they had the rest of the season, CH Ballers actually became the first SuperContest champs to clinch without a single game kicking off on the final weekend.

Meet the CH Ballers

CH Ballers was so named because three of the group played football at Campbell Hall High School in Los Angeles. A fourth member, who chose to remain anonymous, became known as Mr. Anonymous during a conference call with yours truly. Here is your winning team:

Justin Green, 30, of Los Angeles, works on the business side of the television industry. The CH Ballers entry was in his name, mainly because his parents have a house in Las Vegas and he visits often. He went on to play football at Cornell, where he was an economics major.

Andrew Leff, 29, of Los Angeles, is a commercial real estate broker.

Preston (last name withheld), 29, of Los Angeles, is a private equity investor.

Mr. Anonymous, 29, of Boston, works in finance and was an economics major with Green at Cornell and has known the other team members for eight years.

After submitting their Week 17 plays through local proxy LarryK of lasvegascontestproxy.com (whom they wanted to thank as well as Westgate director of race and sports Jay Kornegay and his staff), they were eager to see the selections of the other contenders to determine if they had clinched. Leff was at home repeatedly refreshing the Westgate SuperContest page, while Green was flying back from a family vacation and Preston was on a ski lift at the Mammoth Lakes Resort in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, risking frostbite as he kept checking his phone.

"I text messaged the group and asked if I was seeing it right, that we couldn't be caught," Green said. "We all celebrated and were relieved to know the only thing left was to try and break San Souci's record."

CH Ballers had tied the record of 60.5 points heading into the final week, and needed just one win (or even a single push) to clinch with their plays of Indianapolis minus-6.5, Philadelphia plus-3, San Diego plus-3, Green Bay minus-7.5 and Carolina plus-4. The Chargers didn't come through in the early games, but the Colts and Eagles both won to give CH Ballers the record, then they piled on by winning in the afternoon games with the Panthers and Packers to go 4-1 ATS and finish with 64.5 points.

General TSO finished second with a record of 60-25 ATS and amazingly had to settle for second place of $294,630, despite hitting 70 percent. Degenchat was third at 58-27 ATS (68.24 percent) and collected $147,315 from the record prize pool of $2.1 million that paid the top 30 finishers plus ties.

But the only story anyone wanted to hear about was CH Ballers, which had kept a low-profile all season, turning down interviews until everything was decided. The group created a joint Twitter account, @CH_Ballers, on Saturday night -- only after the win was assured.

How they made their picks

CH Ballers said it was a total collaborative effort, with no single person making most of the picks and no math model or system in place.

"I guess we picked a good year to join the SuperContest for the first time," Leff said in an understatement of epic proportions. "We're all long-term sports bettors and we've followed the SuperContest for a few years. We've done some sports betting together, but never in a format like this where you have to pick five games a week."

Green said they would all handicap the games individually and then do a conference call every Thursday night to go over all the games on the weekend card (never using a Thursday game). They would usually have seven to nine plays and just narrow down to their five strongest.

"Some have quant backgrounds, some economics," Mr. Anonymous said. "It really helped that we all have different approaches and look at things differently." Green stressed that for people looking to form their own SuperContest groups, it helps to work with people you like and who are willing to back down from a strong opinion if the group isn't in agreement.

After going 4-1 in Week 1, they suffered their only losing week at 2-3 in Week 2. They said that was the turning point; they decided to stop using heavy favorites after losing with Denver minus-13.5 (the Broncos beat the Chiefs 24-17) and Green Bay minus-8.5 (the Packers beat the Jets only 24-17).

"We knew we had to be a little more contrarian," Leff said. "We understood that we couldn't take three or four square plays or heavy favorites, even though we're cognizant of the fact the public is sharper than it was even five or six years ago with all the information out there."

CH Ballers were 13-7 (65 percent) after four weeks, then went on a run of 4-1, 4-1, 5-0 and 5-0 to move into a first-place tie with former leader Alcatraz Holdings at 31-9 ATS (77.5 percent). They went 3-2 in Week 9 to take over sole possession of first place at 34-11 ATS, as their win percentage actually dropped to 75.6 percent. It was around this time that most people expected the leaders to come back to the pack, but CH Ballers put up their third 5-0 in Week 11 and never looked back. In fact, during the last eight weeks, they went 30-9-1 (76.9 percent).

"If you look at a lot of our plays, we didn't worry too much about whether a line moved against us," Green said. "We knew the games we wanted to pick and went with our strongest plays.

"The one game we went away from that was the Jets-Bills game that was moved to Detroit and played Monday night [Week 12]. We took it because the Jets were getting plus-4.5 and the line had gone down, but we were really upset with ourselves. We wanted to make sure that didn't cost us."

But it didn't as they pulled away from the field.

Looking ahead

During our conference call, it was clear that the members of CH Ballers were still somewhat in shock over what they had accomplished. Green later issued a statement from the group: "We had a great experience competing in the tournament and we loved working together. It still hasn't sunk in and we're thrilled and fortunate to be in this position."

They all began following the SuperContest after Bill Simmons and Chad Millman started writing about it on ESPN.com in 2010, when more people outside Vegas were learning about the contest and it started to grow. It has continued to pick up steam with more mainstream exposure and through social media. The field was just 345 in 2010, increased 50 percent to 517 in 2011, and grew another 40-plus percent to 745 in 2012 before escalating to 1,034 last year.

CH Ballers were certainly aware that Fezzik won back-to-back titles in 2008 and 2009 and even joked that their mantra early in the season was "What is Fezzik doing right now?" to inspire themselves to keep working hard. "What Fezzik did was incredible and is a record that will be tough for anyone to beat," Green said for the group, "but that's not saying we won't be trying next year."

As for what they're going to do with the money, Leff and his wife just had a baby, so he says that his money is already spent. None of the others are planning to leave their jobs. Many SuperContest winners go into the tout industry to sell picks, but they say it's too early to think about that.

For now, they're content to be champions, second to none.