Behind the Bets

There it is, the Mag's prop winner on the big board in Vegas. Linda Cross

And the winner is …

… not the guy whose email handle is "Hsangston." He wanted to see an over/under on how many shoes or helmets will fly off during the Super Bowl (he had it at three).

… or Dan Keefe, who wanted to post how many times they'd do a close up of Russ Grimm (eight).

Although they were both worthy suggestions. In fact, I was floored by the number of submissions I got for BTB's first annual "Get Your Prop Up In Vegas" contest, done with Orleans bookmaker Bob Scucci, who promised to put the winner on his board for Super Bowl weekend.

The avalanche of emails showed how popular this little type of bet has become, not just with the betterati, but the squares as well. Or, as Wynn bookmaking boss John Avello lovingly calls them, "the unsophisticated. Most of the people betting on props don't even deserve to be called squares."

See, while we love props, bookmakers loathe them. "They're a pain in the ass," says legendary Vegas bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, who runs Lucky's race and sportsbooks. Vaccaro was there at the beginning of prop mania, when they went from side-show to the main stage.

It started with William "The Refrigerator" Perry during Super Bowl XX. Back then, bookmakers were putting up just a couple dozen Super Sunday props, as a treat for regulars. One of the offers that day was a 40-1 bet on whether or not the Fridge would score a touchdown. By game time the odds had fallen to 2-1, and all the books on The Strip were hugely exposed. It became a national story. When the Fridge scored, reporters called bookmakers to ask about how much they lost. For Jimmy it was $40 large. But customers came back the next year and started asking, how about some more props? "Some of the stuff now is over the top," Jimmy says. "But it keeps non-fans interested for the entire game."

Props, for a bookmaker, are tedious to think of and expose the books to more risk. Think about it: There are an extra 200-300 bets up on any given board or Internet site. I spoke to Avello a couple days after the conference title games and, like every bookmaker in town, he was rushing to light his board up with ornaments. The next night John and his staff were going to, "order in, drink a ton of wine, and finish these things off."

That's how it was around the corner at the Hilton, too. Bookmaking's acknowledged "King of Props," the Hilton's Jay Kornegay, had already spent weeks cobbling together some basic propositions. He first started expanding his menu in the 90s, when he was at the Imperial Palace, because the Super Bowls were always blowouts. In 1995, the year the Niners were two touchdown faves over the Chargers, he went nuts, doubling from 50 to about 100. Now, at the Hilton, he can't help himself. Late last week he and his staff spent a night in their "prop war room," where no one was allowed to leave until, "the beer was gone," Kornegay says.

They ended up with more than 300, totaling 22 legal-sized pieces of paper. "Fans are not just rooting for the Steelers to score," says Kornegay, "but for Willie Parker to score." That's why Kornegay estimates props will make up 60% of his Super Bowl business this weekend.

There are specific criteria for making a prop bet in Vegas that makes them different than the ones on the big dog Internet sports betting sites like BoDog. Mainly, per Nevada rules, bets have to be determined by what happens on the field and they have to be verifiable by the league. Which means current web faves like "What color will the Gatorade poured on the winning coach be?" or "How many times will John Madden refer to food during the game?" won't fly at the walk-up books. Neither would some of these suggestions you fine readers sent in:

"What's more…the amount of times we see Kurt Warner's wife, or the amount of field goals Neil Rackers kicks?"—Chris Collett

"Will Jack Bauer kill more people in the episode of 24 following (or prior to, I'll leave that to the pros) the Super Bowl than the Steelers sack Kurt Warner?"—Benjamin VanVliet

Honestly, if you put your money down on props like those you're a sucker and deserve to lose. How do you know the guy mixing the Gatorade isn't betting the house on the color of the coach's victory shower? Or if Madden isn't putting the his cruiser's gas money on the over/under of his food refs? You can't know.

When Scooch and I chatted about the entries, he wanted to see originality. He wanted to see the Fridge in 1986. He wanted the first time they put up Michael Jordan's total points vs. one of the Super Bowl team's total points. Or like back at the 'Dust, when he was the first one to post a bet about whether or not a coach would throw a challenge.

So the dozen or so submissions I received about game time temps in Tampa vs. the point total, or game time temp in Pittsburgh vs. the Steelers points, went out the window. So did all the cross sport props about Rajon Rondo's assists vs. James Harrison's tackles and Neil Rackers field goals vs. Chris Paul steals. Scooch did want to help out Peter Shannon and his buddies in Vegas for a bachelor party this weekend, but the hockey prop didn't quite cut it.

To Chris Reed, who sent in least three emails, appreciate your persistence. But you gotta raise your game, brother. How hardcore is Scooch when it comes to making this decision? His dad sent in three suggestions, including a trifecta prop centered on the number 50, to go off at 50-1. No luck, Scooch, Sr. "Man," says Scooch. "I thought he was kidding."

In the end, it came down to these two props, the first is from Jeff Johnson:

"An over/under: The most amount of letters in a players last name with either a rushing, receiving, or defensive touchdown. If set at 9.5 the only realistic chances for the over are Fitzgerald (10 letters), Nate Washington (10), Roethlisberger (14), and Rodgers-Cromartie (15). Of course the under would be the rest of the players."

"I really like this one," says Scooch. "The guy that would be the wild card is Polamalu. That's eight letters. He'd get a lot of people betting the under on this."

The second comes from the BTB's favorite American Samoan, Lance:

"Does game time, from kick-off, including half-time, until the final whistle as time runs out, go over or under 2 hours, 29 minutes, and 59 1/2 seconds? (You can change the time if you think this one's way off.)"

"I like this one, for a lot of reasons," Scooch says. "One, it's verifiable by an official NFL stat. They record kickoff time and game time. Two, I can put some research into it to get an accurate number. Three, it sustains itself year after year."

So the winner is … Lance, from America Samoa, with his total game time prop bet.

After we spoke, Scooch and his crew looked up the running times of all the Steelers games, all the Cardinals games and the past seven Super Bowls. They settled on a game- time duration of 3:37. At 5:59 eastern time, on Wednesday, Jan. 28, Scooch called me and said, "It's on the board."

Take a look at the picture. And congrats, Lance.

Hope this doesn't break the bank.

Got a betting story for Chad? Email him.

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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.