Boxes of Ziti and a Chinese Hardware Store: How I Did Gambling on Sports

There’s an episode of The Sopranos called “The Happy Wanderer” where mob boss Tony Soprano’s daughter’s friend’s father (follow that?) wants in on Tony’s high-stakes executive poker game. A game that Frank Sinatra’s nephew flies in from Vegas to play. The guy, David Scatino, is a respected local businessman, but he has a gambling problem. Tony knows that, so he warns his nephew Christopher not to let Scatino play too far past his limits because Scatino is already in debt. After Tony falls asleep on the couch, Scatino keeps buying back in each time for $10,000 — everyone calls it “10 boxes of ziti” — and Christopher doesn’t stop him. Spoiler alert: Scatino loses a bunch and Tony finds out he already owes multiple boxes of ziti to other area mobsters. Tony & Co. … lean on the guy. I won’t elaborate further than saying it isn’t pleasant for Scatino.

I think my mom envisioned me as Scatino when I told her I started gambling.

I came home in early September from school for my cousin’s wedding and whenever it was mentioned, she stiffened a little and told me once our initial deposit eventually (inevitably) ran out that I should stop. She worried I’d develop into a degenerate gambler. I had gone to my first race track two months prior and lost a little bit of money there, about 30 bucks. I didn’t know horses. I didn’t even know how to read the big book they gave out. I barely understood the terms “box” and “trifecta” then; I don’t really now. (As I type this, I realize how stupid I must seem here.)

… Maybe her fears were justified.

But I really wanted to try something out. I’d spent the summer in New York City without a sustainable income and emerging from that desert to see the mirage of my bank account was disheartening. I’d talked to an uncle who liked to play the stock market and had been reasonably successful. He played conservative. Not getting rich, but his money was making baby money. That appealed to me.

I tried to convince my mother (and myself) that what I was doing wasn’t like the race track.

First, I decided I wouldn’t play the stock market or horses or cards. I didn’t know enough about any of those things to be comfortable risking money. I decided on sports (more on this later). Second, I went into with a partner. My roommate Alex felt similarly about wanting to make a little side money, knew about sports and played a rational foil to my sometimes-overly-optimistic ideas. Third, we researched betting sites and read 20-plus reviews to find the most reliable and user-friendly site. (Our decision to forgo Daily Fantasy Sports like Fan Duel and Draft Kings ended up paying off later when it was found employees of those sites cheated users.) Fourth, we put a hard cap on spending. The site we chose, Bovada.com, offered a 50 percent registering bonus for the beginning of the NFL season. Alex and I mutually invested, splitting a $50 buy-in. Bovada chipped in a $25 credit. We decided that if — no, when — we lost that $75, then we’d stop. Fifth, another reason why I wouldn’t end up like Scatino: No mob involvement.

The way I rationalized it: This was a relatively low sum of money, it’d be fun, I’d learn about gambling and, if we won, I’d have a little bit of money. (Also in the back of my mind: There’s an article here whether we win or lose.)

Our first weekend, we bet conservatively in five-dollar increments across five football spreads. We stuck to point spreads and over/unders for college football and NFL games, preferring those to risking it with the volatility of a regular season baseball game. We won three of five that first weekend, making four dollars and change. Joey and Kyle, our other two roommates, laughed at us for stressing about bets which inevitably yielded such small returns.

A bit of foreshadowing: Six days after I registered for allegedly-trustworthy Bovada, my credit card statements showed a purchase of $100 in supplies from a hardware store in a small, northern Chinese province.

Things went really well. We started winning more, betting in higher increments on fewer games. The confidence rose; we researched more, trying to find the lucrative lines. I downloaded a podcast called “Behind the Bets.” One weekend, we went 5-for-5. I even got the $100 refunded (shout-out TD Bank).

In four weeks, we doubled our initial deposit.

I felt like this (except that first scene; Alex and I are just roommates):

But you know where this is going. The fall-from-grace narrative is nearly as cliche as dorky-dude-gets-girl.

It started slowly. We miscommunicated, bet the wrong side of the USC-Stanford spread. We lost a little bit, and it was particularly frustrating because I had learned a small advantage from the podcast. But no worries, right? We were still in it, and still confident.

To compensate, we tried a parlay for the first time, meaning we’d need to get two bets correct to cash in. The higher risk offered a higher reward. While we were placing the bet, Bovada seemed to freeze for a second, so we double-clicked “Place bets” again. The site registered both clicks and suddenly 40 percent of our assets were on the line for one bet.

We won the first game of the parlay, but didn’t come close on the second. The first domino.

And then I realized something. The reason I didn’t bet on horses, cards or stock is that I knew I knew nothing.  I thought this made me better than other gamblers, my awareness of what I did and did not know. While I thought I was playing to my strengths I really just set myself up with faux-confidence. “I don’t just know the roster of my hometown team,” I rationalized. “I pay close attention to the four major sports. I read and watch a lot more than regular fans. I can be successful.”

My biggest mistake was thinking I knew anything at all.

It took about six weeks, with small and sporadic wins, but we ran our account down to nothing. It’s been eight weeks. I hadn’t opened up the Bovada account since then until today to write this story.

When I came home for Thanksgiving, my dad asked how the “wagering” was going (he was always nice about it in that way), and I told him.

Cue my mom, sideways look.

“So,” she said. Lengthy pause. “Have you put any more money in?”

I laughed it off. No, I was not fulfilling her prophecy of becoming David Scatino. If anything, I had realized that by thinking I was any cleverer than anyone else, I had proven just the opposite.

When I logged on to Bovada today, I saw something. With our last bet, we had apparently triggered some sort of bonus. We’d surpassed a spending threshold. Bovada comp’d us $10.

That’s a box of ziti to me.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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