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. 

Life After Simmons: What will become of Grantland?

 Everyone is worried about Bill Simmons.

Simmons, possibly today’s most popular sports media persona, will undoubtedly find work. Whether he flips to another network – Vox’s SB Nation, Fox Sports and Turner Sports/TNT (because of the NBA licenses) have been rumored – or starts his own platform is inconsequential. (Deadspin wrote a guide on how to employ Simmons, then eliminated itself from contention with one post.) With brash opinions, a large following and cross-media accessibility, I’m sure Simmons won’t fade.

But the more interesting question is: What will ESPN do?

It has a hugely-popular web site featuring a team with a collective greatness that hasn’t been seen since Ocean’s 11. (Movie references in a sports column? Must involve Simmons.)

Two questions loom for ESPN execs: What will become of Grantland? And, what will become of the slew of stars?

To the former: ESPN president John Skipper says the site will be unaffected.

To the latter point, it seems illogical to think that Grantland will lose writers simply because of Simmons’ departure. After all, writers still get paid. There’s no concrete figure floating around on the web, but a senior writer for Deadspin (a Gawker site) said he earned roughly $72,000 annually. This Business Insider article estimates Grantland writers out-earn Gawker employees by double. Lucrative deals hard to come by elsewhere.

But the thing which made Grantland so attractive for writers: Simmons shielded his staff from generating posts designed purely for web traffic, or any reader stat-based pieces. They were allowed to spend time developing and searching for thoughtful pieces. Whomever ESPN hires to replace Simmons will presumably affect Grantland writers’ decision whether or not to stay, but the continued freedom of piece’s subject and timeline may end up being the decisive factor.

By “those writers” I don’t mean Simmons himself, who may be the worst writer Grantland employs. Jack Hamilton of Slate thinks Simmons’ departure is the best thing for his career, and I agree with his hypothesis. Simmons’ columns possibly suffer because of obligations to his podcasts and television appearances – both of which he does extremely well. But the columns… They are novellas. They are out-of-focus and incoherent and sometimes seem as if he’s insistent on dropping every name in a really-not-that-related anecdote. I’m being much nicer than this Deadpsin take-down:

SimmonsDeadspinTakeDown

by Albert Burneko, Deadspin

By “those writers” I mean the genius of Zach Lowe, Bill Barnwell and the like, who offer analysis of basketball and football, respectively, that I’ve never read before. I feel as if I’m getting smarter by reading them and they write as if they were explaining it to me, sitting next to me on my couch. Grantland put them on an accessible platform, bringing them into the spotlight from the bowels of a high school classroom and Pro Football Focus. Bryan Curtis, Rembert Browne and Brian Phillips write brilliant pieces I wouldn’t think of otherwise, like the media vs. Oklahoma City Thunder think piece by Curtis. I’m not a huge fan of the site’s culture section (I don’t watch Game of Thrones or Mad Men) but a movie-junkie friend of mine says Wesley Morris and Andy Greenwald are the best there is.

The reason why Grantland could afford to let its writers have a lengthy leash – and not produce oodles of lists and slideshows and GIFs – is because Grantland complements a traffic giant in ESPN. Let the content be good on Grantland and not dictated by readers statistics was the strategy. Places like Deadspin can be sometimes with some of its more ridiculous stories, like a guide to volunteering at your kid’s school. Or, some sites like Bleacher Report, is only lists and slideshows. A lot of sites need those to increase clicks to increase readership and inflate ad rates, but not Grantland up until now.

SimilarWeb says Grantland attracted 13 million visitors in April 2015, its best month yet, according to a farewell email Simmons sent to an employee. That’s also good for the 1500th most-trafficked site in the U.S. during that time.

In April, Deadspin attracted 17.7 million; SB Nation, 26 million; Bleacher Report, 48.8 million; ESPN itself, nearly 200 million. Deadspin and Bleacher Report had similar bounce rates (55 percent) and average page visit time (a little over three minutes) to Grantland. It will be interesting to read Grantland’s June 2015 statistics because that will be the first month without any content produced by Simmons. As the year progresses, we’ll be able to differentiate how much traffic Grantland generates opposed to how much Simmons brought in.

That’ll be an interesting study because the site sought to carve out a place for long-form journalism on the web. Critics say Grantland isn’t journalism. Blog posts regularly surpass 2,000 words and, the Columbia Journalism Review says, the site is the “Manhattan Project of navel-gazing.” The Big Lead, a USA Today product, studied Grantland’s content in 2013 and found that, between May 29 and June 4, only one post out of 125 included a scene with a person that didn’t include the writer.

While the question of who is more responsible, Simmons or the content, will be interesting to see for casual viewers, employees don’t have that luxury. They have to decide, soon, whether or not they’ll stay. This site protected “Writers from being search-engine-optimized into near-oblivion,” the Columbia Journalism Review wrote.

But if the site was really built for Simmons to keep him happy at ESPN, like he always said it was, then we know what will happen: It will be gone. If Simmons is gone, there’s no reason to keep him happy with it. When Simmons is gone, why should ESPN care about what he leaves behind? Other writers neither drive traffic like Simmons nor have his profile. If the best writers leave, then quality declines. If quality declines, then why would readers visit the site? If readers don’t visit, why would ESPN continue to fund an abandoned, unloved site?

Grantland could be the next The National. Simmons said Grantland was molded in the former daily sports newspaper’s image.

Good news for Simmons: Frank Deford, The National’s editor-in-chief, walked away from the paper’s rubble and continued his historic, legendary career.

Bad news for Grantland: The National died a quick death.

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. 

Question I’m wondering but didn’t work into the article: What does this mean for Jason Whitlock’s site, The Undefeated, a struggling, demanding, ESPN-backed start-up aimed as “the black Grantland”?

Year in Review: 2014’s Top Posts

YearInReview

After the 100 Weeks of “Purely For Sport” post about a month ago, this article will once again take you back into the past. It’s a retrospect to 2014, except without the things you were bombarded with anyway – I promise this is the only time Taylor Swift, Ebola, the World Cup, Malaysia Airlines, the Oscar selfie and Flappy Bird will be mentioned in this article.

Here are the five most-read posts of 2014:

T5. “When I Was A Boy…” (89 reads) – After attending my first college class, I sat down in a Syracuse study room and reflected on how I got there. The result is a mixture of me feeling old and curmudgeonly, but full of happiness and hope for what’s to come. This was all brought up because of the beginning of classes and playing the card game Strat-O-Matic with an old friend of mine.

T5. Matt Bonner: The New Hampshire Sandwich Hunter (89 reads) – He’s a red-head and so am I. He’s from New Hampshire and so am I. He’s 6-foot-11 and I am not. Matt Bonner is (a little) better at basketball than I am, so he called me up to talk about everything from signing his new sponsorship to Jalen Rose’s advice when Bonner was a rookie; from collegiate “one-and-done’s” to sandwiches.

4. Hostile in Buffalo (303 reads) – Beer cans, the burning filters of cigarettes and the vulgarest of any insults you’ve ever heard: All those things were hurled at my friends and I as we walked into Ralph Wilson Stadium to watch the hometown Buffalo Bills take on our New England Patriots. One other observation: They really, really hate Tom Brady.

3. One Man, One Reason, 64 Fantasy Baseball Teams (548 reads) – Working four jobs each summer, sleeping four hours per night and constantly loving baseball this is a profile about fellow SU student Justin Mattingly. A lifelong baseball fan, he reminisces about seven years filled with fantasy baseball and the thrill he still gets from “The most important day of the year – not your mother’s birthday, not Christmas – but Draft Day.”

2. Who’s To Blame When Idols Fall in Shame? (795 reads) – On the cusp of my 18th birthday, I reflect upon all the people who have raised me until this point. This evolves into a stream of consciousness in which I consider what it means to be a role model. Using Chris Jones’ “Idol Thoughts” column from ESPN the Magazine, I wrote an analogue connecting role models to stocks, including buying, trading and accepting flaws.

1. 24 Hours in Death Valley: 8,000 Pounds of Pork and Saturday Football (10,619 reads) – I’ve never experienced anything like this in my life, the outpouring of support and kindness in response to an article. I traveled to Clemson, S.C. to see the Tigers take on my SU Orangemen. I blogged about it and, thanks to my friend Chandler who goes there, a lot of people got to read it. An alum told me the next time I made it down there, dinner was on him, Granny Wilson emailed me saying, “Y’all come back, ya hear?” and an admissions counselor from Clemson sent me a message saying they would love to admit me if I’d just send in an application. I admire Clemson for their incredible support for their football team and taking a short blog post from a New England kid to the heights of 10,000 views. Here’s to more just like that.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York as a freshman at Syracuse University. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and using the word “wicked” as an adjective. He’s not a fan of purposefully misspelt business names (“Kathy’s Kut & Kurl”) or grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

The Best of 2014

As 2014 draws eerily to a close, I look back at all the reading I’ve done this year and pick out a solid 20 stories to recommend.

I am a college student, reporter gratis for my campus’ newspaper and employee of Syracuse University guest services, which doesn’t leave me with a ton of time. I’m also not a professional writer who has the luxury of reading obscure material from far-flung parts of the nation, so if you’re looking for exposes on New Mexican runners named “Caballo Blanco” – a great story told here – then I am not your man, unfortunately.

I have, however, read plenty of material from two magazines I subscribe to – Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine. I read from other sources as articles are recommended to me, but for this article I shall stick to recommending SI and ESPN because that is what I know best. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s a collection of the best stories I have read this year, ones I believe are worth your time. (Those in bold, more so.) Without further ado, here they are:

From Sports Illustrated: 

“The Other Side of A Miracle” by Thomas Lake

  • This is a powerful one-year retrospective at the 2013 Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama. The tragedy for Alabama fans, the triumph of Auburn, but more than that: The microcosm of Alabama state’s thirst for seriousness in football told through two sisters, whose tragic story unfolds to the reader.

“Inside An Agency” by Austin Murphy

  • Blake Bortles plummet down the 2014 draft boards is captured by Murphy’s terrific piece. But the real story is the Jacksonville Jaguars skulduggery which included fudging their own draft board to feign disinterest in Bortles. Murphy’s reporting is stellar.

“The Comeback Kids” by Thomas Lake

  • The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Class-A affiliate squanders an 18-1 lead only to lose in extra innings.

“Beísbol Prospectus” by Eric Nusbaum

  • Guerrilla sabermetricians trying to locate the best talent in U.S.-embargoed in Cuba. Need I say more?

From ESPN the Mag:

9 Exits on America’s Football Highway” by Wright Thompson

  • 540 miles on America’s super highway through its second-largest state helps Thompson find the stories that make Texas football, Texas football. He travels through Odess, TX. the birthplace of “Friday Night Lights” to track down Boobie Miles, the cast-off Running Back from the book as well as two high school underclassmen on their journey to high school football greatness.

“A Family Kind of Town” by Joel Anderson

  • Adrian Peterson is suspended from the NFL, his appeal denied and he is ostracized for punishing his child harshly with a snitch. Bring up these allegations in his Texas hometown and everyone shrugs. They’re still behind his back, because they spank their children’s backsides too. It’s the Texan way, they say.

“Held Up in Customs” by Kate Fagan

  • Britney Griner forgoes the WNBA to play in China under the described tyranny of a coach who’s formerly of Korean military.

“I Am Not Very Good Yet” by Eli Saslow

  • Joel Embiid came to America from Cameroon, started playing basketball, and – in the subsequent two years – flew up recruiting lists and draft boards until he was considered possibly the best player in the draft. And he’s just starting.

“The Man With 200 Teammates” by Eli Saslow

  • Semi-professional basketball is tough. Vander Blue of the ____ (What team could he be affiliated with? He’s been with 15+ just this year) is one of those guys going through the cycle. Saslow’s reporting is superb in finding Blue’s tricks to game the system.

“Off Balance” by Andrew McNeill

  • Matt Bonner, San Antonio Spurs Power Forward and off-court comedic genius, takes to Twitter to find a pair of shoes.

“Shadowed by the Hand of God” by Wright Thompson

  • Set the scene: Argentina, pre-World Cup, struggles with whom to associate: Diego Maradona, the country’s hard-partying world champion, or the little, quiet, assassin in Lionel Messi, who has yet to bring them home a cup.

“Portrait of a Serial Winner” by Wright Thompson

  • This piece as the best of the year from either of these magazines. I’ve argued with others who have read this if Thompson should have picked a different lede – for example, the fact that Suarez is a modern day Gatsby because of his girlfriend – but this is a sensational piece that digs at the core of following a story to verify an anecdote oft-associated with a player.

“Awakening the Giant” by Seth Wickersham

  • Y.A. Tittle, the former Quarterbacking great, battles Alzheimers as he prepares for a family gathering.

One bonus, from Grantland

“Keyon Dooling’s Secret” by Jordan Ritter Conn

  • Keyon Dooling’s shame from an incident when he is 14-years-old is triggered when a man touches him inappropriately in a Seattle bathroom years later. Dooling battles shame, regret and understanding as he fights to accept himself and advocate for others.