A classic adage about Las Vegas is that they don't build those giant resorts with winners' money. In other words, gambling is for suckers. We disagree. You too can turn a small bankroll into riches beyond your imagination. (For a further look at other bets, check out Sports Bets That Would Have Made You Rich In 2009.)
TUTORIAL: Budgeting Basics
All you need is hindsight. If you'd been on the right side of the following wagers, you'd be reading this from a floating mansion on the Riviera right now.
With all due respect to the Super Bowl, the most tantalizing betting event of the year is the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship, known universally as March Madness. Sixty-seven games, one after another, most of them played concurrently. Before you die, visit Las Vegas on the tournament's opening Thursday and grab a seat at any of the casino sports books that line the Strip. Not only can you see every game in its entirety on the myriad of giant screens, you'll witness bettors running the gamut of human emotions, from anticipation to ecstasy to agony to anger.
Always Some Upsets
The tournament is good for a few upsets every year, but none quite as prolonged as the run enjoyed by Virginia Commonwealth this past spring, which made it to the Final Four despite being one of the weakest entrants in the field. VCU was so poorly considered that the tournament organizers forced it to do battle in the infamous "play-in" round: the Rams had to play an extra game in a single-elimination tournament and still advanced to the Final Four, which paid 800-to-1 for anyone prescient enough to have picked them to do so before the tournament began.
The Green Bay Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions, and look even better this year. But from a wagering perspective, their 11-0 record is nothing compared to the San Francisco 49ers' 9-1 (excluding one push) against the point spread. For those not familiar with sports gambling, the point spread is the amount of points given to one team. For example, if Team X played Team Y, and they received an eight-point spread, a bet on Team Y would mean that Team X would have to win by eight points or more for you to lose. If in our example Team Y lost by two points your bet will still come out a winner. Whether the favorite or the underdog, and whether they won or lost, the 49ers had covered in every single game this year until a heartbreaking failure to cover against Baltimore on Thanksgiving. If you wagered the standard $110 on San Francisco every week, you'd be $990 ahead, given the bookies' season-long modest appraisal of the Niners. (To learn more about the sports gambling underworld, check out A Quick And Dirty Look At Sports Gambling.)
Right Place, Right Time
Sometimes, cashing in means nothing more than catching the right team on the right day. To wit, the biggest college football upset of the year. On Oct. 22, 6-0 Oklahoma was ranked third in the nation, and hosted a Texas Tech team with an artificially enhanced 4-2 record: those wins had come against some of the worst teams in the country. Texas Tech walked into Norman a four-touchdown underdog, and walked out as the first team to beat the Sooners there in 6.5 half years. It's hard to translate a 28-point spread into a moneyline bet (after all, no one in his right mind would wager straight-up on a four-touchdown underdog, right?), but a reasonable estimate says Oklahoma wins that game 29 times out of 30. Just not 30 times out of 30. After catching fire, Texas Tech lost every game the rest of the way, getting blown out in all but one. But the single most enriching sports bet of the year was, of all things, a baseball bet.
Baseball attracts the most conservative of sports bettors. It's the nature of the game that the worst team in the league can beat the best team, even several times a year. With the sheer volume of a 2,430-game season - long enough to flatten the peaks and raise the valleys - committed baseball bettors will rarely stray too far from zero. On Sept. 12, the St. Louis Cardinals were just about cemented as the fifth-best team in a league in which four teams make the playoffs. They were five games behind Atlanta, the team that would have been the wild card had the season ended then.
But it didn't end then. It ended 15 games later, which would make little difference in most years. At the time, the chance of St. Louis making up a game in the standings every three days, squeaking into the playoffs, winning three out of five against a better opponent, then winning another four out of seven against a better opponent, then winning four out of seven against the American League champion was so great that the oddsmakers put a huge, fanciful number on it: 1,000-to-1. (Betting on these long odds in sports is similar to the long odd in investing, for more see Going All-In: Comparing Investing And Gambling.)
Some anonymous bettor took that bait, and that bet. He wagered $250 on the Cardinals to win the pennant (at 500-to-1), and another $250 on the big prize. Forty-six days later, Cardinals left fielder Allen Craig caught a fly ball off the bat of Texas Ranger David Murphy, and that anonymous baseball bettor enjoyed a $250,000 payday. (On top of his $125,000 payday from the League Championship Series two weeks earlier.)
To be fair, we have no documentation of any losses of his. And if he's the kind of person who bets that heavily on a 1000-to-1 shot, he's either rich to begin with or compulsive. A risk-averse bettor would have hedged his wagers by taking the other side in every postseason series the Cardinals played, but then again, "risk-averse bettor" is pure oxymoron.
The Bottom Line
If you plan to use longshot sports wagering for your retirement fund, just remember that for every bettor who successfully picks an 11-seed to advance to the Final Four, dozens more tear up their tickets in disgust when their precious four-seed loses in the opening round to a school you'd have trouble finding on a map. (To learn more about some crazier bets, read 15 Outrageous Super Bowl Bets.)