Las Vegas and March Madness: A match made in gamblers' heaven

LAS VEGAS – Valparaiso's Ben Boggs didn't care too much about the opportunistic steal and resulting dunk that brought down the curtain on the season for him and his team. With Valpo already trailing 65-52 when he poached the ball from Michigan State's Alex Gauna and scored with nothing but a few ticks left, Boggs gave a tiny shrug of his shoulders and walked off to shake hands with his team's conquerors.

Little did he realize that 1,750 miles and light years away in Las Vegas, Boggs' final hurrah was causing a manic medley of joy and uproar at the Golden Nugget Casino. The Grand, a theater and ballroom transformed into a mass viewing party for the first four days of the NCAA tournament, erupted in the few moments it took for Gauna's lapse in concentration to either pad the pocketbooks of tournament punters or deliver an unwelcome early sucker punch.

For the basket, as meaningless as it was in terms of the outcome, turned the Golden Nugget's point spread on its head, robbing those who had plumped for the Spartans with a handicap of 11.5 points and rewarding those who predicted Valpo would get within at least 11.

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Over near the entrance to the ballroom, where four giant screens had been erected to broadcast the action, Bob Linder from San Diego was high-fiving his buddies and preparing to collect a $105 payout that looked utterly impossible just moments earlier.

"That's Vegas," he said. "And that's March Madness."

As ever with Sin City and the gambling game, a flip-side story wasn't too far away. A man in an Arizona cap shook his head and kicked a chair at the next table. "Punk," he exclaimed, ripping up his ticket, and it wasn't clear if he was referring to Gauna, Boggs, or even himself.

This tournament has its magic and mayhem and misery, but nowhere is the heartbreak and heroism brought into such stark focus as here in the Nevada desert where countless life paths have been fated on the turn of a card or roll of a dice.

It is part of why crowds flock to this place in greater numbers than ever before and why, for all of Las Vegas' supposed reinvention as a Mecca for celebrity chefs and scandalously-priced clubs, the tournament is a throwback to when casinos were for gamblers and money lines and mobsters carried more sway than Michelin stars or pimply-faced DJs wearing flat-billed baseball caps while spinning tunes on laptops.

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Vegas knows the value of promotion better than any place in the world and is never shy to trot out attention-grabbing statistics. Yet there is a genuine belief among the folks at the heart of the town's gambling operations that March Madness 2013 will set an all-time record for money staked.

"It is all down to the parity in the field," explained Tony Miller, sports book director at the Golden Nugget. "When you have teams who are expected to be clearly superior, it affects the figures that people are wagering.

"But this year we think there are up to 26 teams who have a chance to win. That creates a lot of interest, a lot of people have different opinions and that creates a strong market."

Three separate directors told Yahoo! Sports that they expect three things from the tournament: that the amount bet in the first two days will surpass this year's Super Bowl takings, that the overall level of gambling interest will be the highest in history, and that the total will reach in excess of $100 million.

[ Different factors such as economic revival can be pointed to but most important of all, is simply that people like coming to Vegas as their preferred destination for this iconic sporting weekend.

"I have been to tournament sites many times, seen some great games, and had a lot of fun," said Chris Andrews, a bookmaker for the past 30 years. "But it was nothing like the excitement you get during March Madness in Vegas. It is on a different level altogether."

Finding the quirky in this town happens with such regularity that it may seem like an inevitable by-product of any trip here. After all, it is why this optimistic sportswriter was sent to a city nowhere near any first-round venue from which to write about opening day.

Embarking upon a task like trying to find the heartbeat of Las Vegas during one of its wackiest days of the year is both a dream assignment and a logistical headache which begs the question: Where do you possibly start?

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Floyd Mayweather Jr. was so daunted by the question that he cancelled an interview about it, seemingly unable to handle the responsibility of putting one reporter's Vegas experience on his shoulders. Or maybe he just had better things to do, like drive around in his Rolls Royce with an entourage fit military dictators.

Bradley Cooper, he of Hangover fame, had no such hang-ups during a random conversation, but then again, anyone who has braved tigers, kidnappers and Zach Galafinakis, not once but twice, must be fearless.

"You just have to have your mind open to the concept that anything can happen [in Vegas]," Cooper told me. "The whole place was built on a dream. If you go looking for crazy stuff, it will avoid you like a curse. But if you just keep an open mind, that's when you might get one of those special times. Let the madness come to you."

As Boggs' dunk was thrown down, then again later as Davidson produced an implosion swifter than when the old Aladdin Casino was blown to smithereens in 1998, I remembered Cooper's words.

Over at LVH, the hotel formerly known as the Las Vegas Hilton, a scene best described as the New York Stock Exchange mixed with a giant frat party (including plenty of middle-aged alumni) was in full flow.

The LVH's sports book is cavernous, with more than 30 screens and tickers stretching up to the 70-foot ceiling detailing a mind-blowing array of odds, lines, spreads and prices.

"I'm not going to leave here until Sunday," said my new friend Fat Mickey, who had struck up a conversation while I waited in line for an ultimately ill-founded parlay that I probably won't be able to write off on expenses. "Maybe for a few hours sleep each night, that's about it. I won't go outside until I get back in the car."

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Fat Mickey comes from Arizona to Vegas every year for the tournament, always on opening weekend, and bets constantly. He is called Fat Mickey (I had to ask), because "it sounds better than Obese Michael."

"People go on about the crazy [expletive] that happens on the Strip," he said, pausing to take a gulp from a giant can of energy drink. "But there is nothing crazier than someone losing their shirt because some kid throws the ball out of bounds when he doesn't have to. That's the kind of [expletive] that makes you want to punch something."

Fortunately, De'Mon Brooks' heart-aching folly for Davidson didn't cost Fat Mickey any money, or it might have been me in the firing line.

Just when this trip was starting to feel like a rather more sober version of Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," a voice of experience and reason stepped in to help.

Lem Banker is 85 years old and a Vegas gambling legend. Originally from New Jersey, he didn't just shake Sinatra's hand but Elvis' and Sonny Liston's too, and operated as a high-stakes gambler at a time when the city's movers and shakers operated by the law of the street rather than the rules of economic theory.

Just as Banker has seen March Madness explode from an NIT after-thought into a cultural magnet, so too has he witnessed its entrenchment into part of Vegas' very fabric.

"It is totally different now," Banker said, as I visited his home a few miles from The Strip. "The statistical information is all there at the touch of a button and it takes away a lot of the edge that the players used to have.

"I had a guy in New York who I paid to go into the [New York] Times office and read all the out-of-town newspapers to look at details of injuries and so on. Now everyone has that information; there are no secrets. The markets are a lot tougher; it is a different game.

"But there are more people than ever because they have realized that there is no better place for it. It is a harder place to win money now, but the casinos do so much to look after people that they're not going to feel so bad about losing."

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But it is not just the casinos that rush to embrace the visiting tournament punter. Businesses across the city salivate at the scent of a money-making and promotional opportunity. March Madness specials are everywhere, from beers to food to bikinis. And, er, marriages.

The Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel is offering specialized discounts for those wishing to get hitched during March Madness and, to my surprise, is seeing brisk business. While the correlation between the tournament and alcohol, steaks and even strip clubs offering event discounts is more understandable, surely March Madness is more of a marriage breaker than a hotpot for wedded bliss?

"It works both ways," said chapel manager Brian Mills, sporting an outstanding haircut that suggests he conducts weddings himself while decked out as The King. "If you are going to bring your wife to Vegas and then spend 12 hours a day watching basketball on television, she is probably not going to be too happy.

"But that's why by the weekend we see a lot of people coming in to renew their vows. You could say it is a way of making sure the trip has something in it for the ladies. We do good business based off it; it is a good weekend for us."

With that bit of bombshell news in mind, it was time to wander off into the Vegas evening, awaiting another adventure. Not seeking one, just waiting for one to fall into my lap.

Because that's Vegas. That's March Madness.

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