By now, we've heard about all the different kinds of geniuses and salesmen and Malcolm Gladwells at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It's true, you'll find all kinds of wonderful nerds there. What they don't tell you is that the guys having the most fun are probably the sports bettors, who snuck in when no one was looking.
Here are a few paragraphs from our dispatch from the conference, which you can read in full below, about how Sloan turns a bar in Boston into the savviest sports betting hub in the country for a few nights a year:
One of the less publicized quirks of Sloan is that, however useless the main panels become, you can't swing a graphing calculator without hitting a professional gambler. (Tip: He's probably the guy wearing a generic "Sports Analyst" nametag.) Sharps have been skulking around the conference for years, looking for an edge at the frontiers of analytics. Early on in Sloan's life, they found that with guys with Ken Pomeroy and Daryl Morey; but as the conference has degenerated into a sort of TED Talks in cleats, many have realized that the work they're doing on their own is ahead of most of what's talked about on-stage at Sloan now, and so the information exchange has shifted from taking notes at the keynote to grabbing a drink with some other degenerates and seeing who wants to trade horses.
Saturday night at the Sheraton Hotel bar, just down the hall from the convention center, some of the sharpest money in the world is sitting around a table, knocking back Harpoon IPAs. This is one of two times a year that this crowd gets together, the other being the launch event for the Las Vegas Hilton's NFL SuperContest. Park yourself in the same seat for five or six hours, and an entire cosmos of sports gambling will swirl by. Guys (like most of the crowds at Sloan, they seem to be almost universally men) who are known as either the top or among the top in college football, college basketball, tennis; handicappers, model builders, bookmakers; guys buying up and trading other guys' debt, or just trading in rumors and informed hearsay about one industry cockup or another. Most aren't interested in talking on the record.
These are the guys who don't want to their names in the streets. They don't want to be on podcasts, or quoted in articles, or to amass a following on Twitter. Hell, most of them don't even live in Vegas, instead playing online books here and there, and finding local bookies who will take their bets (usually so they can bet those picks themselves at higher stakes). But they do want to be seen—because being seen can mean acquiring more information. And more information in turn means you can place more bets, which, if everyone is doing their jobs, means more money. (One of the misunderstood things about sharp sports betting is that getting money down in the first place is half the battle. In softer markets, you're fighting against max bet limits, and sometimes a limited board. You aren't making a living betting $500,000 on a game; you're more likely grinding out wins betting a $1,500 unit on 12 college basketball games a night.) It takes a long time to build up credibility in these circles, but if you're known to be very, very good and very, very reliable at just one thing—WNBA totals, college basketball second halves, in-game tennis trends, whatever—you can turn your edge in one sport into an edge on every corner of the board; sharing your six playable picks in mid-major college ball to your new friends returns you picks in the NBA, ATP tour, MLS, or even the ponies.
Against all odds, this is somehow the most honest room you'll be in at the conference.
Image via Getty