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March Madness in Vegas: A Primer

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Ever wanted to do Vegas for the round of 64? Here's a simple primer to get you prepared for 2014

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Las Vegas for the first Thursday and Friday of March Madness is a sports gamblers Mecca. I’m not talking about the professional handicapper, or the local Vegas sharps. I’m talking about the rank amateur. The college kids on spring break. The thirty something married guys getting a hall pass from the wife and kids. The sixty year old high rollers blowing their retirement. There is not a better two days of unmitigated gambling Mardi Gras then those 48 hours in Vegas.

Seems intimidating you say? Too crowded? Too hard to get a flight or a room at a reasonable price? Yes, yes and yes. But if you enjoy college basketball, and betting on college basketball, even in small increments, it should be on your bucket list, and you should get out there sooner than later. We’ve done it four times now, every other year since 2007. It’s a slog, but we’ve learned some lessons and still have a blast every time.

Where do I watch the games?

If you’ve been to Vegas for regular season college basketball or football, you’ve undoubtedly seen the expansive sports books of Caesar’s Palace, Mirage or the Bellagio, or the perfect layout or Emeril’s Stadium. Stay away. Unless you are wealthy and can book way in advance, you will not enjoy yourself. While they can work a little in small doses just to see the huge crowds, those sportsbooks are madhouses of long betting lines, concert festival level crowds and no seats. Steer clear.

Each of the four times we’ve made it to March Madness, we’ve had grand plans to get up at 6:30 AM on Thursday and nail down a place at one of the cooler, newer, flashier sports books. It has failed every time, so instead, around 7:30, we’ve sauntered over to the same tiny little sports book at a certain casino that I’d prefer not to name, lest we lose our secret spot. There, we’ve gotten primo seats within 10 feet from a betting window and perfect views of all the games. Slip the cocktail waitress a 20 up front at the beginning of her shift, and its free drinks the whole day long.

There are *plenty* of places to watch the game, and where you watch the games doesn’t have to be a sports book. It can be a random lounge in the casino that has lots of TVs (Planet Hollywood has about a half dozen of these spots it seems) within a short walk from the betting window. Buy some drinks if you have to, but sit down, and settle in. Don’t get greedy, and if you see some TVs and seats for your group, take them. If you have a little scratch, call ahead to the casino and see if they can help you reserve some space in one of the lounges away from the sports book. Worse comes to worse, places like Aria, Planet Hollywood and Harrah’s have huge rooms full of folding chairs where you can pay $50 to watch all the games, drink bad beer and eat bad food. But it’s a seat with a view– and believe me, that’s the most important thing.

Making Bets

Make them early. The lines suck everywhere. If you want to bet on a 9:30 AM game (Vegas time) be in line by 8:30 or get your bet in the night before. It really sucks when you can’t bet on your sure thing because you slept in or were asleep at the wheel when the mad rush of bettors mobbed the betting window when the previous game ended. Also if you are betting on a heavy favorite, get it in as early as you can, because almost as a rule, they’ll be giving one or two more points come game time then they were when you first saw that line you wanted to jump all over.

If I am a fan of a particular team, say Duke, proudly sporting Duke gear, will I get harassed?

Yeah, but frankly, it’s not worse than anywhere else we’ve been for March Madness. When Duke lost in 2007 to Virginia Commonwealth, let’s just say that our little group of Duke fans was less than pleased. We caught some hell the rest of the day, but nothing we couldn’t take. In fact, and McLeod can help me recollect, I believe we were a bit more surly to others than they were to us. Pity is much, much worse than trash talk, and the “tough game” comments grated much worse than the pedantic “Duke sucks” that were coming, win or lose. No matter what your team -- if your team disappoints and ruin someone's bet, you'll hear about it, but it's usually in good fun. But give it back too. A little back and forth trash talk can be fun and cathartic. Most people are there to have fun, so if you keep it light, talking trash to absolute strangers is part of what being in Vegas for March Madness is all about.

What are the crowds like during the games?

Awesome. There is nothing like watching a crowd in Vegas rooting for a 1 seed to keep running it up on a 16 seed when they’ve already got a 16 point lead, but need 18 to cover. Or the roar of the crowd combined with the collective groan when a game goes over the over/under. It changes the dynamic of the crowd in a way that is at first jarring, but much more fun when you get used to it. Sure, fans are still rooting for their teams to simply win, and underdogs like FGCU and La Salle were getting big cheers for winning (unless you had Georgetown or Kansas St. – and by the time the game was over you were rooting for the underdogs out of spite since the cover was lost). But it’s all about the lines, man.

How good is Vegas?

Good. Astonishingly good. It’s stunning how many games are right at both the line and the total. You are not smarter than Vegas. No matter how many fancy spreadsheets you create using Kenpom and the BPI, you aren’t beating Vegas without luck. Know that going in, and you’ll have a much better time and won’t be disappointed.

Who has the worst fans in Vegas?

I used to say Ohio St. by a mile. Syracuse and Michigan St. fans are *EVERYWHERE* as well, but, frankly, they are a lot of fun. But really, every school has good and bad fans. There’s more of a “bad fans” archetype. Three to four dudes, usually in their mid to late 20s, basketball jersey, no undershirt, pasty, overweight, tattoos, cigarette, bad facial hair, talking loudly about their bets so that everyone can hear how “Montana’s my team, son. Montana gonna shock the world!” Yeah. How’d that go for you?


But most of all, it’s Vegas. When the games are over, there’s more to do. . . then you get up and do it again. If you play your cards right, you can party with fake John Frieda at the Hard Rock, trade betting tips with Louie Anderson at the buffet (of course), or hit that 6 team parlay that’s failed for you 5 times previously and pay for your trip!

Any more anecdotes from March Madness in Vegas? There’s a thousand ways to do it, none of them wrong. . . so long as you survive and advance.