Why you should care

If you’re a betting (wo)man, you might as well have some edge for Sunday’s game.

It’s the start of the second half of the NFL playoff game between two of the league’s legendary teams: the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. And Marco D’Angelo is sitting in a smoky bar 15 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, speculating that the green-and-yellow are running the ball more because their injured star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is worse off than fans realize. Sure enough, a moment later the veteran QB overthrows a pass, suggesting to D’Angelo’s trained eye that it was launched from an awkward flat-footed position, another sign his mobility is compromised.

From behind a plate of Cajun chicken wings, D’Angelo tells me that for these and other reasons — like Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo feeling confident after a win the week before — he picked Dallas to cover the 6 ½-point spread. (For all you nonbettors, that means Dallas doesn’t have to outright win, but just come within 6 ½ points.)

The final score: Green Bay 26, Dallas 21.

D’Angelo is what’s called a sports handicapper, which makes him a popular guy as we hit the height of the Super Bowl extravaganza this week. In his job, the 53-year-old, who sports a graying goatee, black-rimmed glasses and a classic navy pullover, makes a living not only placing his own bets, but also selling his picks to clients who pay sizable subscription fees for access to his predictions. And when it comes to picking winners, D’Angelo may be as good as they come.

The average person betting on a game has a 50 percent chance of getting it right. According to publicly trackable freebie picks that D’Angelo gives out on his site, which he just launched in August, he was right 61 percent of the time this college football season. Overall, in figures that can’t be confirmed, he says, he wins — like most sports gamblers at the very top — between 57 and 58 percent of the time, a difference that has allowed him to create a tidy business with thousands of wannabe sports wagerers following him. And let’s not forget the time some years ago that he managed to go on a 25-game winning streak while betting on pro baseball games, something veteran Vegas bookmaker Chris Andrews says “borders on the impossible.”

But crystal balling is only part of D’Angelo’s tale. In the world of sports betting, which remains illegal in every state but Nevada (though New Jersey may be next in line to legalize it), handicapping has long had the hallmark of sleaze. Case in point: Two years ago, a CNBC show claiming to follow a top-dog handicapper turned out to be giving airtime to a con artist with a criminal record for fraud. Along with making outrageous claims of betting prowess, some handicappers will withhold their best picks for only their highest-paying customers, leaving other hapless clients with garbage bets. D’Angelo says he is part of a movement to clean up the profession’s act, with more transparent selecting and educational podcasts and videos. As the journalist and Vegas insider Joe Fortenbaugh says, “In a business with a lot of unsavory characters, he’s one of the good guys.”

How good of a guy anyone in the handicapping business is, of course, always hard to tell. D’Angelo himself says he has gotten complaints from customers who lose bets. “Anytime you’re asking people to put money at risk, there’s always a stigma and always some fear,” says Rodney Paul, a sports finance and management professor at Syracuse University. But for now, at least, there are fans willing to make that bet.

***

Sitting inside the Green Valley Ranch Casino, a local Las Vegas hangout, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, D’Angelo and his posse look like stereotypical caricatures of middle-aged men — or as they like to say, “just everyday Joes.” Lots of white New Balance sneakers with jeans, salt-and-pepper facial hair, thick glasses and, perhaps inevitable when you work in sports bars, beer guts. But looking at their accessories, you might guess they’re investment bankers: hands-free headsets, multiple phones, tablets, backup batteries.

You can’t just look at the stats. You have to look at the human. Humans, after all, are the ones who create stats.

— Marco D’Angelo

The youngest of five kids in a large Italian family, D’Angelo has always been a preternatural predictor. In 10th grade, he gave a class presentation on horse handicapping (he now also breeds and races horses). By age 17, he’d built a bankroll of $5,000 making $50 bets with local bookies. Then one day he got a flyer in the mail from a hotshot Vegas gambler posing in front of a Ferrari. The guy was selling odds advice. D’Angelo assumed he must know more than him, so he signed up for a month, and every day thereafter phoned in to get his picks. Thirty days later, he was almost broke. After it was over, when he called up looking to speak with the man on the flyer, the answer he got made him feel sick. If his bets weren’t winning, they said, he should sign up for the “inner circle” package. “I vowed to myself that day I was going to do this, but if a customer ever wants to talk to me, they talk to me. And every customer will get the same set of gains,” he says. That was 35 years ago.

D’Angelo, who after spending most of his life in a small town outside Pittsburgh moved to Vegas in 2008, lives in a high-rise condo just off the Strip with his second wife — his first passed away from a heart attack shortly after the move. While he now considers himself one of the good guys, the company he worked for after heading west has the opposite reputation. D’Angelo says it took him a handful of years before he fully realized the corruption. But Ernie Viloria, who has been a client for 15 years, says, “He’s always been a stand-up guy.” Viloria would say that, of course. D’Angelo made him $10,000 this football season.

***

Every handicapper has a style, and D’Angelo’s trademark is eyeing idiosyncrasies specific to a given situation that might tip the outcome one way or another. Buddies and clients call those “Marco-isms.” “You can’t just look at the stats,” D’Angelo says. “You have to look at the human. Humans, after all, are the ones who create stats.” Is it a “sandwich game,” pinned between two prime-time matchups, leading it to be overlooked? Is a marquee player out? That latter situation might not create the outcome you’d think: Often when a key playmaker is injured, D’Angelo says, people overestimate the effect it will have. According to D’Angelo’s laws, in that first game when the player is out, the rest of the team is acutely focused, and, therefore more likely to pull out a W. It’s the second game that you have to watch out for. With the public now thinking the squad is unstoppable, the players lose their edge, and in rolls the upset.

I feel like I let them down. That’s what keeps me up at night.

— Marco D’Angelo

There are also different betting strategies. While some don’t differentiate how much money they put on each game, D’Angelo advises clients based on a percentage system. Depending on how confident he is with a pick, he’ll suggest laying down 3, 4 or 5 percent of your bankroll. He also bets on a limited number of games a day, usually around three. Winning or losing, he never strays from these guidelines. “You have to have discipline,” he says.

Others advocate putting the same amount down on each matchup and wagering on a high volume of games, since that gives you the opportunity to make more money with a lower winning percentage. But it’s not free range at the casinos. Bookmakers won’t let professional sports bettors place unlimited wagers, so part of the trick is staying under the radar. And Syracuse professor Paul says he questions anyone who would be willing to share a winning strategy. “It’s a scarce skill,” he says. “And the more people who know it, the more likely the sports books are to catch on.”

It’s the day before the Packers and Cowboys game, and it’s dark when D’Angelo emerges from the Green Valley Ranch Casino. It’s been a long day. After staying up until 2:30 a.m. the night before, parsing college basketball and professional football data, he woke up at 7 a.m. to record his daily “Betting First Look” podcast and to do one of several weekly sports radio shows. When D’Angelo had announced his favored picks to listeners earlier in the day, his voice was full of inflection and the words raced into one another. But now, after going 1-3, he’s deflated. “I know this is part of it,” he says. “Losing doesn’t bother me, but I feel bad for my clients. I feel like I let them down. That’s what keeps me up at night.”

Though another perk D’Angelo gives his clients: He places a 150 percent guarantee on his top-rated picks. So for those who paid $30 today, they get a $45 refund to their account, which will pay off tomorrow when the Cowboys cover the spread. “We win and we lose in this business,” the retired bookie Andrews says. “That’s the way it is.”

Photography by Jenna Dosch for OZY.

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