Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Paper of Record

The first problem with James Vlahos' New York Times Magazine piece on sports betting seems to be that the writer simply was not sufficiently knowledgeable about his subject -- either prior to starting his research, or after the article's publication -- to competently report on the topic.

This could be shown in a variety of ways, but for now I'll just pick one.

In this follow-up interview, Vlahos said he was really struck by a former DII football player who is "effectively a host at a strip club" and "loves to bet on sports". Possibly an interesting anecdote, but fairly obviously not the description of an advantage sports bettor, right? Well, no, unless you're hopelessly gullible:
Vlahos: He was very thoughtful and had a statistically-based, well-reasoned approach to his selections for the SuperContest. He was telling me all this as the music was going "BOOM BOOM BOOM".
Nolan: Presumably, he has been less successful than some of the other bettors you profiled if he's working in the club.
Vlahos: His work is fairly lucrative for relatively few hours. His feeling was that he has been around Vegas for a long time and has been around sports gamblers for a long time and has seen a lot of people go bust. One reason that happens is that they depend on betting as their only source of income. They were paying their mortgage or their rent with winnings. When that happens, if you go on a little bad streak, you get desperate much more quickly, as he explained it to me. All of the sudden you need the money, and that's when you make more emotional, less-reasoned choices. It sounded like Vinny was fairly successful as a gambler, and he talked about doing it full time, but maybe he has too good a head on his shoulders.
I think it's very telling here that the most intelligent part of this exchange is the bolded part, from Rachel Nolan, interviewing Vlahos about his story. The fact that Nolan has presumably done much less "research" than Vlahos on this topic perhaps ties it all together, as she hasn't yet had an opportunity to be convinced of things which defy logic by people who make a living out of convincing people of things which defy logic. Which brings us to problem #2: selection bias.

Let's say (hypothetically) that you're a reporter from The New York Times, setting out to write a Super Bowl week story on sports betting, with a focus on the LVH SuperContest. You don't know much about this subject yourself, so you attempt to contact potential "expert" sources for your article; some respond to your inquiry, some do not. In this sense, you're really at the mercy of the responses you get, and the selection bias inherent in which parties will respond to such an inquiry.

So, you didn't really know where to start, and are only going to end up talking to people who want to talk to you. My guess would be that the groups of folks you'll end up speaking to will include:
  • The people at the top of the SuperContest standings toward the end of the 2013 season;
  • Touts;
  • Any other accessible names he came across over the course of conversation with those two groups.
And well, let's go down the list from the article:
  • RJ Bell is a tout, shill, and all-around scam artist;
  • Vegas Runner is a tout, shill, and all-around scam artist;
  • Dennis Montoro bets on football "not with the hope of paying bills, but simply for fun"; the article essentially brags about how he's only down $10,000 lifetime betting on sports;
  • Jay Kornegay is the sportsbook director for the LVH, but seems to be more of a PR guy, and has been established to be clueless when it comes to sports betting markets;
  • Steve Fezzik is a tout, shill, all-around joke, and indeed the embodiment of a "prototypical Vegas sharp"  in the MSM's eyes, as he bets "occasionally as much as $2,000"; 
  • Dave Oancea was named 2013 Las Vegas Socialite of the Year, and has "rules of thumb" which include "not betting against a premier quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, no matter what the numbers might indicate"; he sole qualifications seem to be a strong showing in this year's SuperContest, and recently hitting a couple futures with decent payout odds;
  • Amusingly, since sports betting has been relegated to a hobby for him for nearly a decade, David Frohardt-Lane is almost certainly the sharpest football bettor in the group (and not just because he was the eventual SuperContest winner).
Not great, Bob.

So, the entirety of your knowledge of sports betting came from discussions with this all-star list, you probably would come away with the impression that making a consistent living betting on sports is essentially impossible (without having a day job, or funding your bankroll by scamming others). And I do understand the selection bias aspect of trying to get people to talk to you; after all, that's the reason that the general landscape of sports betting "sharps" and "experts" is such a shitshow.

But at some point, you're a features writer for The New York Times, and you need to do better than this. You need to come in with some level of skepticism of RJ, VR, and Fezzik, who are so blatantly and constantly trying to sell you something. You need to be able to identify at least one of the multitude of red flags mentioned in Matt Rudnitsky's excellent post earlier this week.

Obviously that didn't happen. And since the article -- which received no shortage of criticism, much of it tweeted directly at its author -- was published, Vlahos' only Twitter activity has been to attempt to get as many popular accounts as possible to tweet out the link, and thank people who've said nice things about the piece. Which sounds very familiar to the approach of another Twitter user we're all far too familiar with.

In the end, it really seems like we're right back where we started, with Vlahos moving on to his next temporary fascination, and RJ accumulating a few thousand new followers. In a sense, the existence of the article itself is progress, since the MSM has gone from ignoring sports betting entirely, to reporting false narratives and asking the wrong questions to the wrong people. At least it's in good company on both fronts, I suppose.