Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Long Con of @RJinVegas: "Vegas" Says (Part Two)

RJ Bell is the founder and CEO of, a sports betting website that includes forums, odds, contests, and picks (both of the free and for purchase varieties). It is one of the most successful sites of its kind, in no small part due to the popularity of Bell, who has accumulated over 80K 100K Twitter followers and established himself as the mainstream media's go-to "expert" for stories involving gambling on sports.

An American success story if there every was one. That's only one side of it, though. In some corners of the internet (including this blog), there is a feeling that Bell has not found his success in a legitimate way. This is the 16th post in a series detailing the reasoning behind that particular feeling. If you'd like to start at the beginning, it's here.

Back in August, we established that:
using "Vegas" as a meaningless buzzword to attribute an undeserving level of importance to the information you're tweeting bad. In this post, I'm going to attempt to expand on that thought by looking at two more subsets of "Vegas Says".

Imaginary Lines

Any odds that a sportsbook employee quotes but doesn't actually offer a market on can fairly be classified as "imaginary", but some scenarios take us even further into fantasy land than others.

Excluding the intentionally absurd, the furthest you can take it is quoting a line for a game that never had a chance of occurring in the past, and has no chance of happening in the future. The "lines" for these "games" have all the same issues as any "Vegas Says" lines in that:

  • We're still asking folks who don't actually originate lines to originate lines with a $0 limit, and then acting like it's an expert opinion, and;
  • Regardless of their level of qualification, the opinion of a single person is not a representation of "Vegas", that's not how markets work.
The impossibility of a game happening at any time in the past or future also brings new complications. As an example, we'll look at a popular topic over the last couple months.

While Kentucky basketball was in the midst of its 38-game winning streak this season, there was quite a bit of discussion about how the Wildcats stacked up against dominant teams of years past, the early-90s UNLV teams in particular. Because people just can't help themselves, this turned into a discussion of what the line would be if '15 UK played '91 UNLV.

The first new issue comes from the fact that this game never had a chance of happening. Nobody, at any point, has needed to compare these two teams in any meaningful way with any $ on  the line. If you're guessing what the line would have been if '15 UK played '15 Duke, there are lots of people who've had financial incentive to consider the relative merits of all '15 college hoops teams, including those two squads. The same cannot be said for teams that existed 24 years apart.

I won't waste everybody's time detailing the differences in the CBB landscape between 1991 and 2015, but needless to say a lot has changed, and thus even if you kept accurate power ratings for every team for the past 25 years, they're still by nature only relevant to their contemporaries, and thus not useful for this exercise.

This game also has no chance of happening in the future, which means no matter how absurd your imaginary line is, you'll never technically be *wrong*. The combination of all these factors is how we end up with this horror show:

In a just world, the above screenshot would be embarrassing for everybody involved. In the one we're stuck with, RJ Bell went on SportsCenter a few days after that last tweet and said:
One pro bettor I work with said [...] the UNLV team in '91, they lost in the semis, [would be] a six-point favorite [over '15 UK].
It's worth (?) pointing out that RJ doesn't just throw this in at the end of the segment, he *leads* with it, quoting imaginary lines for '15 UK against teams going all the way back to '68 UCLA before he says anything about the Final Four odds that, you know, actually exist (which he also screws up, obviously).

In the SportsCenter quote, RJ is actually referencing one of his employees rather than the sportsbook employee quoted in his tweet above. Regardless, even if these imaginary lines were a legitimate thing, there's no attempt made to tell the whole story, or provide accurate information. RJ's only interest is in spewing the same meaningless BS and being able to attribute it to a "bookmaker" or "pro bettor" to make it sound legitimate.

It is, of course, reasonable to wonder where UK stacks up historically, but somewhere between "I don't think UK is as good as that UNLV team" and "[Important Vegas Person] says '15 UK [+6, -3, -4.5, -6.5] vs. '91 UNLV" we are getting a bit too cute.

PR Props

Here's how the process works:

1. There is a current event which is garnering a lot of attention. It may be directly related to sports, peripherally related to sports, or not related at all; doesn't really matter.

2. An employee of recreational offshore sportsbook Bovada is alerted to this potential opportunity for free advertising. He identifies a future event, directly related to the buzzworthy current event, that is conducive to "handicapping".

Will [prominent character] die in the final season of Breaking Bad?

Who will Rory McIlroy date next?

How many games will Johnny Manziel start next season?

3. The rec sportsbook employee then comes up with odds for this future event. This may seem like an important part of the process, but it's not. It doesn't much matter what the odds are, as long as there are odds (and the vig is high). The max bet will be ~$50-$100, and if you show any level of competence, Bovada will cut your account to 1% of that limit. If the odds are "off" and there's a lot of action coming in on one particular outcome, that's just another potential opportunity for free advertising.

4. With the odds all set, it's time to spread the word (oh and open the market, I guess). Bovada then enlists a PR agency to send out an email to as many media folks as possible, alerting them to these RTs odds they might be interested in.

5. Because they love RTs odds, media folks tweet about the interesting info they've received.

6. Finally, customers decide what they value.

Except they don't, really. I mean, maybe the people retweeting and favoriting odds tweeted out by @RJinVegas and credited to @BovadaLV are aware that they aren't actually offered in Vegas, are created with an eye toward PR, are typically the true openers, have a ~$50-$100 limit, and aren't available to sharp bettors. Maybe they know that these markets can make no sense and it doesn't really matter. Maybe they're aware that Bovada can simply take the market down when they feel there's no more PR to be had. Maybe they know all this and they think it's interesting anyway.

I'm pretty sure that's not what's happening here, though. It seems somewhat more likely that, as with "imaginary lines," RJ is taking completely meaningless info and dressing it up to seem important. And this time, he's not just doing so to get you to his tout site to sell you some shitty picks; he's also promoting another very, very shady operation. More on them later.


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