What’s it like competing in the Stardust Invitational football handicapping tournament?
I can now answer that. Exciting and honored come to mind. So does nerve wracking. It’s a winner-take-all $10,000 format with 16 competitors. You compete one-on-one picking seven NFL and college games of your choice against the point spread. Win and advance. Lose and you’re eliminated.
My opening turn came Friday night. I was pitted against Tom Mack, an NFL Hall of Fame guard for the Los Angeles Rams of the mid-1960s and ’70s.
Unlike many contestants, I just attempt to handicap NFL not college. Unfortunately this past week it was a short NFL board. This left me a choice of coming up with seven opinions on 12 NFL games, or relying on some top college handicappers I had met and respected through the years.
My friends told me it would be suicidal strategy to just do the NFL. Why cut off three-fourths of the board and not take advantage of my network of contacts?
To which I argued it wasn’t fair to pick other people’s brains on games I had little clue about. I hadn’t handicapped college in years (absolutely no time). I didn’t want to misrepresent myself by offering college selections.
They told me I was nuts. That in a contest you have to exploit every edge you have. In my case, they said, I had a vast arsenal of sharp opinions to rely on.
Their arguments made sense, but I decided to just go with my own NFL opinions. Call it hubris perhaps, but I wanted to win or lose on my own games. I did feel like a dinosaur hunter searching for lost fossils trying to locate seven NFL opinions on a short board. Archeologists had an easier time uncovering King Tut’s tomb.
But I figured my opponent, being an ex-NFL player, would also come up with seven NFL games. I figured wrong. Mack went with six college games. His one pro play was the St. Louis Rams against the New York Jets. The Rams were one of my seven plays, too, but Mack was using that as his best bet. The best bet is the selection used as the tiebreaker.
The show is well run by hosts John Kelly and Seat Williams. Kelly, a knowledgeable bettor himself, has become one of the sharpest interviewers in town. Mack was extremely personable. If anecdotes counted, Mack would have won easily.
Mack went with three big college favorites. He got there with UCLA —30 against California, but lost when Oklahoma failed to cover 36 against Baylor and Ohio State didn’t cover 23 against San Diego State.
He went 1-2 on his other college choices, winning with Stanford and losing on Michigan State and UNLV. Now it was on me to do better than 2-4. I didn’t want to do a Bubba Youngblood and go 1-6.
One of my choices was the Cincinnati Bengals against the Chicago Bears. Oops. Another selection was New England-Indianapolis ”˜under’ 47 points. I figured the Colts would have trouble putting up their usual high number of points against a Bill Belichick-coached defense. The Colts did, only scoring 17. Unfortunately, New England put up 38.
The Denver Broncos turned out to be another wrong pick. Fortunately by then, I had won. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Rams, Tennessee-Detroit ”˜over’ 38Â½ and Washington had come through giving me a 4-3 record to Mack’s 3-4 mark.
The Redskins were my best bet. The pick had drawn derision from the Stardust crowd, not that I blamed them, but taking Washington as a 3Â½ point home ’dog to Carolina made sense to me. Who are the Panthers?
As I began to savor my narrow win the phone rang. It was Dave Malinsky, one of the sharpest sports bettors. He wasn’t calling to congratulate, but to complain about what a tough beat he had losing on Carolina. What could I tell him except it’s better to be lucky sometimes than good.
1 — Steelers
2 - Rams
3 - Redskins
4 - Tenn / Detroit over 38Â½ Points
1 — Bengals
2 - NE / Indy under 47
3 - Broncos