There’s the high roller with the shaved head who morphed from cocaine addict to health-conscious bodybuilder without missing a beat. There’s the college dropout whose parents booted him from their house when he decided betting would be his way of life. And there’s the bookmaker who wonders where his life has gone while he serves the bettors he despises. Between them and glory is the 1999-2000 NCAA basketball season, with its thousands of games, hundreds of teams and “March Madness.”
While the Super Bowl gets all the hype as the biggest bettors’ holiday, the NCAA tourney has surpassed it in total dollars bet. Betting on the tournament has become so commonplace that celebrating the event in Vegas is better than being at a game, as revelers descend upon Sin City for forty-eight hours of betting, beer and basketball.
But the stranglehold Vegas once held as the sports betting capital of the world is weakening and the industry feels as though it’s under siege. Internet betting sites in far away Caribbean Islands lure the casual bettors and chip away at the Vegas bookmakers profits. Meanwhile, the characters that once flocked to Vegas because its vices made them feel welcome have been cast aside like dirty dice as the city has undergone an image makeover. Even more than money or prestige, the forces playing against both bettors and bookmakers late in 1999 and early 2000 were threats to their very lives. While the bets were big—for one gambler bets occasionally reached into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single day—the stakes were even larger.
For the bookmaker, the need to win may cost him more than any game he’s ever lost. For the high roller, the rush of picking winners could blind from seeing how unstable his life really is. And for the kid, what was at stake was quite possibly his soul.