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August 20, 2014

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Monday Night Football at three sports books, where betting and rooting interests collide

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The sports book at Red Rock Resort.

The race and sports book plays a unique role in the operation of a casino. Not only a betting exchange, or a place to make wagers and cash them, a well-run book also serves as a hub of excitement for the entire property. Particularly during a big football game, the sounds of cheering and hooting from the book should draw the attention of gamblers playing slots as well as customers hanging out at a nearby bar or just walking past, perhaps on their way to their hotel rooms.

This notion has been valid in Las Vegas at least since the 1970s, when some books employed announcers to re-create the daily horse races over the public-address system based on information on the wire, a la The Sting. A talented announcer could whip the customers into a frenzy, at times generating arguments among bettors regarding which horse crossed the line first—even though they had witnessed the race only in their imagination.

Technology has advanced just a tad since then, but on a good night the sports book will quiver with an equal amount of excitement.

Aiming for a representative sample of Las Vegas casinos, I visited three separate books during Monday night’s NFL showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears to experience the exhilaration—at least I hoped—of catching a big game in the atmosphere of a sports book.

In the well-appointed book at Red Rock Resort in Summerlin, I counted six Eagles fans wearing Michael Vick jerseys and a couple of Bears supporters sporting Brian Urlacher’s No. 54.

During the pregame show—excuse me, the GMC Pregame Launch—the capacity crowd loaded up on hot dogs with sauerkraut, soft pretzels, pepperoni pizza, Bud Light in aluminum bottles and Stella Artois in cans. At least 95 percent of the audience in the book was male. As game time approached, lines at the betting windows were deep but moving briskly. You could feel a sense of anticipation, but it was a steady simmer rather than a roiling turbulence. This was a crowd of veteran gamblers, it seemed. Regulars. They’d been here before.

During Chicago’s opening drive, which culminated in a touchdown, every Matt Forte rush and Jay Cutler completion was greeted by sustained applause and the occasional “Woo!” or “Go, go!” When the Bears reached the end zone, it was impossible to tell whether the loudest roars came from those who bet Chicago in the game (plus 8 points), Chicago to score first (odds of plus 150) or that the first score would be a touchdown rather than a field goal (minus 185).

Excitement level: A fun, laid-back house party vibe.

Meanwhile, in the sports book at the Aria resort on the Strip, there were more cocktail glasses and cocktail dresses than at Red Rock, though just as many Urlacher loyalists.

When Chicago scored a touchdown to take a 17-10 lead late in the second quarter, the fans at Aria erupted with lusty roars, leaping to their feet and exchanging high-fives. When Eagles coach Andy Reid’s meaty face appeared on the jumbo screen to argue a call, a fan wearing a snazzy dark blazer and designer sunglasses at night jumped up and screamed, “Get him out of here!” The only obvious Eagles fans were two guys in office-cubicle garb—light blue shirts and khakis—looking downcast and clapping half-heartedly when Philly managed to do something right.

Excitement level: A high-energy, upscale night on the town.

In contrast to the giant state-of-the-art video screens at my first two stops, the down-and-dirty book at Binion’s on Fremont Street had only two small TVs. One was showing the Eagles-Bears game. On the other one, incongruously, Roy Firestone was interviewing Magic Johnson in a clip from the 1990s.

It didn’t matter much, because the energy in the room was nil. Two guys in the seating area were literally asleep in their chairs during the fourth quarter. Another gentleman, holding a plastic football filled with beer, seemed to come to life when ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski appeared on screen. He stood up, yelled “Ja-Wor-Ski!” and sat down again without another word.

Of the half-dozen or so other souls in the room, only two were animated. The first was pacing, chain-smoking Marlboros and cursing the Eagles. His buddy stormed out of the book as the clock ran down on the Bears’ 30-24 victory, growling, “F*ckin’ Eagles!” Neither had bet the Bears on the money line (plus 300).

Excitement level: Missed the memo.

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