The movie Two for the Money, which opens today, shines a light on the murky world of sports touts, men who make their living picking the winners of sporting events and selling those picks to gamblers. The main character, Brandon Lang (played by Matthew McConaughey), is modeled after a real tout named Brandon Lane. How do we know this is true? Log onto brandonlane.com and he makes it clear:
THE MOVIE ABOUT MY LIFE
In case you have some concerns about the different spelling of the last name, Brandon sets the record straight: "Funny thing—they changed my name to Brandon 'Lang' for 'artistic' purposes. Damn if I know what that means, but it's still me no matter how they spell my last name!"
As the movie opens, Brandon is a washed-up college quarterback living in Las Vegas and shilling on a 900 line for a Jessica Simpson fan club. Luckily, the call center also doles out sports picks. When Brandon gets his opportunity to shine (the regular guy is out sick one day), he displays an uncanny knack for making correct picks, calling more than 75 percent of his games correctly. In no time, Lang is discovered by Walter Abrams (Al Pacino), a former gambling addict who runs a large sports-tout service in New York. Abrams wants to build an industry around Lang because he's "a fucking mutant." Apparently mutants do very well at gambling, which may explain why I've done so poorly. Under Abrams' tutelage (which includes flat-screen TVs, a Mercedes, a few nice suits, and some hair gel), Lang routinely picks 80 percent and even goes 12 for 12 on one fated NFL Sunday.
The movie makes Brandon out to be a kind of sports idiot savant, with little more than a premonition about football games. There is no computer system or numbers analysis at work, no algorithm that helps him determine the over/under for the Monday Night game. He's just a cocky kid who does nothing but "work out and pick winners." If you're a cocky kid who does nothing but work out and pick winners, you certainly don't leave Las Vegas, the one place in America where sports gambling is legal. You wander down to the nearest casino and put your life savings on the New England Patriots at -6. Second, you don't become a tout: Why be a commentator when you can play the game?
Picking winners is a difficult proposition, in any sport. I know this firsthand, as does my bookie. A gambler, in order to break even, must win 52.38 percent of his bets (this just covers the vigorish, the extra fee paid to the bookie). If you pay an additional amount to a sports tout, you'll need to win even more. Most gamblers are lucky if they do better than flipping a coin; professional gamblers do well when they get close to 60 percent. Let's be clear, nobody picks 75 percent to 80 percent, especially over any considerable length of time—like a season. I have, occasionally, paid someone to pick winners for me. And every tout has put me further into debt. It could be that I've just gone to the wrong people. Or it could be that people like Lang just don't exist.
If, after seeing the movie, you think that the real Brandon Lane is the answer to your gambling woes, you'll be mistaken. He claims, like every other sports tout, that he's the best handicapper in the business. This, of course, cannot be verified. Short of providing potential clients with his record, his site provides inducements more in the realm of PR hackery. "Listen," he writes, "they only make movies about winners—and that's me!" Apparently, he hasn't rented Leaving Las Vegas.
According to The Big Green Machine, a service for which Lane is one of a handful of handicappers, he was 9-14 in NFL games through last weekend. That's not exactly winning. "This movie is about me, the very guy who made his clients a fortune last year," Lane writes on the site, "and will be making you money this year." In college football, he's a tawdry 18-37-1. The producers of Two for the Money might want to rethink that "true story" business. In the movie, Brandon Lang's cockiness ("It's a Scud attack, and I am shelling your bookmaker") brings about his collapse. He learns a lesson about the unpredictability of sports, the fickleness of bettors, and the sheer randomness inherent to gambling. As the audience, we see that winners can be losers. But we don't see how underhanded and conniving tout services usually are.
There are upward of 1,500 tout services in the United States today, unlicensed and largely unmonitored, that offer tips over the phone, on the Internet, and by mail. They usually sell their advice on a subscription basis for several hundred to several thousand dollars a season, or by single picks for $10 to $100 per game. Often, the prices go up for games they claim are "locks," or "can't miss opportunities." On Brandon Lane's Web site, he lists the games as 25, 50, 100, 300, and 1,000 dime releases. This is a rating system for how much he believes in a particular bet, but it also refers to an actual amount of money. A frightening amount of money. In gambling parlance a dime is $1,000, so a 300 dime release is a recommendation to bet $300,000. Other handicappers will occasionally tout a "blank check release," which is insane. Open up USA Today and you'll see ads for tout services offering stats that are incredible. They are appealing to people who are likely already losers—you're not going to pay if you're already winning—searching for a way to get themselves out of a hole.
The office where Lang works in Two for the Money is essentially a high-class boiler room, filled with motormouth salesmen pushing the wares of men with God-given sports-picking talent, and it's all perfectly legit. Rooms like this do exist—minus the fancy brownstone office and the plasma screens—as do the tactics the salesmen use to entice their prey. Berating the gamblers with a mixture of cockiness and scorn is part of the hook: "If you can't bet two dimes, you're not worthy of this pick." "Get on the bus with me to the promised land, or don't waste my time." Touts are famous for hanging up on callers, knowing the gambler will call back to get his pick.
Sports touts are not illegal, but the business is full of cheats, cons, and scams akin to the Psychic Friends Network (which was started by a former sports tout). Few gamblers, after losing their money while gambling illegally, are likely to complain. These sports services promise sacrifices (one tout, Jack Price, offered to "blow his brains out" if his predictions were wrong) and connections of unbelievable repute (the inside scoop on a game that's been fixed in advance) that are worth about as much as their recommendations. Some convince subscribers to switch to a new service without telling them that both are owned by the same company, and others will sell both teams to two different sets of callers, knowing half their clientele will think they are geniuses. An Atlanta-based 900-number service once advertised your money back if the picks lost, which didn't happen since $25 was already taken once a call was made. It also claimed to be the top-rated site by a monitoring service, which turned out to be owned by the same company.
But the oldest trick is not really a trick at all: If you sell yourself as a winner, people will pay to hear what you have to say, even if you're wrong. In the early 1990s, a businessman in California, David James, set up a 900 number, advertised in a sports paper, and earned tens of thousands of dollars doling out picks that turned out to be made by his 4-year-old son. And the more James charged for the picks, the more legitimacy the callers ascribed to the choices. Right or wrong, the risk is always left up to the squares—the amateur sports bettors—who are putting their money on the line. But they're likely to lose whether they pay a tout service or not.