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Steve Friess: Casino Strike’s Over, That Scrabble Whiz Kid And Other Updates

Following up on recent column topics, including the MGM Grand Detroit strike ending and being back to betting on the Michigan Wolverines.

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State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

From time to time, it feels necessary to catch up on some of the many topics I raise in this space. The thing is, some follow-ups don’t quite merit a full column or essay.

Today feels like a good time to do this housekeeping because there’s some breaking news about the very last topic I covered — the MGM Grand Detroit strike. So, without further ado, here we go.

Happy Holidays (strike is over)

Last week, I lambasted union leaders in Detroit for failing to properly educate workers at the MGM casino on why they needed to accept the same contract as their striking comrades from Hollywood Casino at Greektown and MotorCity Casino. The three combined for a powerful 3,700-worker-strong striking block that crippled the city’s brick-and-mortar properties.

Just before Thanksgiving, MGM workers voted against a 64-month deal that included a record pay increase and a litany of enhanced benefits. They countered that they wanted a bigger pay raise and a shorter contract than employees at the competing properties because MGM Resorts International has deeper pockets and is earning bigger profits in the iGaming space.

It was a terrible decision that threatened everyone’s collective bargaining power. To accede to such demands would have put an end to the Detroit Casino Council, which negotiated as one voice for one contract using its ability to put hurt on all three resorts at once.

On Saturday, as I hoped and predicted as the only reasonable outcome, MGM workers voted again and passed the deal. It’s the same agreement they could have sealed on Day 34 of the strike, but it took them until Day 47 and cost them a peaceful, non-picketing Thanksgiving weekend.

To be clear: It’s the same deal. Off the record, everyone acknowledges that. If anyone had gotten even a penny more, MGM workers would be crowing about their strategy and the employees at the other resorts would have lost their minds. Instead, it’s shiny happy people holding hands and issuing cheerful press statements.

Better late than never, to be sure, but also better now, period.  This had the potential to ruin everyone’s holidays.

ESPN Bet sorts it out

The first few days of the launch of ESPN Bet was bumpy, as I wrote a few weeks ago. It was unclear even when it went live, it wasn’t populating efficiently in app-store searches, and it was confounding to figure out how to use the promised bonuses.

I dinged them for not being better prepared, and I stand by that. The Penn Entertainment folks knew how to do this, given their long experience with their previous iGaming partner, Barstool.

But, unsurprisingly, the wrinkles have been ironed out. As a result, ESPN Bet is still, three weeks later, the top sports-related app. It certainly has a long way to go to rival FanDuel (5.7 million downloads) and DraftKings (4.5 million) but at 1.5 million in its first two weeks, it’s on its way.

The first wave of betting data should be out any day for the partial month of November. If I were a betting man (which I am) and not a journalist (which I also am), I’d be buying some PENN stock right about now.

That Scrabble phenom isn’t racking it up on NFL

At the onset of the NFL season, I wrote about a new entrant into the football betting subscription-service advice game, Joey Krafchick. He’s a 28-year-old competitive Scrabble grandmaster who has backers who believe he has a special gift for predicting over-unders and spreads. It intrigued me because, hey, who really knows what sort of unusual intellectual abilities might unlock the key to beating the books.

Back then, he laid down this marker:

“I genuinely believe I can hit 70%. I have the delusion that I can do that. We’ll see how close I can get, but I definitely think you need to have the delusion and the vision to have a chance to. I’m not in this just to get 58%. If I can do better, I’m gonna do better.”

If that goal was lofty, so were the prices. He branded himself Sir Rebral — a pun on cerebral, leaning in on his brainy gamer-geek cred — and set out to charge subscribers between $499 ad $4,999 for volumes of picks and levels of interaction with him.

I’ve no idea how many subscribers he landed or at what tiers. I do know, however, that 2023 — which was intended as much as anything as a proof-of-concept season to show his special skills — has not gone as planned.

Through Week 13, he hit 54% of the spreads and 49.7% of the over-unders. He’s done better, at 57.7%, on what he calls his “select” picks — a smaller group of picks sent out each week to his lowest tier of subscribers — virtually the aforementioned 58% but definitely not 70%.

A strong start, then …

It started out pretty well, too. In Week 1 he got 72% right on spreads, 61% correct on over/unders, and even called the precise score of the Commanders-Cardinals game.

After that, he became wildly uneven. In Week 2, Krafchick nailed 66% right on the spreads but a disastrous 31% on over-unders. “The atrocious 5-11 record against OUs will surely be an anomaly,” he emailed his subscribers in a recap.

Yes and no. He had several very good over-under weeks, but in Week 12 he was 4-11, or a 27% win rate. Some weeks he aced the spreads but not the over-under or vice versa. In Week 8, he nailed 71 percent of the spreads and 62.5% of the over-unders, but he also went just 4-3, or 57%, on his “select” picks.

He has a mathematical explanation for his failures with the over-under, pointing to what he calls “super volatile distributions.” That is, the “unders are winning far more than the overs. That’s not normal, thus making it far harder to accurately predict results.” He insists he’s not making excuses, just offering a rationale for what he’s been up against.

In a text to me a few weeks ago, he wrote: “I’m really embarrassed about how this year has gone.” That seems a little premature, although it might have been better to do a year without the pressure of subscribers.

I’ll have a full follow-up at the end of the season.

My new U-M betting philosophy pays off

Last week, I wrote about the icky feeling of betting against my hometown Michigan Wolverines against Ohio State in The Game — and then losing. I was angry with the team for its conduct around the sign-stealing scheme; the idea that it was the victims in that drama is disingenuous and very, very Trumpian.

Still, you don’t stay “mad” at your team forever (especially when your backup is Northwestern). And as UM began to look like winners yet again against its most hated and storied rival, I wanted to root for that victory even as it cost me.

Afterward, I came up with a new approach: If I can’t bet for Michigan, I won’t bet. It’s not as though there’s nothing else to wager on. Even if I am certain they will lose or that they won’t beat the spread, I’m better off standing down so that I can enjoy the game itself without such distractions.

This plan was lucrative! I wasn’t sure I’d bother with Saturday’s Big Ten Championship between the Wolverines and the Iowa Hawkeyes, given the spread had Michigan winning by more than 23 points by game time. Yet BetMGM offered an odds booster, so I plunked down my customary $5.

It felt touch-and-go as to whether the game’s margin would get that big, but that actually kept me engaged in a relatively dull game all the way to the final play.

And, in the process, on the right side of my loyalties.

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Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

View all posts by Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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