The story behind college football’s wildest offseason bet begins on an April Sunday night in Freehold, New Jersey, where two gambling buddies — a hungover local restaurant owner and a former Goldman Sachs dealer — have an after-hours chat at a bathhouse in Russian Style.
“Pete, listen, I have a bet for you,” says Robert Doran, who is at the spa trying to sweat out shots of tequila he drank at a wedding the night before.
Pete Kizenko, the 56-year-old owner of the banya, is fascinated. He likes to bet and sweat, always has. In 2012, he left his Moscow-based trading presence at Goldman Sachs to bring Russian banya tradition to New Jersey, opening Bear and Birch. It has become a popular place to watch games and talk about gambling.
Doran explains to Kizenko that former Michigan athletes attended the wedding he attended the night before and hailed a Mountain West team as sleepers for the next college football season.
“I think we should bet on Utah State,” Doran says, suggesting the Aggies win more than seven games in the regular season.
Kizenko looks at Utah State’s schedule, notices a big game in Week 2, and checks the odds on his phone before uttering an expletive.
“F— it! Let’s hammer the national championship,” he blurted out. “You are 1,000-1.”
Doran nods and Kizenko places the bet on his sportsbook app: $1,000 on the state of Utah to win the national championship at odds of 1,000 to 1 with Caesars Sportsbook. It could be the first $1,000 bet ever placed on a 1,000-1 underdog. If the Aggies shock the world, the bet would net pay out $1 million. More likely, it equates to a $1,000 donation to Caesars.
Utah State is an underdog in Week 2 in Alabama with 38.5 points.
Every dog has his day
$1,000 bets on 1,000-1 long shots are as rare as a 38-point underdog creating a complete upset or a non-power conference team making the college football playoffs. At the highest level of college football, there has only been one such upset in the last 44 years: Stanford (+40.5) vs. USC in 2007. Last year, Cincinnati became the only team not recognized by a power conference or named Notre Queen was selected the finals. Likewise, Kizenko’s bet on Utah State could be the first of its kind.
Several experienced bookmakers have had trouble remembering ever placing a four-figure bet on a team at odds of 1,000-1 or more. Adam Pullen, who has been taking bets in Las Vegas for 30 years, says bets on 1,000-1 long shots are usually in the $5 to $20 range, or “$100 at most,” nowhere near that $1,000 dropped by Kizenko on the state of Utah. At Caesars, the next largest national title bet on a team with odds of 1,000-1 or more is $100 on UMass at 10,000-1 and $100 on UConn at 10,000-1.
“It’s definitely noticeable when you see a bet like this, a four-figure bet on odds that long,” said Pullen, deputy commercial director of Caesars Sportsbook. “It’s definitely not the norm.”
A veteran gambler, the charismatic Kizenko has gambling stories to tell for days. He’s no stranger to backing underdogs or making big bets. He says he usually bets “a few thousand dollars” on an NFL game, but concedes that $1,000 on Utah State is a little outside the norm for him on a futures bet.
One of his best results came in 2009 with a 200-1 long shot against YE Yang to win the PGA Championship. One of his biggest losses came abroad in 2003 when he bet with a bookmaker in the UK that the temperature in London would not reach 100 degrees for the first time.
“I’m getting off the plane in London. It feels a lot more like Bangkok than bloody London,” recalls Kizenko. “I sit down in the lounge and the BBC says it’s 95 outside. It’s like 9 a.m. Oh no, I’m in trouble.”
Kizenko placed his bet on Utah State on April 17, but he wasn’t done yet. The day after he placed his first bet on the Aggies, he noticed that Caesars wasn’t changing the odds, so he bet another $1,000 on Utah State. A third $1,000 bet on Utah State came the next day from an unidentified bettor at Caesars Sportsbook in Illinois. Kizenko says he wasn’t.
By mid-July, the Aggies had received more national championship bets of $1,000 or more at Caesars than any other team except for Alabama and Ohio State, the two consensus favorites.
As news broke on Twitter about the three $1,000 bets on the state of Utah in three days, there were questions like, “Did you mix up Utah and the state of Utah?” and comments like “Probably the worst bet I’ve ever made ever seen.”
Meanwhile, the Pullen and Caesars trading team asked, “What’s the angle? What are we missing? Because it’s just so unusual.”
“It’s funny because you made everyone think that these smart people are doing some crazy research on the state of Utah and that it’s some kind of hidden golden election of the messiah,” said 33-year-old Doran, who owns the breakfast and brunch joint Almost Home General heard . “And really, it just came from me tearing up tequila shots with some players at a wedding.”
You tell me there’s a chance
Pullen characterized Caesars Sportsbook’s concerns about Utah State winning the national championship as “none.”
“We’re not worried,” he said.
But there are reasons to believe the Aggies will be good this season. They bring back 12 starters, including senior quarterback Logan Bonner, from last season’s 11-3 team that defeated Oregon State in the LA Bowl. Additionally, they received an influx of impact transfers, including an Alabama receiver and several Michigan players.
Even with an improved roster, however, winning the national championship looks like a tall order, as Week Two’s game at No. 1 Alabama is likely to end the Aggies’ hopes when they get past UConn on Saturday.
“If they hadn’t played Alabama, I wouldn’t have bet,” Kizenko said in a recent phone interview, noting that the Crimson Tide are playing Week 3 in Texas. “At Mountain West, even if they went undefeated, they wouldn’t be considered, but now they had a win against Alabama, so they would be eligible.
“I told my friend that 1,000-1 is the biggest miss by a team since the Wolverines vs. the Soviet Army in ‘Red Dawn,'” he added, laughing.
Kizenko is realistic about the Aggies’ chances. According to ESPN Stats & Info, no subsequent national champion has been more than a 10-point underdog in a game during the regular season. Utah State will likely win 40-1 against Alabama.
Kizenko and Doran believe the Aggies’ odds are better than the odds suggest. They’ve already bought tickets for the Alabama game and will be “front row behind the Aggies’ bench.”
Since 1978, underdogs with 38 points or more have been 1-368 straight up.
“I won’t miss being part of the story,” said Kizenko.
Editor’s note: Caesars Sportsbook is a betting partner of ESPN.
https://www.espn.com/chalk/story/_/id/34447958/a-hangover-new-jersey-spa-ex-goldman-sachs-trader-story-wildest-college-football-bet-offseason A hangover, a New Jersey spa and an ex-Goldman Sachs trader