11/14/2005 1:00AM

Bettors hunt for early line bargains


When it comes to oddsmakers and bettors, the definition of "professional" that I like best is "one who participates for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs."

When it comes to the Las Vegas sports betting scene, that pretty much sums it up. A lot of people bet recreationally, but it's the true professionals that work at it full time. That's not to say that the pros always win or the amateurs always lose. The past two football seasons have proven that, as the so-called "squares" have fared much better than the "wise guys," even when the sharper bettors get all the best numbers. The public has been doing very well by blindly betting the favorites, and the sports books have been bemoaning how they're holding their own against the professional bettors and losing overall.

But the mark of a professional is that he continues to plug along, keeping an eye on long-term success instead of the day-to-day highs and lows.

So, on Sunday afternoon, after another weekend of the point-spread battles in which the oddsmakers and professional bettors didn't fare too well (though better than many weeks this season), the lines were put up around town and the bettors were back shopping for the best lines.

The old saying goes to bet favorites early and underdogs late. That's

usually the case as professional bettors tend to jump early on favorites that they think will attract money, then watch as the public continues to bet up those favorites, and then the pros buy back the underdogs on game day. However, there appears to be a slowing of that phenomenon, mainly due to the fact the books have been losing to the chalk players and seem to have adjusted their numbers higher.

Still, there were some bargains to be found. At the Imperial Palace, the Panthers opened -1 at the Bears and got bet to -2 before opening at 3 at the Stardust. By noon Monday, the line was wavering between 2 1/2 and 3 at all books.

The undefeated Colts opened as a 4-point road favorite over the Bengals at the IP and immediately got bet to -5. The Las Vegas Hilton and Stardust both opened the game at 5 1/2 and saw it bet to 4 1/2 before drifting back up to 5 1/2 on Monday morning.

The biggest middle opportunity (in which a bettor tries to win both bets by having the final margin land in the middle) was in the Bills-Chargers game. The IP opened the Chargers -7 1/2 and the Stardust and Stratosphere both opened it -9, while the Hilton opened at -10 1/2. By noon Monday, that line was a universal 10, which would not be a good number for that game to land on for the books taking early action.

* The Stardust is the only book in Vegas to put up NFL totals on Sunday night. The only total to move in the first hour of betting was the Buccaneers-Falcons game, which opened at 38 1/2 and was bet down to 38. By noon Monday, there wasn't a 38 1/2 to be found.

* In the colleges, early action wasn't as volatile. In the most interesting development, the Stratosphere opened Auburn -7 vs. Alabama and the Stardust opened it at 6 1/2. So, the sharp bettors took Alabama +7 at the Stratosphere, which then lowered the line to 6 1/2, and the bettors at the Stardust bet Auburn -6 1/2 and the line there moved to 7, leaving the opportunity to anyone else who wanted to try and side the game (betting both sides in hopes of Auburn winning by exactly 7 points, in which case one bet wins and the other gets a refund). By noon Monday, when all the books in town had their numbers up, 7 was the most common, though Caesars and the Palms were both holding the line at 6 1/2.

Among other moves, the Stratosphere opened Northwestern -13 vs. Illinois and the Stardust had the Wildcats at -16 (offshore books had it right in the middle at 14 1/2), so it was no surprise that the lines moved toward the offshore number.

The Stardust opened Boise -31 vs. Idaho. The Stratosphere had it off the board, but it was 30 offshore and it was bet to 29 1/2 at the Stardust. Interestingly enough, when the rest of the Vegas books put up their numbers on Monday morning, they ignored the early action and also put up Boise -31.

Busch has brother's back

Defending Nextel Cup champion Kurt Busch, a native of Las Vegas, made news off the track Friday night when he was arrested for reckless driving near the Phoenix International Speedway, where he was supposed to race Sunday. Busch has had his share of run-ins with his Roush Racing team, other drivers, and Nascar officials, and despite apologizing, he was suspended for the remainder of the season (hmmmm, sounds like he has something in common with Terrell Owens).

On Sunday, Kyle Busch, Kurt's younger brother, made news on the track as he won the Checker Auto Parts 500 as a 25-1 longshot, outdueling Greg Biffle in the final laps.

By finishing fourth Sunday, Tony Stewart can clinch the season-long points title by finishing ninth or better in next Sunday's season finale, the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Vegas on the small screen

For those television viewers who like to see a real-life look behind the scenes of a Las Vegas hotel-casino, "American Casino" returns at 5 p.m. Wednesday for its third (and reportedly last) season. After being broadcast the past two years on the Discovery Channel, it moves this year to the Travel Channel and acts as a lead-in to its weekly World Poker Tour show at 6 p.m. The Travel Channel then repeats "American Casino" at 8 p.m. and the WPT at 9 p.m.

* If your tastes prefer the good ol' days or you just want to get a history lesson, PBS aired a two-part "American Experience" show titled "Las Vegas: An Unconventional History" on Monday and Tuesday night, showing how Vegas grew from a dusty stop on the road to California into the glitzy, booming metropolis it is today. The documentary is produced and directed by Stephen Ives, who won an Emmy in 2003 for a PBS documentary called "Seabiscuit," which in my opinion was better than the major motion picture. If you missed the Monday/Tuesday airings, the local PBS station here in Vegas will be replaying it on Sunday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Check your local listings for date and show times.