08/01/2002 12:00AM

NFL preseason: To bet or not to bet?

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To bet, or not to bet, that is the question.

Forgive the soliloquy, but I am journeying to the hamlet of Cedar City, Utah, for the Shakespearean Festival to see a play based on the Stardust racebook, and I'm trying to get in the mood.

When I return, I'll be faced with a variation on the Bard's most famous line. The NFL exhibition season begins Saturday night (7 p.m. Pacific) with the 49ers taking on the Redskins in the American Bowl in Osaka, Japan, which hosted some World Cup games this summer but now gets to see some real football.

Football bettors have long debated "whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," or whether to hold onto thou bankroll for the regular season.

There are two schools of thought on betting preseason games:

1) Stay away, because the games are unpredictable. The starters only play a few series at most, the coaches are more intent on evaluating players than on playing to win, and the worst players are on the field at the end when the outcome is decided.

2) Do your research and take advantage of the great opportunity. Coaches are often very open about how long their quarterbacks and other key personnel will play. In addition, the lines are typically around 3 points (and never more than a touchdown), so you're basically just trying to pick the straight-up winner.

Bookmakers used to wait as long as they could to post preseason game numbers to get as much information as possible to make a more solid number. But now with the increased competition from offshore books, no one wants to wait, and the lines are going up sooner each year.

More than two weeks ago, on July 16, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, which supplies odds to 90 percent of Nevada's sports books, recommended the 49ers as a 2 1/2-point favorite over the Redskins for Saturday's preseason opener. By July 20, most every book in Las Vegas had posted that number, or trimmed it to 49ers -2.

In the following week, bettors slowly started to back the Redskins. They were thinking that Washington's new coach, Steve Spurrier, will want to make a good first impression. Also, the 49ers are an legitimate title contender that don't need to prove anything this early. Money really flowed in earlier this week, and as of noon Thursday the Redskins were the 2 1/2-point favorite around town - and even as high as a 3-point choice at the MGM-Mirage bet shops.

Swings like this are common in the preseason, as betting limits are lower and bookmakers move the line quicker. The scenario reminds me of the Rams-Dolphins preseason opener last year. The defending Super Bowl champion Rams opened as a 4-point favorite. Then, coach Mike Martz told the press that he was treating the game as a scrimmage. Bettors pounded the Dolphins all the way to a 3-point favorite, thinking it was a sure thing. The Rams won 17-10 to get bettors off to a bad start.

So, if you think the Redskins have all the incentives on their side Saturday, it is best to pass the game, as all the value is gone from the opening line.

I'm leaning toward taking the 49ers. They're the better team, just as the Rams were last year, and they should be able to win. Besides, Spurrier is planning to use quarterbacks Sage Rosenfels and Danny Wuerffel in this game and hold Shane Matthews (the most-experienced QB on the roster) until the Skins' next outing.

Spurrier's NFL coaching debut isn't the only debut on tap. The Houston Texans enter the league with an exhibition game against the Giants and John Madden makes his "Monday Night Football" debut in the Hall of Fame Game on Monday night. The Giants opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite, but a little money has come in on the expansion Texans to move the line to 3. I would definitely pass on this game.

Lighting up the sky

For those who don't care to watch the first NFL preseason game and want to cling to baseball season a little longer, the hottest ticket in town Saturday will be the Las Vegas 51s, the L.A. Dodgers' AAA affiliate, taking on the Memphis Redbirds at 7 p.m. at Cashman Field.

Aaron Artman, director of marketing and communications for the 51s, said that only between 500 and 1,000 tickets will be set aside for the game-day walk-up crowd, though he adds that the seating capacity of 9,334 might be expanded to seat people on the grassy berms along the outfield lines.

There are several reasons Saturday's game is expected to sell out, the least of which is that the 51s have a record of 65-46 through Wednesday and hold a double-digit-game lead in the Pacific Coast League's Southern Division.

Kevin Brown, who has been among the best pitchers in the majors the past decade when he's healthy, is on a rehabilitation assignment and will start for the 51s. He will be limited to a 50-pitch count.

But the main attraction is a fireworks display - always a big family draw at 51s games - which begins immediately after the final out.