06/10/2002 12:00AM

Sometimes a half-point makes the difference


Sharp bettors in Vegas talk all the time about how "the right number is just as important as being on the right side."

The number - the spread or line - may not always seem so important to a novice bettor who sees a basketball team open at -3, bets it at -5, and watches his team win by 10. Or, a bettor who takes a baseball favorite at -180 when he could have gotten it at -160 across the street, and the team still wins. He might say, "Hey, I won as much as the wise guys without having to shop around."

But this past weekend, with so many major events attracting both wise guy and square money, it's certain that a few lessons were learned, the main ones being that a half-point can make all the difference in the world and it pays to shop around.

* After blowing out the Nets on Friday night, the Lakers opened as 2 1/2-point road favorites for Sunday's game 3. Early bettors pounded the Lakers and cashed their tickets when the Lakers won, 106-103. Most of the money bet around Vegas was at 3, so those bets were refunded, but some books (Stardust, Station Casinos) actually moved the line up to 3 1/2. Bettors who took the Nets at that number caught a lucky break (or, more aptly, made their own luck), while those who blindly bet the Lakers -3 1/2 lost a bet that left them with no one else to blame because there were plenty of 3's out there.

* Stanley Cup bettors are faced with a choice of betting a straight-up money line or a puck line at some books. The Red Wings were a -230 road favorite Saturday night. Tourists don't like laying that high of a price, so it's popular for chalk players to lay 1 1/2 goals so they don't have to lay as high a price (-130 at the Las Vegas Hilton). Those bettors didn't cash, because the Red Wings won by just one goal, 3-2 in three overtimes. The Hurricanes were a +190 home dog. It looked like they were going to win until the Wings's late goal. Bettors who had the Hurricanes + 1 1/2 didn't have to worry, as they had the bet wrapped up when the game went to overtime.

* Early-round World Cup soccer games often end in draws, so bettors have to decide if they're going to bet into a Team A-Team B-draw line or if they prefer a goal line. Bettors who took the U.S. plus a half-goal on Monday morning vs. South Korea won their bets when it ended in a 1-1 draw. Bettors who had the U.S. +175 to win straight up wished they had bet the draw at +215 or found a book with a goal line.

* It didn't matter if you laid -220 on Lennox Lewis to beat Mike Tyson a few months ago or if you caught the bargain price of -160 available at some books on Saturday night. Whether they risked $1.60 to win $1 or $2.20 to win $1, everyone who bet Lewis cashed. But there was a bigger disparity for over/under bettors. The fight went over 6 1/2 rounds. The under opened between -130 and -140 around town and was bet up to -160 to -170 before being bet back down again. Early and late bettors who took the over at +110 or +120 didn't make out as well as those who waited for the public to bet the line up and then grabbed the prop in the +140 to +150 range. A Lewis eighth-round knockout was worth between 15-1 and 20-1 around town.

* Parimutuel bettors in horse racing don't have to make these types of decisions as the odds are locked in at post-time, but the lessons apply to futures wagering and props available at Nevada race books. Sarava, who went off at 70-1, was only 30-1 in the Belmont future book at Coast Casinos. In futures betting, the goal is to bet a short-priced horse at a long price and not the other way around.

It's all a matter of getting value.

Plenty of U.S. Open props

The big event this weekend is the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in New York.

Tiger Woods is the 2-1 favorite at the Palms, followed by Phil Mickelson (8-1), Ernie Els (12-1), Sergio Garcia (15-1), Vijay Singh (15-1), David Toms (20-1), Retief Goosen (22-1), and David Duval (22-1). After some defections, there are 46 individual betting interests, with the rest of the golfers grouped into a "field" wager at 9-1.

The Palms has 10 head-to-head matchups. Woods isn't involved in any of them because oddsmaker Jeff Sherman wouldn't be able to set the line high enough. Instead, Sherman has props on Woods at over/under 69 1/2 for his first-round score, and over/under 3 1/2 for his finish position.

There are also first-round props and finish position props on the other top contenders, plus props on the winning score at over/under 275, the lowest round at over/under 65 (the over is -160, the under is +130), the highest round at over/under 84 1/ 2, and whether or not there will be a playoff (no is -400, yes is +300).

Tourney season heats up

With the Triple Crown over, high-end handicappers can shoot for riches as the tournament season really picks up steam. The circuit heads to Reno for Summer Showdown III on Friday and Saturday.

The tournament has an unusual format in which players put up a $200 entry fee and instead of making mythical wagers on their contest selections also have to bet $300 at the windows each of the two days. With the exception of the pick six, any wager available at any simulcast track is eligible for contest play. Contestants keep their winnings and try to accumulate the highest real-life bankroll.