Most of us don’t need excuses to visit Las Vegas, hang out in casinos, watch sports and gamble. But, for anyone who does, March Madness is a perfect time in which to touch down in Sin City and blissfully splash around chips.

Vegas gets so packed with gamblers, that the craps tables seem to be infused with more energy than usual, playing blackjack is extra fun and a night at the casino poker table invariably comes with players offering rolling commentary on the games that went down earlier in the day and matches that are poised to tip off tomorrow.

Vegas Madness

The first time I went to Las Vegas for March Madness, I was shocked by the all-day/all-night frenzy of action and the enthusiasm with which folks in the city put money on the line. In the process, decked out in team colors and the like, they don’t worry too much about their livers or cholesterol counts. 

My first go at it was in the Mirage. I remember buckets of beer being brought to the sportsbook’s tables, cigars getting sparked up (you were able to do that then) before breakfast, guys huddled together and strategizing for all forms of basketball betting. And, of course, the bar food – chili dogs, chicken fingers, burgers – flowed nonstop.

Parlays, money-line wagers, spread bets, over/under gambits, bets on who will be first to hit a hoop, they were all fair game. And when guys weren’t doping out strategies for that first round of NCAA finals, they were nipping out to the casino floor and throwing down at the gambling tables. March Madness brings out the crazy bettor in all of us.

However, the serious gamblers do anything but go crazy. Usually, they are quietly focusing on underdogs, aware that recreational folk love the favorites and pay a slight tax for betting on them. At the same time, pros look for good deals on future bets and seek soft spots in the props – like wagering on total number of three pointers and over/unders that possess good value. 

They may laugh at people who pony up for long shot parlays. But at least one such bettor recently laughed all the way to the bank. He bet on six teams to win, got them all right and turned $50 into $135,000. Right there is a Madness in Las Vegas experience that he and his pals will never forget.

Basketball Joy

The joy of March Madness was expressed to me succinctly by a handicapper who works on the casino side of the business: "On Thursday and Friday, it's nonstop for the fans, beginning when they eat breakfast and go to the sports book," the guy told me. "You're betting halftime, the start of the next game and then the game after that one. It's like being at a horse race where you are placing a new wager every 20 or 30 minutes. 

“It is college sports all day, teams giving 100 percent, more than the usual number of buzzer beaters. And you have a chance to wager on this as well. You know it's got to be heart-pounding. Then, at the end of the night, you have 100 tickets in your pockets. You just keep cashing and playing."

That conversation took place quite a few years ago. But, honestly, things have barely  changed – maybe except for the fact that cigars are verboten and plenty of betting is done online via sites like 888sports.

March Madness betting

Remaining consistent is that nothing beats the real thing in Sin City. And the numbers bear this out: the first weekend of March Madness routinely eclipses the Super Bowl for money wagered in Las Vegas.

“March Madness basketball is in the DNA of Las Vegas,” Nancy Lough, co-director of UNLV Sports Innovation, told the Las Vegas Sun this year. “Everyone has known for decades that this is a major destination during the month of March for fans of college basketball.”

Plus, there is the fact that this year Vegas is going bigger than ever, totally rolling out the red carpet and pulling out the stops on behalf of March Madness and the gamblers who embrace it. The only question, for those visiting between March 17 through April 8, is where to watch the games, what experience to chase down and who to bet on.

Big-Time Betting

At the newly launched Fontainebleau, for example, inside the casino/resort’s BleauLive Theater (where Justin Timberlake played on opening night), there is an event called Bleau Buckets. It allows for viewing on a 70-foot-wide LED screen, open bar and food from a spread of Fontainebleau’s excellent restaurants. 

A couple casinos to the south, the Venetian has reinvented what was once a sports bar under the purview Emeril Lagasse. During March Madness, it converts into a venue called Brackets at the Stadium. It’s a 24,000-square-foot space with more than 100 TVs for viewing. Though it’s not exactly Lagasse level fare, food on offer includes brisket, wings and pizza. 

In both instances, at Venetian’s and Fontainebleau’s pop ups, satellite sports books make betting possible.

No reconfiguration is required downtown at Circa, where Stadium Swim is a 24/7 sports betting and viewing operation, built around a giant outdoor swimming pool. The big screen is designed with special glass to reduce glare from the desert sun. Among serious sports bettors, Circa rules as the place that is most eager to take big action from sharp gamblers, and, under the operation of owner and craps lover Derick Stevens, the place prides itself on embracing sports bettors of every stripe – whether they are casino bosses or the gamblers themselves. 

Wherever you land, however, the sense of action is ratcheted up. As it was once put to me – and as I witnessed from being in the Las Vegas thick of it all – fans in the sports book may be betting on different teams and, hence, cheering for varying outcomes, but everybody in the place is a fan of March Madness and rooting for great games. 

Never mind that the Final Four will not actually be played in Las Vegas until 2028, for sports bettors who embrace the city, watching it all go down on a big screen in a jammed sportsbook alongside others who love the big games, well, that is more than fine.

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City. He has written extensively on gambling for publications such as Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. He is the author of four books including Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players.

He’s been known to do a bit of gambling when the timing seems right.