LAS VEGAS (AP) — Damon Graham spent much of his Sunday at Starbucks working as he usually does, making lattes and double espressos for thirsty customers.
Then he took a lunch break to find out he was nearly $1 million richer after winning the most prestigious football handicapping contest in this gambling city.
“I went to work to take my mind off of it,” Graham told The Associated Press. “I knew I was going to win something, but it was pretty amazing to find out I finished first.”
The barista who dabbles in sports betting ran the table on the final day of the NFL season, winning all five of his games to beat out 1,853 entries in the Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest. First place paid $895,481, and Graham won some more money in a mini-contest to push his earnings over the $900,000 mark.
Not bad for a 32-year-old who saved up $3,000 to put on two entries against some of the top sports bettors in the world.
“I did the best I could do and the games were going to go the way they were going to go,” Graham said.
The wise guy bettors might have cringed at the way Graham won, picking opposite sides on both of his cards in hopes one would finish high in the money. He had actually picked the teams he thought would win on the other card, only to go undefeated by picking against them on the card that won.
“He was just looking to land in the money and thought that was the best strategy,” said Jay Kornegay, sports book director at the Westgate Las Vegas. “I think he was almost in shock he won the whole thing.”
Graham’s 5-0 mark on the last Sunday of the regular season vaulted him into the top spot with an overall record of 54-28-3 picking five games a week against the point spread. He went 13-2 over the final three weeks of the season to beat out Mark Jorstad, a farmer from Morris, Illinois, who finished second. Jorstad, who raises corn and soybeans on a 3,000-acre farm, said he made many of his early picks after listening to sports radio while harvesting his crops.
“I will not be the guy who complains about winning second prize in this one,” said Jorstad, who won $360,000. “I didn’t lose. The guy who won beat me.”
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperContest began in the late 1980s as a way for the best professional bettors to compete against each other. It has evolved in recent years into a broader contest that attracts nonpros like Graham and Jorstad.
“I’m just a farmer, there’s no professional in me,” Jorstad said. “This is like somebody walked across the street and got hit by lightning.”
Graham was off Monday from his job at Starbucks, where his fellow workers were unaware of his win. He came to Las Vegas a decade ago to try playing poker professionally, only to find out there were too many sharks eager to take his money.
So he tries his hand at sports betting, living frugally so he could put the maximum two entries into the contest. He said that won’t change as he figures out what to do with his winnings.
“I try to keep it low key and be sensible about things,” Graham said. “I’ll keep working and not do anything crazy.”