James Salinas’ SuperContest Success Isn’t Given, It’s Earned
As the saying goes, success isn’t given. It’s earned. In today’s world of sports betting, there are few that have had the success of James Salinas. At first, some may have been labeled his success as beginner’s luck, but those paying close attention quickly realized that Salinas is not a beginner and his success is certainly not lucky. He’s earned the success he’s enjoyed and will likely earn much more of it.
The sports bettor from Colorado first grabbed headlines when he won the world’s most famous sports handicapping competition in 2015, the Las Vegas SuperContest, held by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Salinas was a first-timer in the SuperContest, but he’s been a sports bettor for as long as he can remember. Using the alias “Rounding Again,” Salinas ground out a life-changing victory, topping what was at the time a record field of 1,727 entries in the SuperContest to win the huge $906,675 first-place prize. He also earned a bonus of $7,500 to take in $914,175 total.
“When I won it in 2015, that was the first year that I entered, so I really didn’t have any kind of expectation,” Salinas told SharpSide. “Obviously, I hadn’t done the contest before, but I had heard about it the year prior and told myself, committed myself, to enter. At that point, there were 1,700-plus folks that entered the contest that year. I think when you enter, you’re like, ‘All right, I got a shot. Why not? Why not me?’ But then you look at the numbers and you temper your expectations, I guess you could say. Then, obviously winning it the first year I entered really established the standard for myself. Not by anybody else, just for me.”
Salinas’ High Standard of Consistency
With an extremely high bar set as the standard, Salinas returned to the SuperContest in 2016, back to defend his title. Easier said than done, right? After all, Salinas climbed the mountain top in 2015. In 2016, though, he would have to beat out even more contestants after another record-setting turnout was produced with a field of 1,854.
As with any big-time competition, everyone wants to follow the most recent winner after they win, especially the following year. It happens in professional sports, popular award shows, poker tournaments, you name it. The team name “Rounding Again” was nowhere to be found in the 2016 field, though. Did Salinas ride off into the sunset with his winnings? Did he sign up for the SuperContest using a new alias? Eventually, it was the latter made known, as Salinas had entered the 2016 SuperContest with the team name “Anton Chigurh.” As the season wore on, Salinas climbed the leaderboard before ultimately finishing in a six-way tie for third place and scoring another $116,199.
“The next year, coming in third, now there’s a consistency piece behind it,” Salinas said. “Having high expectations of where I think I should be with this when it comes to football and being able to pick these games, which I’ve been betting football games since I was a kid. So a long time.”
Two years, two record-setting SuperContest competitions, and two top-three finishes for Salinas had earned him a total of $1,030,374. Sports betting is an enormous market with tremendous potential, but it’s still a small, niche community. Salinas had quickly become one of the biggest names in the game, thanks to his two great runs, and he wasn’t done there.
In 2017, when the SuperContest had another record-breaking year with 2,748 entries, Salinas had a down season by his standards. He didn’t cash, but he did post a very respectable 45-36-4 record with one of his two entries. That’s good for 55.6%. In 2018, it was a different story, though. Salinas was one of the whopping 3,123 entries to pony up the SuperContest’s $1,500 buy-in. The field was huge, the largest in SuperContest history, and Salinas finished high up on the leaderboard once again, cashing for a third time in four years. He placed 26th, tied with eight others and in the top 0.8% of the field. For that, Salinas took home $14,844 in prize money to bring his lifetime SuperContest winnings up to $1,045,218.
“Last year, I don’t know what my percentage was, maybe 55%, but obviously I didn’t cash,” Salinas said of his 2017 performance before going on to talk about his 2018 run and overall experience across all four years. “Then this year, doing it again, I think the biggest thing is just the consistency piece. It is a long contest. It’s 17 weeks, it’s 85 picks. You’re not going to win the contest in the first week, but you can put yourself in a position to lose the contest early on. For me, it was kind of doing the math on it and looking at previous years for what the numbers were. I figured as the entries continued to grow, it was probably going to take about 60 points to win this thing consistently, which is roughly 70%. So that’s been what my target is. Then breaking that down into 17 weeks, that’s nine weeks of 4-1 and eight weeks of 3-2, so that’s my mindset going into it each year. My target number is 60 and that’s the breakdown of what it looks like. Also, not putting myself in position where I need to hit 5-0 all the time, because that’s not likely and I rarely do, but it’s a consistency piece of going 3-2 and going 4-1 over the course of 17 weeks. That will get you into a pretty good standing.”
Over the four-year run of 2015 to 2018, Salinas’ best entries each year posted records of 59-23-3 (71.2%), 52-30-3 (62.9%), 46-36-4 (55.3%), and 52-28-5 (64.1%). Combined, that’s 208 wins, 117 losses, and 15 ties or pushes, and it’s a contest winning percentage of 63.4%.
Trusting the Process Through Time and Effort
Salinas’ process isn’t overly complicated, but it does involve a lot of time and effort. Salinas spends his time preparing for each week by studying matchups but avoids pouring over statistics and data.
“I’m definitely a matchups guy,” Salinas said. “I look at the matchups when it comes to these games – matchups and motives. If you’re trying to look at numbers and statistics, it’s such small snapshots because they only play games once a week, as opposed to something like basketball or baseball, for instance. Baseball has 162 games, and through the course of the season there’s a big sample size to apply analytics and to use data and numbers and statistics. But for football, it’s not my approach. Football is such an emotionally charged, physical game. What I’m looking at, number one, ‘Is this team going to show up ready to play today? Did they have a rough game last week? Is this a sandwich game? Are they looking ahead?’ Maybe there’s a bigger division game. A lot of times you see these non-conference games, teams that have a lot of travel – there’s plenty of flat spots out there. So, really trying to identify if there are potential flat spots for a team and, ’Is this a good spot, a good situation?’ To be able to look at the scheduling piece, as well as then, ‘What do the matchups look like?’ Strengths and weaknesses based on personnel.”
After identifying his preferred matchups and quality spots to attack, Salinas’ process takes him deeper within the games. He looks closely at both sides, paying particular attention to teams’ practices during the week, spending hours reading through practice reports from as many sources as he can handle.
“Then the other piece is really the practices and practice reports,” Salinas said. “Not so much the injury reports. Those have changed over the years. Injury reports used to come out on Wednesday and they had probable, questionable, doubtful, the whole bit. Now, they don’t have probable anymore, you have to kind of read between the lines with the injury reports. I read between the lines through the practice reports because the practice reports give you more detail. For example, we know this guy has a bad ankle, but did he practice in full or has it been limited and what kind of limitations did he have? So it’s a lot of research, it’s a lot of reading. I think with the avenue of Twitter, that’s very helpful because you can follow a number of beat writers for these teams that follow these guys day in and day out. It’s really time spent. My process is Thursdays and in particular Fridays.”
One twist the SuperContest throws at its competitors involves Thursday games. Those games are eligible to be selected as part of a contestant’s weekly picks, but doing so requires a contestant to submit all five games on his or her card before the Thursday game starts. That can provide a lot of uncertainty and leave a lot of room for unwanted flexibility in the remaining four games before the final deadline of Saturday morning.
“I don’t play any Thursday games,” Salinas said. “If you put a Thursday play in, you have to put them all in. For my process, that does me a disservice because now I’ve cut myself out of those Thursday and, in particular, Friday practice reports. I don’t submit any plays until Saturday morning.”
For all the hard work he puts in and time he spends studying the weekly slate, Salinas takes it easy in the first half of the week, providing a bit of balance during a hectic football season when his nose is to the grindstone once the SuperContest lines are released late afternoon on Wednesday.
“Come Tuesday, I really don’t look at anything, because the lines don’t come out until Wednesday,” Salinas said. “You hear lots of guys, they like to make their power rankings, do their own numbers, see if they find value based on, ‘Well, I had my number at this and sportsbooks have it at that, so I think they’re off by this amount of points.’ I leave that to the sportsbooks. The guys behind the counters are pretty sharp. They know what they’re doing, especially when it comes to the NFL. There’s only a certain amount of games going on per week, as opposed to, say, college basketball where you’ve got just these massive boards everyday so I could see where the books are going to miss certain lines. Not to say that the lines are super sharp all the time, but I don’t spend my time doing that. I kind of want to get away from it. Once the lines are put out there on Wednesday, I’ll look and I’ll circle some games. I’m hopeful, but we’re mandated to have to pick five games. That doesn’t mean I always like all five games going into each week, but that’s the structure of the contest. I’m hopeful that I’ll find maybe six to seven, maybe eight, games out there. For the most part, I don’t lay really big numbers, so those ones are really easy to scratch off. I think the time spent is really going to be Thursday and, in particular, Friday. On Friday, I’ll spend a lot of time. I might watch some film on Thursday where I might want to see some matchups, whether it was from this year or maybe in years past. A lot of times, I’m watching games in the trenches. How do these guys matchup up front? And take it from there. As far as general time spent, it can be anywhere from 10 to 15 hours per week. Just depends on the week, but it’s a lot of time spent, especially on Fridays.”
What’s In a SuperContest Name?
Each year in the SuperContest, Salinas has entered with a different team name. It’s allowed him to fly under the radar for the large majority of each season, and it doesn’t sound as though he’ll be switching up his team-naming approach anytime soon.
“The first year, honestly, I didn’t give it much thought,” Salinas said with a laugh. “I show up and as I’m filling out the paperwork, they said I need a team name. I had actually just got into Vegas the night before and played a little cards. I hadn’t played cards in a while. A long time ago, I was a big fan of Rounders, and that was the first thing that popped into my head, ‘Rounding Again.’ So all right, I guess we’re back rounding again. Maybe not at the poker tables, but we’re getting back into casinos.
“I went to Vegas quite a bit in the 90s, but then family, kids, career, etc., things get in the way, and you just don’t have the time to go and indulge in Las Vegas the way that you used to. I felt like I was getting back involved in something that I’d done for quite a bit of my time in my youth, so that was ‘Rounding Again.’”
In the years that followed, Salinas put much more thought into how he picked the name of his SuperContest entry each year.
“Once I won it, I didn’t want to put additional pressure on myself with continuing the same team name,” Salinas said. “I wasn’t obligated to anybody to let them know what I was picking. I wondered that if I won it flying under the radar the first year, why not do it again? The ‘Anton Chigurh’ name, that character is from No Country for Old Men and I think that character is just brilliant. It’s brilliantly played, brilliantly written. The guy is very focused, he’s relentless. He has a job to do and he’s pretty ruthless about it. He’s taking no prisoners, and I kind of like that mantra. I was pretty hungry. I wouldn’t say I was destined to repeat, but I wanted to come back and do a good showing so that it wasn’t just going to be a one-hit wonder and I couldn’t do this again. I was very focused and I really worked at it that second year, hence that name.”
In 2018, Salinas went with the team name “It’sSaulGoodman,” a play off the television show Better Call Saul. In similar fashion, Salinas felt a connection with his 2018 alias.
“This year, with ‘It’sSaulGoodman,’ there’s another one where I love the show, I love the character, and I’m a big fan of Vince Gilligan from back in the X-Files days, as far as his writing goes. Somebody like Saul Goodman, he’s the ultimate underdog. I have a degree in journalism, so I have an affection for writing. I think the writing in that show is great, I think the character’s great, and I like him a lot where he’s the underdog who didn’t go to the big-profile school. He had to dig, fight, and claw for everything that he had. He’s also very determined, and I guess I can kind of just identify with all of those characters. But he’s also just a happy-go-lucky kind of guy in a good place. They’re all kind of in a place where I was at the time, I think, so nothing any more special than that. Just something I like to do. I can relate to it, it makes sense to me, and I’ll probably continue. It’s working for me so far, so I think I’ll continue going that route.”
Keeping Perspective with the Sky as the Limit
Salinas has had quite the four-year run in the Las Vegas SuperContest and has set his standards high, both in what he expects from the effort he puts in and the results he gets out. He wants to keep that steady output going and it doesn’t appear like he wants to slow down anytime soon.
“Definitely the consistency, that’s the point,” Salinas said about what sticks out to him the most about the run he’s on. “That’s kind of what we talked about before. Even if you’re just grinding out 3-2 and 3-2 every week, you’ll begin to trickle up that leaderboard. You have to be patient and understand that it is a long contest. This is really a grind of a contest, so you can’t get too high or too low based on having a good week or a bad week. I don’t want to question myself if I have a bad week, and I don’t get too full of myself if I knock it out and have a big week. It’s moving on to the next week. It’s the old Bill Belichick cliche, ‘We’re on to the next week,’ because that momentum really doesn’t carry. Now, it could carry in a negative fashion if you’re feeling like you just miss these games. You may start to doubt yourself. I would rather miss a game and be totally off of a game than something where it was a fumble or a missed extra point, which seems to be more prevalent year in and year out now that they’ve moved the extra point back. That’s had some impacts for sure. Again, it’s the consistency. It’s just knowing that it’s a longterm process. It’s 17 weeks, it’s 85 picks. Really just that one week is only five picks, so keep it in perspective that way. Whatever the result is of that previous week, do not let it affect the result of my handicap going into the upcoming week.”
With 3,123 entries, 2018 was the eighth consecutive record-setting year for the SuperContest. The prize pool eclipsed $4.3 million and first place was awarded $1.422 million. When asked if he thought about the event’s future, Salinas was optimistic and doesn’t see himself missing out on competing every single year.
“I assume next year it will keep expanding, just with the fact that it’s $1.4 million now. The other piece is that the scores haven’t really changed. We talked about it when we first started talking, that the target number was 60 points to win it. It was 59.5 that won it this year. Even if there are 10,000 entries, no one is going to go 85-0 in this contest, right? I think, realistically, 60 to 65 tops is going to be what people achieve, regardless of how many entries get in there. So I think keeping it in that perspective too, I don’t think that’s going to keep people away from it. You’re not going to have 100,000 people in there thinking they don’t have a shot and should just play the lotto. So, do I think it will expand? Yeah, but to how much or how big? Hopefully the sky is the limit because I think this contest fits me very well. I like the grind. It is exhausting, but I like the grind of it because of how I approach it and understand that it is a long contest and the more folks that get in, the bigger the prize pool. Here’s one last thing that’s interesting. Two years ago when I came in third, my score this year was better than it was two years ago, but I finished 26th this year because of the volume of folks that are in the contest. The volume is there, but ultimately it topped out at the same 60 points. So it’s realistic to say, ‘Yeah, I can continue staying in this contest.’ I’ll always compete in it, regardless of whatever contests are out there. Maybe something happens in the state that I’m in, Colorado, but I’ll always compete in it just because it’s been very successful for me and it’s endearing to me. I’ll always be participating and trying to be a good ambassador for it to encourage other folks to compete as well.”