With a former University of San Diego star player, assistant coach and a batch of others indicted in an alleged sports-betting ring today, we wanted to know: How do you fix a basketball game?

Prosecutors announcing the indictments today were tight-lipped about the details of the charges involving former University of San Diego star point guard Brandon Johnson. They would only say that Johnson had “influenced the result” of a game, and wouldn’t expand on how, exactly they believe he had done so.

But a Nevada gaming expert says the way people normally make money from college basketball scams is via a method called “point shaving.” Those scams usually center on being able to manipulate the play of a team’s star player, someone who’s almost always on the court and who can control the flow and the fate of a team’s performance.

Someone like Johnson.

Here’s how it works, as explained to me by David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas:

Bookmakers in states like Nevada, where gambling’s legal, usually introduce what’s known as the “point spread” in competitive basketball games (sports fans, please bear with me, this is for the benefit of newcomers to this concept, like me).

The point spread imposes a condition on any bets made on the game: Bookies assume that a stronger team is going to win, but also estimate how many points that team will win by and make that the condition on which gamblers can place bets.

For example, a bookie might estimate that Team A, the stronger team, will beat Team B by 10 points. Gamblers then bet either for or against Team A winning by 10 or more points. Gamblers betting for Team A only collect if Team A wins by at least 10 points.

This is a great system for bookies, since it helps to divide gamblers more evenly, which means more people will bet on the game. After all, choosing the better team is often easy in a contest. But deciding how much better one team is than the other is a whole different level of skill.

In a “point-shaving” scam, criminals target key players who can greatly influence a team’s performance as collaborators in the scheme. Usually in exchange for a bribe, they agree with the player that he will do what he can to limit a team’s final score.

What makes the scam all the more attractive to a player is that his team doesn’t have to lose — the player doesn’t have to “throw” the game and jeopardize his team’s record. He just needs to ensure that his team doesn’t win by too much.

For example, the bribed player on Team A just needs to ensure his team doesn’t win by more than 10 points. That way, the criminals can bet against Team A covering the spread, since they have a conspirator on the team who will help keep the score low.

So, in the final minutes of a game, with Team A winning by 9, the bribed player knows his team can’t score any more or his allies will lose their bets. So he throws the ball to the wrong team or misses a shot. Or he lets the player he’s defending score.

Johnson would be the ideal target: He was a point guard, meaning he controlled much of his team’s play, and he holds USD’s records for all-time top scorer and most assists. We must be clear, however, that he’s only been charged and hasn’t even yet had a chance to make his plea, let alone get his day in court.

Point-shaving scams have been fairly common in college basketball since the 1950s.

In the late 1970s, several players on the men’s team at Boston College were involved in a large point-shaving scandal. Again, in the late 1990s, two Arizona State University players admitting taking bribes to miss shots so gamblers could bet on the outcome of games.

The economics of college basketball has had a large role to play in breeding these scandals, Schwartz said.

College basketball players don’t make any money from the sport. Meanwhile, their universities might be raking in big bucks from their teams, as do television stations and numerous other enterprises associated with the game.

So, Schwartz said, players are easy prey for scammers.

“It’s very easy for someone to say ‘Hey, the school’s making so much money off of you, you’re not making any money,’” Schwartz said. “You can see how somebody would be open to this.”

Point-shaving’s hardly foolproof. Team A could be so hot that, regardless of the bribed player’s efforts to throw the game, it still makes its spread.

But in the gambling world, any advantage can make a big difference, Schwartz said.

“People who legitimately bet on sports and do it honestly, if you win 60 percent of your bets, you’re considered very, very, very good,” he said. “So, if you can find a way to win 95 percent of your bets, even if it’s not foolproof, you’ve really got the edge on everybody.”

Please contact Will Carless directly at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.550.5670 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/willcarless.

Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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