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Steve Friess: Billy Walters Dishes About Steve Wynn, Phil Mickelson And A Bird On A Wire

Written By Steve Friess on October 17, 2023 - Last Updated on February 16, 2024
Steve Friess State Of Play Billy Walters & Phil Mickelson

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.


With this month’s publication of his score-settling memoir, legendary sports gambler Billy Walters revisits some of the strangest and difficult parts of his life. In “Gambler: Secrets From A Life At Risk,” he takes aim and a parade of bold-faced names — Steve Wynn, Phil Mickelson, and former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara — who he believes betrayed, vexed and otherwise did him wrong.

To read Walters’ account, he never broke any laws once he set up shop in Las Vegas in the early 1980s but was persecuted by “publicity-seeking” feds like Bharara specifically because he had made his fortunes in unseemly businesses, namely gambling and used car sales. He was charged by Bharara’s office in April 2017 of insider trading for using non-public information from a board member of Dean Foods on trades between 2008 and 2014.

In the book, he alleges Bharara had it in for him and ignored evidence and other people who were actually guilty. And he goes hard after Mickelson, who promised to testify on his behalf at that trial but then reneged. The book describes the golf champ’s gambling habits and, among other things, alleges he may have bet on the 2012 Ryder Cup that he played in.

Walters, who had been the target of other investigations and FBI searches that never went anywhere, was sentenced to five years in prison. He served 31 months in Pensacola, Florida, until he was released to home confinement when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.

On President Donald Trump’s final day in office in 2021, Walters received a commutation which ended his sentence but didn’t erase his conviction. For that, he blames Wynn, with whom he had a bitter feud dating back to the 1980s when Wynn accused him of cheating to win millions in roulette at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. He explains how he did it in the book, which is worth reading for that chapter alone.

Walters discussed “Gambler: Secrets From A Life At Risk,” and much more with PlayUSA in our interview. This conversation has been edited and condensed for space and clarity. This is the second of two columns with Walters. Read the first here.

Question: How happy were you when Steve Wynn became disgraced and got run out of Vegas because of a litany of credible accusations of sexual assault and harassment? Was that satisfying to you?

Billy Walters: For Steve Wynn to be exposed for what Steve Wynn was, it was way, way overdue. As I said in the book, I met Steve when I first came to Las Vegas. I used to get my hair cut down at the Golden Nugget with the ladies down there at that beauty salon. What came out publicly was the worst kept secret in Las Vegas. The only thought I really had was it’s really a miracle is took this long.

Q: You believe you received a commutation as opposed to a pardon from Trump because Wynn, a close political ally, was in his ear preventing you from getting a full pardon.

BW: That’s correct. 

‘Zero relationship with Donald Trump’

Q: What was your relationship with Donald Trump? And, also, since you’ve been prosecuted by the Southern District of New York and the former president also is being prosecuted by the Southern District of New York, I’m curious what you think about his legal situation right now.

BW: I don’t really have any thoughts about his legal situation, but going back over my relationship with him, and I have no relationship. I’ve never met him. I don’t know him. I’ve never had any business relationship with him at all. I didn’t support him in his election, I supported his opponent. So I have zero relationship with Donald Trump. I supported Jeb Bush.

Q: You spend a lot of time describing how you were mistreated by the justice system, but you were convicted by a jury, so what are we to make of that?

BW: I had to set the record straight about what happened in the Southern District of New York in my insider trading case. What was out there in the public was nowhere near factual or what the truth was, and the only way I could do that was write the book. This is not a he-said, she-said, pointy-finger deal. Everything in here is fact. It’s backed up either transcripts from the trial or it’s emails or documents that the government themselves turned over.

One other thing that has been lost on a lot of people is that everything in this book pertaining to Phil Mickelson, and everything I wrote in this book pertaining to the Southern District of New York, if you notice something? Not one of them has denied one word I’ve said in this book. The Southern District in New York has got one of the most powerful media machines in the entire world. You got Preet Bharara, who’s got an ego the size of the Brooklyn Bridge, you got Phil Mickelson. He may be the only guy who’s got one bigger. And neither one of them have refuted one word that I said in this book.

[Mickelson did deny to Sports Illustrated that he bet on the 2012 Ryder Cup. Otherwise, neither Mickelson nor Bharara have commented on the book.]

Q: In the book, there’s a passage where, in 1967, you bet a bookmaker whom you owed $4,000 you didn’t have a double-or-nothing on what direction a bird was going to fly off of a wire. You won that one. Was that the weirdest bet you ever made?

BW: Oh, it probably was. This was back when I’m younger guy. I’m addicted to gambling, I got bookmakers coming and going. And yeah, I’ve been watching this bird and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna win the bet. But can you imagine you’re dependent upon a bird to do something? At the time, I was desperate because I didn’t have the money to pay the guy anyway. So I took a shot. We got lucky. But I’d been watching the bird for a number of days, so I was pretty sure I had it.

‘If they think it’s undervalued, they’ll invest in that company’

Q: You mention in the book that “legalized sports betting is no different than buying real estate, a stock or a bond.”  What do you mean by that?

BW: Whether you invest in a business or buy a piece of real estate or you bet on a ballgame, it’s all understanding risk-reward. In the stock market, the most famous guy is Warren Buffett. I don’t know how many people he’s got working for him, five, 10, 15 analysts? They look at a company and they feel like the true value of a company is $20 a share but the stock’s trading at $10 or at $40. They take those ideas into Warren and Warren will look at those. And if they think it’s undervalued, they’ll invest in that company. They’re betting their opinion against whatever the public’s opinion is.

Sports betting is the same thing. You got oddsmakers that make lines on games, and I make a line on the game. The larger the differential, the larger bet I make. Your fund managers, essentially, do the same thing. Again, all they’re doing is betting their opinion against the public’s.

Q: I get that for stocks, but real estate?

BW: Let’s say we’re going to buy a piece of property in Las Vegas. We’re going to develop it. You pay X number of dollars for it, it’s gonna take me a certain amount of time to get it done. I’m gonna have to pay a certain amount interest on this money I got, it’s gonna cost me X dollars for improvements, I can sell it for X, it’s gonna cost me so much money to market it. If you’re right about all these things, you’re gonna be successful. If you’re not, you’re not gonna it’s again, it’s all risk reward, understanding the risk reward, and that’s and so but it’s really all boils down to the same thing. Whether it be less than stocks, floors, or, or real estate developer.

Golf course was ‘a tough, tough deal’

Q: Speaking of real estate, I last covered you 25 years ago as a county government reporter for the Review-Journal when you were seeking the rights to develop the Bali Hai golf course south of Mandalay Bay on the Strip. At the time, it was regarded by some as a bit of a sweetheart deal. How did it work out for you?

BW: Not great.

Here’s how that went down. At the time, golf courses in Las Vegas were way underbuilt. There was much more demand than supply. The county only had one golf course and it flooded every time it rained. The city had five golf courses. Las Vegas was really growing with residents and tourists, and the hotels didn’t have places to put their clients on golf courses. So the county wanted to develop another golf course and they had some land on the south end of the Strip that they couldn’t do anything at all with because airplanes took off and landed over it. I’d done two other courses with the city. I took property in a high crime area in Las Vegas and another next to a sewer plant and built golf courses where I put up 100% of money, the city didn’t have to put up a penny.

The county saw that and they put this out for [bid]. [Famed GOP strategist] Sig Rogich, Andre Agassi and I were awarded the project because I’d built 11 other golf courses. I’ve been in business for some time in Chicago and Arizona, New Mexico and, of course, in Las Vegas.

When we opened up Bali Hai in 2000, it was great. Then 9/11 came along and tourism in Las Vegas just got hammered. And then, in the next six years, 25 golf courses were added in Las Vegas. All these home builders were building golf courses to sell real estate, the casinos were building golf courses. Next thing, you know, there was a lot more demand than there was supply. Then we ran into the recession in 2008. And the price of water went up enormously also.

Since I opened Bali Hai, there’s been about eight golf courses have gone bankrupt in Clark County or closed up. So to answer your question, if I had all to do over, there’s no way that I would have ever developed the property. My wife and I put $32 million of our money in that property in 2000. When went to Credit Suisse, we borrowed the money, we guaranteed it personally, we paid 14% interest on the money. The prime rate at the time was 8.5%. It’s been a tough, tough deal.

Q: We’ve talked a lot about the reputation of gamblers and how it tagged you as shady for much of your career. Has that changed?

BW: Yeah, I think so. I did a profile piece for 60 Minutes in 2011, which wasn’t that long ago, and they made out sports bettors to be scammers, they were looked at like they were criminals or something. Today, I don’t think that’s as much the case. Everyone gambles now.

Read more from the State of Play column:

Photo by By John Locher (Walters) and Darron Cummings (Mickelson)/AP photos; illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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