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Steve Friess: Billy Walters Says The Average Sports Bettor ‘Has Zero Chance Of Winning’

Written By Steve Friess | Updated:
Steve Friess State Of Play: Billy Walters Interview

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.

Legendary sports bettor Billy Walters is worried about you.

At age 77, with a prison sentence for insider trading behind him, Walters is fully in a phase of life where he wants to do good in various ways. And while his new memoir, “Gambler: Secrets From a Life at Risk,” is a remarkably intimate retelling of his roller coaster through decades and millions of dollars, it is also very much intended as a cautionary tale.

He and co-author Armen Keteyian write movingly about the costs – in money, marriages, relationships with his children, and more — of his addictions to alcohol and gambling. For that alone, it’s worth a read because Walters’ is one of those unique American lives.

Walters talked to PlayUSA earlier this week at length about that and more, but what struck me most about our conversation was how much trouble he thinks the changing landscape of sports betting is going to be for most people. I’m accustomed to people who have struck it rich in the gambling world advocating for more access, more availability.

Walters, who bets millions every year based on extensive research by a team of analysts, said he thinks you’re going to lose your shirt. And he hopes you’ll recognize before it’s too late that you’re not Billy Walters.

We’ll get into some of the fun stuff — Steve Wynn, Phil Mickelson, a bet on a bird on a wire — in Tuesday’s column. The book is a breezy, score-settling, insightful read, and profits go to three charities, Opportunity Village and Hope for Prisoners in Las Vegas and Cedar Lake Lodge, a charity for people with intellectual disabilities in Royal Oak, Kentucky.

This week, though, I’m focused on the alarm he sounds about the new era of sports betting. This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

‘I wanted to share it with the world’

Question: A lot of gamblers write books of advice on gambling and some write books about their lives. You wrote both at once. Why?

Billy Walters: Sports betting is now legal and a majority of the states. When I was a younger guy, I went through a lot of ups and downs as a sports betting and a gambler. At one point in time in my life, I felt like I was addicted to gambling. And I could see that potentially was all the new sports bettors and gamblers and whatever out there, a lot of them are going to experience the same thing. On top of that, I had an issue with alcohol as a younger guy. I wanted to share it with the world, the problems I had early on gambling, and also issues I had my life when I dealt with those.

Q: There are only a couple of chapters of advice on sports betting. Why is that?

BW: I didn’t want to put everything that I know about sports betting and handicapping in the book. I wouldn’t have sold this information 10 years ago for $20 million. But I’m 77 years old, this is my legacy. All these people out there, they don’t have a chance. The only chance they’ve got is if they follow the basic strategies I put in this book. If you don’t understand some basics about sports betting, if you don’t have a number of accounts, you don’t get the best numbers, you don’t know what the right price to pay is for when you bought a half a point, you don’t know what the true odds are, then you got no chance.

I put all that in there for the average bettor, for the beginning better, to hopefully help them out. And then the other thing I wanted to put in there was, ‘Look, you know if you got X number of dollars and you’re telling yourself this is for entertainment,’ that’s the right approach. Don’t get into this thinking you’re going to get rich quick or some kind of scheme, because all you’re going to do is get hammered. They have this little speech in their mind, ‘Well, when I get even, I’m gonna quit.’ And next thing you know, you’ve got huge problems in your life.

Q: Because we know when we’re reading this book that you became a very successful gambler, all the huge sums of money that you lost don’t seem real. It’s almost like the example you set is that if you keep going, sooner or later, you’re gonna get somewhere. Were you concerned that that could be a message people got from it?

BW: Well, no. I wanted to write the book because I wanted people to understand that you can get destroyed gambling if you ended up getting addicted. It’s something I wanted to share, the ups and downs that I had.

‘I know how addictive sports betting can be’

Q: How has sports gambling changed since all the legalization?

BW: Sports bettors have less options than they had 20 years ago. You’ve got a few major companies that have created a monopoly. And as a result, the odds and things that are offered to sports bettors are not nearly as good as they were 20 years ago. They don’t pay the odds they used to pay on parlays. They don’t give you higher odds on teasers.  And you got all these new sports bettors, they don’t know the difference. They’re playing two-team parlays and laying $1.25, $1.30, they don’t even know it, they think they’re laying $11 for $10. That’s another reason I put the charts in the book, so people can see exactly what the true odds are. Right now, 99% of them don’t even know what they’re doing.

In the ’80s and the ’90s, Las Vegas had 35 independent casinos. Today, essentially you got five or six and you walk into one you make a bet there, they got six or eight joints in town. And the same thing goes for DraftKings and FanDuel. Essentially what they’ve done is created a monopoly throughout the country. Monopolies are only good for one people, and that’s the person who’s got the monopoly. It’s not certainly not good for the customer.

I know how addictive sports betting can be, just like alcohol or like drugs or like anything else. It’s fun to do and then some guy’s gonna give you some money to start playing, it’s not going to cost you anything at all, he’s gonna help you get started, it’s like smoking a cigarette for the first time. Then next thing you know, off you go, he gave you $200 to start with, you’ve lost that money, now you start using your money and then you lose your money and you tell yourself, ‘Well, when I get even I’m gonna quit.” And the next thing you know you’re addicted.  And then on top of that, the way things are structured today, the average sports bettor has zero chance of winning. Zero.

‘I’ve been doing this a long time myself’

Q: Yikes! Why do you say that?

BW: If you don’t know what true odds you’re playing and you don’t have any kind of game plan, any kind of money management strategy, you got no chance to win. You bet on 50% winners, you’re gonna get 95.4% of your money back. You can play slot machines and get 96 or 98 percent of your money back.

On top of that, so many people are playing parlays and teasers. It’s fun to do, but they don’t even realize they’re not laying $11 for $10. They’re not. You got no chance.

Q: What is the difference is between you and the so-called average person? How many people work for you? What does it take to do what you do?

BW: Going back to 1982 when I moved to Las Vegas, I have spent collectively over $100 million in research and development and in sports. I’ll give you an example. The season’s over, we immediately go to work on the following season. I do millions of simulations. I’m continually looking for new angles on things that no one else recognizes. That’s the only way you can stay ahead of the game.

All the guys I’ve worked with over the years essentially they run out of ideas and become irrelevant, and they end up retiring. I work with 25 of the smartest minds that you can imagine in sports over the years. That’s the way I’m able to stay in the game. I’ve got guys that work with me that graduated No. 1 in their class at Cal Tech. I’ve had department heads of major universities. I’ve had the brightest or the brightest has worked for me for a long period of time. And I’ve been doing this a long time myself, so I got a little bit of experience at it. And then on top of that, we have programmers. Whatever ideas we have, we have to quantify them, you gotta prove it or disprove it. So, and if you got a lot of ideas and you’re continually going in and you’re trying to be trying to see if this does make a difference or it doesn’t make a difference.

But again, the really simple fact is I’m doing the same thing as a guy who is making the line for the bookmakers is doing. Fortunately, for me, my opinions been better than their opinion for a period of time. But my opinion has got to be quite a bit better than their opinion, because I’m going $11 to $10. And I got to win 52.39% to break even.

‘It’s 100% business with me’

Q: Do you think that the casino industry actually cares about gambling addiction? They do a lot of PR about it. They fund various things, sometimes because they have to because the states require it. But do you think they actually care?

BW: Well, I don’t think it would be fair to paint everyone with the same brush. I do think there are people who do care. And I think there’s probably people in the industry for whom it’s lip service.  But it would be a dark world if nobody cared about anyone else, and I have a hard time believing nobody in the gaming industry gives a sh– about whether a guy’s has a gambling addiction or not.

Q: You wrote: “The biggest thrill you can have in gambling is making a huge bet and winning. The second biggest thrill is making a huge bet and losing.” Why would losing a huge bet be a big thrill?

BW: Well, it’s an adrenaline rush is what it is. I don’t probably get as much of a rush losing as I do winning.

Q: Does it still give you a rush all these years later? Or is it more of a job?

BW: It’s 100% business with me. It’s nothing but a business today. But I still get an adrenaline rush from it, whether I win or lose. I’m not a monotone person that, whether I win or lose, it has no effect on me. If I ever got to the point that I didn’t get a thrill out of it, but I probably quit.

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Photo by Richard Drew/AP photo; 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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