Behind The Counter: A College Football Day In The Life Of A Vegas Sportsbook

Oddsmaking icon Jimmy Vaccaro takes US Bets behind the scenes throughout a busy (and profitable) college football Saturday at South Point.
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A half-hour prior to kickoff for the first slate of college football games Saturday, a short, 74-year-old man whose white hoodie matches his thick shock of hair paces in the sportsbook at South Point Hotel Casino.

But he’s not preparing to make a bet. Longtime oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro is patrolling the casino’s side of the sports betting windows, monitoring the action of the bettors and overseeing his 12 ticket writers like an old-time general backing his row of troops in battle.

Vaccaro recognizes maybe half the faces in the betting lines five deep at the windows, knows maybe 5% of them by a first name. They are regulars at a casino that prides itself on devoting more attention to its sportsbook and its patrons than is the case for many gambling palaces, which draw far more revenue from other types of wagers.

“Ninety percent of the people here will probably bet between $100 and $200 in the course of the day,” Vaccaro says as he notes the bets on the screens beside the 12 ticket writers. “It’s the general public, and they love this f—ing insanity, and so they show up. From the bookmaker’s side, I love it.”

Football is king

The Vegas wise guys mostly now bet from home using computers and phones — about half of South Point’s betting total comes through that technology — but they combine with the public to funnel some $5 million-plus a week in football bets through this one moderate-sized casino at this time of year. Vaccaro says that with the baseball regular season over and the NBA yet to start, football currently represents about 80% of all bets taken.

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And of those football bets, half are college, which wasn’t always the case.

“College has really made a remarkable surge in the last 15 to 20 years” to catch up with the NFL, Vaccaro says, largely due to the waves of games throughout the day on Saturday, with so many televised. And on a Saturday that features Oklahoma-Texas, LSU-Florida, Notre Dame-USC, and other prominent matchups, sportsbooks across the country are sure to be filled throughout the day.

To make sure the nearly 200 people filling South Point’s sports area before 9 a.m. know to get their bets in on time, Vaccaro grabs a microphone and prompts a sense of urgency for all to hear: “All right, kids, we got 20 minutes till the Oklahoma game, let’s go.”

Vaccaro in Vegas

Vaccaro is not the official sportsbook director at South Point. He returned in July to fill in temporarily for Chris Andrews, who holds that position and is due to return soon from medical leave. Vaccaro was once Andrews’ boss in the Barbary Coast’s sportsbook in the late 1970s, then was his assistant in recent years before a part-time stint early this year at the Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh.

The pair are longtime friends and stalwarts in Nevada’s legal industry, both originally from Pittsburgh, where they grew up gambling illegally.

The two talk on the phone frequently throughout the week, especially Monday mornings, when they confer on the coming week’s college football lines. They’re printed that day on a sheet that sits in the sportsbook all week for anyone to pick up as a reference guide, although the electronic board keeps periodically updating the games.

Vaccaro explained that the lines originate with power rankings assigned by Andrews and him to every team on a scale of 1 to 100 before the season started, which have been updated since then based on performance. They make adjustments for a given week based on factors like injuries and home field advantages. By using the Don Best odds service, which posts the lines of major U.S. and offshore sportsbooks online for all subscribers to see, Andrews and Vaccaro can check their own instincts against the early lines set by others.

By gametime Saturday, South Point had changed its point spreads anywhere from a half-point to 4 points on 29 of the 47 games. In two cases, the favorite actually changed: Navy went from a 1-point underdog to 1-point favorite vs. Tulsa, and Washington State became favored by 1 point over Arizona instead of a 3-point ‘dog.

So what happened, Jimmy?

“Money. Money just came in one way, and you shift,” he explained after the early college games started and business behind the counter slowed down, while cheers occasionally came from the sportsbook spectators. “And usually you shift real quick, because 80% of that early money is from people just waiting for a crack at that opening number, who might be people you respect.”

The gregarious Vaccaro listens to a customer’s bad beat story on Saturday at South Point

It’s not just major college programs that see early betting action. UAB shot up from a 9.5-point favorite over Texas San Antonio to 12.5 (and eventually won by 19, proving the early money right).

“You know the only money you’re going to get on that is somebody who knows more about that conference than you do, so you move that really quick,” the oddsmaker said.

How do they handle big bets?

To adjust for the difficulty in following every nuance of minor programs — minor programs that someone in the public still wants to bet — the sportsbook sets lower betting limits on those games. For the major college games, a supervisor like Vaccaro or Andrews will typically need to sign off on any bet of more than $11,000 to win $10,000.

Such approvals are common, Vaccaro said, but he and Andrews want to be aware of who the large bettors are and whether they’re regulars or might be someone who arouses suspicions.

Vaccaro often uses his Twitter feed to publicize big wagers taken, such as an NFL bettor who risked $33,000 on three different games over the weekend.

He also discusses the bets during near-daily appearances on VSiN, a sports gambling talk show network that he and broadcaster Brent Musburger encouraged casino owner Michael Gaughan to create at South Point.

“People love hearing about that stuff,” Vaccaro said with a chuckle. “They want that life, to be that guy betting $33,000 a game, but it’s just not possible.”

Inside the back office

Vaccaro discusses this sitting in a comfy chair in the back office of the sportsbook —  “behind the green door,” as he jokes, with an implication of scandalous mystery (though the door is brown). The public can see just a sliver of the office through the doorway as they place their bets.

If they could walk back — there’s a security guard to make sure they don’t try — they would see a relaxed Vaccaro facing a wall of nine TV screens, most of them displaying the same games showcased on the sportsbook’s large monitors: Oklahoma-Texas, Georgia-South Carolina, Temple-Memphis, etc.

Vaccaro watches without comment or emotion, though aware that heavy bets in favor of South Carolina as a 24.5-point underdog were going to be costly. (The Gamecocks upset third-ranked Georgia 20-17, prompting loud cheers from patrons on the other side of the wall.)

He says there are only three to five games on a Saturday where the betting action is so lopsided as to make a big difference to the sportsbook, which is usually doing its best to adjust lines for balance and rely on the 10% vig for profits. But even in those cases, he’s unemotional.

“You would not know who I’m rooting for — that’s just me,” says the twice-divorced man who admits to having always loved the surroundings of a sportsbook more than his own home. “I’ve never screamed, never hollered, never hit anything.”

He’s never actually been much of a sports fan, either, other than the first week of March Madness. In the sportsbook, instead of obsessing over games, he’s trying to stay attuned to how things are going for the staff of 12 ticket writers and eight supervisors.

Supervisors in action

Two supervisors in a corner of the back office are running computers that post updated odds for in-progress game wagering that is allowed during commercial breaks. Based on the outcome of a drive just before the break, they might lower or increase a game’s over/under total or spread by a few points, hoping to attract new bets for a minute or two, usually over the phone but also possibly at the counter for those who are fleet with mental acuity as well as their feet.

Another supervisor is making line adjustments for later games on behalf of three tribal casinos in New Mexico and Oregon that have hired South Point because they’re too small to manage their own oddsmaking. They have different smaller pools of money affecting their exposure in games, and Shea Cormier is doing her best to balance that out.

And just outside the office, facing the public at the side of the betting counter but partially obscured by three computer monitors, Nick Semich is typing in prices for halftime betting, as another staffer murmurs updates of new bets being placed on the halftime odds already posted.

One of Semich’s monitors shows the new bets coming in as they are taken. Another screen shows the overall volume of bets taken by South Point on each side on each game, continuously updated with the dollar value of wins or losses once games conclude.

A third monitor on Semich’s right bears the Don Best columns comparing South Point’s odds on games with all of its peers. The point spreads are almost all within a half-point, but the South Point staff insist they’re not slaves to what the others do or any algorithms and primarily rely on their instincts.

“Everything we need to know is in this computer somewhere,” Vaccaro says while looking over Semich’s shoulder. “In the old days, you used to guess where you were at, because you couldn’t keep track of everything. Now it’s instantaneous.”

On an early visit to Semich, the oddsmaker who has been in the spotlight in ESPN and Showtime documentaries asks how big a liability South Point has in futures bets on the Astros to win the World Series. He knows it will be a big number because of a $200,000 wager placed by a Houston businessman known as “Mattress Mack.” The payout to Astros backers will be $455,000, Semich tells him, far more than for any other MLB playoff team.

College football Saturday swings

After the first football games conclude a short while later, Semich advises Vaccaro they lost $30,000 on the Georgia upset but won $20,000 when Oklahoma failed to cover and its point total with Texas went under. Overall, in the first round of games, the sportsbook was ahead $35,000.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Vaccaro says, because there are so many games yet to be played and the money count so far doesn’t factor in the unknown outcome of parlays. Vaccaro says the parlays can make up 70% or more of football wagers because people love the potentially big payouts.

“After the games you look, because you want to look, and right now we’re up $35,000, but it doesn’t mean a f—ing thing,” he declares.

Semich, a big, bald, bespectacled man who has been in the business for decades himself, agrees: “There’s been days I left and the book was down $70,000 in the morning games, and I came back the next morning and found out we won $230,000.”

South Point owner Michael Gaughan drops in to chat with Vaccaro and see how the book is faring

At mid-day Saturday, a man drops into the sportsbook who cares more outwardly about its wins and losses than Vaccaro. It’s South Point owner Gaughan, who gave Vaccaro his first job in a little sportsbook at the Royal Inn in 1975 and whose father, Jackie, was a bookmaker in Omaha who became a casino owner in Las Vegas.

Gaughan takes pride in the sportsbook and having Andrews and Vaccaro as its operators, and he caters more than most casinos to sports bettors, keeping a betting window open for them 24/7, giving them comp points for their wagers, and providing separate rooms for sports and horse race viewing and betting.

Many casinos contract with outside firms to run their sportsbooks or lease out their property to them, but Gaughan says he’ll never do that even though it returns a lower percentage profit to him than any other part of the casino.

“It’s too much fun” to give up, he says. “A sportsbook is supposed to do three things for you, very simple. It brings you in new people who do other things. It accommodates the people you have so they don’t go somewhere else. And you’re supposed to make a little bit of money with it.”

With that money on his mind, before he leaves Gaughan asks Vaccaro what teams he should be rooting for to win. He will call Vaccaro twice later in the day with the same question. Vaccaro tells him to root for Florida and USC each time, due to betting action on favored LSU and Notre Dame.

‘You just need volume’

Vaccaro says after the phone calls he doesn’t get too swayed either way because he knows, in the long run, how things are going to come out for the sportsbook, just like the sports betting industry in general. It hasn’t changed much over the years, even as the public has more and better access to information.

“You just need volume, because the more tickets we put out, the better the chance we have a big week. If you would write $100 in tickets, you usually end up with $6 in your pocket. Even with the new math and all the analytics, it always comes down to that 6%.

“Yes, people are getting smarter — they understand more — but we keep holding that percentage for two reasons: It’s human nature that people go so crazy when they lose that they subsequently bet things they shouldn’t, and every year there’s millions of new kids turning 21, and that’s our new generation of bettors.”

Vaccaro says it’s harder than ever for professionals to make money at sports betting. There are fewer edges for them when so many posted lines are the same — the sportsbooks all look at what everyone else is doing.

He estimates the percentage of those attempting it who can make a profit in a year “might be one-half of 1%,” when it was formerly 2%. But he knows about 15 to 20 individuals whose opinions he respects enough that if they come in and place several thousand dollars on a game, he will consider moving a line because it might mean the sportsbook is using a bad number.

Some rest for the weary

Vaccaro wasn’t worried about that by late in the day Saturday, though. No late bets of large size had come in suggesting any numbers were off kilter.

He was sufficiently relaxed to head home at halftime of the third round of college games without worries about the outcomes. He had put in a 12-hour day already after being semi-retired months ago, and he was facing another long day on NFL Sunday.

“My sleep is more important,” he said when asked if he would have the TV tuned to football games when climbing into bed.

He awoke Sunday morning to see a text from a supervisor giving him the day’s numbers, with the profit reduced by a bad outcome in the LSU-Florida game. The week started with people betting LSU as a 13-point favorite, then again as a 13.5-point favorite, and then the money shifted to Florida when it became a 14-point underdog.

When the game landed 42-28 in LSU’s favor, most LSU bettors won and most Florida bettors got their money back. It’s about the worst thing that can happen to a sportsbook, but Vaccaro, naturally, was unfazed.

“We won overall in the low six figures,” he said when back behind the counter Sunday morning in his jeans and white hoodie. “That’s good for us. We will take that every day from now till doomsday.”

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