“If we can’t cash in our biggest moments, without a hassle, without some nonsense, what are we doing at all, man?”
Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN) on-air personality Gill Alexander spoke those words on Oct. 16, the day after he first shared with listeners his story of a French Open futures bet that he believed had won him $30,000, only to be told by the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook that the bet had been voided months earlier.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum from “Westgate should pay Alexander in full” to “Alexander has no case whatsoever,” if you’re a sports bettor, you feel Alexander’s pain when you hear or read that sentence. You make a great bet, a skillful bet, an informed bet, and it plays out just as you imagined it would, and at the conclusion of one of the most joyous, emotionally rewarding sweats of your gambling life, you have the proverbial rug pulled out from under you.
What are we doing at all, man?
It’s the sports bettor’s ultimate existential question. If there is no thrill of victory, only agony of defeat, why bother?
But then there’s the reverse: If a sportsbook doesn’t follow its own rules … well, the same question applies: What are we doing at all, man?
Alexander vs. Westgate offers a fascinating conundrum that has divided the sports betting community. One noted professional gambler, Captain Jack Andrews, opined on Twitter that the SuperBook is “violating the Spirit of the Wager.” Another top sports bettor and on-air analyst, Brad Feinberg, told US Bets, “I feel for Gill, but I don’t think the casino was wrong at all, in this case.”
According to Westgate Vice President of Race and Sports Operations Jay Kornegay, “This is not a subjective decision.”
In our modern society, one thing is certain: Just because someone perceives a ruling as entirely objective and emotionless, that doesn’t mean people won’t find a way to passionately argue both sides.
French kissing your sister
Before the COVID-19 shutdown of American casinos and other businesses began, Alexander placed multiple bets on then-18-year-old Polish tennis player Iga Swiatek to win the French Open, including a $1,000 wager on her at 30/1 odds at the Westgate. Due to the coronavirus, what is traditionally the second Grand Slam tournament on the calendar, scheduled to begin May 24, was postponed to a Sept. 27 start.
On Oct. 10, Swiatek defeated Sofia Kenin 6-4, 6-1 to claim her first Grand Slam title.
“I went ahead and collected from the places that I bet it,” Alexander said on his VSiN show on Oct. 15, “because I bet it multiple times, and in the end, one place didn’t think they — they just said, ‘No, we’re not paying you, because we have a rule. And the rule is why we’re not going to pay you.’ Now, you’re thinking to yourself, Oh, was it a local bookie? Well, I don’t bet local bookies. Was it an unscrupulous offshore? No, I don’t bet with unscrupulous offshores. Was it William Hill? No, William Hill actually paid me, no questions asked. It turned out to be the Westgate.”
(Alexander was not available for further comment, telling US Bets that he’s waiting for the Nevada Gaming Control Board to rule on the dispute and that his on-air comments cover what he’s willing to say publicly until then.)
Westgate, as Kornegay explained to US Bets, posted early French Open odds shortly after the Australian Open concluded in January, but on March 17, after the Westgate had taken a total of 65 bets on either the men’s or women’s tournament, French Open officials announced the postponement.
“Our rule, Rule No. 1, was if a game or event is not played within eight days of its scheduled date, it is considered a refund,” Kornegay said. “It wasn’t some obscure rule in fine print buried somewhere. It’s actually Rule No. 1. So, we had to refund the French Open and the Masters, as many other operators refunded the Masters as well, based off the same exact rule. Some rules say seven days, ours says eight days. But the rule is the same. So we refunded the French Open and the Masters, and we re-posted the second pool of the French Open in June.”
In the SuperBook House Rules, under the “Sports Book Rules” section, the first rule states:
All Basketball, Hockey, and Baseball games must be played on the scheduled date and/or location (city or geographic area, but not restricted to a specific arena or stadium) to be considered action, unless otherwise specified on any SuperBook® printed media or the electronic boards. Football and all other events must be held within eight (8) days of scheduled date and/or location (city or geographic area, but not restricted to a specific arena or stadium) to be considered action, unless otherwise specified on any SuperBook® printed media or the electronic boards. If any of the above circumstances exist, the wager will be voided and refunded.
Alexander alleges inconsistencies
On his radio show on Oct. 15, Alexander objected to the rule, its wording, and its application. He quibbled momentarily with tennis not being mentioned by name, but conceded that “all other events” covers that. So he drilled down on what he feels are inconsistencies behind the rule and how “in this strange year of COVID,” the circumstances behind MLB, NBA, and NHL crowning champions changed drastically from when preseason or mid-season futures bets were placed, but Westgate didn’t void those bets.
“They might have started on time,” Alexander said specifically of the NBA season, “but [the] schedule completely changed, location completely changed, they ended up playing in a bubble, right? Like, completely different.
“If you’re paying out futures for basketball and you’re paying out futures for baseball, and those sports have inherently changed in the ways we just outlined, why are you not paying out futures for the French Open?”
Our takeaway is that Alexander doesn’t have a problem with Westgate’s French Open rule on its own; his problem is with the sportsbook’s willingness to recognize NBA, MLB, and NHL championship bets and what he perceives as inconsistency there. And he points out that there’s a vagueness to the word “games” in the rule and a question of how the rule should apply to futures bets.
Kornegay clarified Westgate’s position on that in his conversation with US Bets.
“As far as the futures — like the NBA Championship, the Stanley Cup, the World Series — those all had action because all those had disclaimers on our sheets that state that, basically, if a champion is declared, you have action. There’s no time frame attached to it.
“It’s different for an event. The event actually has dates attached to it. The French Open and The Masters have specific dates. With those scheduled events with those attached dates, if the event is not played within the eight days of the scheduled date, it’s a refund. You can’t really do that with the MLB, or the NBA, or the NHL, because we don’t have dates for those. It’s just a general period. So that’s why we say if a champion is crowned, you have action. If no championship is awarded, then it’s a refund.”
The sports betting community chimes in
Is Westgate’s rule appropriate? Is the rule stated clearly? And did the operator do a sufficient job communicating the rule to the public? These have all become points of debate in the sports betting world.
Feinberg strongly believes the rule applied to the French Open is the right one for a sportsbook to have.
“Things can change when you have a layoff of this magnitude. Those odds that they have are so stale by September,” the Pennsylvania-based betting analyst said. “For example, I made a bet on Rory McIlroy to win the Masters when he was playing well, but the guy right now, the way he’s playing, that’s not the same golfer I bet on. Everything changed. I think that when it’s not being played when it’s supposed to be played, it does change the event.
“To me, this wasn’t a BS thing with the French Open. There really was a move of four months, and how people were playing at the time clearly changed. The field of players changed, too. When they set those odds at 30/1, it was based on them playing in May and June, and I don’t think this was unfair.”
Fellow East Coast bettor Andrews took a different position in a Twitter thread.
In doing so, they are violating the Spirit of the Wager.
They paid out NBA Champion – they even whined about how everyone was on the Lakers. They'll pay out the AL & NL Pennant winners soon too.
However, they are hiding behind some ambiguous house rules regarding this wager.
— Captain Jack Andrews (@capjack2000) October 15, 2020
Andrews’ overarching argument is that “the Spirit of the Wager, that tacit honor code which establishes trust between the bettor and the bookie, is not being honored.”
Professional bettor Rufus Peabody posted a well-considered thread of his own and diplomatically explained that he understood where both sides were coming from and wrote, “To the best of my knowledge, neither party is acting maliciously.”
On Alexander’s own radio show, his guest, Las Vegas-based bettor Bill Krackomberger, wouldn’t commit to a firm opinion, instead calling it a “gray area.” However, he added, “Me, personally, any futures I had, we checked before the event started.”
Burden on book or bettor?
Krackomberger alludes to the next vital part of the discussion: How well Westgate got the word out, and the balance between how much of the responsibility falls on the book to communicate the ruling vs. on the bettor to pursue clarity.
“We went to the airwaves to get the word out on this situation,” Kornegay said. “It was a very hot topic in Las Vegas over this whole time, because there were so many things going on with the NHL, the MLB, and the NBA continuing, and a lot of the bets were refunded because they weren’t going to play a full schedule. They had disclaimers attached to a lot of the different propositions. For example, the home run title, the season had to consist of 155 games for action. They had to play 82 games in the hockey season, they had to play 82 games in the NBA season. All these different types of propositions that were discussed.
“And we went out there and we went on local radio, we went on local ESPN, we went to the local paper, and we went on VSiN a number of times to discuss refunds vs. action. And we said people should look into it, check with their local book, to find out if they have action on these things or not.”
SuperBook VP of Risk Management Jeff Sherman posted this tweet back on March 17:
original French Open tennis pool @SuperBookUSA is a refund with the date change from May 24-June 7, to now Sept 20-Oct 4
— Jeff Sherman (@golfodds) March 17, 2020
How much difference does a single tweet make? Sherman spelled it out as clearly as possible in a public forum, but certainly not every French Open bettor was going to see that tweet.
Alexander said he spoke with pro sports bettor Alan Boston after learning his bet had been voided, and he admitted Boston initially told him he “didn’t have a leg to stand on” with regard to the rule, but that Westgate had several months to communicate with customers and didn’t do so sufficiently in Boston’s view. Alexander explored on his radio show the importance, as legalization and regulation continue to expand across the U.S. and sports betting goes more mainstream, of getting it right and not leaving bettors hanging.
“At what point does the sportsbook have some sort of responsibility, some sort of burden, to let you know, ‘Hey, if you want to bet this again, just letting you know this is happening’?” Alexander said on Oct. 15. “Is all the burden on the bettor? … You don’t have any burden to put ‘The French Open gets refunded’ on your app for the last five months?”
The next day, Alexander added on his radio show, “You have an app you could have had it on all year long, your own website where you could have stated these things. A tweet in March doesn’t hack it in my opinion.”
(This whole situation makes a case in favor of betting when possible on online sportsbook apps, rather than with paper tickets, because of how easy it is to check your bankroll, your open bets, and your settled bets at any time.)
It seems clear that the SuperBook did more than Alexander asserts they did in terms of communicating the situation to bettors — but still not enough to get the word out to everyone who’d placed a French Open bet at the pre-pandemic odds.
Kornegay added, however, that “we answered hundreds of inquiries regarding bets on different sports from people wondering if they had action or not.”
Pick up the phone
As a bettor, Feinberg took a different approach than Alexander regarding his pre-pandemic wagers.
“For the World Series, I had massive bets down. I had the Padres at 75/1, the Reds at 66/1, and the White Sox 85/1,” Feinberg said. “And I did call every sportsbook. I called and sent emails, because with the amount of money I had on this stuff, I didn’t want to be hedging $50,000 or $100,000 and then find out that the original bets don’t count. So I actually emailed every casino where I bet them. I reached out to find out if the bets were still good, and I was told they were.”
But Feinberg recognizes not every bettor is that proactive, and he’s concerned that there are bettors out there who can collect French Open or Masters refunds and still don’t know it.
“I would think that 95% of the French Open tickets were thrown away,” he said. “My big issue here is not Gill, it’s the losing tickets that aren’t getting refunded. I’m thinking there are thousands of other bettors that got their action canceled and don’t know it.”
Kornegay said last week that, of the 65 tickets Westgate wrote on the French Open pre-pandemic, “a majority of those have already been refunded, including 10 of those that had [Rafael] Nadal, who was the eventual men’s winner.” Though Kornegay is not permitted to name any individual bettor, including Alexander, he did note that Westgate wrote only one ticket on Swiatek.
“We had a patron come in and he said he wasn’t aware of any refund and he wanted to be paid, and we referred to our house rules, which is standard operation for any sportsbook, and said that was our refunded pool back in March, five months ago. And obviously he disagreed and went to the airwaves,” Kornegay said. “Most of those who got refunds most likely bet into the second pool.”
Alexander, of course, did not — and to make matters worse, he said he placed a hedge bet on Swiatek’s finals opponent, Sofia Kenin, at a different sportsbook, at +150 odds, adding significantly to the frustration of not being able to collect his Swiatek winnings. He said it didn’t occur to him to check if his Swiatek bet was valid because he knew championship bets on other sports whose conclusions were delayed by COVID were being recognized.
As Alexander explained on air, he did have a winning bet on Swiatek with William Hill that was honored, and he implied there were others, though he didn’t name other operators.
“I did some research,” Kornegay said. “Another sportsbook (clearly William Hill, though Kornegay would not name the sportsbook) has a rule that is ‘whenever played in 2020.’ Great, they followed their rules. I only found one other operator in town that had the pre-pandemic French Open pool, and they refunded based off the same rule that we used. I don’t know of any others that had a pre-pandemic pool.”
“I don’t want to work in a gray area”
You have to feel bad for a bettor in a case like this. The first episode of ESPN+’s Bettor Days told the story of a gambler who thought he’d won $609,000 on the 2019 Kentucky Derby only to find out when he went to collect his winnings that he’d missed a placard indicating winnings were capped at that location, and he would instead be bringing home $35,000. Alexander’s situation, after he correctly identified a live underdog and boldly put his money where his mouth was, is similarly heartbreaking.
But for those suggesting the Westgate should pay Alexander because of who he is, because it’s not worth the PR hit to refuse to pay him, or because of the “spirit of the wager,” Kornegay has a firm response.
“You would be opening up a can of worms if you did that. This is not a subjective decision. It’s not about this person, or just the French Open,” Kornegay said, “You’re setting a very poor precedent if you think that books are going to be paying out based off of a position that he holds or who he is. We work in a world of transparency and consistency. We’ve got to treat everybody the same. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter if you have this stage or this voice or you’re an attorney, and you got Average Joe over here. The Average Joe is treated just like the others.”
Feinberg had a thought that, if at the end of a year’s time, enough Westgate French Open bettors hadn’t come in to collect their refunds and the sportsbook had $30,000 or more of excess money on hand, Alexander might be able to spin that into a case for getting paid at that time.
Based on the fact that Kornegay says Westgate took only 65 bets, and that “the majority were small tickets, between $50 and $100,” the math couldn’t actually add up there. But even if it did, he wouldn’t consider bending the rules in that way.
“I’ve been operating a book for over 30 years, and I don’t want to work in a gray area,” Kornegay said. “It’s either black or white. I want people to understand it. I want people to know the rules. We are not working for the ‘gotcha’ moment. That’s the last thing I want to have happen. I want people to know our side, that this wasn’t some trick or some Houdini act. That’s not the way we operate.
“Some people are outraged by this incident by us following the rules. It would make sense to me if they were outraged if we didn’t follow the rules. We’re just following the rules that are in place.”
Whether those rules are at odds with “the spirit of the wager” is a question the sports betting world will continue to debate. And hold onto your tickets, because this conversation is one futures market that does not have a clear, scheduled end date.
Photo by Susan Mullane / USA Today Sports