Jimmy Vaccaro, the dean of Las Vegas bookmakers, leaned back in his chair and kicked his black loafers up onto his desk, revealing the tube socks stretching between his shoes and his dad jeans. The NFC championship game was on his flat-screen television, and outside his office at South Point Casino there was a crowd filling a sports book the size of a state school lecture hall. Grown men in Packers and Seahawks gear,1 many of whom had money on the action, were screaming at stadium-grade video boards and sucking down Bud Lights. Vaccaro, on the other hand, was sipping Pepsi through a straw.
“You wouldn’t know who I’m rooting for,” he said. His ability to stay calm during a major sporting event is a point of pride. “Once it starts, I can’t control it.” This Sunday, millions of people will realize the same thing. Betting on the Super Bowl has become, according to some estimates, a multibillion dollar affair, infiltrating the culture to the point where offshore gambling sites are offering odds on things like what color Gatorade will be dumped on the winning coach.
The guy who helped it go mainstream — the one who was in the room when Super Bowl betting went from niche to zeitgeist — is Jimmy Vaccaro, the kid from tiny Trafford, Pennsylvania, who made good in Vegas.
Since moving here permanently in 1975 — “40 freakin’ years” — Vaccaro has run more than a half-dozen race and sports books. “He was spearheading the movement,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of the 30,000-square-foot2 Westgate SuperBook.
Vaccaro doesn’t drink, smoke or go to strip clubs. He even refuses to dress up, keeping an overstuffed cardboard box full of his signature all-white sweatshirts near his desk. Only New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick owns more hoodies. Vaccaro still makes calls on a flip phone, can count the number of visits he’s made to the East Coast over the past four decades on one hand, and is twice divorced. “I’m married to this,” he said.
Vaccaro is the guy who helped destigmatize sports betting. He did it not only by being an expert linesmaker (which he is), but also by being a levelheaded booster of a supposedly illicit activity. When the media needed a no B.S. kind of guy to talk about the odds on a big game or a big fight, we called Jimmy Vaccaro.3 We still call Jimmy Vaccaro. And he’s here, 40 freakin’ years in, at an off-the-strip resort, still plying his trade.
“Who’s the most famous bookmaker of all time? Jimmy ‘The Greek.’ ” said his older brother Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker company executive who signed Michael Jordan to his first Nike deal. “What did [the Greek] do? He publicized himself every time he took a shit. He craved publicity. My brother is the anti-showman.”
This week, Vaccaro and the rest of Las Vegas’s bookmakers will turn their attention to Super Bowl XLIX. “The money that comes in on the Super Bowl is dominated by the betting public,” Kornegay said. “Not the sharps, not the so-called wise guys or professionals. It’s the public’s money.”
And the public is spending more than ever. Last February, gamblers at Nevada casinos bet a record $119.4 million on one of the most lopsided title games in NFL history. Note that that figure doesn’t include the absurd amounts of cash bet via online sports books, office pools and your friendly neighborhood bookie.
A chunk of that will be wagered on things that go beyond the outcome of the game. These are called proposition bets, and they’re everywhere. No place in Vegas offers more than the Westgate SuperBook, where you can bet on, for example, whether Russell Wilson’s first pass will be complete (-170) or incomplete (+150), or whether Tiger Woods’s fourth-round score at the Waste Management Phoenix Open (-5.5/-110) or Patriots receiver Julian Edelman’s number of receiving yards4 (+5.5/-110) will be higher.
Oddsmakers don’t haphazardly toss these wagers up on the board; they try to approach them empirically. When Jay Rood, vice president of race and sports for MGM, recently tried to determine the over/under on Tom Brady’s total yards in the Super Bowl, he pored over the Patriots quarterback’s statistics in the regular season and the playoffs; considered the quality of New England’s opponents; applied his personal formula that he uses for yardage props to the data; and came up with 278.5.5 But bookmakers aren’t automatons. There’s always a little psychology involved. Because “the public thinks Seattle is a defensive team and New England is an offensive team,” Rood said, he knows he can project “most of the Patriots statistics a little higher than the math says, and vice versa.”
And though he’s equipped with ample information and institutional memory, Rood calls Super Bowl prop-making “exhausting.” Why? Because the sharps have caught on. And if the line on a prop isn’t made with care, they’ll pounce. “They no longer think they’re a gimmick,” Rood told Sports Business Daily. “They think it’s a massive opportunity to try and cart money out of the casino.”
Devising multi-sport props is even trickier. Take the Woods/Edelman example. For it to work, the golfer’s typical single-round score must be in the same numerical range as the receiver’s typical single-game receiving yards total. Two incongruous options could create liability for the casino. As props become more esoteric, they get riskier.
“You try to keep putting up more and more and more,” said Johnny Avello, director of race and sports operations at Wynn Las Vegas, “but sometimes you go so far out of the box, you put yourself in a situation where there’s a prop that’s advantageous to the player.”
The mundane props can also burn a book. In Super Bowl XLVIII last year, Seattle opened the scoring with a safety. The odds in Vegas of a safety occurring at all were about 8-1; the odds of a safety being the first points of the game were 50-1. “We lost $62,000 12 seconds into the game,” Vaccaro told Bloomberg News. “A sizable scream went out when it occurred.”6
For bettors, the allure of prop bets is simple. Even if the odds are lousy, it gives them the ability to plunk down a little money to have the chance to win a lot of money. “The public really enjoys low risk, high reward,” Kornegay said. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You know what? You can say, ‘Will Elvis come down on the field and do the coin flip?’ One-to-one odds. It’s a good bet.”
Vaccaro helped start the prop bet revolution with something nearly as ridiculous as that.
On Jan. 26, 1986, the Chicago Bears beat the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX. That year, the fearsome ’85 Bears had become “more than just a really good football team,” Chicago native Chuck Esposito, the race and sports book director at Sunset Station casino, told me. They had iconoclastic quarterback Jim McMahon, Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton, and the best defense in NFL history. “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” the novelty record they cut, even peaked at No. 41 on the Billboard chart.7
At the time, Vaccaro was running the sports book at the MGM. His rise was swift. He’d cut his gambling teeth as a kid in his 1.4-square-mile hometown of Trafford, Pennsylvania, and in Youngstown, Ohio, where he attended but never finished college. He spent his young adult life playing cards, shooting dice and backing pool players. “Betting was in his veins,” Sonny said of his brother.
In 1964, at 18, Vaccaro went to Vegas for the first time. He said he spent the next 10 years “coming back and forth. Going broke, going home, going broke, going home … ” He didn’t officially move to the city until 1975, when casino magnate Michael Gaughan gave him a job as a blackjack dealer at the Royal Inn. Soon Vaccaro was helping Gaughan open the hotel’s race and sports book. When Gaughan opened the Barbary Coast Hotel and Casino in 1979, Vaccaro was tabbed to run the new establishment’s sports book. Six years later, Vaccaro left for the MGM.
Even then, bookmaking had not yet become the creative enterprise that it is today. Prop bets existed, but they were rare. In his 2013 article about the now ubiquitous medium, SB Nation writer David McIntire relays a story about the time in 1980 when the late bookmaker Sonny Reizner put up odds on who shot J.R. Ewing during the season finale of “Dallas.”8
“The person who pulled the trigger turned out to be the sister of J.R.’s wife,” Reizner, who died in 2002, later told the Los Angeles Times, “and she was my 7-to-2 fourth choice in the odds.”
The Nevada Gaming Control Board forced Reizner’s Hole-in-the-Wall Sportsbook to take the bet off the board — it reportedly ruled that the show’s creators had already determined the shooter and might leak his or her identity — but the stunt drew plenty of media attention.
It’s unclear whether the “Who shot J.R.?” prop influenced the Vegas bookmakers, but by the 1980s, they’d begun to look for ways to grow their business by piquing the interest of the general public. Vaccaro said that in January 1986, several of his colleagues gathered for lunch and discussed the possibility of creating a wager that might do just that. They wondered: “What if we put odds on whether William ‘The Refrigerator’ Perry would score a touchdown in the Super Bowl?” During the regular season, the gargantuan Bears defensive tackle had three TDs, all on plays where he’d line up as a fullback. Still, with Payton in Chicago’s backfield, there was no way The Fridge would get the ball in the Super Bowl.
The Fridge prop is often credited to Vaccaro, but in hindsight he thinks fellow bookmaker Art Manteris of Caesars Palace was the first to offer his customers the odds on Perry scoring. (“If I had to make a bet,” Vaccaro said, “I’d say it was Art.”) At the MGM, Vaccaro opened it at 75-1, but so much money poured in that the line moved to 5-1. “Who the fuck would’ve thought a defensive lineman would score a touchdown?” Vaccaro said with a smile. Sure enough, with the Bears on the 1-yard line late in the third quarter, McMahon handed off the ball to Perry, who barreled into the end zone.
“I think we won overall on the game but we lost a quarter-million on that prop,” Manteris later told the Associated Press. “I sold it to the people upstairs by saying we got a million dollars in PR out of it.”
Vaccaro said the MGM lost $40,000 on the Fridge prop. At the end of the night, Vaccaro didn’t curse out The Fridge or celebrate the publicity. “I’m a passive person,” he said. He climbed into his Jaguar, drove 6 miles on Interstate 15 to his house, ate a tuna-salad sandwich and went to sleep.
But after the Super Bowl, reporters started calling. “It was the best money we ever spent,” Vaccaro said. After all, he adds, “We’re talking about it today.”
By the time Vaccaro began running the sports book at the newly opened Mirage in 1989, prop betting hadn’t exactly taken off. But it had become more common. Leading up to Super Bowl XXIV in January 1990, a guest at the Mirage bet $5,000 on 4-1 odds that an extra point would be missed. After San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana hit tight end Brent Jones for a 7-yard touchdown in the first quarter, kicker Mike Cofer’s ensuing attempt was no good. The unidentified man collected $27,000, prompting Vaccaro to tell the San Francisco Chronicle that “it gave him more money to bet with us on the halftime line.”
A string of blowouts — NFC teams won 13 straight Super Bowls beginning in January 1985 — forced the bookmakers to get creative. “It really took off in ’95, when the 49ers and Chargers met in the Super Bowl and it was a 19.5-, 20-point spread,” Kornegay said of a game that San Francisco won 49-26. “So we were just trying to devise propositions to keep everybody interested in the game by the time the second half rolled around.”
Over the past 20 years, prop betting has gone mainstream. So has betting on sports in general. Is there anyone left who doesn’t fill out an NCAA tournament bracket? “Everyone in America likes to bet sports,” Nick Bogdanovich said. “It’s not like the old days when people painted it as a bad thing. Look, now all these college-educated kids want to work on formulas and crunch stats and algorithms.”
On the day after the NFL conference championship games, Jimmy showed me his sports book’s intricate digital database. Employees can monitor global betting lines, check exactly how much has been wagered on specific events, and even access what Vaccaro calls the “What if?” screen. “Right now you could punch in, ‘Patriots 35-10,’ ” he said, “and it tells you exactly what we’re gonna win or lose.”
Running a sports book is different than it was in 1975. “There’s no guessing anymore, which makes it so much easier,” Vaccaro said. “You know where you’re at on everything. It’s not hard. It isn’t like the old days when we were hand-writing everything.” More information is at his disposal, but his philosophy toward how he sets the line remains the same. “It’s a general feeling that it’s the right number.”
That’s why, 40 freakin’ years in, his temperament hasn’t changed. He’s never too high, and he’s never too low. On Super Bowl Sunday, he’ll be in his office with his feet up on his desk, drinking a Pepsi and watching the action unfold. He’ll probably be rooting for someone, but don’t expect him to wear his emotions on the sleeve of his white hoodie.
“I understand what it’s like to make a relatively big score, and I know even better what it’s like to get your ass kicked and broke and go through bad times,” Vaccaro said. “I’ve never gotten crazy with either one.”