Jimmy Vaccaro

The legendary bookmaker on boxing’s greatest upset, working for three geniuses and why UNLV is in for another long football season


Photo by Anthony Mair

Jimmy Vaccaro was 12 years old when he placed his first bet. “I remember it explicitly: The 1958 NFL Championship Game when the Colts played the Giants. I laid 3½ points with the Colts. I can still see [Colts fullback Alan] Ameche breaking free and scoring the [game-winning] touchdown in overtime instead of kicking the field goal. It was a $10 bet, and my brother made it for me … on credit!”

Some five decades and hundreds of thousands of wagers later, Vaccaro is regarded as the most influential and respected bookmaker in Las Vegas. He moved here in 1975, first working as a blackjack dealer at the old Royal Inn, and within a couple of years, Royal Inn owner Michael Gaughan handed Vaccaro the keys to the property’s first sports book. “Michael looked at me and said, ‘Do you know how to run a sports book?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘Good, neither do I. We’ll learn together.’”

Vaccaro went on to open the sports book at Gaughan’s Barbary Coast in 1979 and later worked for such casino legends as Kirk Kerkorian (old MGM Grand) and Steve Wynn (Golden Nugget, The Mirage). These days, the 65-year-old is in charge of Lucky’s race and sports books, which operates 16 establishments statewide, with a 17th set to open at the Riviera at the end of this month.

Did you know right away this was going to be your lifelong career?

Yeah, there’s no doubt, the first instant that I was in charge. Because I liked creating action. The other part about it is you don’t have a normal life, and that was OK with me. I stayed in the book all day and all night; it didn’t bother me one bit. I don’t know that I took a vacation for the first eight or nine years. I didn’t want to go anywhere. Where else would I want to be? I was working in the candy store.

What was it like to work for three legendary casino bosses?

All were geniuses in their own way, although they got to it quite differently.

Michael was more locals-oriented; the old Benny Binion thing of “Give ’em good whiskey and good food, and they’ll gamble.” And he was the first one to understand how to utilize the race and sports book as an advertising tool.

Kerkorian, the money never bothered him. The only directive I ever got from Kirk was my first day there, when he said, “Jimmy, don’t fucking sweat the money.” So I knew I could stick my neck out there a little bit and not worry about getting my head chopped off.

Steve Wynn … I’d never seen someone with such attention to detail. It was incredible. Here’s something that I’ll never forget: We were at the last design meeting for The Mirage, and he looks at me and says, “Well, what do you think?” And I said, “I think we should be OK, I like it.” Then he said, “Jimmy, are you sure this is everything that you want?” And I said, “Yeah, Steve, I think we’re in good shape.” He got this far away from my face and says, “Jimmy, tell me now what you want. Don’t fucking tell me after we open that you want to add something!” And I knew right then and there, I better get this right the first time around. And I think we did a pretty good job.

You got a lot of press after Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in 1990. What do you remember about that historic fight?

I was the only one who put up odds on Tyson’s fights. Nobody else had odds on whether he’d win or lose the fight because he was just killing everybody. So it comes to Tyson-Douglas, and I opened the fight at 27-to-1. The first bet we took was $54,000 to win $2,000 on Tyson. So I moved the line to 31-to-1, and some kid from L.A. who was a big boxing freak bet $93,000 to win $3,000. People thought it was a damn annuity—just take your money out of the bank for about four minutes and you’ll get about 10 percent interest.

So it got to 42-to-1, and the night of the fight, I’m at The Mirage, and it wasn’t shown live here. We were getting round-by-round reports on the ticker. When it came across that Douglas knocked him out, I didn’t put the result into the system because I’m thinking, “This has gotta be a mistake!” Well, within an hour we found out [Tyson] actually had lost. So I went home and around 4:30 in the morning, I get a call from Alan Feldman, the PR guy for The Mirage. “Jimmy, can you do me a favor and get down here?” So I got out of bed, went to The Mirage and I was on national TV shows, every newspaper is calling, because we were the only one who had odds on the fight.

What was Wynn’s reaction?

That afternoon I was in the spa, and here comes the attendant. “Mr. Wynn wants to see you.” And I’m like, ‘Ah, fuck, what did I do now?’ So I get dressed and go up to his office. And he says, “What the fuck did you do last night?” Then he looked at me and he has this smile on his face and says, “I don’t know what the fuck you did, but get back down there and do it again!” After paying out all the Douglas money, I think we made $104,000 on the fight. But we garnered about $100 million worth of publicity just for having the fight on the board.

Was there anything that compared to the run-up to a big fight on the Strip back in the heyday, and will we ever see that kind of excitement for boxing again?

The answer to both those questions is real easy: No! We’re all hoping—the only thing on the horizon that would even come close to a 1980s mega fight would be Pacquiao-Mayweather. And that fight may never happen. Back then it was Hagler, Hearns, Leonard, Holmes, Duran—every four or five months, here it comes again! And you talk about an atmosphere. And the money bet on these things was incredible. … The [third] Duran-Leonard fight at The Mirage, right after we opened, we wrote like $13 million on the fight; it was unbelievable. And it was all big- money bets—$500, $1,000, $2,000, and then every 10 minutes, here comes a guy betting $50,000 or $100,000. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. As far as continuous action, it made the Super Bowl look like a Pac-10 game.

What’s the one thing people would be surprised to know about you?

I never get mad watching these games. I never holler or scream at anything or anybody that has to do with the business. I do have two ex-wives—it wasn’t their fault, it was mine, because I love this controlled insanity as I call it. … Also, I’ve been in town going on 37 years, and I’ve yet to go to a strip club or have a drink. Well, OK, when I got married, I had a shot. I should’ve had 20 shots that day. I might have been better off!

The UNLV football team: Over or under three wins this season?

Under, because they’re never going to get to four. So the best you’re going to hope for if you’re betting “over” is a push. First of all, their will is going to be destroyed after the first week [at Wisconsin]—they’re going to get steamrolled. You’re looking at maybe—maybe—four winnable games. They’re not going to upset anybody.

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