The recent arrest of Michael Colbert, the former sportsbook manager for Cantor Gaming, has stoked interest in exactly how sportsbook operations work in the 21st century. It’s easy for commentators to jump to lurid conclusions about the business. But when you sit in with one of the state’s biggest bookmakers, as I did recently, you see a more workaday reality.
It’s 8:30 on a Sunday morning in October, but for the crew of bookmakers at William Hill headquarters on Grier Drive, just south of McCarran, the workday is well under way. Their business is overseeing the bets flowing in from sportsbooks from Whiskey Pete’s in Primm to Stockmen’s Casino in Elko, betting kiosks at PT’s Pubs and Buffalo Wild Wings, and phones and mobile devices. And judging from the mood, business is good.
They call this the trading room, and at first glance it seems apt: The room is dominated by 18 flat-screen TVs, like NORAD as depicted in WarGames; right now they’re showing two soccer games, and several NFL pregame shows. The real work, though, is happening at ground level, where three bookmakers are making due with 18 monitors and 12 keyboards between them. Outside of the thousands of dollars worth of electronics, the room is nondescript, neither dark nor light, the walls an unobtrusive gray.
The space feels like part surveillance-monitor room and part Kennedy Space Center eight minutes before launch. Listening in, you realize that there’s a lot of knowledge here, even if it’s not the kind of thing they teach in school.
The bookmakers monitor risk for William Hill, trying to keep the money on both sides of a contest evenly divided by adjusting the point spread and money lines as bets come in. They’re also watching for unusual patterns that could indicate chicanery. There are three guys in the trading room: Bob Davis is risk management, generating reports and monitoring in-play betting. Adam Pullen covers NFL prop bets and everything else. Lou Nigro, the team’s resident Buffalo fan (and the butt of plenty of jokes as the Bills’ defense proves sieve-like), handles authorizations and voids for smaller bets.
In one side room, Delaware trader Paul Bach takes care of the parlay bets that come in from racinos and retailers in the Diamond State; in another, head of trading Nick Bogdanovich oversees everyone else, authorizes large bets and moves the NFL lines.
Thousands of dollars in bets flash across the screen. As the men work, conversation runs the gamut from Marlo Thomas’ love interest on That Girl to the names of the three members of Three Dog Night. They grow most serious when talk turns to lunch, which is still about two hours off, but about which everyone is resolved: They will order from Capriotti’s today. This doubles back—via Jennifer Capriati—into a discussion of women’s tennis.
Occasional staccato bursts break the illusion that this is just a bunch of guys shooting the breeze. “Plus a buck forty five for a nickel,” Lou says, and gets a nod. A few seconds later, “7442 under for a nickel.” Again, a nod from Adam confirms that this bet is good. Turns out, someone’s just bet that Ben Roethlisberger will throw fewer than two touchdown passes in that day’s Steelers-Bengals game.
Jimmy Vaccaro, director of public relations and longtime Las Vegas oddsmaker, arrives with a box of donuts and offers some perspective on why it’s so quiet. “They know what they’re doing,” he says. “There’s nothing that’ll come up that they haven’t seen before. They did a good job putting together this team.”
On the screen, players stream from the tunnel onto the field. “If one of those guys trips,” Vaccaro says, “we’ll change the line.”
All the games have kicked off, and we’re mainlining football, eight games at once. Incredibly, the bookmakers can keep track of what’s going on in each game. They’re gearing up for the afternoon games, then the Sunday and Monday night games. “Tuesday morning,” Vaccaro says, “we’ll set the lines, get the parlay cards and start all over again.”
There’s no magic here—just nose-to-the-grindstone risk assessment. But this is what makes Nevada’s legal sports betting work. Big bettors and bad beats grab the occasional headline, but the quiet efficiency of bookmakers is what keeps the betting windows open.