Jimmy Vaccaro has spent most of his adult life waiting for sports betting to be legalized in Pennsylvania, and this year, he got his wish.
The Trafford native, who is nationally recognized as one of the country's top bookmakers, has been a fixture in Las Vegas since 1975. Vaccaro ran the sports books at the Golden Nugget, the MGM, the Mirage, and most recently the South Point, where he helped start the Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSIN), a multi-platform source of information for sports bettors.
CNBC has interviewed Vaccaro about gambling on boxing matches, football games, and even during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election (it's illegal to bet on in the U.S., but not the rest of the world). He was recently featured in ESPN's documentary 42 to 1 about heavyweight boxer Buster Douglas' upset of Mike Tyson in 1990. Vaccaro, then working at The Mirage, was the only U.S. bookmaker to post odds — at 42-1 — on the prizefight.
And now, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling legalizing sports betting in the state this year, he's coming home.
In mid-January, Vaccaro, 72, will return to Pittsburgh to help promote the new sports book at the Rivers Casino, which opened Dec. 13.
“I would have never even considered doing anything else anywhere in the country,” Vaccaro says. “I wanted to stay here and work for the great Michael Gaughan [a casino owner and operator in Las Vegas]. When the Pittsburgh people approached me, it was the only place I would consider. The more I thought about it, I'm getting older and still have a lot of family and friends in Pittsburgh. It's a natural fit for me at this age.”
Vaccaro says the thrill of watching a game in a sports book is “like nothing you've ever seen before.” But he also says it's important to wager smartly, especially for newcomers to sports betting.
Here are some tips from Vaccaro for those who've never bet on sports – and for those who have.
What's the first thing new gamblers should do?
Don't go in with the all these big ideas that you have the answer. Don't go in completely unarmed. Ask a supervisor (if you have questions). … There are handbooks and guides to help you through the process. The biggest mistake a newcomer makes — and it happens all the time — is they wait 25 minutes in line, there are 10 windows open 20 (people) deep, and they get up to the front of the line and say, `how do I do this?' … Don't screw it up for everybody else behind you.”
What's the best wager for first-time bettors?
Do the basic thing first. There are a thousand different ways to make a bet. Simply ask for a point spread bet.* The easiest thing is not to immerse yourself in all the other things: the point total for the first half, the money line bets, the teasers. That will come to you as you grow into it.
*A wager where the bettor is given a certain number of points, plus or minus. If it's Pittsburgh minus two points, the Steelers have to beat the other team by three or more points – by two points would be a tie, or a push, with all monies returned to bettors – for the bet to win.
What's the best way to do research?
Go slow. The final bet should be the one that comes out of your convictions. … You might want to watch shows like the ones on the VSIN network that explain what's going on. But don't try to do too much. It's like trying to be the engineer on a train. The first job you should have is shoveling coal into the furnace. You can't be driving it.
Is there any sport that's grown recently in popularity with bettors?
College football. Way back in the mid-1980s for every one dollar we'd take on college games on Saturdays, we'd take three times that on Sundays with the NFL. It's dead even now. There's just as much to bet on Saturdays as on Sunday NFL games.
Besides football, which sport generates the most interest?
College basketball when March Madness starts. March Madness is a huge, huge event. It's a four-day event, and they (bettors) start coming in on Wednesday, they jam the place Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It's starts tailing off on Sunday because they're so tired. But March Madness is a huge event.