Update: David Purdum conducted an exclusive interview with sports betting legend Bill Walters Thursday evening, after the original story had been published.
Read the first part of that exclusive interview here and be sure to check out Covers in the following days for more details on our talk with Walters.
An offshore bookmaker thought he had pinpointed an account linked to Billy Walters, the most revered sports bettor on the planet, and a man who’s every bit as feared in the online sportsbook world as he is in Nevada casinos.
A series of college basketball bets were placed on the account in question during a Wednesday interview, but later activity had the bookmaker doubting that the action was coming from someone linked to Walters.
“You just never know,” the bookmaker said.
That’s the guessing game the most powerful man in the betting market forces bookmakers everywhere to play. Per usual, Walters is winning that game.
Proving which bets come from a member of Walters’ network is virtually impossible, much like pinning him down for an interview.
At around 5 p.m. Las Vegas time Thursday, my phone rang and the number came up on my caller ID as “Unknown Caller.” I picked up the receiver.
“David, this is Billy Walters,” said the voice on the other end.
I searched my throat for my voice and my brain for something intelligent to say. All I could think of was the entire sports betting world was counting on me, and I'd better not screw this up.
We talked for 45 minutes about the ins and outs of the sports betting industry, how it’s changed and where it’s headed.
“I’m 65 years old, and to me, what I do is as much fun as it was when I was 10 years old betting on sports,” said Walters. “I still have the same passion for it that I did then. And if I ever lose that, then I will probably quit, because it’s become 50 times more complicated over the years just to make a simple bet on a sporting event.”(Editor's note: The original article, which was written and published before Walters responded to interview requests Thursday night, continues below. Read the first part of that exclusive interview here.).
I set out to write about Walters during Super Bowl week, knowing that I was a huge underdog to communicate with the living legend. One Vegas bookmaker compared my quest to “finding the Loch Ness monster.”
“You mean his PR team didn’t grant you an exclusive?” he kidded.
A 60 Minutes
feature last January claimed to be the first time Walters “opened the doors to his gambling life in Las Vegas.” After 30 years beating the books and emerging as a Vegas icon, Walters doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.60 Minutes
didn't respond to our request for comment on the Walters' story. Even multiple Vegas bookmakers - guys who always have something to say - declined to comment on this story.
Their silence is a sign of respect for the man known as sports betting’s “Keyser Soze,” a reference to the character played by Kevin Spacey in the Usual Suspects
. It’s also a sign of how few facts they really know about Walters.
“Everything is attributed to Billy,” said Vegas professional handicapper and Covers Expert Ted Sevransky, “but no one knows if he really did any of it or not.”'A quiet gentleman hero; a guardian angel and our champion'
Linda Smith, Associate Executive Director & Chief Development Officer for the non-profit organization Opportunity Village, was more than happy to talk about Walters, someone she referred to as a quiet, gentleman hero.
“When CBS 60 Minutes
wanted to interview Bill, he insisted that Opportunity Village be included,” Smith told Covers.com “That coverage was such a blessing and the response continues to surprise us. Calls from families and agencies have come in from every corner of the country. We have new donors because Bill gave up the spotlight for Opportunity Village.
“We are so very fortunate to have a man like Bill Walters on our side,” she added. “He is a guardian angel and our champion.”
Opportunity Village, which serves people with intellectual disabilities, will honor Walters and his wife Susan at a black tie Camelot dinner on Nov. 3.
Walters' public involvement in Opportunity Village is an exception to his private lifestyle, though. In fact, his Howard Hughes-like reclusiveness is a big part of the Billy Walters story and also a key to his success.
When you’re on a 30-year winning streak, as Walters claims, bookmakers aren’t exactly lining up to take your action; so he rarely, if ever, bets in person. Instead, he uses a network of employees and investors - known as “beards” in the gambling world-- to flood the betting market with his money.
“Everyone always seems to know who Billy is betting, but very few people have ever seen him bet,” said Chris Andrews, book manager for Cal-Neva, who remembers taking bets from Walters during his time working at the Golden Nugget. “I’d say when you see these moves that get linked to Billy, half of them are probably wrong.”
A Kentucky native from humble roots, Walters is a master of disguise. His network places bets at any shop they can get down and know they’ll get paid. It’s the only way he can find enough outlets to handle the volume of his action.
“His plays are placed at every offshore shop, every pay-per-head shop and with every local that will pay up,” Tony Williams, general manager of the offshore sportsbook 5Dimes.com, told Covers. 5Dimes is known for taking big-player action and its early lines. “He's got tons of people playing offshore, who are always looking to open accounts to get his plays down. We make it very hard here to get down on his plays. As I say all the time, I’m running a business, not a petting zoo.”
According to Williams, members of Walters’ network must bet a certain amount on his plays and make sure he gets paid in order to stay in the loop.
BetOnline.com manager Dave Mason and his staff also play the guessing game of trying to figure out who Walters is betting.
“Although we’re not 100 percent sure, we think we take some action from his guys,” Mason told Covers.com in an email.
In reality, only a select few on either side of the betting window know who Walters’ money is on.'Billy doesn't lose'
A veteran of the sports handicapping industry who goes by the professional name Chris Jordan was introduced to Walters through a mutual friend 12 years ago. Through that same mutual associate, Jordan ran with a group of friends who introduced him to tout Brandon Lang, the subject of the 2005 flop ... err ... movie, "Two for the Money," in 1994.
Jordan remains in touch with Walters, sporadically through email during football season. He voluntarily sends Walters information from his sports service, ChrisJordanSports.com.
“The dynamic that Billy Walters brings to the betting market, his ability to manipulate the line, there’s just never going to be anyone like him in our lifetime,” Jordan said in a phone interview from his Las Vegas office. “He is to sports betting what Michael Jordan was to the NBA.”
In 2001, Chris Jordan saw a bookmaker at the Palms casino adjust the line on the Alamo Bowl between Iowa and Texas Tech solely because the supervisor saw a customer believed to be linked to Walters enter the sportsbook. Though Chris Jordan can't remember what the sports book supervisor changed the line from and to, the play was on the underdog Hawkeyes, who ended up winning the game outright, 19-16.
“Books can guess all they want [about which accounts or bets are coming from Walters], but they’re never going to be sure,” explained Chris Jordan. “They could guess right, but would never know for certain. You never know what side of the game he’s on or what line he wants.”
Jordan estimates that Walters’ network was in the hundreds at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It’s believed to be much smaller today, but just as powerful and mysterious in the betting market.
“Back in the day, if you were going to go down a flow chart, there were probably hundreds of guys connected,” Jordan said. “I would say that once you got past the 30 or 40-person mark, those guys underneath that top tier didn’t even know who they were with.”
In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, I asked dozens of industry sources if they had heard any rumors of who Walters liked, the Patriots or Giants. No one had heard anything, which is strange in itself.
Usually before big games, rumors will surface about which side Walters is on. It happened before the BCS title game, when reports out of Birmingham, Ala., of all places, alleged that Walters was behind a big line move on Alabama. But, again, no one knew for sure, and no one was spreading rumors this week, at least as of Wednesday night.
It’s difficult to defend an enemy you can’t identify. And that’s what makes Walters so good – not that I could prove it.
“Las Vegas was built on losing, and Billy doesn’t lose,” said Jordan.