I previously worked as a writer alongside legendary oddsmaker Michael “Roxy” Roxborough from 1997-98 after our company Computer Sports World (CSW) was acquired by his company Las Vegas Sports Consultants (LVSC).We worked together on a nationally syndicated gaming column called Sports Book Insider.
Following is the entire three-part interview with Roxy, dedicated to our former co-worker and good friend Jason Been, who loved betting and sports more than anyone I have ever known and passed away on June 5, 2014 following a courageous 10-year fight with brain cancer at the age of 41…
Q: What are you up to now? Can you tell me about your group, the Known Gamblers?
R: I’m basically doing most of my work in finance, I manage my family trust. I’ve been a lifelong horse racing fan. I’m still living in Thailand most of the time.
We were at the Melbourne Cup last year. One of the members of our group’s wife trained the winning horse, and that was quite a kick. So that was our big trip last year. I flew from London to come back here. Next year, we’ll probably go back to Melbourne again and Dubai too for the Dubai World Cup.
Q: How often do you get back to Vegas, and what do you usually do when you’re here?
R: A couple times a year. Sometimes I miss it. I don’t miss the stress, but I miss the people, and I’m still good friends with a lot of people that I worked with for years and years and years. So I enjoy that part of it. I gain a lot of weight, I run around and eat a lot of dinners with people and stuff.
Q: How did you get started making odds for sportsbooks?
R: I’ve lived here since 1976. I first came here in 1972. As an adult, this is about the only home I’ve ever had. I came to Las Vegas from Vancouver, BC. That’s where I graduated from high school. I was betting from around 1976 until about 1981. My idea was, you can’t bet, you can’t just look at a line and say, oh that’s too high or that’s too low. You sort of have to have your own line. You can’t be making the line up after you’ve seen the line. So I used to make my own line before the lines would come out or before I’d look at the lines because we were always operating on telephones back then and driving to books one by one. So I’d make my lines first and then there was a guy downtown called Herb Lambeck or Herbie Hoops. He was an oddsmaker, he worked for a lot of bookmakers around town making odds, and we worked together. He was my mentor. He taught me an awful lot about making odds. He was also one of the best boxing pricemakers, maybe ever in Las Vegas. So that’s how I got started at it.
Q: How did you go about creating your business Las Vegas Sports Consultants?
R: I was making a living betting sports, but not enough money. I was making enough to have a house, a car, take a vacation. But I wasn’t getting rich. An opportunity came up when I was in Reno once during baseball season. Chris Andrews had heard I was pretty good at baseball totals, and he was running the Club Cal-Neva. At that time, he was probably the youngest sportsbook director ever. Chris asked me if I would help him out with baseball totals. And I said, well it doesn’t make any difference, I’m in Las Vegas, he’s in Reno. After I get done betting, I’ll just tell him what I think they ought to be.
That led to giving him odds on more sports, and then I turned it into a business. I started sending lines out to the Northern Nevada books. But when Scott Schettler asked me to make the Stardust line, which was the opening line, and my first customer in Las Vegas, I had to decide, what am I going to do? Reno was one thing, but I could be making the odds in Las Vegas and then betting. So I opted to do oddsmaking as a full-time gig, I’ll do it for a year or two, and I’ll see if anything comes out of it. I quit playing and then I started making part of the Stardust opening line. I had my own company, but they were paying me. That’s how it all started. Business just got bigger and bigger and bigger. I don’t think anybody could have seen it. Actually, at the time, it was only two guys. It was me and Scott Kaminsky. Over time, I think when we ended up absorbing Vegas Insider and Computer Sports World and all that, it was up to like 20 employees. It was crazy. In fact, I didn’t even know what people were doing when I left.
Q: When did the landscape of Vegas sportsbooks really change in your opinion?
R: It wasn’t a given that every hotel and casino was going to have a sportsbook like it is today. Some hotels just weren’t going to have sportsbooks, so I don’t think anybody could see the explosiveness of the business.The thing to me that changed it the most, in 1986 the Hilton built the SuperBook. And that sort of set the bar for all the other casinos and hotels to have a sportsbook. That made the Mirage when they opened in ’91 so much more lavish than it would have been normally. Caesars (Palace) decided, we have to do something. That started the ball rolling with these mega-books. Business just took off, and everybody decided they had to have a sportsbook.
Q: Can you describe how your company LVSC was involved in helping create the Stardust Line?
R: The Stardust was the first Las Vegas client. They were going to open first, and when you open first, you need more than one line. So they employed us, and we were the most high-profile people. They employed other people to make the line too. When you go first, it’s good to look at more prices. But as time went on, we ended up getting a gaming license, and casinos felt comfortable working with somebody who already had a gaming license, and it wasn’t tied into offshore books and was going to put some heat on them. That helped the business grow. At one time, we had 90 percent of the sportsbooks in Nevada.
Q: How big of an impact did the Stardust Line have on betting in Vegas and across the country?
R: It was a big deal at the time because Scotty Schettler had more or less this responsibility to put out this line that almost everyone in town was going to copy. Plus all the bookmakers around the country too, but I don’t care about those guys. He was putting out a line, and his supervisors were going to manage how it got bet early. And I thought he did a very good job of it. And it was a big deal. In fact, back before telephone account wagering, everybody who was a sports bettor in town was at the Stardust at 8 o’clock in the morning. Everybody was there, not only bettors, but people who ran line services. Even if people weren’t betting that day, they were there because it became a social hangout for the city. For years, their line moves were the most important in the city because they took large limits, and they moved it judiciously.
Scotty had an idea that you can balance out games if you can find people that would want to buy the opposition. Not everybody uses that style of betting. But he thought that they could. He had so many people sitting in the room that if a price moved, they would buy it back. So they did have a lot of line moves, and that was their style. Their style was to grind out a small percentage and high volume.
Q: How many line services were there, and can you tell me about Don Best founder Don Bessette?
R: I don’t know, but once the line went up, you could never get to a telephone to phone around. There was an incredible amount of line services, and it was all operating in a gray area. Once the line went up on a board, everyone would be scurrying for a pay phone.
Don was a real gentleman, first of all. I think he was self-taught in computers. Our office was on Convention Center Drive, and his office was across the street in a small strip mall. The idea was to be close to the Stardust. He was monitoring lines with runners at the Stardust. They’d look at line changes, and then they had to go outside – because you couldn’t use the phones inside – and call the changes in. Someone would manually enter them, and then he’d send them out. Don had a good business plan, unfortunately he died before he had a chance to see what happened to it. I could see that we were going to have to get odds into sportsbooks, and eventually we’d have to get real-time.
Q: Can you talk about how technology has changed the way sports betting information spreads?
R: There’s always a rush for relative information. There’s a lot of noise out there, but in some sports there are injuries that can be very key, like in basketball. Breaking stories just have a way of getting on Twitter first. It’s good for bettors, bookmakers or linemakers now need people moderating social media. There’s always two ways to find out about an injury, it’s you get it first, or they bet you and then you find out about it. Most of the time, it’s that you get bet first and then you find out about it. There are people all around the country that just know about certain areas or certain players. And if you’re sitting here in Las Vegas, you can’t know every situation everywhere. That’s the main reason there’s limits on betting, so you can manage your liability, and so you can manage professional gamblers. They don’t manage you.
Q: How did technology help improve the efficiency of how lines were made after you started?
R: When we first started making lines back in the 70s, it was all loose-leaf notebooks and pencils and calculators. Then the first computers were more or less just dumb terminals, they stored data. We didn’t have any programming with them. But they stored data, and that was a big thing because the first computers saved us a lot of stuff on data storage and writing everything down. Then the sports network and other companies started doing boxscores. And then Computer Sports World opened up a business that not only could we record all the data, they could actually write third-party programs to massage the data and come up with the data that you needed. So that was a big revolution for us.
I think we were the first oddsmakers to use computers, and it made an amazing difference. Because if we wanted to check how an NBA team plays when they’re out on the road for so many days and so many games, before a guy would have to go through three years’ worth of data and dig it out hand by hand. It would be a project that would take three to four days. Once we wrote the program, we could run the data. It might take an hour to write the program, and we could run all the data for three years in less than three minutes. To my knowledge, they had the best and oldest database with point spreads and stuff.
Q: Do you have any crazy stories about big injuries or news over the years that moved the line?
R: Most of the good injury stories are the injuries that weren’t true, where games got scratched and lines got moved. There was an injury years ago about Dan Marino not playing in a game on the morning of the game. Marino was playing Buffalo, and everybody just figured Marino was out. This started an hour before the game, Miami was -2.5 and it ended up closing Buffalo -2.5. There was nothing wrong with him when they came out on the field. He was there, but everybody was convinced he was absolutely not playing. Some news services had picked it up too.
I think the biggest blunder that I ever got involved in was when the Chicago Bears played the Patriots in the Super Bowl. We had a price on whether Refrigerator Perry would score a touchdown. And the reason this is so amazing is, he was a tackle that was sometimes used as a running back, but he hadn’t been used as a running back since Game 6. So that’s 10 games the Bears played and never used him as a running back. We started him out at 15/1, which I thought was too low, and then the price went down to something like 5/2 to 3/1. It was ridiculous. Then (Mike) Ditka was asked about it in the first week between the (conference) championship games and the Super Bowl and said, ‘No, we don’t have any plays for Perry, and he won’t handle the ball.’ So we posted at 10/1, and it got bet all the way back down to 5/2. The Bears got inside the 10-yard line, Perry comes into the backfield. Actually, he threw a pass first. Then he scored. The irony is, Walter Payton, maybe the greatest running back of all-time, they used him as a decoy instead of using Perry as a decoy. Everybody lost a lot of money on that. It ended up being tons of publicity for the city before the game and after the game. But still, it was a total disaster.
Q: How have offshore sportsbooks changed the sports betting industry in your opinion?
There’s a combination of things that have happened. The growth of the Internet allowed the offshore business to get a lot bigger of course. And at the same time, Nevada casinos decided they wanted to pull back sports betting in a sense that they didn’t want to have much high risk, to take that many large bets. They didn’t want to see it as a potential spot for liability. So Nevada regulations hardly ever moved from the mid-90s to where they are now, just a little bit. Nevada casinos have opted not to go after all the growth, and then offshores with their Internet ability and their ability to do in-running betting – which is probably the largest type of betting there is – they have basically taken over the business.
Q: What are the chances of sports betting ever becoming legalized in the U.S. outside Nevada?
R: Since I’ve been alive – since 1951 – the only legal sports betting outside Nevada has been the Oregon lottery and then the Delaware parlay card game now. The Oregon lottery had a pari-mutuel sports parlay card game on NFL football, three games or more from 1989 to 2007, maximum bet was $20. I went through this, about the inevitable legalization of sports betting, ever since I started my company in 1982. This was going to be inevitable, and there hasn’t been anything. When the lottery opened up, GTECH, the lottery vendor was gung ho to put this in every state that they had a lottery. That’s when we ended up with that PASPA (Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act) bill, we used to call it the Bradley bill for Bill Bradley, who was the co-author of it. It did exempt New Jersey, but New Jersey didn’t do anything at the time. It’s still being brought up today. Delaware decided that they had some type of grandfather clause.
I know there hasn’t been any expansion in sports betting. I just don’t see it coming in the U.S. that fast. If you talk about legalization, poker is definitely the favorite over online casino for federal legislation and sports betting would be running third. There may be something like de facto regulation, where a lot of states end up legalizing online poker and then they merge their systems between the states. You might get like a de facto legalization in maybe 10 or 20 states five or 10 years from now. Let’s say New Jersey manages to go ahead with sports betting anyway. I don’t think there’s any way they’ll ever merge with Las Vegas because it still looks like to me it violates federal law. So where we are now is where we were in 1950. There’s a lot of talk, and nothing’s happened. If state laws merged and put poker together, it wouldn’t surprise me. But that will get tested federally too. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen, we’ve just heard it all before.
Q: Is there a misconception about how much tax revenue legalized sports betting would generate?
R: I don’t think sports betting revenue is a great tax provider. The churn is so slow and pretty small. It’s not like poker where people are playing 24 hours or online casino, which is 24 hours. In sports, they’re only turning over the money when there’s a sporting event. Then if there is legalized sports betting, somebody’s going to have to make a decision on how it’s taxed. Because if it’s taxed too much, then they can’t compete with the illegal bookmakers. And if they can’t compete with the illegal bookmakers, there’s no reason in having it. In fact, when I was a bettor here in the early 80s, there was a 2% tax on casinos for sports betting handle, so no sportsbook could have a dime line. They only had a 20-cent line. Because if they had a dime line, the tax would take up all the profit. There were a slew of illegal bookmakers operating on the phones in Las Vegas that had a dime line. The legal bookmakers are always competing with the illegal bookmakers unless they have that knockout blow, which is a low tax. If they don’t have to pay a lot of taxes, then they can compete with them. If they have to pay a lot of taxes, then they can’t compete. I’ll say one thing, there are going to be a lot of tax records available if gambling goes online because you’ll have to have an account with your social security number.
In closing this interview, here’s one more classic quote from Roxy…
“Bettors always like guys where they can win. They’ll always tell you, this guy’s a great bookmaker. You can guarantee when a bettor says this a guy’s a great bookmaker that they’re winning from that book.”
- Michael “Roxy” Roxborough
(This interview originally appeared as a three-part series on DonBest.com on July 20, 2014)