Sports in America have been put on hold. The NBA, the NHL and MLB suspended play, and even the NCAA canceled our beloved March Madness tournament. States and counties across the country have shut down events, schools and other businesses due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was only a matter of time before Las Vegas — the gambling Mecca of the world — followed suit. On Wednesday night, Nevada governor Steve Sisolak announced that all non-essential businesses would be shutting down across the state for 30 days (more on that here).
So that begs the question, what does a professional sports bettor do now?
I’m in a unique position. I’ve been betting for 15 years (and betting with an edge for 11), but I’ve also had the opportunity to work with ESPN for the past 13 months. The livelihoods of most of the people I know and work with, however, depend solely on betting. So this article isn’t going to be about me; it wouldn’t be fair to my comrades to try and put myself in their shoes.
I spoke with five professional gamblers to see how they are responding to the suspension of major sports and the recent city shutdown we are experiencing in Las Vegas. They are all betting at varying levels and in different stages of their lives, so their responses were certainly wide-ranging.
I won’t be using real names, but this is a genuine inside look into the minds of pros amidst our current climate.
Peter, 32, sports bettor, grinder
Peter is a true grinder. Of anybody I know, he reminds me the most of Joey Knish, the character played by John Turturro in the movie “Rounders.” He’s level-headed. He bets within his means and never overextends himself. He certainly doesn’t bet the biggest, but he’s astute enough to be profitable and live comfortably doing so.
I asked Peter what he has been up to for the past week.
“I’ve just been hanging out with my girlfriend and my dog. It’s been a bad two weeks to be a baseball bettor whose biggest investments are Bitcoin and sportsbook stocks,” he said. “Saturday I bet a Serbian soccer game and then some UFC, but those were just $50-100 type bets for action. I bet a few NFL futures before the Tom Brady news broke, but I’m basically shut down until we find out more about baseball coming back.”
Jacob, 38, established sports bettor and mover
Another one of my comrades — we’ll call him Jacob — is one of the biggest movers I know (more on that later). But Jacob also mentioned trying his hand in a smaller market like Peter, only his was Mexican soccer.
“In the last week, I’ve bet on Mexican soccer, the date the NBA will start and where Tom Brady will end up,” he said. “That’s it. And the Mexican soccer limits got cut down immediately.”
Limits are a nagging theme for professionals, and while it’s entertaining to joke around about betting lower-division international soccer or basketball now that major sports in the United States are on hiatus, the truth is it’s difficult to get substantial money down in comparison to liquid markets like the NFL, the NBA or MLB. Even if you’re able, as soon as bookmakers see you’re a winning bettor they’ll cut your limits in these already low-limit markets or shut you down altogether.
Peter added, “If it was a couple of years ago, I probably would take the time to learn everything about Turkish basketball or Chilean soccer. But I don’t have that drive anymore to care about obscure foreign leagues.”
So I followed up and asked him if he had plans going forward, and he shed some light on his financial stability as a lower-level grinder making a living betting on sports over the years.
“I don’t have a firm plan for the next two to three months because news is changing every day,” Peter said. “I budgeted money ahead of time in the event I lose money betting baseball in April and May, so I’m alright with a forced two-month vacation. I have a lot of books to catch up on, some Super Nintendo games to play and a garden full of plants to watch grow. I don’t need to look for another job, but if this drags on for five or six months, I’ll have to sell off a chunk of my art collection.”
Ethan, 40-something, poker player, grinder
I drew a character comparison to the poker movie “Rounders,” and I would be remiss to leave professional poker players out of this discussion. The majority of the poker rooms in Las Vegas had closed prior to Wednesday night anyway, but it’s official everywhere now.
This is a big deal. There are more people making a living playing poker in Las Vegas than there are betting on sports. One of the guys I play with from time to time reached out to me a few days ago to see how I was doing. Ethan makes about $50,000 a year playing $1-2 No-Limit Texas Hold’em. He rarely plays in bigger games because he knows his edge is bigger at smaller stakes — and he’s comfortable with that.
“I’m freaking bored,” he said. “I mean, look at me; I’m trying to make arguments for the Nets at 100-1. But closing all of the poker rooms obviously isn’t good for me. It sucks. I haven’t played online in over a decade, but I may just have to dive into online poker again on WSOP (legal in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware).”
Not only does a 30-day break (or more) cut into Ethan’s bottom line, but what are poker games even going to be like once casinos open their doors again? How many recreational players locally will be jumping right back into things? How many would even be able to afford it anyway after the ramifications of shutting down the city’s economy? Ethan’s future competition just got more difficult because it will likely consist of more regs (regulars, or pros). He’s worried about his long-term return on investment when the dynamic changes.
Justin, 30, sports bettor, grinder
Justin is another acquaintance of mine who recently started betting on sports as his sole income just two years ago. He relies on one major market and delves into a number of proposition bets across multiple leagues. He told me that if there isn’t clarity in the next few weeks he’ll probably start taking remote contract developer jobs at $50 per hour.
“Esports intrigues me, though,” he said. “I bet some smaller Esports leagues that may be feasible if sportsbooks started offering them more widely for better limits during this downtime. I know someone that has done work for professional Counter Strike teams in the past as an analyst, so we are looking into those markets right now. We have no idea if he can translate his game knowledge into beating the betting market, but the limits are pretty good in the major leagues and events like Counter Strike.”
Steve, 30-something, established sports bettor and advantage player
While Justin and many others are beginning to think outside the box out of necessity, there are some brighter sides from the betting side coming out of this, too.
Steve has been a professional sports bettor and advantage player in Las Vegas for over a decade. He’s in a fortuitous spot now at this point in his career, but he sympathizes with everybody else.
“Thankfully, my bankroll is big enough to wait this out,” he said. “I’m just marathoning Netflix and video games. But, like six years ago I have no idea what I would have done. There aren’t any avenues for income right now. I have many grinder AP [advantage player] friends that are totally freaking out.”
I mentioned earlier that Jacob is one of the biggest movers I know. He’s also in a fortuitous situation that differs from the majority of the betting community. When I asked him if he’d be willing to share what his plans were for the next few months, his response was perfect: “Yeah, that’s cool, got nothing else to do.”
He said that in jest, but I could tell Jacob felt free and refreshed. He told me he plans on hanging out with his family, reading books and resetting.
“This is a break I would have never given myself, so I’m going to try and treat it as something I may never get again and enjoy it,” he said. “I’m really just going to try and chill out and spend it with loved ones. I’m never going to get this opportunity again in my life. I’d be an idiot to waste the vacation; well, not that it’s a real vacation, but it’s rare I get to spend uninterrupted time with the fam.”
I took advantage of the downtime myself and decided to hunker down and spend a few days with family in Southern California. The reset is real. I don’t know how else to explain it other than my mind felt lighter. I’ve had days off from Daily Wager and doing the show before, but they aren’t true days off. Not for a sports bettor.
There are always games to be looking at, updates to be made, markets to be shopped, screens to be watched; the list goes on and on. Even days where I wind up with minimal or no action at all, I’m looking at numbers and lines for the following day’s games and betting in-game and second halves at night. It never ends. Well, it did for us as sports bettors last week. My mind felt lighter because it quite literally could not churn — there were no games or numbers to even churn.
That’s something that I will need to intentionally implement more regularly in the future once professional sports normalize again. It felt great. But one thing is for certain: We all miss the sweat. We miss the work. We miss being right and learning when we are wrong. There isn’t anything better than this.
Yes, we’re all going to be doing things differently now as bettors. Our lives have changed. But I raise an ice-cold Dr Pepper to us getting our old lives back as soon as we possibly can.